Four monks came to visit the famous elder Pambo. Each in turn spoke to Pambo about his neighbor’s virtues. The first fasted very strictly all the time; the second practiced poverty; the third practiced great charity; and the fourth lived in obedience to an elder for 22 years. Abba Pambo listened and then said, ‘I tell you, the virtue of the last one is most impressive. Each of the others attained the virtue he choose and wished to acquire; but the last one, restraining his own will, denying himself, does the will of another. Now it is of such men that the martyrs are made, if the persevere to the end.’ (THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS)
I know some in Orthodoxy today would read this story literally as extolling blind obedience to an elder as the Christian way. What I see in the story is that we can find ways to follow Christ which are most comfortable to us – some of us fast strictly because we choose to follow Christ in that way and are capable of following dietary rules, some of us live simple lives as our chosen way to follow Christ, and some choose to be generous because they are gifted with such a spirit. In each case the person is not so much a disciple but rather doing what comes easy to them, in fact doesn’t involve all that much self denial, as they are “gifted” with the personality that makes them want to do these things. Thus each chooses the virtue he/she wants to have and most choose something congenial to their own spirit.
Jesus said to deny the self and take up the cross.
The one who serves another often has to swallow his own pride and his own way and deny himself and his judgments and feelings in order to do the work that needs to be done – as determined by another. This is self denial. Remember Eve in Genesis 3:6, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” The story is about human willfulness – it looked good to her, but she didn’t consider the situation from anyone else’s point of view, or how her action might affect others or relationship with others. She was self centered, self determined, self willful, self loving. Self love is not true love, and one cannot be fully human unless one loves others. The martyr does not serve his/her own interest – not even that of his/her own salvation, certainly not that of his/her own glory. A martyr is a witness to others (the very meaning of the word “martyr”!). The martyr serves not his/her own interests, but considers the impact of his/her life on other believers, and then acts for the good of the others. The martyr chooses self sacrifice in order to witness to others that Christ is worth more life in this world.