Living and Dying to Self
I said in a previous post that desire is a tricky thing. I often hear Christians portray desire as if it were a bad thing, and they quote Matthew 16:24, “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me,” (NASB) or Mark 8:35, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it,” or a similar passage. “You must die to self,” insists a prevailing Christian mentality.
To that I say, “Yes! … and dear heavens, no.”
There is a self to deny, and there is a self to enliven, but “death to self” in many circles eclipses the second. Not only is this not what God intended, denying the self that is meant to be enlivened nearly always results in the self that must die struggling ever harder to live. When we deny the wrong self, the self meant to be denied grows strangely stronger.
When Christians talk about self-denial, they usual are talking about not giving in to desire – not giving yourself what you want. This presupposes that desire is a key element in the self that Jesus was talking about, and that seems like a reasonable piece, if not the whole. Looking other places in Scripture, James decries praying with wrong motives (desires), asking for things that are solely for pleasure (Jas. 4:3). But then Ecclesiastes talks several times about enjoying oneself in life and find pleasure in whatever life offers (2:24, 5:18, 9:9). So desire and pleasure and both bad and good in Scripture. To simply say that Jesus’ self-denial means to avoid pleasure and not give ourselves what we want is apparently an oversimplification.
I believe I posted once before that desire in of itself is not bad. In fact, desire in integral to our nature as human beings. Had there been no Fall, we still would have desired things. Because of the Fall, however, desire has now been distorted. The self that must die, that must be denied, is the part of the soul that has been distorted, not the one that is inherent to our personhood. We must learn to differentiate between these things, to discern whether our desires are something that is good and natural or something that is born out of sin or bound to get us in trouble.
When self-denial is posited, it tends to come out with a feel that says that we must not fulfill any desires. Our sinful desires, however, are always in some way birthed from our natural, good desire. It is just that those sinful desires have been warped, sometimes so drastically that we cannot even recognize the original desire. For example, a desire to shovel food into our mouths may be a product of a desire for comfort due to a feeling of insecurity. So if we deny the desire to stuff ourselves, we leave exposed the original desire for comfort and security. That desire for comfort and security, which are integral to a loving relationship, is still not met, and the lack of even having the distorted desire met now makes the original desire that much more ravenous, which may make you that much more ravenous. Once you’re even more desperate for food, then you can’t bear the emptiness anymore, and you give in and eat until it hurts.
In this situation, and in many just like it, self-denial did not help because it was not coupled with love and the acknowledgment of a self that needs to live. What gets nailed to the cross is our sin, nor our whole selves. Jesus took our place so that our whole selves wouldn’t have to be crucified, only the parts that need it. He died so that we might live, and so we must kill those parts of ourselves that are death so that the pats of us that are good may continue to live. If we kill the parts of ourselves that are supposed to live, then Jesus’ sacrifice was for nothing! We end up killing that which He was trying to save! How hard it must be for God to watch us deny and kill the very self that He loves!
This, of course, does not give license to stop dying to self at all. The desire to shovel food into your mouth really is a distorted desire as much as lashing out at someone or hate or bitterness is a distorted desire, and we are called to deny that part of ourselves. But the existence of that part says that there is another part of the self that needs something, some natural desires that are being frustrated. Every moment of denial of self should give rise to a moment of consideration of the part of the self that needs love and to be enlivened. Don’t stuff yourself and then, having realized the underlying true desire, get that desire met, perhaps by finding comfort from a friend or from God in prayer, meditation, Scripture, or the like.
Death (to self) leads to life. It is not an end in of itself. Jesus demonstrated that by His resurrection. Likewise, our denial of self should lead to another resurrection of the self that was formed in the image of God.
Thanks to Josh Kenfield & Stephen Burrows for the image.