Dying to self

April 14, 2008 | 12 comments

Speaking of Christian concepts that used to baffle me, the idea of “dying to self” was high on that list.

This concept was one of the first things I got from reading the New Testament and books by Christian authors, and, honestly, it sounded kind of depressing. There were surely some good things about me, and it seemed a shame to have to get rid of it all. I eventually understood that it is only by dying to self that we show Christ to others, which did make it sound more appealing. But even then I pictured that if all Christians were to completely die to themselves and be perfectly Christ-like, that we’d all basically be identical drones. I thought of all the different talents and personality types out there — poets, artists, engineers, comedians, etc. — and it seemed sad to whitewash all those unique characteristics.

I thought this instruction was so odd, in fact, that I would sometimes wonder what kind of weird religion this was that I was exploring here. “How could a good religion tell people that they’re bad, that they need to die a death of sorts in order to grow closer to God?” I’d wonder. It was only because I had an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of this belief system being the box top to life that I was willing to move forward and set aside my concerns for the time being. It was probably one of my first leaps of faith.

Slowly, I began to understand that to die to self was to die to the willful, selfish, sinful parts of ourselves; to let go of our plans and what we want to do based on comfort and convenience. Even this, though, sounded dangerous. The skeptic in me had to wonder: if I attempt to empty myself of all these lifelong tendencies that are supposedly sinful, if I set aside my to-do lists and goals spreadsheets and make no plans for the future, what will be left? Isn’t that a recipe for ruin?

I was surprised to find that it was not.

As I slowly began to empty myself of so many of the things that composed life as I knew it — my plans, my goals, many of my habits, (what I thought were) ingrained personality traits — I found that I was not left empty. Rather, there was immediately Something there to fill me up, Something whose presence increased as life as I knew it decreased. But there was something else there as well, something that had been lost that I’d never tried to find:


I’ve mentioned that in the past I sometimes thought of “finding myself, ” but I thought of it in terms of finding what I should do with my life, what I should accomplish. It didn’t occur to me that there was some other, more pure version of myself than the one I already knew. Perhaps because I never used to believe in the soul, I always figured that the chemical reactions that fired in my brain at any given moment were “me, ” that there was no one set of chemical reactions that represented my true self more than any other. It’s been with some amount of surprise, then, that I’ve begun to see that the process of dying to self is a process of stripping away layers of sin encrusted with selfishness, and that glowing underneath all those layers is the true, complete version of who I was designed to be — the real me. That’s probably another reason I feel younger these days: the closer I get to God, the closer I get to the original version of myself.

I now see “dying to self” not as something a person does because he thinks he’s bad; it’s something he does because he knows he’s good, and wants to find the Source of all that is good. It’s not a whitewashing of unique characteristics, but the shining of Light through them to make them more beautiful and true. Dying to self, I think, is a purging of all that is not love; it’s a process of breaking down the walls that block out Love himself; it’s a way — the only way — of truly finding ourselves.


  1. Heather

    I love, love, love how each time I give up a little of my sinful nature or wants or whatever, God replaces it and shows me more of who He truly made me. It is so awesome, though painful in the process.

  2. ELC

    “But even then I pictured that if all Christians were to completely die to themselves and be perfectly Christ-like, that we’d all basically be identical drones.” C.S. Lewis discusses something akin to that, somewhere. He uses an analogy to salt: a taste of salt itself would lead one to believe that the use of it on food would lead to all food tasting the same; that is, like salt. But its use actually brings out the individual flavor of the foods to which its applied.

  3. Marian

    Wow, that was extremely well-said.

    And you named those gods, too: Comfort and Convenience– Mine, To Be Exact. If you boil it down, how much of what I do, say, and think in my natural self revolves around these worthless aims. Yech.

  4. Tausign

    Dying to self is the root note in God’s inverted chord.

    “It is in giving that we receive,
    It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
    And it is in dying (to ourselves) that we are born to eternal life”
    —from ‘Peace Prayer’, St. Francis of Assisi

    Thank you for sounding it so well…

  5. Jen

    As a convert, I have struggled with this as well. I finally read a book last night that explained this to me in very simple terms so that I could understand more clearly. The author likened dying to oneself like a pail of sand at the beach. One would fill it with sand to the brim, but if one wanted to put water in it instead, they’d have to empty out the sand first. Dying to ourselves is like trying to take out the sand but we often try to do it ourselves, and he compared that to taking out a grain at a time with tweezers. With God’s grace, the sand dumps out much faster and is replaced with the living waters of grace. How cool. So, I shall be asking for the grace to dump out my sand pail today. 🙂 I love your blog.

  6. Barb

    I love ELC’s comment about C S Lewis’s analogy with salt.
    That’s basically what I was taught…that by dying to ourselves,our personality is not lost; we become the best version of ourselves.
    A blessed day to all…

  7. Anna

    I’ve often heard the window analogy where dying to self is compared to cleaning the glass, making it as clear as possible for the light to shine through; so much so that you don’t even realize the glass is there, you just see the light. But it did always bug me that that analogy basically wiped out the inherent goodness of variety of people. I like your stained glass version much better.

  8. Suzywoozy

    I’m a cradle Catholic who has always loved Jesus but am discovering more and more the beauty of the Catholic Church recently.. I really like this post because this is something I used to wonder about too… whether EVERYTHING had to go, and whether there was NOTHING good.. I like the stained glass analogy, and the salt one, by C.S. Lewis.

    Btw, I too really appreciate your blog- new perspectives to old issues.

  9. SuburbanCorrespondent

    What elc said, about the salt thing…

    And also, what you describe sounds like what happened when Eustace got un-dragoned, in the Adventures of the Dawn Treader…

    I love your blog!

  10. acaisse

    I just stumbled across this article and would love to read more on the subject. I know this is where God is leading me right now – dying to self- and it fasinates me. I have been a christian for many years and its time I understand this concept in more depth. I appreciate your perspective!

  11. Chris

    thank u.

  12. Mike

    Thanks! Just what I needed!


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