Saturday, September 7, 2013

Christian Cliches - "Die to Self"

"Die to self" is such a commonly used Christian phrase that most people never question where it came from.  But "die to self," as a phrase, isn't actually in the Bible.  When Jesus was teaching along these lines, he never used those three words in that order.  Here's one of the things He actually did say:
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Matt. 16:24-16
This teaching is in the context of Jesus asking His disciples who they thought He was, upon which Peter said He was the Christ.  Jesus then told His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem, where He would be crucified.  In the parallel passage in Mark 8:35, "whoever loses his life for me will find it" is rendered "whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it [emphasis added]." He was asking them to have the same mindset as He had in taking up His cross-- willingness to give up their own reputations and lives for Him, just as He was giving up His life and reputation for the gospel that He preached.  That gospel, according to Matthew 4:17 and Luke 4:18, was that the promises of the coming of the Messiah were fulfilled in Him, and that He had come to bring God's kingdom on earth.

In John 12:23-24 Jesus used similar words about life and death as He rode into Jerusalem the week before His death:
Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
The ideas of self-denial and losing one's life (or dying) are all present in these teachings.  But none of the passages actually, literally say "die to self."  "Die to self" can be considered instead a reworking of Christ's teachings into a sort of shorthand or slogan.  But slogans have a way of being somewhat less than accurate.  Does it accurately bring across the meaning that He saw fit to convey in several sentences, to reduce it to just three words?

These passages use the words "deny" and "self" together.  They also use the words "die" and "life" together.  What they do not do is use the words "die" and "self" together.  You see, when we "deny ourselves" we are simply making a decision to give up something we want.  But when we "die" we are letting go of something-- and that thing we are to let go of, Jesus says, is not our "selves," but our "lives."  Jesus was talking about having an attitude of willingness to sacrifice, of considering Him and His kingdom worth more than our own lives, of turning our plans and dreams over to Christ.  He was not talking about obliterating our very selves.

The difference is subtle, but I think it's important.  To deny the self still leaves the self intact.  To lose one's life is not the same thing as losing one's self.  What is getting lost in "die to self" is the idea that the individual human being, created in the image of God, has an identity that should be preserved.  When Jesus took up His cross, He did not lose His identity.  I don't believe He intends us to do so either.

I'm not saying that everyone who uses the words "die to self" is thinking this way.  Most of us aren't consciously saying or intending to say,"I'll turn self-denial into self-abnegation."  But words mean things, and over time, the words we're using as shorthand for a text, can change our mindset about what we're talking about.  In a very real sense in some Christian practices, the words "die to self" have had a way of removing  boundaries that should be there for the protection of healthy relationships between ourselves and others.  They have had a way of shaming us for wanting to keep our selves, our very identities-- what we mean when we think of who we are-- strong and intact.  They have had a way of making us feel we're doing something wrong when we take time to care for and rest ourselves, our bodies, our minds and emotions.  "Die to self" thus can easily become a tool for spiritual abuse.

Nancy Campbell, in her Above Rubies website article "Happiness or Misery?" is a prime example of this mindset:
Mothers are encouraged to take time for self-pampering. Does this make them happy? Unfortunately, no. I find that women who are so concerned about having time for themselves are usually more miserable than those who forget about themselves in the joy of serving their family.

It is a God-given principle that never fails to work. When we try to pamper self we lose our life. When we lay down our own life to serve others, we find our life. Jesus said in Mark 8:35,
"For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it."  [Emphasis in original]
It's questionable in my mind whether the women who are supposedly so much happier never taking time for themselves, are actually simply less vocal about their own needs.  But look at the difference between what Nancy Campbell says the Bible is talking about and what Jesus actually said.  Jesus never said we would save our lives by laying them down to serve others.  He said we would save our lives by laying them down for Him and for the gospel-- the good news of the coming kingdom that He is inaugurating as Messiah.  Serving others is good, and it's something Christ wants us to do-- but it's not what He was talking about when He said "lose your life for my sake."

In fact, what Jesus did when He and His disciples had been serving others all day long, was this:
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Mark 6:31
Later in this passage, the people ended up following Jesus and His disciples to that quiet place, and Jesus, having compassion on them, went ahead and taught them.  This was self-denial.  But then, after performing a miracle in which everyone (including His hungry disciples) got fed, He again sent His disciples to a place where they would be away from the crowds-- this time in boat in the middle of the lake-- and He went off by Himself to be alone with the Father and refresh Himself (verses 45-46). That was self-preservation.  Jesus denied Himself, but He did not die to Himself.  He didn't serve to the point of losing His very Self.  He took the opportunity to get away, to take care of His own needs, as soon as it was practicable.

It wasn't "self-pampering" for Jesus and the disciples to go off and try to find some time for themselves.  It was self-stewardship.

The Missionary Care website describes the Christian doctrine of self-stewardship like this:
When Jesus came, he gave the promise of the Holy Spirit who would not live in the temple in Jerusalem but in his people (John 14-17). Paul later wrote about our being God's temple, the temple of the Holy Spirit and God living in us. . . .
As God's temple and his messengers to make known his gospel to those who do not know him, we have a responsibility to care for his dwelling place - us. . . We are not selfish to care for ourselves if our reason for doing so is not only for our own benefit but is also out of respect for our own value in God's eyes and so that we stay fit enough to be good servants of others. [Emphasis added]
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend's book 12 Christian Beliefs that Can Drive You Crazy says:
 This crazy-making assumption-- "It's selfish to have my needs met"-- fails to distinguish between selfishness and a God-given responsibility to meet one's own needs. . . The Bible actually values our needs, which are God-given and intended to propel us to growth and to God.  Neglecting them leads to spiritual and emotional problems. [p. 17; Emphasis in original]
Here are a few more Bible examples.  Matthew 26:36-46 is the story of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is just about to give His life for the world. A greater example of self-sacrifice could not be shown. But listen to what He says to Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, His closest friends:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Isn't Jesus here expressing a deep emotional need, and asking His friends to help meet it?

"Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. 'Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?' he asked Peter." Isn't this an expression of disappointment that His needs have not been met, telling His friends honestly that they have let Him down?

Jesus did think about His own human needs and ask for things for Himself.  Even though in Gethsemane He was actually in the process of laying down His life, He didn't "die to self"-- instead, He asked for what He needed, and then spoke out about how He felt about not getting His needs met.

And then there's Paul in the city of Philippi, in Acts 16:12-40. He and Silas are preaching, and a group of powerful men arrange to have them arrested, beaten and thrown in jail. When the magistrates send for them the next day, saying “let those men go,” Paul says (verse 37), “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” Is Paul "dying to self" here?  Or is he standing up for himself and practicing limits on submission to those in governing authority over him? Isn't he acting in his own best interests? Isn't he asserting his own rights?

Yes.  And the passage says nothing to condemn what he has done, nor does Paul ever express remorse or show in any way that he believes he has done wrong. Paul was taking care of himself as best he knew how.  He knew he was made in God's image, valuable and loved.  He knew Jesus had said "Love your neighbor as yourself." He apparently didn't agree with the Christian teaching we hear so often nowadays, that Christians should not consider their rights, but only their responsibilities. Going to prison for preaching was self-denial.  But Paul stopped far short of self-death.

Finally, let's talk about the Proverbs 31 woman for a moment.  The Proverbs 31 woman is held up to evangelical women as their role model. Women are taught to focus on verse 13: “she . . . works with eager hands,” verse 15: “She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family” and on verse 27: “She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” But look at verses 21-22: "When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.  She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple." [Emphasis added.]

Here we see a woman who treats herself to the finest. She clothes her household with scarlet  – good, high-quality clothing. But she makes her own clothes fine linen and purple – the very best! Yes, she gives and makes sacrifices for her family. But she makes herself a priority too. And nothing in the passage faults her for self-indulgence; in fact, she receives nothing but praise.  

In the way she dresses, the Proverbs 31 woman "pampers herself."  Perhaps Nancy Campbell ought to read this passage a little more closely before condemning other women who do so. 

In fact, if we say that it is wrong to seek good things for ourselves, or that it indulges our flesh to take care of ourselves, then what are we saying? Since Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” then if it is wrong to seek good things for ourselves or to take care of ourselves, then it wrong to seek good things for others or to take care of others. If good things for ourselves indulge our own flesh, then good things for others indulge their flesh, and the best thing we could do for others is to help them deprive themselves. But obviously, since the Bible teaches us to do good to and give to others, it cannot be wrong to do good to and provide for ourselves-- as long as that doesn't become our sole focus, at others' expense. 

In Colossians 2:22-23 Paul talks about the kind of service to God which looks good, but is actually "merely human commands and teachings." This type of service, he says, is characterized by "self-imposed worship, false humility and harsh treatment of the body." Humility to the point of neglecting our own bodies is not true worship to God and does not help us become more godly. This is not the kind of self-denial Jesus wants. The rest of the verse says that these practices "lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence."  The reason for this is that we have within ourselves a strong instinct for self-preservation.  If we continually "die to self" to the point of ignoring our own needs and immolating our own identities, it will eventually backfire on us. Our own neglected needs will become so pervasive that we will be unable to concentrate on anyone else; nor will we have anything to give to others.  We may also become self-congratulatory over how "godly" we are in our self-abnegation, which is the antithesis of the humility Jesus taught.

Now, many of my readers may be saying, "But I never meant any of these self-destructive things when I said 'die to self'!" Aren't you just taking an innocent short-hand version of Christ's teachings, and making too big a deal out of it?

For many of us, that may indeed be true.   And I'm not saying to never use the phrase "die to self" ever again.  But I am saying we should be aware that Jesus never actually said "die to self," and that it can have this destructive meaning to it.  Samantha over at Defeating the Dragons knows exactly what I'm talking about.  As she puts it:
You might be used to being told that concepts like “self care” come from the “pseudo-science” of psychology, that “self care” is just psycho-babble for selfishness. You might have grown used to coupling “being a good Christian” with what is, in reality, burning yourself out. You might have been trained to dismiss the notion that “healthy people take care of themselves.” I’ve watched many of my childhood friends and women I grew up respecting have nervous breakdowns because of this. You might have been trained to be constantly looking for “areas of service.” You might have been trained, not even intentionally, to volunteer for everything. 
If you’re like me, you were taught that having boundaries and respecting your own needs was wrong. 
It’s taken me a very, very long time to learn that “taking care of myself” isn’t selfishness- it’s just plain necessary.
So let's love ourselves and care for ourselves-- because self-denial for the sake of the kingdom, and sacrifice when necessary for the good of others, are different from self-deprivation and self-neglect.  “Deny yourself” is supposed to be about putting His kingdom first (Matt 6:33). But we are part of His kingdom too!  And we have good desires and legitimate needs that God values.

Let's all value ourselves as God values us.


Greg Hahn said...

I'm very glad to see you teaching on this, Kristen. And very well done!

Let me add another verse misused in the same way: John 3:30- "He must increase, but I must decrease."

How many times have we heard that preached in context of a teaching to "die to self"? It seems like hundreds.

John the Baptist said that to his disciples after one of them complained that Jesus was winning some of John's followers. It had nothing whatsoever to do with "dying to self"!

No doubt John the Baptist would be amazed that his words were used that way.

Verity3 said...

I think the cliche, "It's not about us; it's all about Him" creates similar problems. Yes, Christ should be at the center of our focus as Christians... but why did he die for us, if it were not at least in part "about" us too?

Anonymous said...

I have heard something similar from other Christians before.

It was from a co-worker from that Soverign Grace church I told you about (the one that used Joshua Harris's "I Kissed Dating Goodbye" book).

He said that their pastor told them to get rid of their dreams or die to their dreams or something like that. I was talking to my pastor one afternoon, and I mentioned that, and he said "I heard something similar". He didn't seem all that impressed with that thinking.

Anny said...

What do you think about the idea that "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20, NIV)." It makes me uncomfortable, because I want to be myself- maybe a more loving, more spiritually grounded, more connected-to-God version of myself, but still ME.

Kristen said...


I think this commentary is helpful in distinguishing what Paul was talking about in that passage. The context is not self-obliteration, but death to the law that sets one free from the law. Paul does not say he is merely a conduit for Christ, but that he himself continues to live in the body through faith in Christ. It is not his old self that lives, but his reborn self whose source of life is Christ.

Hope this helps.

Anny said...

Yes, thanks, that's given me some more to think about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. I've spent years trying to be a "good Christian" by "dying to self" and trying to be humble in ways that I often thought were doormat-ish. And then I felt guilty for not being a doormat, when I rebelled against it. I greatly appreciate the clarification on being willing to live or die for Christ, and giving up our personalities.