What It Means to Die to Yourself
A work colleague of mine asked me about what it means to “die to yourself,” which I had written on a blogpost. It’s a good question. Even for followers of Christ it can be a fuzzy concept.
In Romans 12, the apostle Paul adjures us to offer our bodies as “living sacrifices” as an expression of gratitude to God for His forgiveness of our sins. And note the order: the sacrificial living comes after the salvation, not before. We can’t earn forgiveness – we receive it first, then give thanks for it.
In the previous chapters of Romans, Paul had been explaining what Jesus’ death means, the substitutionary nature of His sacrifice that, like the Old Testament animal sacrifices, paid for sin -- “blood for blood.” The late Christopher Hitchens, an avowed atheist, understandably found this notion totally unfair. He thought it immoral that one person’s shortcomings could be exonerated by someone else.
I get it. It doesn’t seem fair that I be forgiven for punching you by someone other than you. You can forgive me, but how can a third party forgive me for what I did to you? Yet in my hurting you, I am ultimately rebelling against the Creator. My offense is against you, and I will want your forgiveness, but in punching you, I am punching God, to whom I have the greatest responsibility.
If it’s true that Jesus’ death can pay the ransom we could never afford – and He can only do that because He was sinless and God-made-man – then we’re supposed to imitate Him by dying to ourselves.
Does this make God a megalomaniac to think that just because He made us that we should revolve around Him? If He really loves us, why not give us the freedom to live as we see fit?
Because living for Him is what’s best for us. For the same reason parents don’t let kids set their own meal plan (candy for breakfast, candy for lunch, candy for dinner….), God knows that we flourish when we seek to serve Him and our fellow humans first. Unlike our parents, God does give us the freedom to eat candy all day, and He gives us the freedom to live with the consequences, too. Putting anything other than God first in our lives will make us spiritually sick. And the eternal consequences of that choice are horrific.
Dying to ourselves means acting as if we are already dead. Our hopes, dreams, desires, and many of our natural inclinations are secondary to living for God and what He values. Making God the priority feels like we’re killing ourselves again and again. I wish that my decision to give myself to God when I was 16 years old was a once-and-done decision. That would be so much easier than continually saying no to myself when my desires are at odds with what God wants for me.
It’s not that I can’t do tons of things that I want to do. I eat chocolate, I sail, I swim, I do house projects, I write, I play racquetball. But even these good things I do only with God’s permission.
Where it gets difficult is when He wants me to do things I’d rather not do, or not do things I want to do. And God is totally annoying in this way. I have a list of habits in my life that I’d gladly jettison, and another list of habits I’d gladly take up . . . but for God. And God is quite content to demand my total allegiance and trust, even when His ways don’t seem to make sense. When He called me to sell my stereo – my most prized possession in college – and give the money to the poor of the developing world, I had to obey. Was I thrilled about it? Not at all. Was this a singular, unreasonable demand of God? Nope. It happens all the time. And it feels like I’m dying to myself.
The good news is that what might otherwise sound utterly horrible – this practice of being a “living sacrifice” – usually brings me joy and life. I believe that God is good and loves me ferociously and that His demands are done not to torment me but to flourish me. Sometimes I see those fruits, and sometimes I don’t. But I’ve learned to trust Him. And in that trust, my life has meaning. I have confidence that when I die, I’ll be with God, face-to-face, free from sin, pain and suffering, and completely and permanently happy.
Dying to myself isn’t the end, but the way to live for God. And living for God is worth it.