One of the common phrases you’ll hear in Christian circles is “dying to self.” A Google search of the phrase will bring up pages of videos and articles from some of Christianity’s best known voices. I know believers who revolt at the phrase and others who rejoice. Why the difference? In what follows, I’ll try to convince you that dying to self, or what we’ll call, submitting to death, is the right posture and approach for anyone seeking to follow Jesus. Furthermore, I’ll argue that a life of joy and unprecedented fulfillment can only be experienced when we die to ourselves.
In the closing paragraph of his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis said, and I quote at length, “Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”
When I first read Lewis’ words, I immediately grabbed my pencil and circled them and placed a star next to the circle. Like so many times before, Lewis provided words for things I have known to be true but could not say quite as eloquently. His words could be taken in turn and discussed at length, but I’d like to share a few that jumped off the page at me during that first read. After discussing Lewis, we’ll turn to Jesus and see what he said about the topic.
Death of Your Ambitions and Favorite Wishes
“Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end…” – C. S. Lewis
When I became a Christian, it was relatively easy for me to think about dying to things that didn’t reflect my love for Jesus, but I rarely thought about dying to my favorite wishes. Why would I? My anger, easy. My need to be in control, done. My desire to be well thought of by others, Jesus, save me! The truth is, I still wrestle with these issues. I am not dead yet. On the other hand, ambitions and favorite wishes, I have many. Shouldn’t I be the one to determine how I use and treat my ambitions and wishes?
I plan on writing books, working in full-time vocational ministry, and riding my bicycle 2020 miles this year. My wishes are not bad (maybe selfish); however, according to Lewis, I should die to those wishes every day. Here’s what I believe he’s saying: Jesus is what my heart is looking for. I will not be at peace until I die to myself. You’re included in that truth. Until we acknowledge our need for him, we will never experience the hope and fulfillment we are all longing for. We need to submit to death daily and stop trying to manufacture happiness by looking to the things of this world.
Hatred, Loneliness, Despair, Rage, Ruin, and Decay
“Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay.” – C. S. Lewis
Whoa! Look at Lewis’ words again. Is that true? Will those awful descriptors become a reality for those who are self-seekers?
If we look toward ourselves, we will spend our life and all of eternity clawing and biting our way to a significance that will never be attained. Our quest for purpose and meaning ends in ruin and decay apart from the cross. As St. Augustine famously said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Have you found that rest?
Our Western culture is hardwired for selfishness. We work extremely hard to make a name for ourselves and receive applause from others. Has it worked? Are any of us happier? According to Lewis and, as we’ll see momentarily, Jesus, our life makes the most sense when we lay it down. In fact, true life awaits those who submit to death.
Take Up Your Cross
Jesus had some things to say about dying to self. Not only did he speak about it, he lived it by dying in our place for our sin so we could have life. In Luke 9:23-24, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”
The Christian life, therefore, is a call to death. The cross in the ancient world was not a symbol people wore on necklaces or tattooed on their bodies. It was a tool used for executing criminals. It was an instrument that induced unspeakable torture. These criminals were required to carry their cross to the execution site as an act of submission to Rome. Knowing this, why would Jesus tell his followers to take up their cross and follow him?
He said something very similar in Luke 14:27: “And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Really?! We cannot be a disciple if we don’t die to ourselves? Jesus does not call us to an easy, trouble-free life. He calls us to death of our ambitions and favorite wishes; He calls us to death of our pride, health, wealth, and desires; He calls us to die so that we may live and he offers life abundantly (John 10:10); He calls us to submit to him.
Is our call scary? Yes.
Is our call difficult? 100%
Is our call worth it? Absolutely!
We were not created to be isolated individuals. God created us to reflect his image, bring him glory, and enjoy his presence forever. A life of joy and unprecedented fulfillment awaits those who die to themselves and live to Christ. You and I were made for him. Stop neglecting your call and begin to kill that which separates you from Jesus.
I’d be remiss not to point you to some other places in Scripture that tackle this theme. For more information, check out Galatians 2:20; 5:24; Romans 6:1-23; and 1 Peter 2:24. These verses are not exhaustive. There are many other places in the Bible that talk about dying to self.