DEATH TO SELFISHNESS
Written by Doug Ponder on June 1, 2014
Come and Die
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Those are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who was killed in a concentration camp because he courageously resisted the Nazi regime. But when he said that Christ calls us to “come and die,” he was not referring to physical death. He was talking about a death Jesus calls us to die every day.
Bonhoeffer writes, “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact, every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life.” (The Cost of Discipleship, 89-90)
Take Up Your Cross, Deny Yourself, and Follow Jesus
These are not merely inspiring words. They are an explanation of what Jesus himself meant when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
When Jesus said we must ‘deny ourselves,’ he was talking about ‘losing our lives’ (Mark 8:35), ‘taking up our cross’ (Matt. 10:38), ‘dying to sin’ (1 Pet. 2:24), ‘putting off the old self’ (Eph. 4:20), and ‘putting to death the misdeeds of the flesh’ (Rom. 8:13).
Jesus does not call us to “deny ourselves” because all desires are evil. Rather, Jesus calls us to deny ourselves because our natural desires are sinful, twisted, polluted, corrupted, and ultimately unfulfilling. So while we think we know what is good, while we think we know what will bring us happiness, God says the way that seems right to us actually leads to a cul-de-sac of despair and destruction (Prov. 14:12).
Instead of going that way, our own selfish way, Jesus calls us to trust him—and not just with the hope of heaven. Jesus call us to trust him with our lives, with our bank accounts, with our happiness, and with our futures. Of course, this “trust” is not some kind of blind faith. It is confidence based in what we know about Jesus that drives us to listen to him and to do what he says, even when we don’t feel like it.
Even When We Don’t Feel Like It
The “even when we don’t feel like it” part is important. After all, we don’t usually have trouble acting unselfishly with things we don’t care about. But when the call to trust and obey Jesus touches something close to us, that’s when we feel the battle within. That’s when we experience a difficulty of believing that what Jesus says is better than what we want. But it is! His commands are for God’s glory and our good. God does not ask us to give up our selfish wants for the sake of being miserable. He asks us to give up our selfish desires for the sake of finding even greater delight in doing what he says.
“At his right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). He longs to give them to us, but they only come through death and resurrection. As we “die to ourselves,” as we put selfishness to death, God raises us each time with renewed strength and joy. This is how he makes us more like his son, Jesus. This is how he transforms us into the kind of people where there is no conflict between the gratification of our desires and the fulfillment of God’s commands, for they are one and the same.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.