I hate the idea of "dying to myself" as much as the next guy. I like my life well enough. I'm not scraping bottom. To the contrary, I'm thriving. I'd prefer that God didn't step in to rearrange the furniture.
Unfortunately, death to self is the only way to get to the life we were meant to have by our Creator.
Before becoming a Christian, T. S. Eliot wrote poems of despair. “The Hollow Men” (1925) outlined the contours of forlornness and desolation:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Just two years later, Eliot became a follower of Christ, leaving behind his poems of despair and hopelessness for the eternal hope in Christ. That same year, he wrote a poem that portrayed the meaning he found in death. In “The Journey of the Magi” (1927)—a poem I love so much that I have memorized it—one of the wise men writes of the conflicting feelings he has about having found the Christ child:
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Eliot captured the implications of becoming a follower of Christ: the joy of the Incarnation has deadly implications for our dreams and aspirations. To live, you must first die. The cross comes before the resurrection. You cannot skip the first to get to the second.
The apostle Paul captured the same in Gal. 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” The paradox at the heart of the Gospel is that we must die in order to live. Christ’s death does not have its saving effect without our embracing death to self.
To receive the forgiveness that is available to us by Jesus’ sacrifice, we must give up ownership of ourselves, turning over our lives to God as “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). This is not optional. Without repentance, there can be no forgiveness.
I know it stinks. But it stinks in the same way that chemo stinks: a painful but necessary step in being healed. So we may as well just get used to it a moment-by-moment practice of dying to our sins, big and small, so life will overcome death.