Self-denial is essential in the Christian life (Matthew 16:24), but unless it is coupled with following Jesus in the path of love, mercy and service, it will be of no benefit to our character.
Earlier this year we were in the season of Lent, the period leading up to Easter when, for centuries, people have decided to give something up as a sign of their commitment to God. It could be some enjoyable food or drink such as chocolate, chips or alcohol. Then some people have taken self-denial really seriously and have given up Facebook or some other social media platform for Lent!
In denying ourselves something which is dear to us for a period of time, we seek to demonstrate, both to ourselves and to God, that he is more important than what we have given up. The period of Lent is chosen to reflect Jesus’ own self-denial of 40 days fasting in the desert before embarking on his public ministry.
The idea of denying ourselves something as an act of consecration to God is not at all new. In Numbers 6, written over 3,000 years ago, we find provisions in the Law of Moses for a man or a woman to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazirite (verse 2). Incidentally, this consecration applied equally to men and women – revolutionary for those times!
It was your choice how long to fulfil the Nazirite vow, and it involved much more than giving up certain foods. There were three parts to it: abstention from wine, fermented drink or any product of the grapevine (verses 3-4); having no haircut (verse 5); and staying away from any dead body (even one’s closest relatives), as that was considered to be a source of uncleanness (verses 6-7).
Judging from a prophetic word given by Amos (2:11), this Nazirite vow was particularly attractive to young men. Maybe as they started out on their adult life, they wanted to undertake an act of consecration to lay a good foundation for the future – rather like young people today taking a gap year to do some kind of voluntary service after finishing school or university. Indeed, Lamentations 3:27 encourages young people to lay a good foundation: It is good for a person to bear the yoke while they are young.
[destacate]It may even, by our congratulating ourselves for having done well, estrange us from God by making us feel that we are entitled to something in return.
The Nazirite acts of consecration were not always universally popular. Amos reproaches people who were forcing Nazirites to drink wine and so break their vow (2:12). We cannot be sure whether this was being done out of high spirits, probably when the taunters were drunk, or whether there was some more sinister motivation. Maybe the consecration of these young men shone a light on the attitudes and behaviour of their persecutors which left them decidedly uncomfortable. So they decided, Let’s bring them down to our level! As 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 makes clear, the spiritual aroma which we give off as Christians is far from universally popular.
It seems from Acts 21:23-24 that this vow was still in use at the time of the apostle Paul. However, other than Numbers 6 and those two references in Amos, the only place in the Bible where we come across the word “Nazirite” is in the book of Judges, where we meet the most famous Nazirite of all: Samson.
Samson was different because he was Nazirite not by his own choice, but by the command of an angel to his parents before he was born; and God told them he was to remain a Nazirite all his life (Judges 13). For Samson, only the first element of the vow is ever mentioned: not having his hair cut. We are not told whether he consumed alcohol, but we do know that he killed many Philistines during his lifetime, so he had a lot of contact with dead bodies.
Samson was gifted with prodigious strength, which flowed directly from his being set apart to God as a Nazirite since birth (Judges 16:17). Yet sadly, that setting apart did not flow into his moral character. He had a seemingly insatiable liking for Philistine women – which was contrary to the Law of Moses – and they tended to be of highly dubious character – including a prostitute from Gaza (Judges 16:1) and Delilah, who betrayed the secret of his strength to his enemies, which led to him spending his final years blinded and incarcerated in a Philistine prison (Judges 16:4-21).
Samson is, then, a tragic demonstration of how we can make a vow to God without it affecting our character. There is something in human nature that feels good with self-denial. In Britain we have ‘dry January’, where many people give up drinking alcohol for a month. Motives for this vary: some want to show that alcohol has no grip on them; others to feel more healthy; and others simply want to lose weight by not consuming the calories in alcohol. Yet most of them, if they manage to stay alcohol-free by the end of the month, feel pretty good with themselves for having done it.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ time denied themselves many things for their religion. They even gave to God a tenth of the value of their garden herbs! Yet Jesus told them, “Go and learn what this Scripture means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). They sacrificed much; and felt very good about it. But they had neglected the much more important quality of mercy.
Self-denial is essential in the Christian life (Matthew 16:24), but unless it is coupled with following Jesus in the path of love, mercy and service, it will be of no benefit to our character. It may even, by our congratulating ourselves for having done well, estrange us from God by making us feel that we are entitled to something in return.
Paul’s reinforces this point with sobering words: If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3).