Self: Dying to Me

Posted by Leslie Liebmann
Do you observe Lent in your household? Do you try to give something up for Lent each year?

The Lenten season starts today, Ash Wednesday. Observers use the occasion to consider Christ's sacrifice as well as sacrifices they can make in their own lives to lean more on Him. It's a season to learn how to die to yourself to live for Jesus. Academic Dean Leslie Liebmann explains how denying yourself doesn't start and end with Lent. It's a lifelong journey.
“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to really belong to Jesus. I’ve taught through Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis at least 15 times. Every time I read it new things stand out, which is why I try to read it annually. Reading great books again is a good idea because, though the words themselves do not change, we do. Every time I come back to Lewis’s beloved introduction to Christianity, I am a slightly different person than I was the last time I read it. Each time I am convicted and, hopefully, changed for the better by something I didn’t see the last time I worked through the book. One of the biggest, hardest, most painful lessons Lewis teaches has to do with what it means to be a Christian.

He writes, “Christ says, ‘Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: My own will shall become yours.’”

A few paragraphs later he continues, “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call 'ourselves,' to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet try at the same time to be ‘good.’ We are all trying to let our minds and hearts go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, despite this, to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do.”

When I read and understood that for the first time, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus. I had been picturing my life like the tree Lewis talked about. I knew I needed to be pruned—in fact, the Scripture talks about pruning—but I figured when the pruning was finished, I would produce fruit and everything would be just lovely. I spent most of my adult life waiting for the lovely, longing for the lovely, living for the coming of the lovely.

I now realize there is no lovely apart from Jesus. While I never wanted to live apart from Him, I just figured when I was ready He would give me my lovely little life and Himself as well. The truth is, there is only Himself. Jesus is working to make me perfect. My perfection means I must become like Jesus. That means my will should become His will. There is no room for me or my plan for my own lovely little carefree, white-picket-fence life.

When I was teaching apologetics, my classes often read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz after completing Mere Christianity. Though Miller’s book made me so angry I threw it across the room several times during my first time through, I grew to love it. It is a great exercise to compare Lewis’s modern and logical approach to apologetics to Miller’s postmodern and relational approach. Miller ends his chapter on “Community” with a quote that changed my life. He quotes a man he met at a Christian hostel in San Francisco, “If we are not willing to wake up in the morning and die to ourselves, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether or not we are really following Jesus.”

There it is... the stark reality. If I want to follow Jesus, I must be willing to die daily. It’s one thing to learn this as a fact but another thing to practice it. 

The summer before my husband died was the most difficult summer I have ever known. I was exhausted from the school year with the usual total exhaustion. I was also making a transition from the classroom to administration and my life felt very unsettled. Then my husband George got sick—really sick—and it became obvious we needed to sell our house and move in with my daughter. So, while caring for a very ill husband and sleeping on the couch beside the hospital bed set up in the dining room, I spent my days going through our whole house packing, sorting, selling, storing, and giving away what felt like my whole life. Then we had to paint and fix and stage the house so we could sell it. It was a very difficult season. I was discouraged and angry. 

As I struggled to come to grips with my life, I remembered the Blue Like Jazz quote above. I found a piece of construction paper in the growing rubble of my life and wrote out the quote in big block letters. I placed it on my dresser where I would see it daily. Dying to myself, to my plans for our future, to our past, to my much-needed rest, was hard. It was impossible outside of God’s grace. There were many days I cried over those words. I wasn’t willing to die to myself. I felt terrified and out of control. I had to pray for God to give me the willingness to let go. 

I wanted with all my heart to follow Jesus and He made a way. He got us through that summer and he’s getting me through today. He is faithful. When I fall, He picks me back up. Slowly, surely, lovingly, He is prying my cramping, exhausted fingers away from all the things I cling to with such determination—not because He’s mean, but because He wants to replace those things with the things He knows are best for me.

I love the last few sentences of Mere Christianity. They have become my primary life goal. Lewis writes, “Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day, and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will 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.”