What “Self” Needs to Die?
In Luke 9, following Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus speaks to his disciples about the necessity of his suffering and death prior to his resurrection (v. 22). He then turns immediately to the necessity of his disciples’ denial of self and loss of their lives if they would ultimately save them (vv. 23-24).
What does this paradoxical and shocking demand mean? In some cases it could refer to martyrdom, a disciple’s willingness to follow Jesus in the experience of physical death for the sake of the kingdom. Jesus’ reference to taking up one’s cross “daily” (v. 23), however, points away from martyrdom as the primary meaning of his words.
Some might have concerns that this death to self refers to the loss of a disciple’s individuality, or uniqueness. Does Jesus seek to reduce his followers to a bland conformity, as with mindless cult followers? Such a view runs counter to the unity-in-diversity of the body of Christ.
Closer to Jesus’ intent, perhaps, is the death of what some have called the “false self.” This label refers to the masks we wear to protect an image we want to convey rather than our more authentic self. In addition to protecting our “image,” however, the false self also shields the true self from God’s transformative presence.
More broadly, we find our identity in attachments that, while not false, can interfere with pursuing our true human identity as revealed in Christ. Consider Paul’s description of his life before and after his encounter with Jesus.
If others think they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, in order that I may gain Christ . . . .
Paul is no mindless clone. Nor does he speak as one from whom all he had worked to accomplish was stolen from him. Rather, he willingly surrendered both his birth status (an Israelite from the tribe of Benjamin) and the fruits of his labors so that he might find his identity in Christ alone.
In one sense, of course, Paul remained a descendant of Abraham through Benjamin. As he said of his first encounter with the Corinthians, though, he “resolved to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
We should not take lightly either Jesus’ demand or Paul’s response to it. The call is both radical and painful, which is why Jesus describes it as a kind of death. The question for disciples, therefore, is whether we want merely to incorporate Jesus into the rest of our identity, or to determine to find our identity in nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Is such a radical choice really necessary? Consider Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2. Peter, who had learned about God’s inclusion of Gentiles in his mission to the household of Cornelius in Acts 10, briefly reverts to his former identity when he withdraws from Gentile Christians at the arrival of some notable Jewish Christians.
As Peter’s actions indicate, our prior identity does not die quickly or easily. When we choose to hang on to it, or even when we briefly revert to it, the consequences for our lives as citizens of the kingdom can be disastrous. The reason is that our sense of identity shapes our perceptions and attitudes in ways we do not consciously realize. Peter almost certainly did not act hypocritically.
Perhaps this dilemma of the unconscious inner struggle we all experience explains in part the prophet Jeremiah’s claim that “The heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). His conclusion derives not from his encounters with pagans, but with the unresponsive Israelites to whom God sent him.
The connection between Jeremiah’s claim and Israel becomes more obvious when we observe that the word Jeremiah uses for “deceitful” derives from the same root as the name Jacob. The patriarch Jacob attempted to gain what he desired through cunning and deceit. The person most deceived, however, was Jacob himself. He thought he could control outcomes, but he eventually learned that God remains in control. Only through a long, difficult process, however, was Jacob able to arrive at this conclusion.
If we seek to die to our false selves and the forms of identity through birth and accomplishment that so easily impede our kingdom identity, we will struggle as well. We will need God’s grace, not only in regard to his patience, but also in regard to his gracious means of reshaping us. Through practices such as prayer, solitude, and meditation, God can open us both to see ourselves more honestly and to find our identity in Christ more fully.