What does it mean “to give up everything” and to die to ourselves?
It does not necessarily mean we must physically die, though that is a possible implication of following Christ. It does not mean ceasing to have desires, wishes, preferences, and dreams. Disciples are not robots. We do not cease to be ourselves, nor does our identity vanish. In Buddhism, the individual is considered illusory, and the aim is to give up all individuality and merge into the cosmic “one.” Not so in Christianity, in which we become our true selves.
Dying to ourselves means giving up our claims on our lives and instead taking on God’s plans. It means becoming “living sacrifices” whose every act is intended to please God. It means beginning each day with a prayer that we be God’s man or woman in everything we think, say, and do. It means that our hopes, desires, and dreams take second place to God’s. “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).
I find it very hard to die to myself. It goes against everything inside of me. My natural self yearns to be served, obeyed, comforted, admired, and exalted. And I know I am not alone.
We are born in sin. Anyone who has children knows that they come out little barbarians who must be civilized. Our natural inclinations are twisted and self-seeking. In contrast, French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau said that man is born good, but is slowly twisted by society. Rousseau wrote a book, Emile, in which he put forward the idea that the best education allows children to be themselves without forcing them to conform to others’ wishes. (Yet Rousseau never really tested his own proposition since he abandoned his own children to an orphanage.)
Self-sacrifice requires work—hard work. There is no getting around it. Christ’s death was more than just substitutionary. It was that, to be sure. We can now have eternal life with God in heaven thanks to the ransom he paid for us. But the crucifixion was also exemplary, teaching us how to live:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:5-8)
If the God of the universe would debase himself to take on flesh and blood in a nasty world—even being a King in this world would be an infinite step down for him—and further humble himself to be a common worker in a disreputable province of a poor country, how can we do otherwise but surrender our lives to him?
Our call is to serve, to wash the feet of our friends and enemies, whether we are a plumber or a prime minister.