There is a brand of Christianity that is always talking about the cross and the importance of dying to self. At best it is an imbalanced over-emphasis–a half-truth–and at worst, flat-out error. It promotes sin-conscious introspection, feelings of worthlessness, self-loathing, self-hatred, unworthiness, spiritual paralysis, and legalism. It promotes spiritual pride in a reverse sort of way—you are esteemed for how worthless you feel about yourself and how “humble” you have become in appearance to others who control access to power in the specific church culture.
What is Real Biblical Humility?
What is and is not considered “humble” is often defined by church and societal cultural values, rather than what scripture says. There are few things more offensive than phony Christian humility generated by the legalist. Insecure people will always accuse those with faith, assurance, and boldness as lacking humility. The topic of humility in churches is like adolescent sex talk in a boy’s junior high school locker room: those talking about it the most often know about it the least.
Humility is frequently equated with a doormat-like, self-deprecating, self-aware, introspective, spirit of inferiority. The Greek root word, tapeinós, connotes a groveling, slavish, cowardly servility. It was considered a morally contemptible quality. The New Testament uses the word in a uniquely Christian context. No Greek writer before the Christian era used it. The correct biblical definition is a deep sense of moral littleness before God. The ultimate act of biblical humility is confident faith. It is relational trust in God rather than one’s self. Biblical humility has nothing to do with external diffidence, mildness of speech, or personality demeanor. It has everything to do with confidence in God.
The dying to self over-emphasis is sometimes known as “worm theology.” It is commonly derived from a horrid application of Isaiah 44:14—Thou worm, Jacob; an equally horrid misapplication of Romans 7:18—In my flesh dwells no good thing; and a prejudicially blind application of Jeremiah 17:9—the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, who can know it. Apparently, we aren’t supposed to trust our own hearts, but we are supposed to trust the hearts of those teaching us not to trust our hearts.
Which “Self” is Supposed to “die”?
This brand of Christianity makes the extinguishing of self an alleged goal of the inward work of the cross. How we define “self” is critical to this conversation. How the term “flesh” relates to “self” must be precisely understood, or we will get into some very troublesome places.
In a strict cultural context that Jesus and the apostles would have understood, the idea of dying to self has nothing to do with individualistic and subjective psychological feelings of self-abnegation. In their honor/shame-based dyadic culture,[i] to die to one’s self was to decline honor status in the community—to seek the elevation of another over one’s own status. Self was understood as the urge of ego for preeminence within the community.
Christian leader’s today who are always talking about honor, and a supposed “culture of honor,” who feel entitled to honor and the privileges and perks associated with rank and status are failing their Savior. They are not dying to self in any biblical way, regardless of how individually and interpersonally humble they might appear in interactions with others. In a New Testament context, to demand honor is an oxymoronic proposition. You cannot require others honor you and die to self. They are mutually exclusive propositions. If you demand/require honor, you are not worthy of it, not yet having learned what it means to die to self.
That being the case, there is yet also a sense of self that means uniqueness of our personhood by divine design in creation as bearing and reflecting the image of God. You and I have been created in the first creation with certain likes, dislikes, personality attributes, certain ways that we react to, and process the universe that are unique to us. These are morally neutral. They are divinely prescribed, divinely preconfigured, divinely sanctioned “God-thoughts” about us. It is like God says: “I want him/her this way, and I like it, like that. I am happy when he/she says or does this or that the way he/she does, because I made him/her that way.” There are qualities of personality that differentiate us as human beings.
This element of self/personhood is not called to die. It will never be crucified. God wants to bloom, adorn, and bring to full maturity (in Christ) this “self” that is according to the reflection of the divine image in us. This is done through the new birth to remove as it were, the stain of sin on the image. He wants to remove the stain, not the image. We must be clear on this. Personality extinction is a concept of someone trying to achieve Nirvana. It is not a Christian concept.
There is another sense of self that has a death sentence upon it. Self understood as ego and self-will can expect crucifixion. The self that raises its fist at God and says: “No, You will not be king, and You will not be lord. I am king and lord of my life,” is condemned. The governmental self that competes for the throne in the human heart must experience death, rebirth, and realignment to true self-hood according to Christ. Self that wants to live independently of, and without consideration for God, is self that must be put to death so the self according to the image of God in Christ can come forth.
Consider a limited analogy in a matryoshka doll also known as a Russian nesting doll or Russian doll. It is a set of wooden dolls of decreasing size placed one inside the other. The largest matryoshka doll is like ego-self. An inner doll is like the true personhood self that is hidden from view because it is embedded/encased in the large doll. Only when the outer doll is opened, in a sense, broken in half, can the next doll be seen for what it is. Our ego-self must be broken so that our true self can be seen. Our true self is not on God’s agenda to be broken, put to death, crucified or otherwise extinguished. It is to be revealed, brought forth as it truly is, not put to death. When it comes to the cruciform life, it is our flesh-self that is to be crucified and conformed to His death and resurrection, not our personhood self.
If we do not keep these distinctions clear we will be very unhealthy, unwhole, and unsafe Christians and human beings
What the Scripture Really Says About Dying to Self
The phrase dying to self or “death to self” is one of those common preacherisms that believers are so used to hearing that it has been embedded into the Christian psyche. It might be surprising for some to learn that the phrase dying to self, is never used in the New Testament.
In Romans 6 Paul uses the metaphor of baptism for being buried in death with Christ and raised to newness of life. This passage says nothing about working out death to self. We are already united with Him in death and resurrection. This must be the foundation of our understanding before embarking on any discussion or application of issues of “self” and “flesh.” Paul is referring to leaving the old age and old ways (flesh, not self) behind and entering into the new age in and with Christ. It has nothing to do with inward processes of alleged disciplines of the cross.
In 2 Corinthians 1:9 Paul refers to being under the sentence of death. However, this also has no mention of “death to self,” nor any other subjective experience. He is referring to being under a literal death sentence, or facing literal risk of death every day of his life from Jews and others. In referring to his calling as an apostle he says they are “last,” like those condemned to death. This has nothing to do with death to self.
In 2 Corinthians 4:12 Paul speaks of death working in him and life in others. This again is in the context of his apostolic mission on their behalf—the sufferings and persecutions and the literal facing of death for them. His apostleship accrues nothing but “deathness” for himself, yet it brings life to them. There is not a whiff of subjective death to self in this passage.
The KJV “I die daily” of 1 Corinthians 15:31 is routinely quoted as a proof text for daily dying to self. First of all, it’s a phrase from a sentence, not even a whole thought, let alone considering the greater context! And we use that is a basis for a theology of the cross? God forbid.
A better rendering found in many English versions is: I face death daily. Paul is again referring to the physical dangers associated with his apostleship, as the context of the previous verse makes emphatically clear. It also fits perfectly in the context of Paul’s other letters when he refers to the threat to his physical person that preaching this new message of faith in a crucified Messiah is costing him such as 2 Corinthians 11:26. Again this is not to be spiritualized or subjectivized psychologically. The context is clear: he is referring to the physical dangers he is routinely exposed to in his call as an apostle of Christ.
Paul mentions death again in 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, specifically referring to his body,[ii] not his mind, emotions, or inner struggle. Even if the term “body” is referring to more than his mere physicality, the greater context of 2 Corinthians (especially chapters four and six) makes crystal clear that Paul is talking about his physical sufferings and the perils associated with carrying the message of the gospel. Of course, everything we experience physically, especially of an unpleasant nature, has an element of inward psychological processing accompanying it. But even allowing for that, this passage has nothing to do with common dying to self theology.
Well then, how does the “ego-self” die? How is death metaphorically experienced for the benefit of others? How does the largest Russian doll break so that the concealed self can come forth? Paul calls it putting off the old man, not death to self.[iii] Putting off the old man means killing the flesh, the old man associated with the old creation and the ways of the flesh “outside” of Christ and the new creation, not the extinguishing of self! This is what happens when we pick up our cross daily. Selfishness dies, not our sense of personhood.
Philippians 3:10 is another passage that people often quote out of context and backwards as a proof text to support an alleged dying to self doctrine. It’s just not there in the text:
That I may know him in the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death.
There is no mention of “dying to self.” The order of Philippians 3:10 is important. The knowing of God is first in the power of His resurrection, then in the fellowship of His sufferings so that, we can be made conformable to His death. I have heard hundreds of evangelical preachers routinely preach about being made conformable to His death as a stand-alone entity in the context of allegedly dying to self. Doing so is out of context proof texting. It is simply error.
Not only is there nothing in this passage about dying to self, it is the exact opposite! It is an awakening to resurrection! We do not experience death to self so we can experience resurrection life. We experience His resurrection life FIRST so we can participate in the fellowship of His sufferings, so we might be made conformable to His death, that we might again experience His resurrection life in a never-ending cycle of resurrection life to resurrection life, not death to death, all the days of our lives. The first day of our life in faith with Christ started with experiencing His resurrection life and our last day on this earth will be experiencing His resurrection life!
Well, how do we put off the old man through experiencing resurrection life? Don’t we have to put our flesh to death? Yes, and no. Have you ever taken a drink from a garden hose that has been holding water and been lying in the sun in the summer? What do the first few sips on the hose taste like? That’s right, it tastes like rubber hose. How is the taste of hose removed? By focusing on the hose? By trying to make the hose not taste like rubber? Of course not—rubber will always taste like rubber, and any expectation otherwise is nonsense. You simply let the fresh nature in the water flow, and by reason of the flow, the water will lose the taste of hose. The taste of the hose has been put to death by yielding to a perennially fresh and flow quality of water from another source.
That is how the old man is “put off.” He is put off by the flow of Christ’s resurrection life, not by my doing sin inventory and sin management. The old man is displaced by the increase of Christ. This simple truth is reinforced by yet another passage people routinely misquote. That is John the Baptist’s testimony concerning Christ.[iv] Most people say it like this: “I must decrease, so He can increase.” I have heard that from hundreds of sermons. Like Philippians 3:10, this is backwards.
John the Baptist said it this way: He must increase, and I must decrease. There are different ways of understanding this.
It is likely John is referring to himself in a historical sense of the diminishing of his ministry in the redemptive plan of God in favor of, and in preference to, Jesus as Messiah. This would have a subjective and psychological impact upon John’s also. Christ’s increase in our lives will always have a subjective and psychological impact. His increase inevitably results in my decrease, just like the flow of clean water will inevitably change the taste of the water. My fleshly old man is put to death as I pick up my cross daily to follow Him, and allow His resurrection life to animate every molecule of my being.
I avail myself of this resurrection power and life by yielding to another King’s government, when ego-self is clamoring for the same right of governance. His resurrection power and life is always emanating toward me. It can no more stop emanating, than Jesus can stop being alive from the dead. The only thing that can stop its transforming effectiveness is the mystery of the power that a sovereign God gives to His created order: the power to say no to Him. My “ego-self-empowered-no-to God” simply prevents His empowering goodness from reaching me and transforming me.
I am not implying this is easy, fun, or always spiritually exhilarating. It is not. No training is fun. But it is liberating and transforming, and it is the new covenant way. Marine boot camp is not fun. But it prepares recruits for a future reality they will likely experience, of which, they have no real understanding at the moment. Oh sure, they understand what it means to go to war. But that is not he same as holding your best friend’s brains in your hands. Yes, the discipline of training is not fun, but it equips you for the future.
Hopefully, with the preceding understandings, those that struggle will understand that God does not hate you. Not only does He love you, He likes you, as uniquely you. The process of sanctification is not the eradication of you, but the unveiling of you to the world, reconfigured, and made whole according to Jesus Christ.
[i] Dyadic culture is a culture with a non-individualistic sense of self. An individual’s sense of self and place comes from outside the individual. The community defines both the individual and the individual’s place or status within the community. In Jesus’ time this was based on Eastern/Semitic honor-shame dynamics.
[ii] I am aware that sometimes the Greek soma can refer as a metaphor to the whole being of a person.
[iii] Eph. 4:22; Col. 3:8-9. I am aware that there is theological debate over whether or not a believer has a single “new nature” or a dual nature. I am not entering into that discussion here.
[iv] John 3:30
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