Monday, March 2, 2020

Newman on Self-Denial

Matt Swaim and I will talk about St. John Henry Newman's Parochial and Plain Sermon "The Duty of Self-Denial" this morning on the Son Rise Morning Show about 7:50 a.m. Eastern/6:50 a.m. Central. Please listen live here; the podcast will be archived here.

When I read the concluding paragraphs of this sermon I paused to think of his original audience, the fellows, tutors, officials, and students of the University of Oxford, and the residents of the city of Oxford. They lived and worked in a place of excellence, beauty, brilliance, order, and fame. The students were preparing to take leadership roles in government, commerce, the church and education. Their faculty were charged with handing on the great traditions of Oxford while overseeing reforms to keep Oxford relevant to the times. As an alumnus wrote in tribute to the university:

For ever ancient, and for ever new,
Oxford, thy courts and cloisters are a bower
Whence thought - earth-shaking and earth-shaping - drew
Promise and Power;
Here coming rulers, who will one day wield
Old Empire's rod, our England's finest flower,
Practise their prentice-hands in mimic strife,
And playing the field,
Learning the Master's touch and maker's life;
While Isis ripples with its storied stream,
And every rill a hope and haloed dream.

There were great temptations to comfort, self-satisfaction, and pride at Oxford, and Newman warned his congregation about the effects of comfort and luxury on the Christian life (in a section not included in The Tears of Christ:

If we have good health, and are in easy circumstances, let us beware of high-mindedness, self-sufficiency, self-conceit, arrogance; of delicacy of living, indulgences, luxuries, comforts. Nothing is so likely to corrupt our heart, and to seduce us from God, as to surround ourselves with comforts,—to have things our own way,—to be the centre of a sort of world, whether of things animate or inanimate, which minister to us. For then, in turn, we shall depend on them; they will become necessary to us; their very service and adulation will lead us to trust ourselves to them, and to idolize them. 

We face the same temptations today.

In the last paragraph of the sermon, Newman offers some practical advice about practicing self-denial out of love for Jesus:

Let us strive and pray that the love of holiness may be created within our hearts; and then acts will follow, such as befit us and our circumstances, in due time, without our distressing ourselves to find what they should be. You need not attempt to draw any precise line between what is sinful and what is only allowable: look up to Christ, and deny yourselves every thing, whatever its character, which you think He would have you relinquish. You need not calculate and measure, if you love much: you need not perplex yourselves with points of curiosity, if you have a heart to venture after Him. True, difficulties will sometimes arise, but they will be seldom. 

He proposes a basic plan for denying ourselves in everyday life in sometimes surprising ways:

Do the things you don't want to do and give in to others when you don't need to or want to:

He [Jesus]bids you take up your cross; therefore accept the daily opportunities which occur of yielding to others, when you need not yield, and of doing unpleasant services, which you might avoid. 

Let someone else lead, even if you think you should take charge:

He bids those who would be highest, live as the lowest: therefore, turn from ambitious thoughts, and (as far as you religiously may) make resolves against taking on you authority and rule. 

Don't just be charitable to others; be neglectful of yourself:

He bids you sell and give alms; therefore, hate to spend money on yourself. 

Don't seek praise or fear humiliation:

Shut your ears to praise, when it grows loud: set your face like a flint, when the world ridicules, and smile at its threats. 

Control your expression of emotion:

Learn to master your heart, when it would burst forth into vehemence, or prolong a barren sorrow, or dissolve into unseasonable tenderness. 

Be careful of what you say and what you see:

Curb your tongue, and turn away your eye, lest you fall into temptation. 

Don't be complacent:

Avoid the dangerous air which relaxes you, and brace yourself upon the heights. 


Be up at prayer "a great while before day," and seek the true, your only Bridegroom, "by night on your bed." 

Then Newman alludes to Jacob's Dream of the Ladder in Genesis 28: 10-12* while describing the habit of self-denial becoming natural:

So shall self-denial become natural to you, and a change come over you, gently and imperceptibly; and, like Jacob, you will lie down in the waste, and will soon see Angels, and a way opened for you into heaven.

* 10 Jacob left Beer-sheba, and went toward Haran. 11 And he came to a certain place, and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. 12 And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it!

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