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.
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
Most of us have used the old saying, what you don’t know won’t hurt you. It means remaining ignorant of a situation relieves you of responsibility to worry or think about it (idioms.thefreedictionary.com). The corollary is ignorance is bliss. Sometimes it is but most of the time it’s not, including when it comes to our interactions with others. Being unaware of what’s happening in a person’s life can lead to insensitive comments or hurtful actions; conversely, being aware gives us opportunities to pray and possibly help.
A comment I heard by a conference speaker illustrates how we need to at least be aware something might be happening beneath the surface. She said you don’t know what someone has gone through, what they are going through right now and what they may be facing in the future. This reminded me of Philippians 2, where Paul gives us insight into what it means to have the mind of Christ in our relationships. We are to consider others better than ourselves, and to think of others more than we think of ourselves. This often requires dying to our desires to talk about ourselves, give advice or share our stories.
When Jesus interacted with people, he looked them in the eye, listened to them to the point of discerning their hearts and cared about what they shared. While we may not be on the same level of servant-listener as Jesus, we can stop talking and pay attention to others with the intention of knowing them, loving them and being present in whatever way they need.