What it really means to ‘die to self’

Ever since I was little, I have wanted to achieve great things: to be an artist and a dentist. To study oceanography. To change the world. To become a saint.

These are wonderful aspirations. For most of these, I believe they are desires God instilled in my heart. However, as I got older, I inadvertently built up idols that distorted these dreams. I had to be successful. I had to overcome my shortcomings. I had to be practically perfect in every way if I wanted to achieve greatness.

Enter concupiscence, imperfection and fallen human nature — all things that I see as bogging me down in my endeavor to be the best me, the holiest me, the perfect me. And because my humanity and fallen nature were getting in the way, my idols turned to lies I believed about myself: I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t doing enough. I wasn’t holy enough. I wasn’t enough.

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Did you know that beating yourself up for being human is not exactly a recipe for success? I know, this surprised me too. Caught in a swirl of well-intentioned self-deprecation and in my sorry attempts at trying to elevate myself, I was only torturing myself. In addition to this, (and quite ironically), instead of becoming holier, I was losing my identity in Christ.

Dying to self

Recently, I was reading “A Severe Mercy,” a book about the author Sheldon Vanauken and his wife Davy’s friendship with C.S. Lewis. Toward the end of the book (spoiler alert), Davy dies at a tragically young age. Vanauken shares his grief of losing his beloved spouse, and I was struck by a particular experience of his grief. He described how, as time passed, he experienced what he called “The Illumination of the Past.” Vanauken reminisced about his wife, and each memory seemed to evoke a different version of Davy:

“For one instant, that particular Davy — gay or mocking or inquisitive or adventurous or loving — stands before me, warm and real and alive. I respond to her with a surge of love and pure joy. That is followed an instant later by the awful awareness that this Davy, too, is dead. … Until now, she has not been touched by death — and she, too, must die.”

He goes on to say, “Each memory calls forth warm living reality once: it is followed by another little death and the tears.”

As Vanauken described his wife’s multiple “selves” in association with death, it’s no surprise it evoked for me the phrase of “dying to self.” As I considered this association of words, I realized Vanauken’s experience could help me learn to die to myself, which is essential to becoming a saint.

From death to life

In the past, I have interpreted “death to self” as becoming an empty shell, empty and void of any uniqueness or personality. In contemplating this portion of “A Severe Mercy,” however, I had a different consideration. Perhaps Our Lord wishes for me to die to those “selves” that are not true to who I am or who he wants me to be: the self that never made mistakes. The self that is never anxious. The self that never lets anyone down. I needed to lay these unachievable aspirations of being “perfect” at the foot of the cross. I needed those “selves” to die.

Much like in death, acknowledging these broken parts of me and letting go felt similar to grieving. In grieving these versions of me that may never exist, I was able to let go more easily. By embracing the broken parts of me, rather than shoving them down lest someone notice, I received greater freedom. In letting go of these distortions, I could then see the truest parts of me: the self that was creative, even if my artwork didn’t turn out perfectly. The self that loved to laugh, even if it was laughing at my mistakes. The self that was loveable, even though I’m far from perfect.

A final excerpt from “A Severe Mercy” sums up this strange but beautiful paradox: “Now, they were all with me — for ever. The wholeness of Davy. That wholeness can only be gained by death, I believe.”

Through death, God brings life. Death to self is no different. Denying ourselves, allowing our idols to crumble, accepting and surrendering our brokenness — these things give God the space to work. By getting out of our own way, Christ can bring new life; and even more than new life, he can mold us more into what we were created to be. In our dying to self and surrendering to the Lord, we can be made into a new creation.

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