Have you ever been in denial about something? I am the first one to admit that there were times in my life when I was in denial. Until I got a physical recently, I was in denial about how many pandemic pounds I had put on, for example.
Now what, exactly, is denial? Denial happens when we refuse to see what’s going on, when we refuse to deal with reality. I don’t want this to be, so it can’t be. We may be in denial about a serious health condition we have, or about the physical or mental health condition of someone we love. We may be in denial about our behaviors, which sometimes are self-destructive, and maybe even destroying others. We may be in denial about an addiction. We may be in denial about our financial situation or our job security. We may be in denial about the deterioration of a relationship. We may be in denial about the seriousness about the Corona Virus. And so on, and so on.
And there isn’t only individual denial, no, a group, a community, a society can be in denial as well. Many in this country are in denial about racism that is still an issue, more than 50 years after Civil Rights. Many are in denial about climate change and its dangers for God’s creation.
Folks are still chasing the American dream, and are in denial about the ever growing gap between rich and poor, and the reality that the dream is dreamed by fewer and fewer people. And again, it’s easier to close our eyes to those things we don’t want to see, that we refuse to see, because they would turn our understanding of the world upside down, and gasp, may require a change of behavior, a repentance, a turn-around of some sort. We are quite comfortable where we are, thank you very much.
Denial is a powerful defense mechanism – for better and for worse.
Because denial can also be a good thing, for example when we are going through some tough situation, some trauma, and reality is too much to bear. Denial in this case can protect us and our sanity. At least for so long. There always comes the time when we have to face the facts.
Denial is a fancier word for saying no to something. It can’t be, it mustn’t be, tell me it isn’t so. We deny something that is threatening for us, we deny what seems to turn our whole world topsy-turvy, we deny what rips us out of our comfort zone and throws us into unknown territory. It’s human to deny whatever makes us uncomfortable.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that Peter is in denial. In today’s gospel story, Peter understands very well what Jesus shares with his disciples: that Jesus has to go to Jerusalem, though this means suffering and death. But, in Peter’s mind, that can’t be, that mustn’t be, tell me it isn’t so! Peter clearly sees that all he holds dear is threatened, that his view of Jesus is threatened, that his world view is threatened and that his world is about to tumble down. And maybe Peter can even grasp, somewhere in the depth of his heart and his mind that his life is at stake as well; not just in the sense that he might die, but that life as he knows it and appreciates it may be destroyed by Jesus’ intention to go to Jerusalem.
It only seems like a very natural and human reaction, needed for self-protection, to slip into a state of denial: God forbid, Jesus, this mustn’t happen! I say no!
I sometimes wonder why Jesus’ reaction is so harsh: Get behind me, Satan! Wouldn’t Jesus, of all people, be in the position to understand Peter’s human nature, to understand our human nature? To understand that we are plain terrified by the prospect of our life as we know it being threatened? Doesn’t Jesus understand that denial can be a life-saver, at least shield us from the worst impact of something traumatic that is happening? We hear that Jesus rebukes Peter, but couldn’t it be a much gentler rebuke? “Peter, I know you want what’s best for me, but you’re doing Satan’s work here, because you’re thinking like a man who doesn’t consider God’s will.” Or something along those lines. Would be much nicer, wouldn’t it?
Well, maybe Jesus’ harsh reaction is only human as well; there it is, the temptation to skip the road to Jerusalem and a certain, cruel death. And of course there is a connection to last week’s gospel, when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness for 40 days. Mark doesn’t say anything about the nature of this temptation, but the other evangelists are filling in that gap: be all-powerful! Take the high road! Don’t obey your heavenly father and go to Jerusalem, to serve humanity and die for humanity – worship me, and it’s all yours, right now. Instant gratification! No suffering, no dying. How does that sound, Jesus?
And in today’s gospel, Peter echoes this temptation: Suffer and die? No, Jesus! Don’t do it! Peter eerily echoes Satan. How easy it would be to avoid suffering and death! Jesus’ disciples would be more than supportive of that. But Jesus knows that this is not a matter of negotiation. He’s made his decision, out there in the wilderness. So I think Jesus’ reaction – the reaction of a human being – is understandable. Satan, you again? Get behind me!
It must be quite a shock for Peter to be called Satan. His intentions are good and honorable; he doesn’t want his master and friend to suffer and die. He can’t see how he is playing Satan’s role here by tempting Jesus to forgo the way to Jerusalem and the cross. And how could he. From his limited human perspective, the best Jesus can do is to continue his ministry as is. He wants to preserve – preserve Jesus’ life, preserve his life, preserve life as he has come to know and cherish it. Peter is in some state of denial, he just can’t see the bigger picture.
The only problem is that Peter’s intentions fall way short of God’s intentions.
But back to denial. It is interesting how Jesus uses this word. In today’s gospel, he is talking about self-denial. So what does that mean? That we have to say ‘no’ to ourselves?
This seems preposterous. It contradicts most things we hear and learn in our culture, where it all seems to be about self-improvement, self-realization, self-betterment. We are enticed – we are tempted – to put ourselves and our needs and wants first. We are told that looking out for ourselves and indulging ourselves ultimately is for the greater good – for the economy, for example. What a great gospel for our egos!
But, paradoxically, and as Jesus point out over and over, by looking out mainly for ourselves we lose ourselves. By just looking at our own navel, we become inflexible and numb, we wither and become lifeless. By being too full of ourselves, we become empty.
And we could not just say that about our personal lives, but about the life of a society as well. When a society loses its moral compass, when it loses its empathy and integrity, it loses its soul.
Denying ourselves means putting our petty concerns aside and trying to see the choices ahead of us as God sees them. When Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, he’s actually trying to get us to have a larger perspective. We look outside ourselves, we act outside ourselves, and this way we give life to others instead of just preserving our own. And so it comes back to benefit us; we save our lives even though that’s not our primary goal.
Self-denial is saying no to a self-absorbed and consequently poor human existence. At the same time, self-denial is saying yes to life with all its exciting encounters and opportunities. Self-denial is the turn – the repentance – from me to you.
Self-denial is saying yes to relationship and the other – and it is in relationship to God and the people around us that we truly find ourselves, as in a mirror, lovable, desirable, wanted, needed. And this past year taught us what it feels like when community is taken from us. We are much poorer for it.
And so self-denial is quite a necessary step to what we, in church talk, call repentance – the turn-around, the opening up, to God and to our neighbor, to community.
Sometimes we think that the season of Lent is a season to scourge ourselves and to beat ourselves up about what sinful creatures we are, and how much we deserve the wrath of God. We may think of self-denial as self-annihilation. But this is not the self-denial Jesus is talking about. No, Lent is a season to remember that God loves us, God wants us, and that repentance, the traveling of new roads, may lead us to a fullness of life we can’t even imagine – just because our perspective is limited, and because we may be in denial about the state of our life.
Lent ultimately is about transformation and new life, as we see it breaking forth on Easter morn. And who knows what God has in store for us, individually and as a community?
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