Gazing Upward


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I’ve always had a love for pretty things.  A breathtaking work of art, an intricately designed ring, eye-catching home decor, a sleek and distinctive wardrobe piece.  I can’t even enter an office supplies store without ogling the colorfully designed notebooks and file folders.  It takes every ounce of self-control to not carry the item(s) to the cashier or complete the online checkout process.

For a long time, I carried around a burden of guilt for my attraction to beauty.  I chastised myself for being so materialistic.  I wondered why beauty had such a powerful yet calming effect on me.  But a godly counselor revealed to me that the longing for beauty is actually hard-wired into our minds and hearts by God’s design. He created us for perfection and utmost beauty that won’t be experienced until Christ returns.  But what inspires awe in this world is a glimpse of the glory and grandeur we’ll behold in eternity. So our affinity for beauty isn’t wrong or evil in and of itself.  It’s part of our nature.  What matters is what we do with our desires, allowing them to lead us toward either holiness or worldliness.

A few years ago, I came across a quote from author Harper Lee in reference to herself and her sister:


“One thing about us, we can appreciate beauty without needing to possess it.”


Oh how that has stuck with me! Every time I find myself in a store lusting after something, these words remind me that it’s possible to admire the beauty without having to bring it home with me.

Through this process, I’ve discovered the value of self-denial.  If there’s a discipline that is completely lacking in our American culture, it’s this practice of saying no to temptation.  We can just look at the rising rates of affairs and divorce, obesity, extravagant lifestyles (with equally excessive debt), and destructive addictions to confirm this observation.   Even two-thousand years ago, Jesus warned,


“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”

– Matthew 16:25


While self-denial may sound like a punishment to ruin our fun, it’s actually a pathway to peace and contentment.  One of my favorite British authors wrote a novel in which one of the main female characters resists multiple opportunities to compromise her marriage for a moment of carnal pleasure.  Our society would say that such a decision leads only to regret and self-pity.  But for someone who looks to the Lord to fulfill their every need, the outcome looks vastly different.   Consider how the author describes her faithful character:


“…for she had the true serenity that stems only from self-denial.”

– Elizabeth Goudge, The Heart of the Family


I had to read that sentence several times to digest the meaning.  In doing what she knew to be morally right and God-honoring, she lived with a heart, soul, and mind that were calm, untroubled, and peaceful.  Before reading that line, I probably would have guessed that the secret to achieving serenity was a tranquil, simplified lifestyle (which seems impossible with four kids).  And a super-clean house (also impossible with four kids.)  Or maybe a vacation on a desolate beach with just my husband and a tropical drink.  I could come up with several more scenarios.  But I’m pretty certain self-denial wouldn’t have been top of my list.

Jesus says in Luke 9:23,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  


Sometimes our self-denial may initially feel uncomfortable.  Just yesterday, I listened to an episode of The Simple Show podcast called “Life in Cambodia.” (Click here to listen.) The guest, Marla Taviano, shared her journey of God’s call to move their family to the other side of the world.  Prior to that revelation, they were saving up to go on a short-term mission trip to Cambodia. While they had received some monetary gifts to help cover the expenses, they were also determined to finance the majority of the trip’s costs on their own because they wanted to feel the sacrifice.  By forgoing certain privileges, they were preparing their hearts to understand and relate to the culture and people they would be engaging.  And through that process, Jesus was refining their desires and priorities.


The beauty of self-denial is displayed when we surrender our personal desires and indulgences for the benefit of others.


If we practice self-denial on a regular basis, we strengthen that “muscle” so that we are prepared to turn away from truly captivating yet devastating temptations.  We’re allowing God to cultivate a habit of self-control and a heart for sacrificial service or giving.   It’s saying “no” to ourselves so we can say “yes” to God.  With this new perspective, I’ve been making an effort to deny myself even seemingly harmless pleasures.  Maybe it’s a bowl of my favorite ice cream. Or a new necklace, even though I may have the money to buy it.  Over time, my ability to say “no” will increase. And so will my delight.


“Jesus’ demand for self-denial is another way of calling us to radically pursue our deepest and most lasting joy.”

 – John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World


The apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 5 that if we live by the Spirit, the result in us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  If I had to define serenity, the fruit of the Spirit is a pretty good description!

My personal prayer is that I would have eyes to see the beauty of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross eclipse the allure of pretty things.  That I would grow to treasure eternal significance over instant gratification. And that in this chaotic, self-focused world, I would stand out from the crowd with a serenity that only comes from a commitment to live like Jesus.

The question I’m learning to ask daily is:

“What must I lay down today so I can take up the cross and follow Him?”


Serenity waits for us there.

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