...let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset [us], and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the Pioneer and Perfecter of [our] faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
Christ’s death and resurrection reveal our own path and destiny, which is to die to sin, die to death, die to self, to live in and for Him, and to be glorified and deified in and with Him.
It’s in Holy Baptism we are transferred from the realm of sin and death into Christ’s own, crucified and risen Body. But that is only the new birth. If we are not to remain newborns (or worse), we must crucify ourselves to this world, and this world to ourselves. “They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts,” says St. Paul (Galatians 5:24), and again, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Galatians 6:14)
The only way to overcome the habit of living for our animal selves is to combat it actively. This we do by ascetical practices. We struggle not to give our bellies or any other parts of our bodies all they demand. We force ourselves, when necessary, to keep praying. We struggle to deny ourselves the pleasures of evil thoughts, witty replies to those who insult us, and revenge. We try not to complain about anything and to accept whatever befalls us with meekness.
The object of all these and many other ascetical exercises is emphatically not to punish ourselves, but to grow spiritually, gaining mastery over our flesh (animal selves), making it serve us instead of the other way around, that we may, in turn, offer it to Christ, using it to serve others, rather than ourselves. You cannot follow Christ without following Him to Calvary -- not just in your imagination and emotions, but in your way of life. St. Paul writes:
But whatever things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal to you this, too. Nevertheless, to the degree that we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us be of the same mind. (Philippians 37-16)
No saint (person clearly manifesting Christ in his life and in his person) emerges from a bed of roses, but from the fiery furnace of affliction. That is why the Holy, Precious, Life-giving Cross is the theme and the symbol not only of Christ, but of the Christian life. The entire undertaking is to crucify our selfishness and self-centeredness that we may partake of the Divine Love.
“If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34)