What does it mean to die to self?
The question—posed several years ago during a small-group discussion—was one I had never seriously considered.
The image of someone jumping in front of a bus to save another person immediately sprang to mind, but I suspected the meaning was more figurative than literal.
The scriptural context was I Corinthians 4:10-12, which says:
“We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who live are always given over to death because of Jesus, so that Jesus’ life may also be revealed in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you.”
I had always sort of skipped over these verses, what with all the repeated words about life and death and mortal flesh. I understood the connection to the one-time event of salvation, but that night, I started thinking about how “death” in me could result in life for someone else.
That season of my life included significant amounts of change and stress. Though it all, I struggled with irritability. I often reacted rather than responded. I frequently failed to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in how I interacted with my daughters, who were then about 10 and 7 years old.
As I contemplated dying to self through the lens of my own struggles, Jesus’ words in John 10:10 came to mind:
“The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.”
I thought about my words, my tone and my attitude. I considered the power they have to impact other people, even if it’s just the people in my house.
Do my attitudes and my thoughts bring life to others? I asked myself. When I respond to my children, are my words bringing life to their hearts and minds, or are my words and tone speaking death to them?
I know the theological concept of dying to self is multi-faceted and many layered, but this was what convicted me during that conversation. When every fiber my being wants respond in irritation and frustration—because I’m stressed, tired, hormonal or whatever—it is possible for me to die to myself so that someone else can experience life—full, whole, complete life.
I can choose kind, gentle and loving words instead of going with my human desire to be irritable. I can put someone else’s need for my presence above my own need to be alone.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s not easy. It actually can be quite hard, especially for someone who has been running on irritable for a long time.
There are many times when I don’t do it, even now.
But I can do it. It is possible.
The day after our small group talked about dying to self, Lilly—who was in fourth grade at the time—asked me if I would come to school and have lunch with her. I tried to do that regularly back then, gamely braving a noisy lunchroom full of highly spirited kids because she wanted me to be there.
That particular morning, though, I was even more tired than usual. I had already come for lunch once that week, and I didn’t really want to do it again so soon.
“No, not today, honey,” I told her as she got out of the car.
She was OK with that, but no sooner had I driven out of the parking lot than the words from the night before started running through my head: die to self, die to self, die to self.
Oh, all RIGHT, I frumped. I get the message. I’ll go to school for lunch today!
When I got there later, I went to the fourth-grade wet area to find Lilly. One glance at her face told me something was terribly wrong.
A friend had been unkind and her feelings were hurt.
In a way that nobody but God could have predicted, she needed her mom right then, and there I was.
We retreated to the bathroom, where hugs and a few soft words soothed her feelings. She usually invited a friend join us for lunch, but this time, she and I sat at a table in the wet area—just the two of us—and ate our lunches. I pulled a deck of cards out of my purse, and by the time her classmates came back, she was fine.
It was a small thing, but it made a huge impression on me—one that lingers to this day.
(That’s not all I learned about dying to self during that season of my life, by the way. Next week, I’ll share about an unexpected epiphany that touched the deepest parts of my faith.)