Taking Off the Old Self

How many choices do we make in a day? Hundreds, thousands? From getting out of bed, to what we eat for breakfast, to picking up our phones or our Bibles, everything in our entire day requires choices. Some of them are easy and need no thought, while some are more involved. Other choices happen by making no choice – we just put them off until it’s no longer necessary or we have a fire to put out.

The same is true of our thoughts. We can choose where our minds go, what we think about and dwell on. Making decisions regarding what to think about can be much more difficult than deciding what to eat or wear. Sometimes my mind goes where I don’t want it to, seemingly all by itself. And then I have a hard time reining in those thoughts and making my mind go in a different direction. I suppose we all suffer from lack of mental discipline in our instant-gratification, 24-hour information overload. We’ve been slowly acclimatized to shorter attention spans to the point we can’t read something if it’s more than a paragraph or even forty characters.

The crucified life is about the daily, hour by hour and even moment by moment choice to put off the old self with its practices, and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator (Colossians 3:6-7, NIV). Putting off the old self (we all have one) takes work. It’s a real battle and it goes on 24/7. How do we accomplish this? By choosing to redirect our thoughts toward Jesus. As I just read in a devotional, if it were easy, we wouldn’t need him. It might be the hardest thing we ever do, but if we don’t put in the effort, trusting and relying on the help and power of God, through the Holy Spirit, it won’t happen.   

We have already been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20) but like Paul, we die daily so we may live the resurrected life with Christ (Colossians 3:1; Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6).

It Comes Down to This

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.

The Grace to Die to Self

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.