Ordinary Time is about discipleship. The colour for Ordinary Time is green. Green has traditionally been associated with new life and growth. The more we die to our old self, the more we will grow as disciples of Jesus.
The trinitarian self – my feelings, my wants, my desires – has been worshipped for far too long. Although we have turned our allegiance to God, our old self still acts up. Therefore, there is a need to constantly put to death the old self by denying it of its desires, ambitions, interests, ego, etc. In a postmodern world, the thinking is always along this line: “As long as I feel good about it, it has to be right! No one has the right to stop me from doing whatever I want. All my desires must be fulfilled. To choose not to satisfy my desires is to warp my sense of self: I wouldn’t be me” (Jan Johnson). But Jesus has clearly told His disciples – deny self!
I have always wondered what it really means to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal for where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also (Matt 6.20, 21). We can lay up treasures in heaven by first treasuring God – earnestly seeking Him (like you would a priceless treasure), His Kingdom and His righteousness (Matt 6.33); taking in God’s living water (Jn 4.10, 14), and then letting rivers of living water flow from the center of our lives to a thirsty world (Jn 7.38); investing in our relationship with God, and we will find ourselves investing our lives in what God is doing and devoting ourselves to the good of other people. It is all about God and His preoccupations, nothing about us and our indulgences. We cannot serve two masters – we cannot serve God and self. If we choose to serve God, we have to deny self!
One way we can deny self is by living a simple life. We can begin to live simply by cutting the excesses in our lives. Let me suggest excesses in three areas – shopping, schedules, speech.
Shopping – Is there a compulsion for us to embrace the latest gadget, the newest model, the hottest fashion? It doesn’t help when possessions can be amassed simply with a click – online shopping. For some people, having more serve to elevate the self and feed the ego, causing them to look good in the eyes of others whom they subtly see as competitors. For others, the accumulation of goods is just another form of addiction. Deny self! Say ‘no’ even when we have the money to buy and if we cannot afford it, why laden ourselves with more debt when those possessions count for nothing except to boost our vain ego. It is good to honestly ask the question: “Is this a need or a want?” Perhaps the money that is spent on my want could be channeled towards meeting someone else’s need. Perhaps the time spent in the stores (physical or virtual) could be spent elsewhere since being in stores can mess with our minds. It has the power to convince us that we need things we don’t need at all.
Schedules – Packed schedules serve to elevate the self because the busier one is, the more important one feels. Many people think that busyness is a sign of power and significance. It is an indication that we are very much needed and therefore we are very important. After Jesus came back from His early morning time alone with God, He met His disciples who were searching for Him and they told Him, “Everyone is looking for you.” Wouldn’t we feel a sense of importance if that is said to us? But Jesus responded, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” (Mk 1.35-38) Jesus wasn’t about to allow the demands of the people to dictate His schedules. His time alone with God must have helped him clarify his priorities. Every appointment and activity that we are committed to has an opportunity cost. It doesn’t help if we are so busy that we don’t have time for our loved ones and we don’t have time for God. It is ironic that we may be so busy serving the King that we don’t have time for Him. If we do some soul searching, we may realise that we are serving self under the guise of serving the King – if so, let us deny self! Let us make a conscious effort to slow down, to attend less meetings, to appear in less functions so that we have time to take a walk in the park and marvel at God’s creation, to have dinner with our loved ones and be thankful to God for them, or even to enjoy a personal retreat where we can wait on God and be found in the wonder and amazement of His presence.
Speech – A posture of silence is good because when words are many, sin is not absent. (Prov 10.19) We can hold our tongues even when we are dying to boast of some achievements, voice our complaints about some trivial matters, rebut and refute so we can win an argument, pass along some juicy bits of news about our colleague, criticise the preacher because the sermon does not appeal, lie so we can avoid facing the music, or even crack vulgar jokes thinking that it will attract attention to ourselves because humour can be sexy. Deny self! Shall we not speak less and listen more?
Simplicity is a way of being. It is letting go of things others consider as normal. It is getting rid of the excesses in life so that we can be freer in attending to God and people. It is creating margins for our lives, like margins in a page, so that we have the space to attend to what is truly important and good. We may feel uncomfortable for a start but in the midst of our discomfort during these times of abstinence, something beautiful happens within us because “the enormous river barge of our life that’s flowing toward self-indulgence is turned around and begins to move upstream toward self-giving Christlikeness” (Jan Johnson).
Take baby steps. God in His enormous grace empowers us in this effort. When we say ‘no’ to self at a particular moment, we are giving it another stab. Each stab will go a long way to ensure its eventual death. Let us be encouraged to live simply in a bid to deny self so that we can be transformed into Christlikeness as we look forward to the holy city, our final destination, towards which, by faith, we are journeying.
Rev Lee Kien Seng
July 8, 2018