Twenty years ago, when I was forty-three years old, I gave a talk called “I Died to Self and My Self Almost Died.” I was in the early years of a decade of healing, a decade of reclaiming the bits and pieces of a broken life. Twenty years of adult life—of marriage and ministry, of parenting and people pleasing—had left me exhausted, depressed, and clueless about who I was or what I had to offer to the world (or even to my family and friends). There are probably a thousand reasons why I ended up in such a dark and empty place, but a wise spiritual guide helped me understand how seriously I had misunderstood and misapplied the Biblical call to “die to self.”
Fast forward a couple decades. Two hours ago I lay prostrate, my face on the floor and my arms outstretched in supplication. “Free me, God, from myself. Free me from my fear, from my unwillingness to take up my cross and follow you. Help me, empower me to let go of all that keeps me from greater obedience to you. Help me die to whatever I need to die to today.”
Twenty years ago I fought desperately to find myself. Today I fight desperately to escape myself. A confusing contradiction? A wildly swinging pendulum? Perhaps. I suspect there are some who will conclude that. But to me, from my inside perspective, I see those two extremes as equally necessary tasks in the formation of an authentic life.
Twenty years ago I didn’t have a self to offer to God. For years I’d been giving myself away by dribs and drabs to the highest bidders. By the time I hit forty, I had no energy, no passion, no dreams, no understanding of my gifts or calling, no joy, no faith, no center of grounded-ness, no foundation to stand on. Nothing. Nothing to offer. My prayers during that era? God, are you there? If you are, do you care that I’m here? Do you know me? Can you help me know myself?
Such desperate, inarticulate prayers. But God answered them—slowly—using friends and books and counselors and my own flailing attempts at self-understanding. Did I say slowly? For so long I seemed to make so little progress. But eventually I began to remember who I was—or at least, who I’d been.
I remembered my self behind the door of my childhood bedroom, hidden with a good book, blissful. I remembered my self performing Mozart’s flute concerto in D major with my high school orchestra, terrified of the public-ness of it but adoring the music. (How soothed and inspired and refreshed I’d been back then by the beauty of the arts.)
I remembered going to the local gospel mission with my parents to deliver soup to people who’d fallen on hard times. I remembered visiting missionary friends in Ecuador and meeting orphan girls I was sure we should bring home to be part of our family. I remembered how much I loved the compassionate, serving way my parents lived.
I remembered that I went to college to become a social worker, not because I didn’t know what else to do, but because in my heart of hearts I knew I’d been created to connect with those who are marginalized.
In my heart of hearts. In that place where God planted the truth of my being. Finally, I’d rediscovered it: true self, God-given self. In the decade of my fifties I began to live again from that place. From Chicago to Johannesburg to Goma to Amman—and beyond—I journeyed to places of pain and struggle and found myself saying with ever-increasing sureness, Ah, yes, this is what I was made for.
And I was finally able to articulate the lesson of my forties: Yes, God calls us to die to self-will and selfishness and sin and anything that keeps us from following God. But God doesn’t call us to die to the self that God created us to be. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what seems true to me.
God doesn’t call us to die to the self that God created us to be.
God does, however, call us to offer that self willingly, in ways that will undoubtedly demand many deaths, perhaps daily deaths. “I have been crucified with Christ,” the apostle Paul tells us, “and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). To be crucified is, obviously, to die. Dietrich Bonhoffer says, “…one death awaits us, namely, death in Jesus Christ, the dying away of our old form of being human…” Are we called to die to our true self? I don’t believe so. Are we called to die to our old form of being that true self? I think so. Yes, I’m sure we are.
Recently, my thoughts have been jumbled and my feelings intense. Lent. 21 Egyptian martyrs. Repent. An upcoming trip to the Middle East. Excitement. Fear. The crucifixion. 90 Syrian Christians kidnapped. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The world seems crazy with hate. Is resurrection power real?
And so I found myself prostrate this morning.
God, here I am. What would you have me do? How do you want me to respond to this crazy, hateful world? Today? Next week? On Good Friday? On Easter morning? What do you want to do with this self you’ve given me? Please give me the grace, the wisdom, the strength to die to anything that keeps my self from being wholly yours. Amen.