“We’re doing everything humanly possible.” We sometimes hear this statement during medical crises or natural disasters and sometimes it’s true. Other times it might mean we don’t know what else to do or our resources are stretched to the limit. Granted, we can get a lot done when we put our heads together and work hard, but human strength, ingenuity and ability can get us only so far.
The other problem with trying to do everything humanly possible is we often don’t reach that goal. We don’t always try as hard as we can; we become discouraged and give up, escaping into self-pity or mindless pursuits (Netflix, anyone?). I’m sure you know where this is going.
We don’t have to solely rely on our human power, although as Dallas Willard says, God has given us our bodies as our own personal power packs, through which we interact with our world and bring about our wills. I’m thankful for my power pack, as it enables me to do things like bake bread, ride my bike and fulfill my responsibilities. But my power pack only works at its peak when plugged into the “power pack” of God. Out of his life inherent he gave us life and our bodies.
For those of us who entrust our lives to him, he augments our human efforts with his unlimited power, accomplishing things we could never do on our own or even imagine. We aren’t stuck doing only as much as humanly possible, however strong or feeble our efforts may be, if we let our weakness become his strength and work in the power and might of Christ.
Sometimes when we hear about bad acts of people, we can wonder what got into them. I like to watch crime solving shows and I often think, what’s wrong with that person? How could he or she do something so evil and heinous? James had an explanation in chapter 4, verse 1: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you” (NIV)?
It’s exactly our desires we do battle with when we die to self. Our desires are what we nail to the cross when we live the crucified life. Joseph Stowell, in a little book titled Simply Jesus, Experiencing the One Your Heart Longs For, wrote a good corollary to James’ statement. He said, “In the end, most sin is about enhancing or preserving your life, reputation, pleasure, prosperity, or safety. If life is about you, sin will come easily.” Our innate desire to save ourselves is what causes all our problems.
I’m pretty sure all or at least most of the time I’ve been in trouble either with my words or my actions, it’s been because I’ve been trying to enhance or preserve some aspect of my self. I could add protecting or defending as well and this comes naturally to all of us. It’s when, in Christ and by the Holy Spirit, we die to the need to preserve ourselves that we become truly alive. We become more fully human too, in the way Jesus was the best and most genuinely human. In Christ, we don’t have to let our desires control – and possibly ruin – our lives.
Over the course of my life, I’ve learned God’s grace covers every aspect of being a Christian. Some of you may be rolling your eyes and saying “Duh.” But for me and those of you like me who’ve had to break free of the tentacles of legalism, it was like peeling the layers of an onion. At first, I saw and understood only the obvious ways God’s grace is active in our growth in Christ. But little by little, he revealed more to me, like how grace covers prayer as the Holy Spirit takes our wordless cries and groaning and brings them before our Father. I had read Romans 8:26 before of course, but it really sank in as my mind was opened to how grace permeates everything we do.
And now guess what? It seems grace also covers and empowers our dying to self. Paul said his grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that means in everything, little and big. We don’t have to die to self by ourselves. We’ve been crucified with Christ and he now lives in us (Galatians 2:20).
It’s a huge relief to me and probably to you too, to know we don’t have to do this on our own. As we’ve already been crucified with him, all we have to do is live as though this is true – because it is. It’s also comforting to know dying to self looks different in each of us. Dallas Willard, in Life Without Lack, says the only requirement on our part is to die to self, but what it involves in each of our lives is a matter only we can decide. Just as God meets us where we are and gently, with wisdom and love, guides us in our spiritual transformation, he also lovingly shows us the way to live his crucified life with him.
OK, that’s an ambitious title for a short article, but consider it the inevitable segue to an important, perhaps even crucial, aspect of the Christian’s life. I’ve spent several weeks here on kenosis (the self-emptying of God when the Father sent his Son as a human to give himself for us) and death to self (putting to death our tendency to worship ourselves as our own gods, thereby putting into practice our own kenosis). What naturally follows is living a crucified life as Jesus lives in us.
Even though I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, praying and studying this, and trying to put it into practice, I’m not prepared to tell you I am actually living the crucified life. I like to think I’m taking baby steps and am making some progress. But that’s just it – it’s a process and not something we can ever claim to have accomplished. Only Christ knows how I’m doing and how much more I need to trust him to work this transformation in me.
What I do know is that I can’t do it alone. As Dallas Willard says, “The crucifixion of the self is a cooperative affair between us and the Lord. We cannot die to self without the help of God’s grace, for only God can satisfy our ultimate desire, and only God can convince our hearts that, when we die to self, he will raise us up.” He goes on to say we have to understand what it is and to accept it, recognize it and ask God to give this gift to us. Yes, he calls it a gift. “Christ was not crucified so that we wouldn’t have to be. He was crucified so we could be crucified with him. He did not die so that we wouldn’t have to die; he died so we could die with him. In death to self you are crucified with Christ” (Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23).
It seems God has given me crucified as my “one word” for 2021, so I will be sharing more thoughts on this as the year goes on.
Christians like to quote Philippians 4:13 that tells us we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. It’s not a magic formula and doesn’t keep us from doing things we don’t want to do or even thinking things we’d be better off not thinking. But it is an important part of our lives as Christ’s followers. His strength is our strength and his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Trusting Jesus doesn’t give us superpowers but as my friend Jan Johnson (author and speaker) likes to say, you can do anything for ten minutes. For example, I can be nice to this person for ten minutes. I can wait patiently in this line for ten minutes. I can love this person for ten minutes, even though they drive me crazy. I’ve been adding Philippians 4:13 to this: for ten minutes I can keep my mouth shut through Christ who gives me strength.
Dying to self is kind of like eating an elephant. How do you eat an elephant, you may ask? One bite at a time. How do I die to self? Perhaps ten minutes at a time, through Christ who gives me strength. For ten minutes I can put aside my desire for (fill-in-the-blank) through him who gives me strength. For ten minutes I can put this person’s needs before mine through him who gives me strength. I can die a little every day, ten minutes at a time – through Christ who gives me strength.
Dying to self is tricky, at least from a human point of view. As author and speaker Jill Briscoe says, the trouble with living sacrifices is they have a habit of climbing off the altar! We don’t like to do things that hurt and to crucify our flesh sounds really painful. And while it can be painful, it’s not a physical pain. Many believe the flesh is intrinsically evil, but Dallas Willard says the flesh in itself is not bad. “The problem with the flesh lies in its weakness and lostness when uncoupled from God’s Spirit, which is precisely the condition of humanity apart from Christ” (Life Without Lack: Living in the Fullness of Psalm 23).
He goes on to say: “To live in the flesh, to live with uncrucified affections and desires, is simply a matter of putting them in the ultimate position in our lives. Whatever we want becomes the most important thing. This is what happens when we are living apart from God; we make our desires ultimate because they are all we have. We look to them as if they were everything in our lives; thinking of my worth, my glory, my appearance, thinking of my power to sustain myself.”
Desires aren’t inherently wrong either, but as Dallas says, they are terrible masters. A good place to begin dying to self is to recognize our desires for what they are and being aware of how they can control our lives if we let them. Our desires can never be satisfied but trusting in Jesus and his work on the cross means accepting limitation on our desires. “Desire is infinite partly because we were made by God, made for God, made to need God, and made to run on God. We can be satisfied only by the one who is infinite, eternal and able to supply all our needs; we are only at home in God.”
Desires are from God and are good as long as we subjugate them to him and die to the pursuit of satisfying ourselves through anything but God. We don’t have to be slaves to our flesh and its insatiable desires if we can learn to die a little every day through Christ who gives us strength.
Next week: I Can Do All Things
Death is something no one wants to talk about. We don’t think about it unless we are forced to, but it’s part of life and reminders are everywhere. A hospital, a cemetery, a funeral home – all are visual reminders of our mortality. Every birthday brings us closer to our own physical end. Even with reminders, we carry on as though it won’t happen for many years.
Paul took a different tack. He looked it in the eye on many occasions and mentions it multiple times in his letters in the New Testament. He even welcomed it, saying it would be better for him to be with Christ, except that he was needed for the church. I believe he was able to do this because he had already experienced a different kind of death – death to self. It’s not something we hear much about, but just as kenosis is foundational to Christianity, so is dying to self. Paul mentions it much more than physical death.
Dallas Willard’s book Life Without Lack devotes a whole chapter to this subject. He asserts that we must understand death to self has nothing to do with death of self. “Death to self is not ultimately a negation, but a rising up into the very life of God (2 Peter 1:4). Thus our lives are saved by his life (Romans 5:10).” He also says you were not put here on earth to get rid of yourself, but to be a self, and to live fully as a self.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul gives us the definition of death to self: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (NIV). “This is the essence of the death-to-self life: that we should no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died for us and rose again” (Ibid.).
Next week: Leaving the Flesh Behind
I can’t let the beginning of the new year go by without first wishing you a happy (happier?) one; and second, commenting on the plethora of advice on how to have a better year than the one that just ended. It seems everyone has something to contribute to the mix, from being your best self to getting out the clutter, both physical and mental, and all forms of self-improvement. My advice might sound a little different: die a little every day.
Galatians 2:20 tells us we’ve been crucified with Christ and we no longer live, but he lives in us. Our lives are not our own; we’ve been bought with a price. As a human on earth, Jesus didn’t live for himself, but lived to do the will of his Father. In Philippians 2:5, before talking about how Jesus emptied himself, Paul said we are to have the same mindset or attitude. While we can never achieve anywhere near the level of self-emptying of Jesus, it’s part of who we are as Christians and deserves serious thought, prayer and even effort.
Jesus lives in us, which means the kenosis of the Trinity and Jesus in particular naturally point to a form of kenosis in humans, especially in, but not limited to, his followers. Becoming more like Jesus means we practice self-emptying and die a little every day.
Next week: more on dying to self, including thoughts from Dallas Willard.
I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring a little bit about kenosis as much as I have. As the point of this blog is learning more about God, I’ve given this fascinating and foundational aspect of who he is extra space. Going deeper into and contemplating the self-emptying of God is an amazing look into how love functions and how it motivated everything he has done for us.
“The self-humiliation of God is fulfilled in the incarnation of the Son. God permits an existence different from his own by limiting himself. He withdraws his omnipotence in order to set his image ̶ men and women ̶ free. The divine kenosis which begins with the creation of the world reaches its perfected and completed form in the incarnation of the Son. And the kenosis is realized on the cross. God becomes the God who identifies himself with men and women to the point of death, and beyond” (Jurgen Moltmann).
Barry Robinson (see below) adds this to Moltmann’s thoughts: “It’s the phrase ‘and beyond’ that’s intriguing. Could this imply that the fullness and consummation of God’s self-emptying is witnessed in the ascended and exalted Christ retaining his humanity as the God-man and not shedding it at the resurrection? (Paul speaks of the man Christ Jesus after his resurrection in 1 Timothy 2:5.) As Graham Kendrick’s hymn Meekness and Majesty says, Jesus
Barry Robinson (see below) adds this to Moltmann’s thoughts: “It’s the phrase ‘and beyond’ that’s intriguing. Could this imply that the fullness and consummation of God’s self-emptying is witnessed in the ascended and exalted Christ retaining his humanity as the God-man and not shedding it at the resurrection? (Paul speaks of the man Christ Jesus after his resurrection in 1 Timothy 2:5.) As Graham Kendrick’s hymn Meekness and Majesty says, Jesus ‘lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.’ To mysteriously include humanity within the eternal being of the Word seems to me to be the greatest act of self-emptying ̶ not so much by the subtraction of who the Word is, but by the addition of who we are.”
If you’d like to read more about kenosis, this article and this chart might be interesting to you. They are provided courtesy of Barry Robinson. His bio is included at the end of the article, as well as a suggested reading list. His article, published as a six-part devotional on Day-by-Day out of the UK, is what first sparked my interest in this topic.
My favorite Christmas hymn is O Holy Night. Every time I hear the words “fall on your knees” I get a chill and find myself singing along with the angel voices. O Holy Night, “also known as “Cantique de Noël”) is a well-known Christmas carol composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem “Minuit, Chrétiens” (Midnight, Christians) by poet Placide Cappeau (1808–1877). The carol reflects on the birth of Jesus as humanity’s redemption” (Wikipedia).
Most versions use only the first verse, which is the most well-known. As it’s in the public domain and you may not be familiar with the second and third verses, I’m sharing it with you here and hope you can find a version you like to listen to. I’m partial to Josh Groban and Michael Crawford, who both sing the first and third verses. I also enjoy listening to Nat King Cole and Andy Williams.
Merry Christmas to you and thanks for reading my blog.
O Holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees; O hear the Angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born.
O night, O Holy night, O night divine!
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the Wise Men from Orient land.
The King of kings lay thus in lowly manger,
In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger.
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend;
Behold your King; before Him lowly bend.
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His Gospel is Peace.
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name, all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us Praise His Holy name.
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!
His power and glory evermore proclaim;
His power and glory evermore proclaim.