The Astonishing Joy of Dying to Self

Crucifying the Flesh

Grantley Morris

Why Jesus Tells Every Christian:

Deny Yourself, Take up Your Cross Daily, and Follow Me

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My goal is to provide fresh thoughts on an age-old problem that plagues us, whether we realize it or not, or have low or high self-esteem. Dying to self is as far from being afflicted by an inferiority complex as it is from being an egomaniac. In fact, the cure for both is to die to self.

Denying yourself, crucifying the flesh, or taking up your cross, sound like something anyone would recoil from, and yet it is actually as thrilling as leaving behind the life of a grub to become a butterfly. This gateway to an incomparably superior life is so basic and essential to the Christian life that God, in his Word, uses a variety of different expressions for it, including being crucified with Christ, losing your life, and putting to death, or mortifying, the old man.

Each term sounds as repulsive as cancer, and yet it is actually the very opposite. It is like enabling a person to thrive by killing cancer cells that have so insidiously attached themselves to us as to seem an inseparable part of us. What it is killing is not only debilitating us, but is sentencing us to a slow and miserable death.

We are focusing on the missing key to matchless joy, peace and love. Challenging, but thrilling and fulfilling, it’s the beginning of the ultimate spiritual adventure. It’s like finally being released from an oppressive prison cell into a vast, new world, sparkling with possibilities.

But I will not lie to you: it’s peculiarly scary. We have been in oppressive confinement for so long that many of us find ourselves frightened to leave the familiar behind and step outside. Doing so, however, is no optional extra.

Dying to self, denying yourself, losing yourself, totally surrendering to God – or whatever term you prefer – is essential for drawing near to a breathtakingly exciting, holy God. It is the very heart of authentic Christianity. In fact, it is essential for salvation.

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The Enemy Within

What the Bible calls our flesh is the part of us that feels right, and yet always gets things wrong.

In spy terminology, the flesh is the mole inside us – the turncoat who pretends to be our greatest friend and ally, when it is actually continually selling us out and sabotaging everything we do.

I think it safe to presume that the fleshly (or carnal) side of us should have been, next to God our highest source of comfort, support and encouragement. Tragically, however, what would have been so exquisitely precious and beautiful was turned by the Deceiver before we were even born and, instead of remaining on our side, it is his ally.

Whenever we are hurt, feel isolated, or are tempted to feel sorry for ourselves, this double-agent callously draws near with fake warmth, and pretends to console us. While maliciously claiming to care about us, and understand us, like no one else can, it is actually scheming to isolate us even more, and to dupe us into feeling we cannot live without its insidious, corrupting influence.

There is appalling truth in the saying that we are our own worst enemy, and it is all because of the flesh – the part of us we inherited not directly from God, but from ancestors who broke the sacred bond we were meant to have with him. God, however, longs to rescue us. In fact, he is reaching out to you right now.

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Already Died to Self?

My heart goes out to people who are so crippled by low self-esteem that they hate themselves. I once foolishly thought that dying to self, or crucifying the flesh, offers these dear people no benefits. In reality, it liberates and empowers them as much as anyone else. Let’s see why.

When it comes to dying to self, I had supposed that people oppressed by low self-esteem had already arrived – perhaps even overshot their destination. Although no one who had died to self is egotistical, however, it does not mean beating oneself up, or being tortured by low self-esteem. As a Christian who has literally died is freed from suffering, a person who has died to self is freed from self. In contrast, to suffer from low self-esteem is to be tormented by self.

Among other things, denying oneself involves relinquishing control of our self-esteem so that God can sort it out. For as long as we remain in charge, a distorted self-esteem is almost inevitable. And torturously low self-esteem is as far from God’s best as a dangerously over-inflated ego.

In every sphere of life, self-consciousness is a tragedy that not only torments; it makes an otherwise competent person error-prone and inhibited. It leads to self-doubt and, before long, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People plagued with it could have reached amazing heights, if only they could forget themselves – lose themselves in something bigger than themselves. I’m reminded of Jesus’ words: “whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it,” (Matthew 16:25).

In the natural, forgetting about ourselves – what the Bible sometimes calls dying to self – fulfills us by freeing us to soar to our full potential. Spiritually, it does even more: it swings open the door to the divine. More than the spiritual equivalent of allowing life-giving fresh air and sunshine to pour into a suffocatingly oppressive life, it allows partnership with Almighty God. Thus empowered, we surpass natural abilities.

Some self-obsessed people might think themselves wonderful, but it is equally possible for people who consider themselves lower than a cockroach to obsess about themselves. Either way, they find themselves in solitary confinement; trapped in the dark dungeon of obsessively thinking about themselves, or their grief, or their fear, or their resentment, or their . . .

Regardless of whether you kept thinking about how superior you are or how inferior you are, you would still be turned in on yourself; continually focused on yourself. That would make your world – and the resources available to you – oppressively small.

To have any hope of successfully navigating through life, it is vital that we take our eyes off ourselves. Imagine twisting your car’s rear-view mirror and continually looking at yourself in it, rather than looking at the road. Regardless of whether you keep gazing in the mirror to admire yourself or to criticize yourself, trying to drive that way would not only prevent you from going far, it would make you a danger to yourself and to everyone around you.

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Dying to self is not done by yourself. It is not a lonely, isolating experience, but the height of companionship because it occurs in exquisite partnership with Christ. It is the beginning of a thrilling new life bursting with endless possibilities through spiritual union with him. By being crucified with Christ you are simultaneously raised, empowered and glorified with our resurrected Lord. It is not merely dying to the inferior, but coming alive to the divine.

Whether we feel inferior or superior, self keeps us from seeing beyond ourselves. It blinds us to the divine. With self out of the way, we can not only see God like never before, we can finally begin to see as God sees. Among the countless wonders this opens to us is that God sees through eyes of infinite love. He delights in our individuality – our uniqueness. No matter how many children parents have, love makes each child irreplaceable. By innumerable measures, a baby’s abilities are inferior to an adult’s. If anything, however, that simply makes the baby even more adorable in a parent’s love-filled eyes. Moreover, love makes parents take exquisite delight in, for example, their baby’s first step or first word or ‘cute’ expression; quite unmoved by the obvious fact that literally billions of people on this planet can do better. In many ways, love is blind to the entire concept of inferiority.

And there is another side to the divine perspective opened to us by dying to self: the Almighty is the great leveler. Whether you feel inferior or superior to another human, any differences between the two of you are infinitesimal, relative to how superior God is. What God can do through the least of us is exceedingly beyond what the greatest of us could do without him.

Tragically, people with appalling self-esteem usually think they have no alternative to being sentenced to live in their own tiny world in something akin to solitary confinement. They might interact with people, but only on a superficial level. They suppose no one would genuinely want them, with the possible exception of someone with evil intent. But there is someone who is astonishingly good and selfless and loving; someone totally trustworthy, who thinks the world of them, and is utterly devoted to their well-being. And he happens to be the smartest and richest and most important person in the universe. No fairytale seems so unbelievable. Nevertheless, it is the raw truth.

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Open the Floodgates to Out-of-this-World Blessings

To help us better understand God’s nature, Jesus posed this question: would you give your child a snake if he asked for a fish (Luke 11:11)? Now let me pose a question: what if your five-year-old asked for a deadly snake to play with?

We might not be so foolish as to seek God for heroin or prostitutes. Nevertheless, we can still frustrate both him and ourselves, by seeking the Holy One for things that indulge the selfish, sinful side of us. Our dilemma is that God is too good and too loving to give us the delicious poisons, booby-trapped trinkets and ego trips that end up ruining us, and yet our flesh craves.

Not realizing the heart and wisdom of God, many of us get bitterly disappointed with him – some even abandon him – because he fails to deliver what we mistakenly think he should. We easily, for example, get suckered in by over-zealous preachers appealing to our fleshly cravings by ripping verses out of their holy context, and peddling promises without divine authorization. Doing this might be appalling, but despite our passion and sincerity, who among us never slips up? Surely, most who misrepresent Christ have no idea they are straying from his message, and are as confused by the flesh as any of us (Comment).

God’s blessings are infinitely superior to what our flesh hankers for. They are worth having like nothing in this world, and they bring eternal benefits. Self, however, plugs the spout through which divine blessings flow.

The flesh – our worst enemy who masquerades as our best friend – blocks God and his astonishing gifts. It recoils from a holy God; fearing God and his goodness, like a shivering child afraid of the sun’s warmth. It craves things God does not want us to have, and it shrinks from what God wants for us. And our pride wants us to be dependent upon no one – especially a superior being.

The flesh is sure it knows better than God, and can do better at protecting us and giving us a good time. It gets things so confused that it cannot trust the one who gave his all for us; the one who sustains the entire universe; the one who not only gave us life but keeps us living moment by moment. At most, it wants God only as its slave, and never as the one in charge.

As a result, the astonishing blessings God has for us are backed up; either unable to reach us at all or, for many of the rest of us, able only to trickle to us through a tiny hole in the otherwise impenetrable barrier our flesh builds. The more we deny our flesh, the more that tiny opening widens, and the more of God and his stupendous blessings can flow into us.

To get the attention of non-Christians and new Christians, the Lord sometimes circumvents this by resorting to a special act of grace that gets a blessing through to us by an abnormal means that cannot be maintained for long. The only consistent means of delivery is through the opening that so easily gets plugged by self.

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How Basic to Christianity is This?

Dying to self, crucifying the flesh, or whatever you wish to call it, is not just for the spiritual elite. It is essential to abiding in Christ. Consider, for example, how emphatic this is:

    Galatians 5:24 Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts.

    Romans 8:9 But you are not in [or, as several versions put it, controlled or ruled by] the flesh but in the Spirit, if . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if any man doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, he is not his.

    Romans 8:13 For if you live after the flesh, you must die; but if  by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

    (Emphasis mine.)

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We have mentioned a variety of different biblical expressions that all refer to the same spiritual experience as dying to self. (My favorite is being crucified with Christ. It helps fix our gaze on the critical importance of both what our Lord achieved on the cross, and spiritual intimacy with our glorious Savior.) In addition, the Bible uses a number of other terms whose meaning, though a little broader, includes this experience. A brief peep at these broader terms will highlight just how essential dying to self is to being a genuine Christian.

I should forewarn, however, that the mere sight of some of the biblical terms could make your flesh cringe. I had planned to name each term in a heading as we come to it. That would be logical, aid reading and be slightly better visually. Nevertheless, even though the terms frequently occur in the Bible, I am concerned that the mere sight of them might needlessly alarm some sensitive readers, and even deter a few from reading further. Let’s never forget, however, that our flesh – the part of us that keeps seeking to undermine us and rob us of indescribable blessings – is Satan’s mole, programmed to dupe us. It is manipulated by dark forces in a devilish ploy to panic us into scurrying like a cockroach fleeing the light. Let’s not fall prey to malicious forces that would delight in hoodwinking us and keeping us under their power.

The hell-bent side of us gets everything horribly wrong, but is disturbingly persuasive. It panics and unthinkingly rejects what is safe and good. It mistakenly thinks it is protecting us, when it is actually robbing us and exposing us to great danger.

We so easily misunderstand the implications of some of these terms that I think it better to ease ourselves into them by first breaking down some of the common misconceptions in a few sentences before exposing ourselves to them.

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The first term I’d like us to examine often groundlessly makes our flesh wince, even though it occurs often in the Old Testament, and over sixty times in the New (Key Examples). Whilst not exactly identical, it overlaps considerably the terms we have been seeking to understand.

The term we will examine simply involves embracing the truth that sets us free. What could be more exciting and fulfilling? In the Greek, the word means literally to change your mind. It involves a whole new mindset, which includes dying to self. What we shrink from, however, is that it involves admitting we were wrong. Our flesh/pride hates that. It is astonishing what people would foolishly prefer to suffer than to admit, even to themselves, that they have been wrong.

It also involves saying we are sorry, or even being briefly sorry. We detest that, no matter how much joy it leads to. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” proclaimed our wise Leader (Matthew 5:4).

The term we are peeping at is repentance. It is not as well understood as it should be that repentance is essential for salvation. Being a heart attitude, it does not involve works, nor the ability to deliver ourselves from sins, but simply acknowledging that even our favorite sin is unacceptable, and our being willing to part with it forever.

God wants our love. To be genuine, love cannot be forced, nor induced by something akin to drugs or hypnotism. Moreover, love and morality are almost identical (Romans 13:10; Galatians 5:14). As much as a righteous God longs to forgive us, how can he, if we have sins we insist do not need forgiving? If someone sees the error of his ways and intends to never offend again, it might be morally acceptable to pardon his reckless driving that almost killed people. Even if you had the legal right to do so, however, pardoning a friend when you know he fully intends to keep offending, would be immoral. To let him continue to drive irresponsibly with impunity would make you a partner in his crime when he ends up killing other road users.

How can our Savior save us from any sin we refuse to leave? The sin we love and try to excuse is as deadly as all the sins we hate. Would it be acceptable for someone who claims to love you, to force himself on you, and imprison you for life because he is sure he can ‘save you from yourself’? Would it be heaven, if it were filled with people who would rob, rape or kill you, except they have been forcibly lobotomized, or they know their thoughts are monitored and they would be electrocuted the instant they stepped out of line? God is no monster. And because of that, repentance is essential for us to be with him forever.

The Lord of the universe wants our heart, and for that to be meaningful, it has to be given voluntarily. He is willing to give us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26). We just have to be willing to receive it.

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People plagued by low self-esteem are barely coping as it is. To be brought any lower could literally make them suicidal. Even people who act confident, and are continually boasting of their achievements, might be acting this way in a desperate battle against secret fears of being inadequate. If humility were what it seems at first glance to be, many of us would flee at the mere mention of the word. But what if humility is not at all about bringing these people lower?

What if what the Bible refers to is like mining – ridding yourself of tons of dirt and rock so that you end up with gold worth hundreds of millions of dollars? A landowner who fears that the natural appearance of his property is his only asset, would detest ruining it. Whoever takes the risk, however, would discover it’s the smartest thing he could ever do.

Everything we have comes from Creator God. Think about the implications. Since it is ultimately his anyhow, that gives him every right to be a taker. And he does indeed ask for everything. Nevertheless, all who do as he asks merely end up trading the inferior for the priceless.

Obviously, both humility and dying to self, involve not considering oneself wiser, or of higher morals than the Supreme Being. In fact, wouldn’t it not only be offensive to God, but the ultimate in arrogance to think the Perfect One is wrong, and that our understanding is greater than his? Despite our flesh’s protest, however, concluding that God’s opinion is right and ours is wrong, could actually be the best good news ever. Let’s see how.

If, for example, you fear you might be unlovable, incapable, or unforgivable, that’s not your Savior’s opinion of you. In such instances, humbling yourself simply involves realizing that your fears about yourself, no matter how strong and convincing they might seem, are contrary to God’s truth, and therefore untrue. That’s exciting!

If the terrifyingly holy Lord forgives you, who are you to not forgive yourself? Dare you in any way imply that you have higher moral standards than the God of Perfection? If the most important person in the universe loves you so much that he is available to you 24/7, who are you to declare yourself unlovable? If the Almighty Lord of the universe dwells in you, how can you possibly be inadequate? If there is nothing the all-powerful Lord cannot do, there is nothing he cannot do through you.

Humbling ourselves often involves admitting that we are wrong, and God is right. In so many ways, however – especially if we feel inadequate – the result does not drag us down but lifts us high.

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Let’s approach this from a different direction. What if, in God’s eyes, humbling ourselves is not about beating ourselves up for our failings, but letting the Lord of Glory be beaten for those failings? Have you considered how humbling it is to conclude that the only way to fix ourselves is to let an innocent volunteer to be beaten to death for our blunders? Indescribable wonders, however, await those willing to face this truth.

Consider these Scriptures:

    Job 5:11  . . . he sets up on high those who are low, those who mourn are exalted to safety.

    Proverbs 29:23 A man’s pride brings him low, but one of lowly spirit gains honor.

    Matthew 18:4 Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Luke 18:14  . . . everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.

    Philippians 2:8-9  . . . he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, yes, the death of the cross. Therefore God . . . highly exalted him . . .

    (Emphasis mine.)

    More Such Scriptures.

God wants us to be humble, not to put us down, but to raise us up? That seems nonsensical until we discover that only those who remain humble can be raised up and entrusted with spiritual riches without it destroying them. You will see this with increasing clarity as you read further.

I planned to skim quickly over pride and humility and whizz on to other matters. The more I prayed and meditated about it, however, the more this has loomed in importance until I have felt compelled to devote more space to it than I ever intended. It is vital that we understand the horrifying implications of pride. Moreover, it dovetails with dying to self.

Before delving further into this crucial matter, however, let’s get one thing clear: if we have ever imagined God is being arrogant, intolerant, or impatient, it is because we have failed to understand his heart, and what is at stake. The less our spiritual ignorance, the greater our realization that none of us is nearly as selfless, nor as long-suffering, as God. For a little more on this, see Is God Egotistical?

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Let’s be honest: pride is a deliciously warm, uplifting feeling. It makes us feel good about ourselves. It can even help us achieve more. Most of the time, it seems pretty harmless. Some people even esteem it as a virtue. So the next couple of paragraphs will seem over-the-top; perhaps even a downright lie. Nevertheless, I challenge you: see if you still think this way after prayerfully reading the entire webpage.

To be proud is to be delusional. It is being deliriously unaware that you are bringing immense shame upon yourself. It is as foolish and dangerous as someone high on drugs on the top of a skyscraper convinced he can fly. Yes, pride makes you feel on top of the world but, like someone blind drunk having a ball behind the wheel of a speeding bus filled with passengers, it makes you a danger to yourself and to everyone around you.

To be proud is to be doomed to fail. It is to be ecstatically happy just before never-ending regret.

To be humble, on the other hand, is to be sober, and therefore in peak mental and spiritual condition; primed to achieve things of eternal value. It is to be poised for honor.

The fleshly, fallen part of us screams that God is a killjoy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Even if you were the world’s most self-serving egomaniac, you would not love yourself more than God loves you, nor would you want good things for yourself as much as God wants them for you. With all of his infinite heart, and with all of his infinite mind, and with all of his infinite strength, God loves you (Comment).

Our beef with God has nothing to do with his love. Our squabbles revolve around the Lord of the universe being so much smarter than us. Our Maker, the Eternal Lord, has an infinitely superior understanding of what is ultimately in our best interest. The proud have such bloated opinions of themselves that they hardly think it even possible for God to know so much more than them about the eternal ramifications of every action. No wonder their pig-headedness gets them into so much trouble.

The Lord of all wants us to die to self, not so that he can dominate us, but to save us from ourselves.

It breaks God’s heart to look upon those he loves with infinite intensity, and see them blissfully sailing into calamity. I would prefer to say he longs for us to kill our pride before our pride kills us, or, we might seem to get away with it for a while but, ultimately, we either die to self, or self-destruct. Alarmingly, however, pride does far worse than merely destroy our lives or kill us.

At stake is not only your life, but other people’s lives. Only God can keep track of how many lives our pride could ruin. Each life is far too precious to him for the tally not to be permanently etched on his heart. The full number is likely to include not only people dear to you, but various people you barely know who were more devastated by your behavior or flippant remarks than you ever realized. That’s why we will be held accountable for our every idle word (Matthew 12:36). More disturbing still: hanging in the balance are not just lives but eternities.

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Humbling oneself is most definitely not about seeking to be exalted (see Selfish Ambition & Other Scriptures). Nevertheless, exaltation is where it leads. Let’s not forget, however, that this is primarily manifested, not in this life, but in the next – just as it was for our crucified Lord.

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We have noted how arrogant it is to reject God’s high opinion of us, and choose to believe slanderous lies about ourselves, no matter how much those lies might seem to ring true. We can expect the flesh, however, to keep screaming condemning lies at us, and backing up each lie with deceitfully convincing feelings. That’s the very nature of the flesh. It is at war with the God of truth (Scriptures). And that’s precisely why it is so liberating and empowering to ‘die’ to this part of us – that is, to cease living as if its lies were true. We were once slaves of our flesh’s lies, but when slaves die, they are no longer obligated to obey their cruel master, no matter how much the former master keeps barking orders.

‘Dying’ is an important part of the equation. Dead slaves are finally free from a sadistic master, but only the living can enjoy the benefits. That’s why spiritual union with Christ involves not only being crucified with him, but resurrecting with him to a brand new life. Here’s something to shout from the rooftops: we serve a risen Lord!

    Romans 6: 11, 13  . . . consider yourselves . . . to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ . . . present yourselves to God as alive from the dead . . .

    Colossians 2:12, 20; 3:1 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith . . . you died with Christ . . . you were raised together with Christ . . .

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In Jesus’ famous parable, we are rightly moved by the father seeing his wayward son from afar, running to him, kissing him, arraying him with the best robe, placing a ring on a finger and shoes on his feet, killing the fatted calf, and celebrating with music and dancing. Let’s not forget, however, that it began with the prodigal’s humiliating return as an utter failure, with his prepared speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight. I am no more worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired servants,” (Luke 15:18-19, 21).

We are mistaken if we suppose we can enjoy the loving forgiveness and honor that was lavished upon the prodigal, without having the prodigal’s attitude. If we think we can ingratiate ourselves with God, while still trying to conceal or justify our rebellion or foolishness and claiming our ‘rights,’ we have misunderstood the parable, the heart of God, the human heart, and salvation itself.

Here’s a Scripture you might know quite well. We should not overlook the importance it places on turning from one’s sin. For now, however, read just the portions I have highlighted:

    2 Chronicles 7:14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (Emphasis mine.)

It takes so little to receive so much from the God of love and truth. The entry point, however, is the willingness to face the truth: that we have totally blown it and deserve absolutely nothing from God, and that no matter how much we do for God afterwards, we remain as utterly dependent upon his undeserved grace as any other fallen creature.

God’s goal, however, is never our humiliation but our empowerment. As we will further see below, truth empowers us – including the truth of our sinfulness and continual dependence upon our Savior.

Humility – dying to the urge to exalt oneself – opens the floodgate to stupendous blessings. And only humility can keep it open.

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Even in Christian circles, pride is so common that, despite the stark difference between faith and arrogance, we often seem to confuse them. The two people most praised by Jesus for their faith considered themselves unworthy. The centurion did not even think himself worthy to have Jesus enter his house (Matthew 8:8-10). The Canaanite woman considered herself a dog (Matthew 15:27-28).

Closely related to confusing faith with arrogance, is confusing faith with self-confidence. This twisted thinking abounds, even though confidence in oneself is virtually the opposite of confidence in Christ. Just as no one can serve two masters – God and money, for example, (Luke 16:13) – neither can our faith be both in Christ and in ourselves. Disturbingly many of us squander our puny faith by putting some of it in our good living, faithful service, spiritual heritage, biblical knowledge, prayer life, natural ability, or whatever, instead of exclusively in God’s loving mercy, extended to us through Christ.

How do we get things so wrong? Because the flesh delights in perverting everything.

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The most amazing person in the universe loves each of us stupendously. We have every right to revel in this for all eternity. Such is our blind arrogance, however, that we often forget that this is a manifestation of the enormity of divine love and grace, not because of anything intrinsically desirable about us.

Us serving God, is the Almighty, at appalling cost to his reputation, letting us spoil his perfection.

We get even the simplest things wrong. We don’t even know how to ask God for things, and he has to keep intervening to sort it out (Romans 8:26). No matter what we attempt, he could have done it better without us. The Lord grants us the undeserved privilege of serving him, and involvement in matters of eternal significance – huge responsibilities – solely because of his mind-boggling love. What we do in partnership with God is of staggering importance, but only because God grants us the undeserved privilege.

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Whenever we lose consciousness of ourselves and focus on our Lord, astonishing things can result. Refocus on ourselves, however, and it all falls apart.

It is like someone afraid of heights doing well until he looks down. To revert to looking at ourselves, or drawing attention to ourselves, is so enticing – especially if, until recently, it has been our normal way of living. Thankfully, after any slip, we can realize our mistake and redirect our gaze to Jesus. Woe to those who get so besotted with themselves, however, that they never take their eyes off themselves.

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Does Almighty God tenderly allow our weaknesses to limit him, or is his sovereignty such that he forces himself on us regardless? We need go no further than Mark 6:5-6 (Matthew 13:58 is similar) for at least a partial answer. Jesus could do few miracles in his home district because of their unbelief. Here, taken from an almost bottomless pool of possibilities, is just one more example of human weaknesses thwarting God’s wishes:

    Luke 13:34  . . . How often I wanted to gather your children together, like a hen gathers her own brood under her wings, and you refused!

Love wants not domination, but cooperation.

Additionally, love exalts the loved one’s long-term well-being above its own wishes, and it also carefully considers all the ramifications of every action. As affirmed in Psalm 103:13-14, the Almighty, like the perfect parent he is, always remains acutely aware of our weaknesses and carefully weights the implications of everything he does. A lesser being would use brute force, but not the God we are privileged to serve.

Since humility is the focus of this section, let’s attempt to gain an inkling of how much we can frustrate God’s plans, forcing him to withhold immense blessings he longs for us to enjoy, simply because such blessings would trigger our pride, with catastrophic implications for us. When our eyes are opened in heaven, something likely to stagger us is how much we missed out on in this life, solely because of our inability to remain humble, had we been more blessed.

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To better grasp what is at stake we first need to understand just how great a spiritual threat pride is to us. We should fear pride more than cancer.

It seems, for example, that Lucifer was once a magnificent heavenly being in a privileged position with the Most High, but pride brought him down (Scriptures).

Pride goes before a fall, affirms Proverbs 16:18 (Related Scriptures). And under the Spirit’s anointing Paul wrote, “. . .   let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall,” (1 Corinthians 10:12). If that latter quote does not make your heart thump, you have either forgotten the context, or are so drunk with pride that it has left you in a stupor.

“Therefore let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall,” is Paul’s conclusion to Christians, after having listed all the thousands of Israelites struck dead in various incidents in the wilderness because they thought it safe to treat divine things casually (1 Corinthians 10:6-11). He reminded his readers, for example, of those who died because they grumbled about God’s actions (1 Corinthians 10:10) and said that although this happened centuries before, God did it not only to warn people back then, but to warn Christians living under the New Covenant (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).

The Apostle points out that everyone suffering those terrifying fates did so despite having had profound spiritual experiences, which he likens to spectacular experiences Christians have (Scripture).

No one – not even Paul – reaches the point of immunity. Instead, the apostle said such things as, “I beat my body and bring it into submission, lest by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Self-confidence can be deadly. We shall see shortly how it is the opposite of Christlikeness. Those who worship God in Spirit put no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3-4, 7).

* * *

Pride is a hideous, habit-forming delusion that stupefies us so alarmingly that it not only makes us ugly and foolish, but entices us to display our shame to the entire world. Sooner or later – pray that it is not later – we will sober up, and be appalled at the years we have squandered, and all the damage our pride has caused.

Imagine a medical student so high on drugs that he believes he can help everyone by performing brain surgery on them. He grabs chloroform and goes into the night, looking for people he can help. That might be a ridiculous horror story, but something nearly as terrifying happens when do-gooders get high on pride. It dupes us into believing we are far more spiritually capable than we are, and it drives us to give people around us what we presume to be helpful advice, when it actually harms them immensely.

Consider Job’s devout friends. They selflessly ministered to their friend, generously giving him the benefit of all their godly wisdom and counsel. Such was their overconfidence, however, that they had no idea that their every ‘comforting’ word was not only wounding a man of God, but making the Lord increasingly angry with them (Job 42:7-8).

We are in grave danger of making the same mistake with the people we seek to comfort. Ironically, many Christians today go to the extreme of proving how like his friends they are by actually accusing Job of spiritual failure, just like his gravely mistaken friends did. Astonishingly, they do this despite having the benefit of knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that God declared Job blameless (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3; 42:7), and knowing that God disapproved of what Job’s friends did.

* * *

Take to heart how in Jesus’ day, the religious elite drew upon their vast knowledge of God and his Word to expose as a dangerous heretic a vagabond who happened to be the Messiah for whom they had been praying all their lives. Despite being absolutely certain they were far more holy and devoted to God than their ancestors who had rejected prophets of God who had foretold the Messiah’s coming, they confidently opposed and maligned that very Messiah when he stood before them.

Proud of our special relationship with God and the infallibility we think it brings, far too many of us are as certain that we are better than the spiritual leaders who killed their Messiah as those people were certain they were better than those who killed the prophets. Just like them, we are in serious danger of using our supposed discernment to despise, slander and reject people, without having the slightest clue that, like Job, God regards as heroes those we sneer at, even if the severity of their trials has left them looking weak and misguided.

Whether you realize it or not, someone you know could be teetering on the precipice of spiritual disaster. If so, that makes you not superior, but equally vulnerable. How you respond (by ignoring him, abandoning him, acting like a know-all, or whatever) could push him over the edge – and you with him.

Why could it be spiritually calamitous for you? If part of Christ’s body suffers, we all do, says 1 Corinthians 12:26. More than this, your standoffishness, or a comment you presumed to be godly but was actually more from the flesh than the Spirit, could cause someone to fall. If so, you will be held accountable. Keep prayerfully reading this Scripture until the dire seriousness of the situation chills you:

    Mark 9:42-44 Whoever will cause one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around his neck. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having your two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire, ‘where their worm doesn’t die, and the fire is not quenched.’

* * *

Literally hundreds of people around the world have privately confided with me the utter devastation they have suffered by being on the receiving end of supposedly helpful advice from well-meaning believers with an over-inflated opinion of their abilities. Most offenders are utterly oblivious to the damage they have caused, and blissfully unaware of the alarming extent to which they will one day be held accountable. I shudder to think how guilty I, too, have been, without ever knowing it.

Bursting within me for nearly all my life has been an almost overwhelming yearning to instruct people spiritually. And most of the opportunities I have craved have been blocked. Decades ago, the Lord highlighted to me a Scripture that grieved, frustrated and sometimes came close to infuriating me:

    James 3:1-2 Let not many of you be teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive heavier judgment. For we all stumble in many things. . . .

I knew the Lord was telling me that he was holding me back.

Although I have been conscious for decades of that personal word from God, I still do not think I have been adequately thankful for blocked opportunities. Most people would say I have an appallingly low self-esteem. Despite this, and having far fewer opportunities than I have craved, I almost certainly have little conception of the damage caused by my inflated opinion of my abilities.

For so many of us, there is but a fragile veneer of humility keeping us from spiritual disaster. The stronger we grow in humility, the more we can be trusted with spiritual treasure.

* * *

For a hint of how our susceptibility to pride restricts our Lord, consider Gideon. His under-equipped army of a mere 32,000 was hopelessly outnumbered by forces so vast they are simply said to be “like locusts for multitude; and their camels [a significant strategic advantage] were without number, as the sand which is on the seashore for multitude,” (Judges 7:12). One gets the impression the Hebrews couldn’t cope with their numbers mathematically, let alone militarily! And yet, astounding as it sounds, the Lord had a problem: Gideon’s army was too large.

“The people who are with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel brag against me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ ” he told Gideon (Judges 7:2). This inadequate army was then whittled down to less than one-third of its original size, and still it was too large! Surely they knew only an act of God could give them victory against such odds. But their current sobriety was not the issue. It’s after a victory that pride-intoxicated minds begin to imagine foolish things. More than 99% of the original meagre band was sent packing before finally being pathetic enough for the Lord to use it (Judges 7:7). For another example, see Centuries Earlier . . .

* * *

The great apostle labelled himself as the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15), “the least of the apostles,” “not worthy to be called an apostle” (1 Corinthians 15:9), “less than the least of all God’s people” (Ephesians 3:8, Weymouth New Testament – NIV is almost identical), and as “like an aborted fetus”. Even so, we read:

    2 Corinthians 12:7  . . . so that I would not become arrogant, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to trouble me – so that I would not become arrogant. (NET Bible)

Note the repetition of “so that I would not become arrogant,” (most manuscripts) to emphasize the reason for the affliction. Whatever the exact nature of this “thorn in the flesh,” it was so distressing that the apostle prayed three times for its removal, and he ceased only when he discovered that it was necessary to keep him from becoming conceited.

So dangerous is pride that such drastic action was required to keep this man of God spiritually safe. That either sends chills through you, or you have not grasped the significance. It highlights just how spiritually dangerous pride is – even to very godly people.

As already hinted, the critical issue is not merely our current humility, but what would happen if the Lord were to do something special to, or through, us. We are most likely, even now, to be too filled with pride and self-confidence to have any idea how poorly we would handle such a situation. And when pride puts us in grave spiritual danger, what is a God of love meant to do?

Paul’s ‘thorn’ was necessarily unpleasant but, understanding it was protecting him from pride, he treasured it as a manifestation of divine grace (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). Would we, however, have had Paul’s good sense not to resent God for him doing everything necessary to keep us from pride? If not, God’s attempt at averting the spiritual catastrophe of pride would merely create another catastrophe. So if we have any vulnerability to pride in the event of being especially blessed, and we lack the maturity to handle a ‘thorn’ as wisely as Paul did, God’s love could compel him to withhold those blessings from us. Otherwise, special revelation, or success, or spiritual giftings, or some other good thing, would end up being a curse to us, rather than the blessing the Lord would have liked them to have been.

* * *

For a fresh look at this spiritual phenomenon, consider Charles Spurgeon. This exceptionally gifted, highly esteemed Nineteenth Century preacher suffered such devastating bouts of depression and illness that he is said to have tendered his resignation from his phenomenal ministry thirty-two times in thirty-nine years. Like Paul’s affliction, it seems appropriate to label this torment a messenger from Satan. Might, also like Paul, it be that this affliction was needed to protect him from pride?

And let’s not imagine that average people are immune from pride.

* * *

To be dead to self is to be dead to pride. It seems from what we have seen that any failure on our part to daily die to self would severely limit God; forcing him to walk a tightrope with us, because one moment we would be in danger of pride, and the next in danger of feeling so useless, or so upset with God, that we quit. Imagine being so driven by the flesh that to be kept from the danger of giving up, we need equally dangerous ego boosts. What a mess!

To illustrate the divine dilemma, I have prepared a brief note: Pride vs Discouragement in Simon Peter.

* * *

There are still more ways in which being prone to pride can limit what God can do in or through us. Study this Scripture and see if what comes to your mind is what I eventually saw:

    1 Timothy 3:1, 6 This is a faithful saying: someone who seeks to be an overseer desires a good work.  . . . [He must] not [be] a new convert, lest being puffed up he fall into the same condemnation as the devil [pride].

Though capable of being translated differently, the last part of this Scripture in this translation (and many are similar) rams home just how evil and spiritually dangerous pride is. What could be more disconcerting than learning that being “puffed up” with pride could cause one to “fall into the same condemnation as the devil”?

None us of is immune to pride (1 Corinthians 10:12). We have even seen the great Apostle Paul in danger of it (2 Corinthians 12:7). Nevertheless, this Scripture indicates that spiritual immaturity, combined with responsibility, heightens one’s risk of falling into pride.

It seems logical to conclude that the greater one’s influence or status, the greater the danger of pride. I see it as like climbing a cliff. Even from just three feet up, a fall could be unpleasant. The higher you climb, however, the more serious the consequences of falling. You might yearn to go higher, but are you as able to handle the increased risk as you think?

If someone prevented you from climbing higher than three feet, and said it was for your safety, you could feel insulted, and bring shame to yourself by leaving in a huff. If, however, you kept practicing climbing up and down those three feet for the entire width of the cliff face, you would gain invaluable experience and such skill that when you are finally released to climb higher you could do so with safety and expertise. Had you despised staying low, however, and underrated the importance of practicing hard at a low level, you would never gain the ability to safely go higher.

We should not imagine that for everyone the risk of pride is sufficiently lowered after the same waiting period. In practice, how long it takes varies greatly, depending on how quickly each person learns how to resist temptations to be proud, and how faithfully each one maximizes opportunities to grow spiritually.

If they are to stay relatively safe, those for whom the risk of pride is too high will need to continue to be held back. It might be frustrating, but as I’ve said elsewhere, it’s better to be on ice now than in hot water later. Pride, however, usually prevents such people from seeing their own weakness. So they will see no point in being denied the official or unofficial position of responsibility they crave. This puts them in increasing danger of feeling offended and leaving the church, or even leaving God, if they continue to be denied what their pride believes they are ready for.

Here again, we see the almost impossible constraints that people’s susceptibility to pride puts on God. When discussing Paul’s ‘thorn’ and also the stinging rebuke Peter received (explored in the brief note above), we saw how ways of reducing the danger of pride have themselves the potential to cause other grave dangers for those who are weak by virtue of being poor at dying to self. Now we have found yet another instance.

How can God keep us safe when we are so dominated by our flesh that every way of protecting us would backfire? Yes, theoretically, the all-powerful Lord could act like an ogre by abusing his power and crushing us into total submission against our will. For a God of love, on the other hand, there are many ways in which our failure to crucify the flesh stymies him.

Relative to God, the most knowledgeable and spiritually aware of us knows next to nothing. Most of us, however, are either know-nothings acting like know-alls, or would quickly become so if God were to bless us.

* * *

Look at what pride did to this godly king:

    2 Chronicles 26:3-5, 8, 16 Uzziah was sixteen years old when he began to reign . . . He did that which was right in the Lord’s eyes . . . He set himself to seek God  . . . God made him prosper. . . . His name spread abroad even to the entrance of Egypt; for he grew exceedingly strong. . . . But when he was strong, his heart was lifted up, so that he did corruptly, and he trespassed against the Lord his God . . .

God blessed him, but it backfired because of his failure to die to pride.

For further insight into what pride does, see Nebuchadnezzar, powerful ruler of the Babylonian empire, proudly thinking he had achieved great things, and suddenly divinely struck with insanity for years, until finally emerging with an awareness of how insignificant he was, relative to God (Daniel 4:30-36). Or consider Herod accepting praise that belongs to God alone, and being divinely stuck dead (Acts 12:22-23).

“I am rich, and . . . have need of nothing” thought the Laodicean Christians, arrogantly blinded to the fact that God saw them as “wretched . . ., miserable, poor, blind, and naked,” and teetering on the edge of spiritual annihilation (Revelation 3:17-19, cf. Revelation 2:5).

We often approach spiritual matters like people ignorantly tinkering with some contraption that fell from a plane; having no idea it is a nuclear warhead. We dare not dismiss as irrelevant God recording in his Word that people were struck dead for treating the ark of the covenant casually (1 Samuel 6:19; 2 Samuel 6:6-7) and, centuries earlier, Aarons’ sons were supernaturally killed for making an offering not authorized by God (Leviticus 10:1-3). Need I mention Ananias and Sapphira, who were also divinely stuck dead (Acts 5:9-11)? And what about the Corinthians who partook of communion “in a way unworthy of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27) and ended up “weak and sickly, and not a few sleep" (1 Corinthians 11:30). Disturbingly, in every other instance in the epistle, “sleep” indisputably means literally dead – 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Corinthians 7:39, [same word in the Greek]).

Pride and self feed at the same pig trough. Add to this the fact that pride can keep us spiritually impoverished. Combined, these two truths should at least slightly deepen our understanding of how vital it is to make dying daily to self an ingrained habit. The more dying to self becomes a way of life for us, the more likely it is for it to be safe for our loving Lord to pour out spiritual blessings on us. Otherwise, those blessings would end up inflating our pride, and hence ruin us.

* * *

Let’s try another angle. Given the blindness most of us have to our own failings, unbelievers are more likely to see our faults than we can. Too often, non-Christians are in grave spiritual danger because the Christians they know do not give the impression of being kind and approachable, but arrogant and self-righteous. This is serious. Isn’t God’s love so immense that he wants no one to perish (Scriptures), and he expects us to love even our enemies? How, then, do you think you might feel on Judgment Day, standing before a God of such intensity, and discovering that your snobbish self-righteousness has kept people from coming to their only Savior?

How many of us have tender compassion toward Muslims, witches or homeless alcoholics? Or do we arrogantly look down on certain people, like the Pharisee did on the tax collector? According to Jesus, only the despised one was sufficiently aware of his failings to be accepted by the holy Lord (Luke 18:11-14).

* * *

Yet another alarming side to pride is that it can dupe us into thinking ourselves too smart, experienced, close to God, or whatever, to be capable of being deceived. No one is as vulnerable as those who think it could not happen to them. For a glimpse of how immense this danger is, see Just Some of the New Testament’s Warnings to Christians About Being Deceived.

    1 Peter 5:8 Be sober and self-controlled. Be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, walks around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.

What could be clearer? With the enemy of our souls always lurking in the shadows, eager to pounce the moment we let our guard down, there is nothing more foolhardy than being drunk with pride.

Yes, you are prey, and your spiritual enemy is like a ravenous lion, longing to tear you apart. Through Christ, however, you are armed with an assault rifle. For as long as you remain alert, scanning 360 degrees, ready to pull the trigger the instant it is needed, the enemy has no chance. Let pride sucker you into an it-couldn’t-happen-to-me attitude, however, and suddenly all the advantages are with the enemy.

Sober, the weakest Christian is safe. Drunk with pride, however, the strongest saint is frighteningly vulnerable.

* * *

What’s the difference between a heroin trip and temporary insanity? Almost nothing. What’s the difference between pride and temporary insanity? The insanity might be far from temporary.

As much as crimes like sadism and child molestation disgust us, we should be even more horrified by our own sins because we are personally responsible for them.

Arrogance blinds us to spiritual reality, the most basic of which is that the one thing we have ever deserved is an eternity in hell from the moment of our first sin. Anything else is the undeserved mercy of God. If most of us keep losing awareness of even this elementary truth, how can we be trusted with anything greater?

    Micah 6:8 He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God? (Emphasis mine.)

* * *

What’s Going On?

That’s enough about pride.

We could have spent even longer stripping pride of its camouflage, and exposing the evil beneath the veneer of respectability. My hope, however, is that we have seen enough to know that humility is life-saving sanity, and to treat pride like a grizzly bear cub – no matter how adorable and innocent it seems, you could be one step away from your worst nightmare.

We half way through investigating why, despite it receiving scant attention in today’s popular Christianity, God in his Word makes such a big deal about an experience variously referred to as denying ourselves, taking up our cross, mortifying our flesh, being crucified with Christ, and so on.

As part of this investigation, we have been exploring how these terms are interwoven with other unpopular biblical themes such as repentance. We ended up giving disproportionate space to humbling oneself because it sheds much light on the entire subject.

Now it’s time to move on. In the final section we will quickly mention some other key biblical themes and how they, too, dovetail with what we are learning. Then we will go to other vital information, including deepening our understanding of the flesh (our fallen nature) and exposing instances when the flesh is so deceptive that it seems holy. We will also see why dying to self is not a one-off event but an on-going process, and why, this side of eternity, the holy Lord has chosen not to totally eradicate the fleshly side of even the most devout Christians. Importantly, it also includes a sober analysis of the cost of dying to self.


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