Our Lord proclaimed, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." Indeed, self-denial is the essential goal set before us during the time allotted for our earthly pilgrimage. Without self-denial, in fact, it is impossible to be saved. The meaning of self-denial, however, is nowadays generally misunderstood. It is not simply denying ourselves that second piece of chocolate cake or choosing to visit a sick friend rather than going to a movie. Self-denial is, quite literally, the denial of the self: that false ego we have constructed as an idol and have placed at the center of our life.
If we truly desire to follow Christ, it is necessary that we "cease to exist" as an egotistic entity, so that we might say with St. Paul, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me." This is, of course, a painful process, requiring as it does that we voluntarily take upon ourselves the cross of sacrificial suffering. "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the Gospel's, the same shall save it."
In this sense, every Orthodox Christian is called to become a martyr: ever striving to bear witness to Christ, Who truly is the Way, the Truth and the Life of all created reality. It is through Him alone that our fallen human nature can be reconciled to God the Father, transformed by grace, and restored to our rightful inheritance as sons and daughters of God, heirs of eternal life in the heavenly Kingdom.
The truth is: our Lord did not endure suffering and death upon the Cross in our stead, but rather on our behalf: that we might share with Him the cross of sacrificial suffering and self-denial. We may or may not be called to endure a literal martyrdom, but our lives should nevertheless bear witness to the all-consuming love of God, a love that can only be--in this broken and fallen world in which we live--a suffering love. Thus it is sure and certain that it is only through the power of the Cross that we may hope to attain unto those eternal good things that God has in store for those who love Him and who strive above all else to follow His commandments.