What does it mean to “die to self”? I used to ask that question a lot when I was first exploring Christianity. I had no idea what that odd phrase was supposed to mean. Frankly, it sounded kind of morbid and depressing. So I set aside the question and decided to revisit it once I had more pressing questions answered.
These days, as I come to feel like I finally have a grasp on the basics of Christian teaching and try to grow in my newfound faith, this whole “die to self” concept keeps coming up again. And I think I finally understand what it means.
It really, really clicked for me earlier this week. I had a “perfect storm” moment where it was as if every frustrating thing that could possibly occur in a day all happened within about a 30 second time period. I’d only had four hours of sleep the night before. I’d been working hard to accomplish just one little thing that morning — cleaning off our bathroom counter — and while I was doing so the 18-month old cleared off my nightstand and threw my books everywhere (losing my bookmarks in the process); the three-year-old launched into a major temper tantrum and broke something in the process; his tantrum woke up the peacefully sleeping baby and she started fussing; and when I walked over to go get the baby I saw an outdoor cat who hangs around our house (who is not supposed to be inside) sitting next to my bed. As I paused for a moment, the counter only half cleaned, trying to figure out which fire to put out first…the cat threw up on the floor in front of me. Then the phone rang. I saw on caller ID that it was my husband. He was going to ask how my day was going.
In that moment, I understood what it meant to die to self.
To “die” to myself would be to not let love be smothered by my selfish, sinful tendencies that had been stirred up by the challenge of this situation; to make the painful decision to let go of my heated feelings of frustration and anger and let God work through me in all my actions; to let go of the way I felt like handling the situation to instead act in a purposeful but calm and loving manner, never losing sight of the needs of the other people in this situation. It was clear that I had two choices:
1. What I knew to be the right thing to do:
- First of all, pray. Ask God to be with me in this moment.
- Then go get the baby, temporarily sequester the 18-month-old in the playpen so that she’d stop destroying my nightstand and wouldn’t get into the cat’s mess, and firmly but lovingly explain to my three-year-old what he did wrong as I put him in time-out.
- “Offer up” the yuckiness of cleaning up cat throw-up. Consciously choose not to dwell on the inconvenience of it.
- Answer the phone when my husband calls with gratitude for having the kind of loving spouse who calls regularly to see how I’m doing. Tell him what he may be able to do to help me get through this challenging day in a constructive way, without “dumping” on him.
- Most of all, just think of it as attending the “University of the Moment” and remember that all I need to do is turn to God in complete trust, and that what is meant to get done will get done — nothing more, nothing less.
2. What I felt like doing:
- First of all, spend a few solid moments dwelling on how awful the situation is. Point fingers, trying to figure out who let the cat in.
- Yell in the general direction of the three-year-old and 18-month old as I grudgingly pick up the baby. Instead of loving guidance, just keep raising my voice until they stop misbehaving.
- Let out a bunch of loud sighs as I clean up the cat vomit. Dwell on it to the point that I start to feel sick myself, and then feel sorry for myself because I feel sick. Get exasperated when the two toddlers get too close and try to touch it, as if there’s no way I could have seen that coming.
- When my husband calls, try to see just how much frustration I can pack into the one word “Hello?!” when I answer the phone, and when he asks how my day is going, respond with something utterly unhelpful but satisfyingly self-indulgent like, “My day is terrible! TERRIBLE!” Then proceed to rattle off a long list of every annoying thing that has happened in recent memory, culminating with a grand proclamation about the tragedy of my inability to complete a simple task like cleaning the bathroom counter.
I went with an only slightly improved version of choice #2. But why? That’s the interesting part: it wasn’t because I felt like it would be mentally healthy to “let it all out” by releasing my negative emotions in other people’s directions. It wasn’t because I felt like choice #2 was the better option. It wasn’t even that I felt like I couldn’t have chosen option #1 — even in the heat of the moment I knew that God would give me the grace to take the high road. So why go with the lesser option, then?
Because I didn’t want the pain.
The option of choice #1, I realized, would have meant “dying to self” — and I didn’t want to experience pain of the mini-crucifixion that that would have involved. Like an addict craves the empty high that drugs can give, I craved the empty high that self-pity and anger can give. I knew it wasn’t good for me. I knew it wasn’t good for anyone in that situation. But I didn’t want the pain of nailing the self-pitying and angry sides of my personality to the Cross, the pain of humbling myself to let go of my plans and trust in God’s plans instead.
And the result? If you had some kind of meter that showed a real-time readout of the total amount of love in the world at any given moment, you would have seen a little dip that afternoon. In choosing to seek the path that involved the least immediate pain for me, in choosing to let sin control the situation, I slammed the door to allowing God to work through me. I took a little bit of love out of the world — and a whole lot of love out of our household.
I don’t know what I used to imagine “dying to self” would feel like, but I didn’t anticipate that there would be real pain involved. (I can just picture lifelong Christians smiling knowingly at that one.) The more I live as a Christian, the more I am struck by how difficult it is. To borrow a phrase from fellow former atheist John C. Wright, I find that Christianity is a very inconvenient religion. To die to yourself as we’re called to do — to live in the moment with calm trust, to let go of your own ego and selfishness, to reject the empty high of sin — is hard, hard work.
And yet, despite the difficulty and the pain, it’s the only thing worth doing at all. Because it is only through the painful process of dying to self that we can let God — who is Love itself — work through us; we can have the pure, selfless, agape love of Christ will flow through our every action. Though it’s much harder than I thought it would be, the payoff is much greater than I could have ever imagined. I hope that I can remember that the next time I am tempted to run away from the pain of dying to self.