How to Die to Self
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
If we allow our faith to be molded by the words of Scripture, and by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, instead of a narrow human theology, we will be clearly convinced that there is need for a real death to self. There are many manifestations of the self life which are not clearly sinful, but neither are they truly Christlike. When the Spirit is given room to illuminate the heart, this middle zone of self activity will be seen as something which must be passed beyond or crucified in order to reach deep abiding union with God, where there is none of self and all of Christ Jesus. Those who deny that such a state of grace is possible are often the very ones who demonstrate in many ways their need of being dead to self. I am writing this not for those who have any theory to maintain, but for the humble and simple-hearted saints who really hunger to sink out of self into God.
First I will caution against a few false notions as to how to die to self.
One false notion is the conceiving of a wrong hatred of ourselves. The more we are divinely illuminated, the more minutely and astonishingly do we realize the great blindness, foolishness, and meanness of our past lives. Unless we are kept very mellow and subdued, this sight of our meanness may tempt us to form a bitter, revengeful feeling toward ourselves. Under such an impression, we may feel like punishing ourselves in some way, or by making unscriptural and rash vows. This is the source of cruel and deceptive penances.
A similar false notion is the choosing of some line of mortification for ourselves, selecting some particular cross. This will defeat the very end we want to attain, which is the loss of our will in all things. The very act of choosing a cross for ourselves keeps alive our own preferences and furnishes a secret nourishment to self-will—a little place for self to live under the very pretext of dying to self.
Likewise, another erroneous view is that we can sink to a deeper death by overwork, throwing ourselves into a task beyond our ability. But even if the extra work be of the most religious kind, still it supplies a field for self-activity. It is in this respect that Paul speaks of persons under a false zeal, going to every extreme of self-imposed poverty, and even burning at the stake, yet all under the principle of self-action, rather than the complete relinquishment of self which is caused by being entirely possessed by divine love.
In the opposite direction we find another false notion which says that we are to calmly leave ourselves to the mere law of development. If we can only be kept from well-defined sins, we are not to tax ourselves with anything deeply spiritual, but leave ourselves to grow without a diligent attention to growth. I am afraid this is the danger that the majority drift into. And those with such views are the least likely to seek the sure way.
But now let us face the real question—how to die to self, and let Christ be all and all in us. In the first place, do we really believe such a state is attainable? Have we looked at the blessed Christ until we have obtained a clear conception of what it is to lose ourselves in union with Him? Have our spiritual eyes surveyed this blessed possibility, until its attainability in this life has become a settled conviction with us? Then have we calmly, deeply, irreversibly settled it that there shall be none of self and all of Christ? Are we prepared to make that the motto of our lives? Do we think it, dream it, pray it, breathe it, drink of it, bathe ourselves in it, until it becomes a subtle, steady, all-prevailing passion in our minds—none of self and all of Jesus?
As we tread this golden shore, let us go slow and walk softly on these shining sands; let us not launch out in those fathomless waters without duly counting the cost and without ample ballast in our ships. If we have determined to make this celestial excursion entirely out of self into the depths of the divine nature, let us remember that the first step toward this perfect death is to have a pure divine motive, and that motive must be nothing less than the ever-blessed triune God Himself. That is, it must be the seeking of God as our all and in all, our last end, our exceeding great reward, so that it will be for His glory, His beauty, and His praise, through us and by us, and that we have no desire to exist except as a channel for His outflow, a chosen vessel for the embodiment of His life, and the outbeaming of His glorious attributes through us. The deepest death to self lies in the motives and intentions, hence this all-consuming motive to want to be nothing but a capacity for Christ to live in, lies at the foundation of the death of self, and the highest life of Christ. With this pure motive fixed in the heart, we are to habitually and willingly accept of every occasion for humiliation and self-abasement, which God’s providence brings to us. While on the one hand we are neither to make or seek a cross, on the other hand we are to sweetly and willingly accept of every blow, or mortification, or inconvenience, or painful annoyance, which comes to us in the order of God’s providential will. Humiliation is the very quintessence of the Christ-life, and we must appreciate every opportunity of sinking into humility. Hence, when reproaches, unkind treatment, poverty, loneliness, persecution, mental distresses, seeming failure in our work, disappointments, deep perplexities, or any disagreeable thing comes to us, if we are in a state of divine recollection, we will calmly face these things as appropriate occasions for losing our own will and letting the omnipotence of God take charge of them. In these humiliations we can thus be more delicately and firmly knit to the will of God.
Another effectual method of dying to self is to be exceedingly careful not to receive human honors or praise into our hearts. If we are worthy of having enemies, who will seek opportunities of humiliating us, we will also have some friends who will love and honor us. As a rule, the more bitter our enemies become, the stronger our friends will love us, and there will be times when we will be honored in spite of ourselves. But if we open our hearts to receive this honor and in our thoughts feed upon it as a social honey, or if we allow human praise to inflate our thoughts, it will instantly breed a human self-esteem, and this becomes a hotbed of the self-life. It requires great humiliation and divine reconciliation for evangelists, preachers, teachers, singers, and writers, not to lose the Christ-life at this point.
Another step in the death of self is to seek in everything to be childlike, unsophisticated and unembellished. We should strive to be simple of manner, word, dress, taste, and experience. Self naturally feeds on complexity and things grand and large and loud, but Christ is the very embodiment of divine and eternal simplicity. The deeper we sink into the Christ-life, the more we become disappointing to the people; our talents or learning will not show off to such fine advantage. We talk less, we live more quietly and privately, our labors are less ostentatious. We do more hard fighting with fewer dress-parades. We bring things to pass through prayers and faith in God more than by outward showy methods. We love to live like God, a profound hidden life, in which people think we don’t amount to very much. This is one of the tests of sinking out of self.
Another step in the death of self is the living more keenly by pure faith, a faith that depends less on spiritual phenomena, but which clearly apprehends that the three persons of the Godhead possess and pervade us. Realizing that every atom of our lives is in the grasp of His will, and that by a perpetual act of entire abandonment we are by the simple act of believing most blessedly united in the deep of our being to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Whenever we enter a new and higher region in the Christ-life, there will be some distinguished marks of grace, some memorable and blessed manifestations of the Holy Spirit, working within us. This may come in the shape of conscious fullness, or a flow of sweetness, or spoken words, or bright mental illuminations, or prophetic premonitions, or abounding joy; some gracious phenomena, which will serve as a memorial, or a spiritual landmark. But to linger too much on these things, or to rest on them, will furnish a refined nourishment of the self-life. Hence the deepest conformity to Jesus will lead us to be weaned from ecstasies and bright inward lights. These are very essential in their place, but to be constantly drinking the Christ-life by an act of pure faith is the path to the deepest death of self.
Another aspect of dying to self is to thoughtfully avoid making our religious life an unnecessary burden, or cross, or tax, to our families and loved ones. Sometimes those who want to be real Christ-like, for lack of wisdom, adopt some mode of life, or devotion, or theory of sanctity, which is a source of positive peevishness and disagreeableness to those with whom they live. This is exactly opposite to Christ, and feeds self instead of killing it. We should seek to be yielding and pliant, obliging and accommodating. In all non-essentials, where a well-defined principle of right is not involved, we must surrender our little choices and tastes and ease, for the well-pleasing and gratification of others. “Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another.” (Romans 12:10) To be rigid and stubborn on non-essentials is simply self-righteousness, a stronghold of self.
Lastly, in everything we are to seek our nothingness and the allness of God. This is to become a daily habit of our motives and intentions, to distrust ourselves, to ignore our own wisdom, but to look to Christ for the most minute guidance that we may be one in all things.
Some may misunderstand this direction, thinking it leads beyond a Bible experience. Yes, it is possible to be led astray by other spirits, and Satan has traps to entice the souls that hunger for God. But if our eyes are upon Jesus, and our ears are open to the sound counsel of the Holy Spirit, He will not let us be satisfied with anything other than Himself.