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This past weekend, my husband and I watched the film, The Society of the Snow—the most recent cinematic account of the 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains that killed 29 people. Sixteen survived the two and a half months between the crash and their eventual rescue. In order to survive, they needed to consume the only source of food accessible to them: the bodies of those who had died.

The survivors struggled with this necessary act of cannibalism to varying degrees. Some seemed to believe it would bring about their eternal damnation. But even the most resistant ones eventually did what they had to do in order to live. They took and they ate. Some of them encased the flesh in snow and chewed as little as possible. In a gentle and somber scene, several of the survivors stated their willingness to have their bodies used for food if they should die in the days to come. Numa Turcatti, the last crash survivor to die before the rescue, had also been the most resistant to using the dead for food. He died weighing only 55 pounds and with a handwritten note clenched in his fist, indicating his own eventual willingness to be consumed.

There is no greater love than to give one’s life for friends. (John 15:13)

I think it is safe to say that none of us will be faced with the opportunity to give our lives for others in such an extreme act of self-sacrifice. But who of us does not wonder what it looks like to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16)?

Self-sacrifice is central to the Christian faith. Not only do we worship the one who sacrificed himself for us, we are also called to follow that one with our own acts of self-sacrifice.

Not only do we, with the apostle Paul, sing about Christ’s emptying himself and making himself nothing, we are also commanded by Paul to have the same mind as that of Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

Baked right into our Christian theology and praxis is a kind of cross-bearing self-denial that says our lives should primarily be lived on behalf of others. I grew up singing a song about joy (to the tune of Jingle Bells) and I taught it to my children: “J-O-Y, J-O-Y, this is what it means! Jesus first, yourself last, and others in between!” And I still teach an ethic that invites Jesus-followers to live life curved outward toward God and others (rather than incurvatus in se – curved in on oneself, with thanks to St. Augustine for this Latin turn of phrase).

But it took Gabor Maté’s book, The Myth of Normal (about which I blogged last month) to help me see how the call to self-denial has been twisted, becoming one of the main contributors to our current toxic culture. According to Maté, “a compulsive and self-sacrificing doing for others” is the top self-abnegating trait predisposing people to autoimmune disorders.

When taken to its extreme, self-denial is deadly.

And I don’t mean ‘deadly’ in a cruciform kind of way. I mean that compulsive and compulsory self-denial is deadly in cultures and sub-cultures where those with power and privilege deny themselves very little and constantly remind those without power and privilege that Jesus calls them to deny themselves.

Cruciform self-denial is different. Maté hints at it when he says this: “We might well admire someone who puts another’s needs before their own in a crisis – or the leader of a struggle for the rights of many, but such sacrifices are undertaken in a conscious and time-bound manner, appropriate to the situation at hand and with full awareness of the risks.”

In promotion of her newest book, I Shouldn’t Feel This Way, Dr. Alison Cook puts it quite directly:

Jesus’ teaching about self-denial can be misconstrued to suggest that you should never consider your own needs—a misapplication contrary to how Jesus lived his own life. The counterfeit version of self-denial encourages you to disregard toxicity or boundary violations instead of working to protect and care for yourself. The truth is that love is a delicate balance of self-denial and self-respect. If you follow the example of Jesus, you see clearly: Jesus was no doormat.

And Jesus says it so clearly in John 10:17-18: “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.”

We talk so much about laying down our lives for our friends, as Jesus laid down his life. But if we are really following Jesus in this, we don’t just lay our lives down – we take them up again!

On the day I was writing this blog, my sister read to me from my mom’s diary on that date in 1997. The entry contained my mom’s account of one of my core memories. In the middle of the night, I came home to my freshly-packed college dorm room. Everything but my toiletries and bedding had been thrown and stuffed into boxes and suitcases. The Sioux Center air wafting through my open window smelled of freshly planted corn, sunscreen, and summer dreams. Only my summer dreams had shattered. My sophomore year boyfriend had broken up with me at the last possible moment before the big Move Out and I was devastated. I felt like my life had crashed into the metaphorical Andes. I knew that for the next while, tears would be my only food.

At 12:30am, I called my mom. And she laid down her life. She received my tears and listened to my sobs. For one hour. Two hours. Three hours. Four hours. More. At times during that night I would drift into sleep, only to jar awake with a heart-pound of rejection. Mom, are you still there? “I’m here.”

She laid down her life. And I will be forever grateful.

But you know what? She also picked it up again. At 5:00am, she got off the phone. She had her devotions, showered, put on her make-up, and went to work. She probably did some counted cross stitch that day – probably got groceries. Mom picked up her life. She did not try to live my life for me, or take responsibility for or ownership of my sadness. She picked up her life, which, was a part of why she could be so present to me in my sadness. Mom knew how to lay down her life and take it up again. And she taught me to do the same.

I recently heard Brené Brown say that in all of her thousands of hours of research, the most compassionate people she has met are also the most boundaried. The people who deny themselves the most beautifully are the people who best respect themselves. Yes, as Dr. Alison says, it’s a delicate balance. But it is crucial. It is cruciform. It is resurrection-form. It is the greatest love.

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” John 12:24

Header Photo by Gelgas Airlangga

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church who lives in Kingston, Ontario, with her husband, three children, and a dog.


  • RZ says:

    This is so good! Thank you, Heidi. Balance is the key. There is no glory to God in a life so unbalanced with neediness that martyrdom supersedes worship as the motivator. Even God rested on the 7th day, not because of fatigue, but because of contentment and a recognition of the need to celebrate. In my experience, the one thing a religious fanatic or a religious tyrant will not sacrifice is the right to declare God’s dissatisfaction with themselves and with the inadequate zeal/purity of those around them. Invariably, they tend to be estranged from some of their loved ones. How can one reconcile that with the gospel?

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    This column is so helpful. Thank you. Healthy Spirituality. Sounds like the name of a book we need. Keep a collection of your writings, Heidi. That book may write itself.

  • Heidi,
    Thanks for this post. It is very helpful, because I have struggled with this verse, and your post provides balance.
    I have a question about this statement: “the call to self-denial has been twisted, becoming one of the main contributors to our current toxic culture.” I wondered what you mean by “our current toxic culture.” I have been thinking of our current societal culture as extremely individualistic and the opposite of self-denial. Please explain. Thanks.

    • Heidi De Jonge says:

      Hello, Carol! Thanks for the question. In my view, the toxicity is in the twist. Evil is – after all – the twisting of good… So, whereas cruciform self-denial is the hope of all the world, compulsive/compulsory self-denial (when paired with other self-abnegating traits – of which I blogged in my previous post) is both a symptom and a root cause of toxicity in our culture. I can’t recommend Maté’s book, The Myth of Normal, highly enough. He says it much better than I have.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you Heidi. Your comments about the powerful demanding self-sacrifice from those who have less while laying down little of their own and thus perverting the teach of Jesus to toxic ends made me think of a text I’ve always wrestled with for a variety of reasons:
    “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
    I cannot help but put this into the framework of power and self-sacrifice. This wouldn’t put an end to a toxic culture that lacks balance, but it might help frame Jesus actions in a way that encourages those with the least power to protect themselves in a balanced way.

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