A solemn image capturing a person's reflection in a mirror, contemplating their desires and choices, symbolizing the biblical concept of denying oneself for spiritual growth.

What Does ‘Denying Yourself’ Mean In The Bible?

If you’re wondering what Jesus meant when he told his followers to ‘deny themselves and take up their cross,’ this comprehensive guide has the answers you’re looking for.

Denying yourself is an important but often misunderstood concept in Christian teaching. At its core, it means saying ‘no’ to the sinful desires of your flesh and fully submitting to God’s will for your life. But what exactly does that look like in practice?

Read on as we explore the biblical meaning of self-denial, its purpose and blessings, challenges and misconceptions, and more.

The Basic Meaning of ‘Deny Yourself’

Jesus’ command to “deny yourself” can seem confusing or overwhelming at first. Yet it contains profoundly important spiritual wisdom for anyone seeking to become His true disciple. Let’s explore the key facets of self-denial in the Bible.

A Command from Jesus

The most direct biblical call to deny ourselves comes from Jesus in the Gospels:

  • “Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'” (Matthew 16:24)
  • “And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'” (Mark 8:34)
  • “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'” (Luke 9:23)

Clearly, Jesus saw self-denial as something absolutely fundamental to following Him. It’s an essential starting point as we learn to live under His lordship. But what exactly does “deny yourself” mean?

Crucifying the Flesh and Its Desires

To “deny yourself” means saying no to the desires, cravings, and demands of our fallen human nature, what the Bible calls “the flesh.” As Paul explains:

  • “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24)

Our flesh pulls us toward sinful thoughts and behaviors. Self-denial requires consciously resisting those impulses and refusing to gratify them. Instead, we turn from sin to obey and please God. This aligns with what Jesus taught:

  • “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Crucifying the flesh is a daily, ongoing process as we continually deny sinful desires and embrace God’s will.

Total Surrender to God’s Will

Self-denial ultimately means surrendering our human will entirely to God’s purposes and plans for our lives. Consider Jesus’ example:

  • “Not my will, but yours, be done.” (Luke 22:42)

Though devastating anguish and death lay before Him, Jesus chose to deny His own will to accomplish the Father’s redemptive plan. As His followers, we too are called to subordinate our desires to what God wants for us and through us.

This brings glory to Him and leads to our greatest joy and fulfillment.

Why We Are Called to Deny Ourselves

To Follow Christ Wholeheartedly

Jesus said that whoever wants to be his disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). This means surrendering our own will, plans, desires, and agendas in order to embrace and follow Christ’s will and leading for our lives.

It is giving up selfish ambition in order to wholeheartedly pursue living for Jesus.

Denying ourselves enables us to follow Christ freely and avoid being hindered by our own interests, comforts, and worldly priorities. It clears the way for the Holy Spirit to guide our steps according to God’s Kingdom purposes.

To Avoid Sin and Temptation

When we cling tightly to our own desires and refuse to deny ourselves, it inevitably leads to sin and giving in to temptation. Self-gratification feeds fleshly cravings and keeps us spiritually immature.

By learning to deny those selfish impulses, we cultivate discipline and self-control empowered by God’s Spirit. This equips us to resist the enemy’s lures and be spiritually vigilant against his traps (1 Peter 5:8).

To Serve God and Others

A self-centered life leaves little room for selfless service and sacrifice for the Lord. But when we deny ourselves and look to meet others’ needs before our own, we live out Christ’s example of humble servanthood (Mark 10:45).

This could mean volunteering for tasks at church even when it’s inconvenient, patiently caring for someone in need, generously giving our time or resources to help a ministry, or simply turning off our phone to listen attentively when someone is talking to us.

Big or small, these acts of self-denial express God’s selfless love through us.

The Blessings of Denying Yourself

Freedom from Sin’s Slavery

When we deny ourselves and submit to God, we gain freedom from the slavery of sin (Romans 6:6). Sin is a cruel taskmaster that promises pleasure but only brings emptiness and destruction. In God’s strength, we can break free from sin’s grip and walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

According to research by the Barna Group, practicing self-denial helps believers gain victory over habitual sins like pornography and drunkenness.

Deeper Fellowship with God

Self-denial deepens our fellowship with God. When we say no to the flesh and yes to the Spirit, we draw closer to the Lord (James 4:8). We focus less on gratifying self and more on glorifying God. One study found that Christians who practice fasting and self-denial spend more time daily in prayer and Bible reading. As author John Piper says, “If you want to know God better, you must orient your life so that you are saying to Him, ‘Show me Your glory’ not, ‘Serve me my pleasures.'”

The Ability to Truly Love Others

Lastly, self-denial gives us the ability to truly love others. Our natural tendency is to be selfish and self-centered. But when we deny that inward bent, we have more capacity to serve and bless others.

Scripture urges us to consider others better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3) and to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Research shows that selfless acts stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. So paradoxically, the more we give of ourselves, the more joy and fulfillment we experience.

As Christ-followers, our lives should be marked by serving, not grasping.

Challenges and Misconceptions

It’s Not About Punishing Yourself

One common misconception is that denying yourself means completely depriving yourself of any enjoyment or comfort. However, this is an extreme view. The Bible calls us to practice self-control and restraint for our ultimate good, not to punish or harm ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Denying ourselves means saying “no” to fleshly desires that would distract us from living wholeheartedly for God.

For example, fasting from food for a time can help us focus on prayer and refocus our priorities. However, compulsively starving ourselves as self-punishment misses the point. The goal is freeing ourselves from the control of our appetites in order to devote ourselves more fully to God.

It Doesn’t Mean Neglecting Self-Care

Another misconception is that “denying yourself” means neglecting basic self-care like getting proper rest, exercise, and nutrition. But Scripture teaches us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and instructs us to care for them (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

Jesus modeled finding time to rest and pray even when busy ministering to others (Mark 1:35).

Rather than neglecting real physical and emotional needs, denying ourselves means directing our focus to Christ rather than ourselves. For example, we might choose to get up early to pray rather than sleeping in, or engage in spiritual reading rather than mindless web surfing.

In moderation, these put Christ first.

It’s a Daily Struggle Against Our Flesh

Finally, denying ourselves is an ongoing battle, not something accomplished by one heroic effort. Our human nature continually pulls us toward self-indulgence in various ways. The apostle Paul describes his own struggle against sinful desires and need to re-submit himself to Christ daily (Romans 7:14-25).

As fallen people, battling selfishness and self-centerdness is a lifelong process. We may have to deny ourselves the same things over and over as new situations and temptations arise. But God promises to renew our strength day by day as we rely on Him (Isaiah 40:31; 2 Corinthians 4:16).

By His grace, the Holy Spirit empowers us to deny worldly lusts and live self-controlled, upright lives (Titus 2:11-12).

Examples of Self-Denial in the Bible

Jesus in the Wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11)

After being baptized, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights (Matthew 4:2). This extended period of going without food in the barren wilderness demonstrated remarkable self-denial and restraint on Jesus’s part.

Resisting natural hunger and desire showed his commitment to spiritual goals over physical comfort or needs. When the tempter told Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus refused, quoting Scripture that man cannot live on bread alone (Matthew 4:4).

He denied physical appetite to affirm spiritual truth.

Jesus also refused shortcuts to power and glory that would compromise his mission (Matthew 4:8-10). On the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus denied testing God to gain spectacle. At every point, he showed restraint and self-control to keep focused on God’s will above convenient paths or distractions.

His self-denial showed full trust in God.

The Rich Young Ruler (Matthew 19:16-22)

Jesus demonstrated that following him requires self-denial when tested by a wealthy young man. The man asked what good things he must do to have eternal life. Jesus first affirmed keeping the commandments but knew the man’s heart.

He told the young ruler to sell his possessions, give the profits to the poor, and follow him (Matthew 19:21-22). This difficult challenge revealed divided loyalty and tested willingness to deny material wealth to obey Christ’s call.

Tragically, the young man went away sad, unable to part with his possessions.

Jesus made self-denial an unambiguous requirement for disciples, showing that we must renounce anything hindering total commitment. We may be tested to give up beloved possessions, financial security, relationships, reputations, or dreams contrary to following Christ wholeheartedly.

As John MacArthur said, “The Lord Jesus Christ is going to be Lord of all or not Lord at all.” True self-denial means forsaking all to obey him.

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46)

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus displayed profound self-denial by surrendering his life completely to God’s will. Knowing he would soon experience terrible suffering and death, Jesus prayed intensely in the garden of Gethsemane, asking if there was any other way than the cross.

Displaying the agony this caused, Luke 22:44 says Jesus’s sweat fell like drops of blood.

Despite great distress about his coming ordeal, Jesus demonstrated selfless obedience, yielded his preferences, and trusted himself fully to the Father. He prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

Jesus denied what he wanted to embrace God’s call completely. There could be no compromise. He surrendered everything, even to an excruciating death, showing self-denial of the highest and purest form.


Denying ourselves is a vital part of following Jesus. When we daily surrender our will to God’s will, we experience freedom from sin’s control and a deeper intimacy with Christ. Although challenging at times, the blessings of self-denial far outweigh any temporary discomforts.

As we fix our eyes on Jesus, his strength enables us to take up our cross and discover the abundant life he promises.

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