Many people have experienced trauma in their lives, and as a result of this trauma, they are trapped in a downward spiral of negative behaviors and thought patterns. When they seek help, they are introduced to the solution that the world offers. This solution is called self-help, and it promotes the idea that you can change yourself if you implement certain actions into your life. The problem with self-help is that it teaches the necessity of changing oneself. God’s Word, however, teaches us that self must die. Gaining victory over the destructive habits that enslave us does not involve making our best effort to gain control over self. In order for victory to be gained, self must cease to exist. “I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:31).* “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). So what does it mean to die to self? The answer to this question is found in the following two verses. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). “And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). The word “crucified,” which is found in both of these verses, is the key to understanding what it means to die to self. Jesus demonstrated the process of dying to self by His death on the cross. There is a specific reason why it was in God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified. Jesus could have died in many ways, and if we were to take our own lives—although I certainly hope not— we could do this in a variety of ways. But it is physically impossible for a person to crucify himself. The process of crucifixion can be accomplished only if a person submits himself to the will of another. The same is true when it comes to our spiritual growth. If we want to die to self, to be crucified with Christ, we must submit our will to the will of God. “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).
Dying to self does not involve trying really hard to force ourselves to do something good or trying really hard to resist doing something bad. In the words of Moris Vendon, “Restrained badness is the worst kind of goodness.” Even if we did manage to make ourselves do good things and restrain ourselves from doing evil things, this external behavior would not change our hearts, because changing the heart is something only God can do. This is why Ellen White made the following statement in Christ’s Object Lessons, found on page 159. “No outward observances can take the place of simple faith and entire renunciation of self. But no man can empty himself of self. We can only consent for Christ to accomplish the work.” Notice that James tells us to resist the devil, not to do battle with the devil. If we try to engage the devil in battle, not only will we be utterly defeated, but we will be fighting a pointless battle, because Jesus has already fought the battle with Satan and won. Christ has rendered the devil powerless. Rather than fighting the devil, we are to resist the devil, to defend ourselves against his attacks, but this can be accomplished only by submitting our will to God. If we submit to God, He will empty us of self, impart to us the mind of Christ, and give us victory over sin. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57). When we surrender our hearts to God, the mind of Christ within us will empower us to resist the devil.
It is through the process of submitting to God and receiving the mind of Christ that self is crucified, spiritual life is imparted, and freedom from sin is attained, but in order for this work to be accomplished, death must precede life. In John chapter 12 verse 24 Jesus uses the following analogy to describe what He had to endure in order to redeem humanity and establish His kingdom. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” Just as a grain of wheat must die beneath the earth in order to produce more grain, Jesus had to be crucified and buried before He could rise again and expand His kingdom by transforming the lives of all those who would accept His gift of salvation. In the earthly ministry of Christ, death had to precede life, and the same is true with us today. In order to be restored into the likeness of Christ in body, mind, and spirit, we must follow Christ’s example. “Then He said to them all, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Just as Christ had to die before He could live again, we, too, are to take up our cross and die to self by being crucified with Christ if we want to be resurrected to spiritual life through the power of God’s healing grace. The process of dying to self is a continual process. It involves coming to the foot of the cross on a daily basis, accepting God’s gift of salvation, reckoning ourselves to be dead indeed to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:11), and asking God to give us the mind of Christ through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Every day we must choose to lose our life in order to save it. Ellen White explains this concept very clearly in a statement she made in Christ’s Object Lessons, found on page 163. “As the sinner, drawn by the power of Christ, approaches the uplifted cross, and prostrates himself before it, there is a new creation. A new heart is given him. He becomes a new creature in Christ Jesus.”
In 1 John 3:14, John describes what happens when we transition from death to life. “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love his brother abides in death.” As long as self remains alive, we are spiritually dead. There is no love in our hearts, because we abide in death. When we pass from death to life, self dies, we are given spiritual life, and the new heart God gives us causes us to love God and love others. If we choose to walk the road that Jesus walked by allowing God to take us through the process of transitioning from death to life, we will experience God’s complete healing. “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin” (Romans 6:5-7).
This message of hope is the message that we as Christians must take to those whose wounded lives have entangled them in the snare of sin. Jesus not only died for our sins, but He also died for our suffering. The same Jesus who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities also bore our griefs and our sorrows. He took our pain, as well as our sin, to the cross. “When evening had come, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed. And He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “He Himself took our infirmities And bore our sicknesses” (Matthew 8:16-17). If we were to witness to people who have experienced physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, would it minister to them if we told them that Jesus died for their sins, or would it minister to them if we told them that Jesus died for the pain, the anger, the fear, the shame, and the powerlessness they experienced during the trauma they endured? Not only did Jesus bear our pain to the cross, but He also lived a life of hardship and suffering on Earth and can personally identify with us in every trial we face. If we could choose the course of our lives, how many of us would choose to be born in a barn, grow up in a ghetto, and bear the stigma of being considered an illegitimate child? How many of us would choose to go through the heartache of being slandered, falsely accused, misunderstood, unfairly judged, rejected, abandoned, and betrayed? How many of us would choose to endure the shame and humiliation that results from having our physical boundaries violated? How many of us would choose to endure the physical agony of being tortured, as well as the emotional agony of being separated from God? How many of us would choose to die by means of one of the most cruel and barbaric forms of execution ever invented by man? Jesus endured all of these things when HE lived on Earth. Since we are all born into a sinful world, we all endure things over which we have no control, but Jesus did not have to experience any of the things He experienced while living on Earth. Incredibly, He chose to experience these things. He lived as a man, enduring temptations and trials so that He could identify with us in our temptations and trials. He overcame all of this by relying on His Father’s power so that He could pave the way for us to overcome. Then He died and rose again so that He could set us free from our pain and sin. “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:14-18). “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
The only thing that self-help has to offer a hurting world is a futile attempt at gaining control over the sinful self, and if the world is not presented with a better alternative, it will plunge deeper and deeper into a hopeless state of decay and ruin. As God watches people desperately trying to gain the mastery over self through their own efforts, He desperately longs to cause them to die to self so that He can give them a new life of joy and freedom. As God’s ambassadors on Earth, we are called to introduce the world to a real and tangible God who not only identifies with them in their pain, but also longs to remove their pain by setting them free. This freedom can be attained only by passing from death to life, and since the process of passing from death to life can be frightening at times, people who are hurting need to be shown that God is someone they can trust because He can relate to the pain they are going through. When they see God for who He really is, when they realize that they are safe with God because HE knows them and identifies with them, they will be ready to move forward by taking up their cross and following after the God they have learned to trust. Rather than trying to maintain control over their lives by attempting to change themselves, they will allow God to take control. The sinful self that they were previously trying to change through their own effort will be crucified with Christ, and they will pass from death to newness of life. This is what freedom is all about, and God is willing to give all of us this miraculous gift of freedom if we let Him.
*All Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version.