Death may be certain, but it’s not a good destination; unless of course it was to lead to something far, far better. In the Bible, “death of self” is a spiritual result, the portal to true life—life that is eternal and pure.
Conventional wisdom suggests we order our lives. The lives of our acquaintances, our contacts, etc. must be organized so that everything can work for our benefit and advancement. “Good guys finish last” it is said, for if one does not take what is due, no one will give it to them. We spend our lives organizing things, and then we could lose it all . . . sometimes before we die.
We’ve heard about people who were famous, wealthy, and organized who ended up sad and broken. Their moats were crossed and castles breached, leaving them nothing according to their plans.
On the other hand, there are those people, fewer in number, who do not see life as what they can grasp. Rather, they organize their lives so that they might serve others. They accumulate so they might give some away and they follow the Master who taught them that through economy comes wealth (Acts 20:34, 35). They remain happy regardless of trials because they do not think life is about them or their desires. Ultimately, they lose nothing and gain perspective, while their faith grows.
“Then he [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it’” (Mark 8:34, 35).
There it is: a command. Not a suggestion but a directive to deny yourself.
Jesus’ life was filled with this theme. In Philippians 2:5-7, which is likely a first century hymn, Paul wrote about Jesus’ willingness to leave Heaven, strip himself of his glorious position, and suffer indignity and humiliation as a man. He self-demoted and was obedient even to death on the cross. The apostle urged us to have this same mindset (v. 5).
To deny self is our work; death of self is God’s. In the passage in Mark we could actually chooseto save our lives (to great loss), but we lose life when we deny ourselves. We cannot lose our life by our action; we lose it when we let go of it and God takes it. When our “grain of wheat” falls into the earth, then it dies (John 12:24; see also 2 Corinthians 4:8-11).
Fulfillment through Loss of Life
When we deny ourselves and so lose our lives, does this make life better? We can apply the following actions to enjoy the benefit of living this way.
Learn that we are not naturally good judges of what is valuable. What we may think is valuable could be unnecessary baggage, if not an outright impediment. On the other hand, what seems to be burdensome often is not.
Taking one example, putting others first is not natural to us, but according to the Bible it is a first step (see Phil. 2:3, 4: tellingly, this is just before the Christological hymn we mentioned earlier). When we put others first, of course it will mean that some will take advantage of us, and they may see us as an easy mark. Also, when we are seeking the welfare of other people, it is possible to miss opportunities for ourselves. But the end result is in the same vein as that for Jesus: “God exalted him” (Phil. 2:9).
Putting others first is not a naturally discerned benefit, but a supernatural one that has eternal rewards. This is true of many commands of God: take no thought for vengeance; do not store up treasure on earth; take up your cross. If we were only to do what makes good sense to us, we would not be able to operate in the topsy-turvy world of Jesus’ commands.
Realize that anything overburdened moves inefficiently. I saw an ant carrying a beetle too large for itself. The journey went like this: stagger, fall sideways, chase the rolling beetle, push, pull, lift, topple.
Are you burdened with worries? Do your efforts to control people or events occupy a great deal of your time? Are you attached to your accumulating wealth? All of these, and others like them, point to the fact that we may not have experienced a death of self. There are elements of good in each of these examples—prudence, efficiency, thrift—but when they become our focus, they distance us from the source of life, which is our Father in Heaven.
In contrast, the Lord tells us “do not worry about your life,” “turn the other cheek,” and “store up treasures in heaven” (Luke 12:22; Matt. 5:39; Matt. 6:20). Death of self is ultimately transferring true wealth to safe keeping, and this brings tranquil efficiency into our lives.
Assess the columns in our lives and give weight to the spiritual side. I wonder if we’re being warned when we are reading the Scripture, praying, or worshiping but are detached from what we are doing. We find we have to keep reminding ourselves to focus.
Could it be that our lack of attention shows our devotion is to the world, and not to God? We can become perfunctory in service when we have lost touch with the value of our spiritual life.
I am so pleased when my son chooses what is spiritual over what seems practical. The Father in Heaven must be even more pleased when his children make spiritual choices.
We should not look back. This is an important point, because so much of faith is well-planned forgetfulness (Luke 9:62; Phil. 3:13, 14). We choose to forget the attractions of our former life. We choose to forget that there are alternatives to being a dedicated servant of God.
Joshua’s statement to the people of Israel applies here: “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). Joshua is not suggesting they choose daily whom to serve, but to choose on that one day who to serve going forward. The decision is final.
We do not look back.
One caution though; being dead to self is not the same as being dead. Paul said it this way: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). We still have a will; we can make choices to stand for our personal well-being, and we can oppose what is wrong. Though Jesus was dead to self, he was alive to God, which meant he was bold and sometimes controversial. Nonetheless, we never see once where he retaliated because he was personally mistreated, but rather because people were in some way dishonoring his Father’s will. His self was dead; his mission remained very lively.
We will need to learn where to act and when to remain silent. Submission to the Holy Spirit’s free sway is paramount here. There are times when God urges me to confront or challenge, and other times, most times, he tells me to leave it with him in prayer. As author Richard Foster has observed, we must learn to “lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.”
The apostle Paul said, “You are not our own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). When we are not our own, it follows that we are his. The tradeoff is good. What we could never do, God will do. He is responsible for our salvation and he has promised to be with us for the challenge of the journey.
Dr. David Downey is a freelance writer, Life Group teacher, and discipleship leader living in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of His Burden is Light: Cultivating Personal Holiness, available on Amazon. Some of his writing is available at https://www.linkedin.com/in/david-downey-0a78b7b6/.