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.