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Death to Deconstruction 9--Self Denial

The seeker-sensitive church of the 1990s emphasized teaching people how Jesus met their “felt needs.” Jesus will make you a better husband or wife. Jesus will make you a better parent. Jesus will help you manage your money better. He’ll make you better at your career.

While I don’t disagree with any of those ideas, I always wrestled with the movement because I couldn’t figure out how to preach self-denial within the framework. Jesus told us that if we want to be his disciples, we have to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. How do we do that if we are just looking for our best life now?

In Death to Deconstruction: Reclaiming Faithfulness as an Act of Rebellion, Joshua S. Porter appeals to a generation abandoning the faith, urging them to choose a more nuanced faithfulness instead of outright rejection of orthodox Christianity. He structures his book around five “great predators”: biblical illiteracy, the problem of evil, a politicized Christianity, hypocrisy, and self-denial, laying out paths forward within orthodoxy avoiding each.

Over the next few weeks, I am going to work through Porter’s book and offer a response. The book is great—there is much I agree with. However, I sympathize with the deconstruction trend more than Porter does, and so I will also talk a little about how toxic streams within evangelical culture have contributed to the deconstruction movement and how often deconstruction is a rejection of American evangelicalism and not a rejection of Jesus. I also want to suggest a path forward for reform and paint a picture of what a post-evangelicalism could look like.

The final one of Porter’s great predators is self-denial. The decision to follow Jesus is the decision to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow. This is a terrible and beautiful decision—one that should not be taken lightly, but one our culture is reluctant to make. Porter writes:

“The denial of self is a foreign concept. We might deny ourselves in the names of diets and career, to look good and make money. It is very difficult for us to conceive of a happy, fulfilled life that does not include us getting what we want. We are terrified that if we are denied our dreams, or a soapbox on which to speak, or if we cannot sleep with the person of our choosing, we are less human.” (215)

Porter points out that every person has a conflicted will. We will conflicting outcomes—for instance I might want an extra piece of cake, but I also might want to look good on an upcoming family vacation to the beach. The decision to follow Jesus is the decision to choose a side in these conflicting desires. By gaining Jesus, I forsake some of my other desires. He writes about the old self and the decision to follow:

“If you follow Jesus, this old version of you served a different master: your old desires. You were at the mercy of whatever you wanted, for better or for worse. To say yes to Jesus is to say no to innumerable competing options. No to shopping however I want, spending my money however I want, eating however I want. No to hyperindividualism, not to social media image curation, no to me-first, careerism, getting ahead, being liked, the American dream. No to my sexuality expressed however I want.
Instead, the disciple of Jesus, by definition, says to his or her Master: What you say to do, I will do. Where you say to go, I will go. You are the Master; I am the apprentice.” (217)

It has become almost a truism: people deconstruct because they don’t want to change their lifestyles. When confronted over sin by their church, they choose sin over church. While I don’t think this generalization is completely fair (and Porter doesn’t make it), there is enough truth in the sentiment that it sticks. Following Jesus means denying yourself. There will always be things that our old self desires to do that we must say “no” to in the name of Christian discipleship. There is no getting around that.

Do you think refusal to deny oneself is a major contributor to deconstruction? Are those who leave more guilty than those who stay?

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