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General Robert E. Lee

Following the American Civil War, a congregation in Richmond, Virginia prepared to participate in a communion service. In keeping with its practice, the congregants were about to stand and walk forward to the altar to partake of the elements. Before they could stand, a black gentleman walked down the center aisle and knelt at the rail in order to receive communion. Not knowing what to do, the stunned congregation began to stir and whisper among themselves. Since this was a breach of the church’s practice of serving whites first, no one moved. The minister was frozen in his place and was filled with bewilderment. Then a graceful and dignified figure strode down the aisle and knelt by the black man and by his actions declared the tradition of the past to be null and void. The man that stepped forward was none other than the former leader of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee.

It was a symbolic gesture, but the message was clear. Lee had accepted the outcome of the war and now more importantly, received a black man, a brother in Christ, as an equal. It is tragic that the nation had to suffer the agony of the war but a mind set and actions had to change. Since Lee’s conduct on that Sunday went against the ideology that he’d fought to preserve, Lee’s action was an act of self-denial. There could be no more significant convert to the new order than General Lee.

Even a superficial look at General Lee’s life will demonstrate that Christ’s teaching in Luke 16:24, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me,” was a principle by which Lee lived.

Another anecdote from Lee’s life reveals this principle to be his core value. A young mother brought her baby to Lee in order to be blessed. As he was doting over the infant, the topic of the child’s instruction came up. The mother asked Lee, “What shall I teach him?” To which Lee responded, “Teach him to deny himself.” Lee’s preoccupation with this principle seems out of place to our generation. Our time is characterized by self-indulgence and self-aggrandizement, not self-denial. But self-denial brings us to the end of ourselves so we will turn to Christ for salvation. Self-denial is the realization that the solution to our problems is not to be found in ourselves and leads us to find the solution to our problems in Christ. Self-denial involves setting aside one’s own priorities and seeking to fulfill the Lord’s desires instead since they are best. In addition, self-denial is central to our being able to overcome the snare of sin and sinful habits. It doesn’t just bring us to Christ and the new birth, it is a part of a lifestyle that is to be observed by Christ’s followers.


Sin is not only a damning limitation; it is also a disease that handicaps us all. Coming to Christ as Savior not only sets us free from the penalty of sin, it also opens us to a process that can rehabilitate us and equip us to resist sin. To be rehabilitated from the practice of sin, we need the Holy Spirit’s help to acquire the necessary skill. If we are to keep from being entrapped by sin, we must learn to practice self-denial.

There are some things that the Spirit can’t do for us, but we are commanded to do ourselves in the Spirit’s power. The basic training and preparation of a soldier is something with which we are all familiar. A soldier’s training involves self-denial and conditioning. The soldier must lay aside a mind set that keeps him thinking as an individual. He is conditioned to have a mind set that pushes him to think as a part of a team. Rather than doing what comes as a result of our fallen nature we need to be conditioned like soldiers by doing what is right. The purpose of the military drill is to memorize certain actions until they become instinctive through repetition. We are to obey the commands of Scripture in the Spirit’s power while allowing them to become instinctive.

There are several commands in Scripture that must be practiced as if carried out as a part of a soldier’s drill. No one can do these commands for you—you must obey them yourself. I remind the reader of the command from Ephesians 6:14 which is of this nature. Consider its words: “Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness . . . .” This is Paul’s point with the breastplate of righteousness. This cannot be referring to putting on Christ’s righteousness— we do that when we receive Christ as Savior. This is talking about righteous behavior— righteous deeds. Our righteous deeds are to become a part of our character that are integrated into the fabric of our lives.

Notice that this command can only be obeyed by one person—you. The pastor or youth pastor can’t do it for you. Your mother or father cannot obey this command for your sake. Your spouse can’t take your place and be your proxy. The only person that can fulfill this command and secure its benefit is you.

There are a number of similar commands in Scripture that are related to Ephesians 6:14. They chart out a course to be followed in our drilling and training. Here is a list of commands that demand the individual believer take action and if obeyed will involve self-denial. They are our call to arms:

· “But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness . . . .” — 1 Timothy 6:11
· “But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.” — Romans 13:14
· “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” — Ephesians 6:11
· “. . . be transformed by the renewing of your mind . . . .” — Romans 12:2
· “. . . redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” — Ephesians 5:14-16
· “. . . exercise yourself toward godliness.” — 1 Timothy 4:7
· “. . . arm yourselves also with the same mind . . . .” — 1 Peter 4:1
· “But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge . . . For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ .” — 2 Peter 1:5 and 8
· “. . . keep yourselves in the love of God . . . .” — Jude 1:21

Each of these commands is directed at the individual believer. These verses illustrate the fact that obedience is essential in releasing its power in our lives. You become a Christian the moment you trust Christ as, but your behavior is likely to be still rather heathen. Your mind and heart must be retrained by intentionally imitating Christ in faith with Christlike behavior. Musicians practice their music over and over until it is played flawlessly. A member of my family is a gifted cellist and she practices on a given piece of music for hours until her hands move instinctively. There are things she would rather do but she sets those things aside in order to master her instrument. Athletes practice plays until members of the squad act in unison and reactions become intuitive. All athletic endeavors involve self-denial: training in the early morning, running, lifting, following a restricted diet, etc. All of these activities involve setting aside the things a human body would rather do and following a regimen the body would rather not follow. Believers are commanded to practice these imperatives in such a way that fulfilling them becomes automatic.

We remember 80 percent of what we do or experience, versus only 10 to 20 percent of what we hear. Educators speak of service learning as a powerful technique for instruction. Service learning is the knowledge that is gained through doing. The concept of service learning is in contrast to reading about or hearing someone talk about a particular concept. Service learning is a parallel to the concept that we are advocating, but there is a major difference. I am not just talking about doing good deeds in the flesh, these commands must be fulfilled in the power of the Spirit. These positive behaviors will change us when we lay aside negative fleshly behaviors as a result of self-denial.
(Copyright, Keith Churilla, 2010.)

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