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).
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.
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.
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.