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  • Bill Wichterman

My Story of Coming to Faith: Life is the Goal, Death is the Means

The bad news is that we're called to die to ourselves. But the good news is that death to self isn't the end, but the means to the end. Just as physical death precedes eternal life for those who are saved, so spiritual death to ourselves precedes the life we are meant to live in the here and now.

God is not cruel. He takes no joy in our struggle to die to ourselves anymore than he takes a morbid joy in physical death. (Jesus wept when Lazarus died. Death violates God’s original design.) When I struggle to give up some sinful habit or even a good and wholesome dream that is not part of his plan for me, God does not delight in my emotional pain. He knows how hard it is. But he also knows the good plans he has for us if we will just release our clenched fist of willfulness to receive the better gift that awaits

In C. S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the self-centered Eustace has been turned into a dragon due to his avarice. Aslan the Lion, representing Christ, wants to free Eustace from his enchantment. Eustace tries scratching off his dragon scales himself, but is unsuccessful. Eustace describes his experience this way:

Then the lion said—but I do not know if it spoke—“You will have to let me undress you.” I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.

The very first tear was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.

The process of dying to self is miserable. The sense of loss, sadness, and grief is painful. It feels like death. Thankfully, it's only temporary.

I well remember my own conversion as a sixteen-year-old boy. I believed the gospel and wanted to follow Christ, but I didn't want to give up everything, especially my girlfriend. I knew our relationship wasn't pleasing to God, and I knew I had to break up as my act of repentance. This specter of self-denial was made more daunting by the prospect of what other hardships might lay ahead. If God would call me to give up my girlfriend, he might demand even harder things of me (and he has). But all I knew in 1980 was that I was being called to die to myself, for then and for the rest of my life.

For weeks I wrestled with the choice that lay before me, desperately looking for a way that didn't require dying to myself. I was terrified to lay down my life, but I was also terrified to die and face God in my unrepentant state. One day during a 10th grade biology class, I remember having an overwhelming fear of death and feeling the blood drain from my face when I thought about meeting God. I was sure I would go to hell if I died then. Another time, I had a vivid dream that I was with my church youth group at a picnic when Christ returned, and the other kids were taken in the rapture, but I was left behind. I also remember listening to a song by Resurrection Band with the line “and to those of our friends who know the king is your king keep shining until we meet again.” I knew Jesus was not my king, and I was petrified at the thought of dying.

As a teenager, I craved for the experience of being high. Psychedelic drugs like LSD were very attractive to me, and I longed for the transcendent feeling of experiencing something outside of my body. A friend encouraged me to try cocaine as a first step, and I agreed. I had no doubt it was against God’s will, but I did not care. I made plans to have my first drug experience after a high school dance, and I was very excited.

At the dance, a childhood friend of mine was very drunk and needed help getting to the bathroom. When I told him what I planned to do that night, he implored me not to take drugs. He said that very night his father had kicked him out of his house because of his drug use and that drugs had messed up his life. He said he had always respected me for staying clean. His unwelcome drunken sermon pricked my conscience enough to make me reluctantly decide not to go through with my plans. As I walked back to my car in the darkness to drive home, I said aloud to God, “Why don’t you just leave me alone!” I felt pursued by the “hound of heaven”[1] who had a claim on my life, though I did not want to bend my knee to this ravenous God who would devour me and my dreams. At least not until I had drunk more deeply from the forbidden cup.

Eventually, in the fall of 1980, both my fear of hell and my desire to be right with God drove me to repentance. The first step was awful, similar to what it must feel like to jump out of an airplane without a parachute. The break-up with my girlfriend was painful. She didn't understand why I had to break up with her when I still liked her.

But the pain of the breakup and all of the loss of self that it represented was soon replaced with an inexpressible joy in knowing that I now belonged to God, I had embraced my salvation in Christ, and I would now be “married” to God. For the following two years, I was “in love” with Jesus in a fresh and special way, much like newlyweds who cannot bear to be apart.[2]

With 38 years of following Christ behind me, I still don't like the feeling of giving up what I love. I hear God daily calling me to put aside my natural inclinations, my hopes and dreams, and taking on his.

Sometimes he calls me to take an intern to lunch, meet with a job seeker, or set aside my weekend plans to follow my wife’s agenda. I have been called to prolonged fasting, to give up a job I loved for the sake of my family, to sell my most prized possession—my stereo—in college and give the money to the poor, and even give up my plans to marry (only to have marriage given back to me). Whether big or small, God is a demanding and “jealous God” (Exod. 20:4-5). His demands are incessant.

And yet my friends and family will tell you that I'm not a dour ascetic weighed down by the burdens of self-denial, but a joyful and happy person overwhelmed with the temporal blessings I have received. One friend even labels me “annoyingly happy.” I am content with my life—not with every aspect of my life, of course, but with the totality of my life. In fact, the joy I know is a byproduct of death to self.

The ongoing hardship of “giving up” and “giving away” doesn't begin to compare with the joy of knowing Christ. All of my God-imposed acts of self-denial pale in comparison with what I experience here and now in my walk with God, much less with the “glory that will be revealed in us” when we see God face to face (Rom. 8:18).

[1] From a poem by the same name by Francis Thompson (1893).

[2] I still love Christ deeply and passionately, but, much like my maturing love for my wife, it is no longer the intense euphoria of those early years. This change in my emotions is not sinful or due to a lack of zeal. Some people mistake feelings for commitment. But it is our will that counts. I am glad not to have all of the emotional undulations—for my God or my wife—of my adolescence.

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