You would think that “dying to yourself” is a pretty straight forward concept in the scriptures. Surrender your life to the Lord and follow his will right? What more can you say than that? To add anything to this equation would give off the impression that one is trying to tone down the intensity of the call God has for us. So I hesitate to be the guy who attempts to adds something, but I’m going to do it anyways. In my experience, I think it matters how we understand the concept of “death to self.” It’s important to ask ourselves how we apply verses such as “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23)?
I used to think that the more uncomfortable I was, the closer I was to the cross. I’d always think that the very thing I dreaded was the very thing I needed to do. I just didn’t trust myself enough to align my personal ambitions with my service to God. The disciple John makes it clear that we as humans are prone to deceive ourselves (1 John 1:8), and I for one did not want to be fooled. I’d cringe while watching those preachers on TV talk about having the “good life” while serving the Lord at the same time. Although it might be possible, it’s definitely a hard line to walk. My wife taught me this psychological term “cognitive dissonance” a while back that simply added more fuel to the fears I had of self-deception. The term explains how people tend to justify their choices despite evidence that reveals its inconsistencies.
But recently I read a book that had a unique perspective on verses like Luke 9:23. The author, Peter Scazzero, introduced a concept that I think is greatly neglected in churches today. He calls it “emotionally healthy spirituality.” On the issue of “dying to ourselves”, he proposes that “God never asked us to annihilate the self. We are not to become ‘non-persons’ when we become Christians.” He argues that Christians tends to neglect their emotional health and personal identity in efforts to deny them self. Due to our new identity in Christ, we get confused about what to do with things like our personality and opinions. This resonates with me because I’ve noticed how Christians can, when it comes to their spiritual self, appear someone robotic. It’s as if they gave up their personality, unique color and temperament along with their sinful identity. Out of fear that we may be cradling aspects of our old self, we throw all of our idiosyncrasies and quirks into the baptism tank, assuring ourselves that there will be nothing left but glory when we reemerge from the water. As we walk this new life, we pride ourselves in this kind of selflessness. We take it as a big complement when people say “He never thinks of himself.” But lately I’ve been realizing that harmful side affects eventually surface when we die to the wrong things. Selflessness can steer us in a destructive direction if it is not understood in the context of the whole scripture.
In order to be a living sacrifice (an ongoing denial of the “self”) we will always have a “self” to deny. Sanctification is all about making that “self” look more and more like Jesus Christ. “Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20), now empowers the “self” to follow the example of Jesus *(see note below). If we’re going to love our neighbor as our self, we sure better love our “self” a whole lot. The struggle between my interests (by “my interests” I don’t mean carnal and sinful interests) and God’s interests is what makes the relationship so special. It substantiates the moments I surrender. Feel free to disagree with me, but I don’t think God desires thoughtless compliance to his decrees. I don’t think God ever wanted a relationship with obedient machines. God desires an interaction with complex and creative people who humbly share their thoughts and opinions with Him.
The dialogue I’m describing is very different from defiance. It’s different because in the end, obedience to His will must always prevail. While on earth, Jesus himself says “not my will, but your will be done.” The humanity of Jesus had a will, he had an opinion, he shared this struggle with the Father, yet there was never a question that he would submit and obey. That’s the kind of relationship I’m talking about. We need to have honest and transparent conversations with the Lord that are ultimately grounded in submission.
What’s your take on the matter?
*What about the verse “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me”?
Below is an insert from the ESV Study Bible on this passage. I think it backs up what I’m trying to say.
“Gal. 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ. Paul’s former “self,” the person Paul was before he trusted Christ, with all of his sinful goals and proud, self-exalting desires, came to a decisive end—he “died.” It is no longer I who live does not mean that Paul has no personality of his own (all his writings show that he does) but that his own personal interests and goals no longer direct his life; rather, Christ who lives in me now directs and empowers all that he does.”