A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post about finding yourself where I shared my thoughts on finding yourself by losing yourself in Christ. Well, this time I am going to take that a step further and discuss the act of dying to the self. Let’s take another look at what Paul says about the idea of living in accordance with the flesh, or the fallen self:
“But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:20-24, ESV)
Now, Paul is pretty clear about his meaning here. We must put off the old self and don the new self. But, there’s more to it than that. This is not simply an act of removing an article of clothing and replacing it with something else. The self is not merely an interchangeable facade we can switch to and from whenever we please. It’s far more engrained into our flesh. We can’t see the Kingdom of God if we continue living in the flesh. Let’s look at what Jesus had to say to Nicodemus about the subject.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered,“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:1-8, ESV)
Jesus says we must be “born of the Spirit.” Well, the implication here is that we are in the flesh, as Jesus says we must be born again. We were born in the flesh. Therefore, we strive to appease the flesh. Even the most selfless manifestation of the flesh is still of the flesh (the actual validity of selflessness is another topic not to be discussed quite yet). So, how do we become born again? How are we born in the Spirit? In Romans, Paul issues an encouragement to his audience:
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” (Romans 8:9-11, ESV)
So, then, we are not in the flesh when we have the Spirit within us. Rebirth in the Spirit comes when we are no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit. But, in order to be born in the Spirit, we must die to the flesh. But, why do we have to die to self in order for the Spirit to abide in us?
Well, the Holy Spirit is God. This is a foundational belief of the Christian faith. As God, He cannot be in the presence of sin (“God is light,” meaning morally pure, see 1 John 1:5). The flesh — the self — is sinful and fallen and depraved. Therefore, the Spirit, being fully God and holy and pure, cannot dwell with the flesh. So, the solution is dying to the self to make sure we are poised for the Spirit’s indwelling. But, “dying to self” is still an abstract concept at this point. However, Jesus gives us some advice on how to do this:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23, ESV)
Self denial. A radical concept. How do we deny ourself, though? That’s still pretty abstract. Take up your cross daily. Ok, the cross is symbolic of death, reinforces dying to self. Still not very practical. Follow Jesus. A little more practical, but not entirely applicable to life. So, let’s break down each of these commands of Jesus’.
1) Deny Your Self
Denying your self is a foreign idea to the western mind. Our culture prides itself on self-sufficiency. You make yourself or you break yourself. But, what Jesus is saying is that that is not the Truth. Jesus is saying that, in order to be His disciple, you must forfeit control over your own life. This is not to say you truly have control over your life, however it is to say that you must seek the will of God. Seek happiness in God. That pursuit will look different for everyone, but I can tell you it is not seeking him anywhere other than where you’re at. If you are under the pretense that you need to leave where you are and get in a better situation to find Jesus, your faith is then contingent upon where you’re at instead of who Jesus is. That is not the kind of faith that Jesus deserves, nor is it the kind of faith He desires. If you can’t find your faith in the situation you’re in, you won’t be able to truly find it, no matter where you go. Seek Christ whether in the respite of peace or in throes of suffering. Deny yourself any notion of control over your environment. Let Christ’s glory determine your situation, not your situation determine Christ’s glory.
2) Take Up Your Cross
Daily. Take up your cross daily. The idea here is that dying to self is not a simple, one time event. It is a continual process that we must be active in. We are participants in our own death, with the hope that Christ is our resurrector. Every. Single. Day. When you wake up every morning, pray for the Spirit and pray that you can deny yourself as the day moves forward. Jesus was not passive in His death, so you’re not allowed to be either. Be active in the death of your self and allow the power that raised Christ — the power that dwells within you, too — to raise you to life and rebirth you.
3) Follow Jesus
This is perhaps the hardest part of dying to self: following Jesus’ teachings. The reason this is difficult is because it requires constant and intent studying of His teachings. It’s a commitment. What essentially happens as a Christ follower is that you’re constantly involved in higher education. You are constantly a student, learning His teachings, applying them to your life, and longing for the day when you can walk up to the Dean and look Him in the eye to say “I gave my all.” However, you’ve already been granted graduation. Your efforts in the school of life are not to gain your graduation or to prove you’re worthy of it, but rather to thank your Dean for the reception of graduation.
When we die to our self and become reborn, don’t let yourself think that this is the path to salvation. It’s not. Only Jesus is the path to salvation. As my pastor said last Sunday, “These are not things we do to be saved, they are things we do because we are saved.” You should die to yourself because you love Jesus and He saved you. You should die to your self because you’re unworthy and you received salvation anyway. If you’re dying to yourself to prove your worth or to earn your salvation or to be pious, you are submitting to an idolatry that places your actions above God’s grace. Die to yourself because you love Jesus and He deserves your life, fully. He doesn’t need your life, — He needs nothing — but He deserves it. Give it to Him.