If I want to be first, I must be last (Mark 10:31).
If I want to be strong I must be weak (2 Cor 12:10).
To be lifted up I must humble myself (Matt 23:12).
And to fully live…I must die (Luke 9:23-24).
The Bible is full of these paradoxes. But that last one is a doozy.
We hear the phrase, ‘die to self’ frequently in church talk. But what on earth does it mean?
In truth, this phrase doesn’t actually come from the bible. It’s a phrase we’ve coined from the concept of ‘taking up one’s cross’.
But I don’t think most of us really understand what that concept has to do with dying to self. At least I didn’t.
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24 ESV)
Often, when Christians talk about ‘taking up their cross’, or something being their ‘cross to bear’ they are describing some earthly burden they’ve resigned themselves to having to live with here on earth. Maybe it’s a physical ailment, an irritating coworker, a financial burden, or some other ‘lot in life’.
That’s not what Jesus meant at all! He was encouraging His disciples to be willing to follow Him, even unto death. When He was describing the importance of ‘taking up their cross’, they would have quite literally been picturing the cross as a tool for death. Criminals during that time were often forced to carry their own cross to the site of crucifixion, just as Jesus was. The disciples were very familiar with this concept.
Because we do not have the same understanding or perspective of the cross as the disciples would have, it’s easy for us to make light of this instruction from Christ. To cheapen it somewhat, certainly to lessen it.
Considering that taking up their cross would have meant certain death, we read on that ‘whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will save it’. This concept is repeated in each of the gospels, sometimes more than once. In fact, in John 12:25 Jesus says, ‘whoever loves their life will lose it. While anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it’.
Why would a loving God, who created us and gave us this life on earth, want us to hate it? I don’t desire for my children to hate the gifts that I give them.
But I do desire that they love me more than those gifts. How much more deserving is God of our love than we are of our child’s?
I like how the NIV Study Bible describes it…’love for God must be such that all other loves are, by comparison, hatred’.
Here’s how this has fleshed out for me, maybe you’ve had a similar experience…
Early in my life as a follower of Christ I began to work out this idea that if I loved God I had to deny myself. My understanding was that I was to forfeit any of my personal desires, any attempt at personal gain, certainly anything that gave me reason to boast … in exchange for whatever God’s will was for my life.
And there is truth to that.
But good grief, if that is the only part of this concept we grasp, then we are left wanting. We have no understanding of WHY Christ wants us to deny ourselves and follow Him. And we certainly don’t get to enjoy the freedom that comes in making that decision. We might even have a little bitterness, or at least frustration, as we try to figure out what God’s will is for us!
God has been allowing me to see the beauty in this instruction from Christ. As I continue to follow Him, I’m joyously walking in the freedom that comes from dying to myself!
Of course, God wants us to love Him more than we love ourselves.
And absolutely, He wants us to desire His life for us above any life we could make for ourselves.
He certainly wants us to recognize that we are in desperate need of a Savior, and incapable of any lasting good on our own.
I didn’t think I had a problem understanding these ideas. I knew I didn’t always do a good job of living them out, but I believed them.
But then one night, while listening to a Beth Moore video in a girls’ bible study, I heard her say these words…
‘Self loathing, is not the same as humility’
I honestly don’t remember what she was teaching on. I doubt it even had anything to do with dying to self. But in that moment, something clicked for me.
I had always thought my greatest challenge as a believer would be to relinquish my hopes and dreams that might be contrary to God’s purpose for my life. I worried that denying myself and taking up my cross would mean God would call me to do something I really didn’t want to do. Or give up something (or someone) I really desired.
I knew I was sinful. I was well aware of my inadequacies. I hated myself for not having more self-control. For knowing deep down that I was holding on with clinched fists to things that I was afraid God would ask me to give up. I hated myself for not being able to “get it right”. I often would go through seasons where I ignored God and His word, simply because I couldn’t live out my faith in a way that I thought was pleasing to Him (I’ve always struggled with doing anything that I didn’t know I could do well-anyone??).
But see, dying to self means dying to my whole self. It means literally putting to death any thoughts or actions that take my eyes off of God and put them on myself.
Maybe for you that means you have to put to death personal ambition. Maybe it means you have to put to death any sense of pride you have in your own abilities or self-sufficiency. Maybe it means you have to put to death your desire to have things your way instead of God’s.
For me, it means all of this. But it also means I have to put to death thoughts that focus on my inadequacies. I have to put to death my attempts at ‘getting it right’. I have to put to death thoughts that dwell on myself, even if they are self-deprecating.
I heard a dear friend recently quote C.S. Lewis as saying, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we get all “Kumbaya … I’m ok, you’re ok, we’re all ok”. We should think less of ourselves … than Christ. We should hate ourselves (particularly our sin) … in comparison to how much we love God.
But oh, how much time I’ve wasted not boldly living my life for God because I was so distracted by myself. My inadequacies. My failures. My shortcomings.
Why did Christ come if not for my inadequacies, failures and shortcomings … each a symptom of my sin nature?!
The freedom I find in “dying to self” is that I get to die to ALL parts of myself. Certainly, the parts that are self-righteous or promote self-sufficiency…but also the parts that are self-loathing or self-deprecating (which cheapen the redemptive work Christ did on the cross).
Because I’ve put my trust in God and surrendered my life to Christ, Christ is my righteousness. God no longer sees my iniquities, but rather my righteousness found in Christ alone. In whatever way I might struggle with self-centeredness, I am doing Him a severe disservice if I focus on myself.
I’ll leave you with this illustration from Jesus in John 12:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”. Christ was describing His impending death to the disciples, but the principal is the same for us. If we want to live, especially if we want to life and bear much fruit, we simply must die.
*If you are a believer, but struggling to understand the concept of Christ being your righteousness, I strongly recommend this article by John Piper.
**If you are not a believer (or just starting your walk with Christ) there are A LOT of words and ideas in this post that simply can’t be explained in parenthesis … but I would love to hear from you and have a conversation about them!