Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Learning to Love Through the Death of Self

by Nicky Smith

In the last few weeks the Spirit has been impressing upon me an old concept in a brand new way. I have been learning about it little by little, as if the Lord has been adding color and texture to my understanding of spiritual progression. Recently as I was sitting listening to my husband talk, I was asking the Lord, "I want to learn to love him more. Father, please teach me how." Immediately the Spirit explained that as I "die to self," I will learn to love others more. The Spirit then gave me some initial insights on what this entails. 

This blogpost is a result of this growing understanding, although I do not claim to know all things pertaining to this topic. This topic may be familiar to you, but using different words to describe the same thing. I have to say though, I am not anywhere near where I need to be in practicing this, but I am working on it every day.  

Death to Self

Death to self is essentially laying ourselves on the altar as an offering to God. Death to self means we are willing to do whatever God asks us to do, no matter how hard it may seem and no matter how painful the experience is. We no longer follow after our own will, but God's alone. So often we speak about the necessity of laying ourselves on the altar but we do not fully understand what this entails. We know it means doing and desiring the will of the Father, but I have come to understand that it encompasses so much more than how we typically understand this phrase. 

The natural man (and woman) has a great deal of needs and wants in life and in their relationships with others. The natural man expects attention and praise. They desires favor from both God and men as well as desiring to fit in. The natural man endeavors to conform to the standards of others (whether it be appearance, personality, or standards of righteousness). They also have expectations of how others should and should not treat them. They seek to change others and at times, control them. They also have hopes about how others will view them. They expect love to be given and received in particular ways, both in themselves and others. The natural man then responds to the behaviors of others in certain ways and determines whether a relationship of any kind will be formed with that other person. The natural man also at times does loving things for others, but with the motive of self. This is hard to detect because on the surface they seem like very kind things to be doing, but upon digging deeper, they are simply doing those things to feel good about themselves. 

Death to self, however, entails eliminating or letting go of all our needs, expectations, hopes, and dreams we have of others. We only desire what God wants. It is when we are able to abandon these things, that we can not only be completely open to God's will, but also be filled with love for others. 

There is a difference though between a want and a need. If I expect another to speak kindly to me, it will most often lead to me demanding (either directly or indirectly) that that need is fulfilled. If I don't have that as a need, but simply a desire, I can request that another will speak kindly to me, but I would not demand it and instead continue to show love in the way God desires of me. Too often we punish others for not doing as we expect and this shows it is a need on our part. Sometimes our reaction is a means to control the other person so they will change. Other times our response is a way to hold the other person accountable for their actions towards us (Of course, raising children is very different to how we interact with others because we have been commanded to teach them.). But, if we don't have expectations of others, my behavior will be unconditionally loving and will not reflect how they treat me. (Sometimes love is suffering the unkindness and other times it involves walking away. Examining our hearts and motives can help in determining if our actions are truly loving or not, but what our behavior looks like is up to the Lord and as a result knowing and understanding God's will is essential in knowing how to show love.) Regardless of what that might look like, we never withhold love due to how another is treating us. Rather, being dead to self means that no matter how we are treated, we respond with love and how that looks depends on the situation and the will of God. 

There are many references in the scriptures which speak of this kind of death. These are only a handful:

Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. (Philippians 3:8)
Paul stated that nothing really matters except focusing on God's will and coming to know him. Now, that may seem extreme, because we know that God desires us to have loving relationships with others. So what has Paul given up and now sees as dung? His own will and his own needs. When we give up everything, we give up how we expect to love others and how they will love us. We begin to love others and accept love according to God's will and in his ways. Loving others in God's way and according to his will, involves letting go of our needs, that are so often rooted in this telestial world and adopting only God's will. 
23 And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24 For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. (Luke 9)
Jesus referred to this death to self as losing your life and as denying yourself. What do you deny yourself of? Your needs, your will, and your expectations. Instead you take up your cross and follow Jesus, in completely adopting the Father's will for you. 
24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.
25 He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal. (John 12)
Jesus compared us to wheat, saying that unless we die, we cannot grow into what we're meant to become. Here he speaks of hating our lives in this world. He means that we ought not to love our lives so much that we cling to the things of this world and all our needs and expectations of others and the world around us. Those who do not love their lives in the way Jesus mentioned have adopted the Father's will in all things and eliminated their own desires and needs. 

The world would have us believe that we cannot be happy unless we have our needs met. But, the Lord has shown me that as we rid ourselves of what we think we need and as we only desire what God wants for us, we will experience more happiness and love than we previously thought possible. In essence, God fulfills all our needs and we are then able to love God and others more. We will have a greater capacity to tend to the needs and wants of others as we perform God's will. It is easy to think that becoming dead to self means that we become disconnected from others or emotionally distant, but that is not loving and someone who is dead to self does everything for others out of God's love. In fact, someone who is dead to self is more emotionally available than someone who is clinging to their own needs and expectations.

As I have considered what this looks like in marriage and parenthood, I have seen how I have certainly not died to self, despite seeing myself as wanting to do the Lord's will in all things. In being a mother I homeschool, clean my home, do the laundry, cook, tend to chickens, and so on. I'm sure all mothers know exactly how this feels. I get up at 5am every day in order to have 2 hours to myself to pray and study the scriptures. This alone time in the morning prepares me for the day ahead as I tend to all my duties. Yet, there are still times where I crave more free time, more time to rest or study the scriptures. And, I will sometimes sneak off to be alone or be in the bathroom longer just to be alone. Since this is how I commonly feel, the Lord recently said to me that I need to die to self in being a better mother. As I stop constantly seeking what I feel I need and focus on the Lord's will alone for me, I will feel the rest I desire. I will feel the fulfillment I've been seeking. The Spirit helped me understand that as I stop seeking things for myself and simply focus on giving to my children during the day, I am dying to self and the Lord then will fill me with all the things I feel I lack. So instead of feeling like everything is a chore, I know I need to focus on loving and desiring what God has asked me to do. 

As I mentioned above when I was on a particular day listening to my husband talk, I was told I am not dead to self. I quickly came to have a small grasp regarding some of what this means and as I continue to have various experiences, I am learning more and more. Recently my husband said something innocuous to which I took offense. I felt wounded despite the fact that nothing he said was intended for me to feel that way. Even though I didn't get defensive in my words, I did leave the room in order to be alone and pray. As I prayed, I asked God if there was another way I should have acted. I couldn't think of any way that would have been more appropriate to act given how I felt, but as I prayed the Spirit said I acted in a selfish way because in wanting to go pray, I was going to "lick my wounds" instead of being dead to self. The Spirit taught me that if I was dead to self, what he said wouldn't impact me and I would simply absorb the stress and pressure he may have been feeling at the time. The Spirit helped me understand that if I am dead to self, God is always there to help me carry what may feel like a burden, and it ends up not being a burden to me at all. And then, as a result of that, it is possible for my actions to be only that of complete love. 

In the past I have tended to use defense mechanisms and feel self-pity as a result of negative interactions or experiences with others. I have also often felt offended by others' behaviors and words. I know though that as I die to self, I will no longer have the desire to use those mechanisms nor feel self-pity. I want to learn to be strong enough to take the burden and hand it over to the Lord. When we die to self, God will take over and help us carry the struggles and sufferings we may endure. Paul expressed this same concept saying that in crucifying his flesh, his needs and will no longer live, but Christ lives in him:

I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Meekness and becoming dead to self go hand in hand. Those who are meek are strong as they experience suffering and do not seek to control or change others. They simply love. If you are unclear about what the Lord's will in a particular moment might be, you can consider what you understand the most loving action towards the other person might be. Then, once you've done that, take it to the Lord to show you how you could handle the situation in an even better way. 

How to Die to Self 

Since death to self means that we are only desiring and doing God's will, if we knowingly sin, it means we are not yet dead to self. Sin is inherently selfish and always unloving. When you sin, consider in what way you have not yet died to self. Furthermore, when you feel offended or your feelings are hurt, consider why. This may be an indication of an aspect of you that has not died to self. When you struggle to love another, this is yet another indication that you have not died to self. When you feel annoyed, impatient, or frustrated by another, consider what needs to be overcome so you can die to self.  

Dying to self is a process. It is done bit by bit each day, just as you would carefully and slowly carve away the stone in order to create a stature. This process is painful. It is hard letting go of needs and expectations. However, once a portion of you has become dead to self, that aspect no longer hurts. 

I have always struggled with tones in others' voices that seem harsh. It caused pain to me to have someone speak to me in that way. That pain was an indication that part of me had not died to self. (Although not all pain means some part of us needs to die.) I had expectations and hopes about how others would speak to me. Over time the Lord and I worked on me changing and I got to the point where it is very rare for another's tone of voice to have any negative effect on me. When someone is harsh or aggressive with me, I don't feel pain anymore because I let go of the expectation that others will always speak to me in soft, kind tones. Now, as I have other experiences and interactions with others that cause me pain, I can see that it may be an indication that there is something I need to let go. And, just because I have died to self in one area, doesn't mean I am officially done. It will possibly take years for us to completely die to self, although it is up to us how fast we want to overcome the flesh. 

Multiple times Paul spoke about becoming dead to self. To the Ephesians he said that we put off the former man and become renewed, putting on the new man. When we remove sins such as, bitterness, anger, malice, and so on (which usually stem from needs and expectations that are not met), we are then able to be kind and filled with love for others.

22 That ye put off concerning the former conversation the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts;
23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;
24 And that ye put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.
31 Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:
32 And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you. (Ephesians 4)
To the Galatians, Paul said that those who are Christ's have crucified their affections and lusts, that is, their own desires. 
24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.
25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. (Galatians 5)
As we subdue the flesh, our spirit's connection with God increases and we can have a greater understanding of his will as well as feel a greater amount of love and compassion for others. No longer is the flesh stronger than the spirit. To the Romans, Paul said,
1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8)
Fasting and meditation are two tools we can use to subdue the flesh. When we fast or meditate we are learning to control our bodies and in learning to control our bodies in one area, we are able to better control them in other areas. So, as I learn to control my mind when I meditate, I am more able to control my feelings, words, and actions when I interact with others. 

Furthermore, as I have asked God to show me how I am to change, he always gives me the truth and experiences I need in order to crucify my flesh. I have a long way to go though, because much of it involves changing my false beliefs and desires. Crucifying our flesh requires God help us and in most cases, it is done slowly over time, although it is possible for someone to let go of everything in an instant. As you allow God to teach you truth about yourself and others, and ask God for the experiences you need, he will show you how to become dead to self. God understands where you are in your progression and he will work with you where you are and lead you to where you need to be. 

Abraham Died To Self

Abraham is someone who died to self. His greatest wish was to have a son. This was a good thing to want, but God used many experiences to teach Abraham to let go of this desire or need within him. When he married Sariah, he did not know she struggled with infertility. Then, he finally obtained a son through Hagar, only to find out that he wasn't the promised heir. Some years later, he had to send Ishmael and Hagar away and that must have been very hard, but each experience was chipping away at Abraham's need for a son. Then, finally he obtained the son he had hoped for his whole life and God asked him to sacrifice Isaac on the altar. Abraham's willingness to obey God's will means that his needs and desires had been subdued. He desired to obey God above any desire he had in his heart. Abraham sacrificing Isaac was an outward manifestation that Abraham had crucified his flesh with all his affections and desires. These experiences that Abraham had spanned over years and were hard sacrifices for him, but each experience was the perfect experience for him to overcome his desires and needs and become dead to self. 

Three Outcomes of Death to Self
1. INCREASED FAITH. When we die to self, we show our trust in God that he will take care of us. We also demonstrate our faith in his path for us. Paul referenced the faith we have when we "crucify" ourselves in this way:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
2. SANCTIFICATION. As we die to self, we become increasingly pure. Dying to self always entails giving up the things of the world. It entails giving up the impurities of our hearts, such as our pride and selfishness. It means ridding ourselves of anything that is not godly and removing the things of the world on which we set our hearts. This is the essence of sanctification. There are many, many verses which speak about the relationship between sanctification and dying to self. Here are two:
6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.
11 Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.
14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.
16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness? (Romans 6)
1 Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;
2 That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. (1 Peter 4)
2. LOVE FOR GOD AND OTHERS. Dying to self shows God that we love him more than the things of this world. It reveals how much we love others too, more than ourselves. Just as a tree is pruned, it then produces an abundance of sweet fruit, as we crucify our flesh, our love for others and God will grow. This really is the purpose of dying to self: becoming love, just as God's chief characteristic is love. 

Even though you may have crucified some of your needs, others may not have crucified those same needs. Being loving is acknowledging that others have needs and as God directs, being willing and able to fulfill those needs so that through you, they can feel God's love and thus draw closer to him. Part of learning to love others is learning to love them in the way they want and need to be loved. So often we love selfishly: loving others in the way we believe they ought to be loved. This is often based on how we want to be loved, or how we consider love ought to be expressed, or how we feel comfortable expressing love. As we die to self, we become open to how others accept love and we desire to meet their needs, all according to the will of God. Peter wrote how the crowning result of death to self is having charity:

2 That he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh to the lusts of men, but to the will of God. 
8 And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves: for charity shall cover the multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4)
Most of us have needs in terms of being loved and accepted. We have beliefs and expectations in how we are accepted, viewed, and treated. Giving up these hopes and expectations allows us more fully to love God and others, tending to their needs and doing those things that enable them to feel the love of God through us. Although these concepts seem extreme, it is evident in the life of Jesus that his flesh was crucified (long before he died on the cross) and that as he focused solely on the will of his Father, he was able to radiate love to those he came in contact with. As we start the process of dying to self, we will be filled with God's love and joy in ways we cannot yet comprehend. Then as we become truly dead to self, we become alive in Christ. 

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