The Death of Self-life

We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
— (1 John 3:16, NASB95)

John Calvin summarized the healthy Christian life in three fundamental virtues: self-denial, cross-bearing, and meditation on the future life. It all begins with the attitude of self-denial, remembering that we do not belong to ourselves; we are the Lord’s. From this perspective, the Christian life is a living death, dying not only to our sins but dying to ourselves, our fallen propensity to put ourselves at the center of everything.

Selfishness is our default posture; it flows from us effortlessly, even subconsciously. You walk into a coffee shop and see someone you know. What is your first thought? Is it not, “Do I want to see this person? Is their company attractive to me? Will their conversation fill me or drain me?”

With thoughts like these, we immediately classify each person on a scale of being. At the top of the scale, there are the heroes, people we want to emulate. We enjoy being with these types. In their company, we feel part of their crowd, in the inner circle of their favor. If they seem happy to see us, we feel intoxicated. Yes, we think, I am finally getting somewhere!

Then, at the other end of the social strata, there are the nobodies. In the ledger of the self-life, these poor souls function as a foundation beneath our feet, a buffer against rock-bottom. Meeting them reminds us that while life could be better, things could also be a lot worse. Self likes to keep these meetings brief. Brief enough to be polite (rudeness feels bad after all), but not too long-- that would be boring, and self doesn’t do boring.

Our equals reside somewhere betwixt and between. Though to be honest, there are not too many of them. Just like boredom, Self doesn’t do equality either. In our heart of hearts, no one is really equal with us – always a little bit better or a little bit worse, but never the same. Is this not the essence of pride, our great sin, that it is fundamentally competitive in nature? You perhaps remember C.S. Lewis’ famous observation,

If you want to find out how proud you are the easiest way is to ask yourself, “How much do I dislike it when other people snub me, or refuse to take any notice of me, or shove their oar in, or patronize me, or show off?” The point is that each person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride. It is because I wanted to be the big noise at the party that I am so annoyed at someone else being the big noise. Two of a trade never agree. Now what you want to get clear is that Pride is essentially competitive – is competitive by its very nature…Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it that the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than the next others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever, or good-looking there would be nothing to be proud about. It is the comparison that makes you proud, the pleasure of being above the rest.
— C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

For the sinner, these efforts at self-evaluation are hopelessly inaccurate. When it comes to virtues, we are prone to think far too much of our own and far too little of others’. In the case of vice, of course, we have exactly the opposite propensity: we explain away our own rude impatience as an over-busyness, or the fault of the other 'really' annoying person but, I notice, I am not nearly so understanding when I observe other rude people in action. No, the outrage is hard to contain!

Thomas Watson hits the nail squarely on the head,

Such as view themselves in the flattering glass of self-love appear bigger in their own eyes than they are. They think their spark is a sun, their drop a sea. They are highly conceited of their acumen, their wit and parts, and are ready to despise others. The Chinese say that Europe has one eye and they have two, and the rest of the world is blind…. Self-conceit is no small sin. Chrysostom calls it the mother of hell. It is a kind of idolatry, a self-worshipping.

— The Duty of Self-Denial

What can be done for us? Our knee-jerk reaction is probably to think, “Okay, well then I have to always be putting myself down, thinking badly of myself, etc.” But that is exactly the thing you must not do. This is not the pathway to self-forgetfulness. Such people, if you can believe it, tend to become even more self-obsessed. No, the answer is not to think less of ourselves, it is to think of ourselves less. I am indebted to Keller here,

The thing we would remember from meeting a truly gospel-humble person is how much they seemed to be totally interested in us. Because the essence of gospel-humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less. Gospel-humility is not needing to think about myself. Not needing to connect things with myself. It is an end to thoughts such as, ‘I’m in this room with these people, does that make me look good? Do I want to be here?’ True gospel-humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself.
— Timothy Keller, The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness

This sounds like a riddle? How can the self-obsessed person think of himself less? There only is one way: to think more of Christ, to fill our vision with Christ, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the One who was rich, yet for our sakes became poor so that we through His poverty might become rich (2Cor.8:9). What a difference such thinking would make to our marriages, to our relationship with our children, our neighbors, even our enemies? Imagine, men if you returned home at the end of the day thinking, “I am not here for myself. My commitment to our relationship does not flow from nor does it depend upon any benefit I derive from you.” “I am here for Christ, and for Christ in you, the hope of glory.” “I am here to pour myself out as a drink offering in the service of your faith. (Phil 2:17).” “When we meet, my first thought is: What can I do for you? Your needs are more important than my own (Phil 2:3-4).” Ladies, how would such thinking change the way you greeted your man when you touched base after a busy day? Our marriages would be a sight to behold, wouldn't they, if we lived each for the other's advantage?

Even now, as He sits on the Throne of the universe, this is Christ’s mind towards you, Christian. He has stopped dying for you, but He has not stopped living for you. His every thought is what can I do for you – how can I glorify God in and through you, how can I bless you eternally. “I gave Myself for you,” my child, “how shall I not, along with myself, also give you all things! (Romans 8:32).”

So, don’t think of yourself today, Christian, surely you have much better things with which to fill your mind!

Christ Covenant Church