At a recent gathering of Friends, I was given approximately this message to share with the gathered body: “The inwardly known Christ, whatever we may each call Him, Her, or It, calls us to die to self. This sounds dreadful and forbidding, but it is not. Jesus said ‘my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Matt. 11:30), and He has ways of making it so, amazing ways, as I can testify from experience. Whatever Jesus calls us to do, He gives us the courage, wisdom, love, forgiveness, humility, words to speak, whatever it is that we needed to do what we have to do and didn’t think we could ever do.
“A Friend earlier expressed the concern that we might decline or die out as the Religious Society of Friends, lose our meeting houses and all the trappings of our group identity; but if this were to happen, the Holy Spirit would still call us to worship and witness together, because the call to die to self will sound so long as there are selves to die, and souls called to die to self will always need one another’s company and encouragement, and as we die to self we are gathered into a larger body, which functions through us as a vine through its branches (John 15:5).
“As we die to self, we become transparent vehicles for Christ, and that makes us attractive to anyone looking for Christ, who said ‘I will draw all people to me’ (John 12:32). As embodiments of the living Christ, we draw them from what is false, and transitory, and unsatisfying, to what is true, and eternal, and satisfying forever.”
At the next break, a Friend asked me where the call to die to self is found in the words of Christ. Evidently fatigued from a day of note-taking, I drew an utter blank and had to tell him so; but then a bystander came to my aid and said, “Perhaps you can find it in ‘If any man will be my disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’” (Luke 9:23-24). That helped me remember “He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he who hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:25; cf. Matt. 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24). But I resolved at that time to search for more evidences of that teaching in Scripture, for I was sure they were there to be found.
And here’s what I’ve come up with over the intervening days – not an exhaustive list of proof-texts, but rather a set of general impressions:
1. Hidden in plain sight is Jesus’ model prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), which begins “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” We can’t say these words and truly mean them until we’re ready to relinquish all our own claims to our own kingdom and our own will. Our own agenda, our own efforts to control things, our own self-promoting schemes and little self-gratifications, all must be laid on God’s altar and only taken back up again if and as God permits.
2. The twin commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might (Deut. 6:5), and to love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18), on which, Jesus said, “hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40), are not really possible to fulfill without such a “dying to self” that you will never again put your wants ahead of God’s wants, or someone else’s wants. Every scheme to import pleasure and export pain must be abandoned; every competition that pits “my interest” against “your interest” must pass the test of compatibility with love of God and love of neighbor.
3. This, of course, requires as thorough a change of heart as Adam and Eve underwent (in the other direction) when they turned from unity with the will of God to defiance of the will of God. God promises us such a change of heart, from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh, in Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26; Jeremiah 31:33 promises a new covenant, in which God’s law will be put in our inward parts and written in our hearts, and we shall have “one heart” (Jer. 32:39).
4. Can we do this by our own efforts? No more than we can perform heart-surgery and be the patient at the same time. Therefore the New Testament is rich in metaphors of death and rebirth into a God-given new life: Jesus tells Nicodemus that “a man must be born again” (John 3:3), and Philip and Andrew, that a corn of wheat must die in order to bring forth fruit (John 12:24). In Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells a would-be disciple, “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22; cf. Luke 9:60). Paul writes repeatedly about our being “baptized” into Christ’s death, so that we might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), risen with Christ and forgiven our sins (Col. 2:12-13), “quickened with Christ when we were dead in sins” (Eph. 2:5) – “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
5. In such cases we have put off or “mortified” the sin-addicted “old man” (Rom. 6:6, Eph. 4:22, Col. 3:9) and become a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15). Effort, of course, is still needed; we are still tempted. But we now live in Christ, and He in us (John 17:20-26); and “it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
6. Lest anyone think that these death-and-rebirth tropes are all theological inventions of Paul’s, or John’s, not rooted in the teachings of the “real” Jesus of the synoptic gospels, consider what the Jesus of the synoptics might have meant when He called on people to “repent.” One could, of course, “repent” a minor offense. But repentance in its larger sense, metanoia, was not merely feeling sorry about the sins one had committed; neither would weeping, fasting, or doing violence to oneself count as repentance (Heb. 12:17). John the Baptist insisted (Matt. 3:8, Luke 3:8) that sinners “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance:” one had to show that one had repented by changed behavior. In fact repentance was not something one could “do” by oneself, but had to be granted as a divine gift (Acts 5:31, 11:18). It brought forgiveness of sins in its train (Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38, 3:19); without it, one might die a meaningless death, like the hapless victims of the Tower of Siloam (Luke 13:3, 5), or the fool that built his house on a foundation of sand (Matt. 7:26-27).
I am persuaded that many of the sayings and parables of Jesus are rightly read as calls to die to self; but whether I’m right or wrong in this, I urge my readers to consider whether the living Christ that knocks at the door of their heart (Rev. 3:20) calls them to die to self, so that they can move on to a life in which God provides for them like the lilies of the field (Matt. 6:28), and those who have left house and family for Christ’s sake, and the gospel’s, may receive them back a hundredfold (Mark 10:29). His yoke is easy, and His burden light; but first we must come under it by dying to the unyoked life.