Dying to others, discovering more

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When my own interests keep me from  paying attention to others

By Jan Johnson

Would I or wouldn’t I say it? My friend had just bought a new specialty Bible—one with notes—and was showing me what she liked about it. But I couldn’t hear her because my mind was jammed with thoughts of telling her that I had written many of that Bible’s notes and introductory articles. When she asked me a question, I realized I was too busy listening to the argument in my mind to hear my friend. So I looked directly into her eyes, knowing she wanted my attention. Loving her meant letting go of my self-congratulatory thoughts so I listened carefully as she repeated her question.

To die to self is to set aside what we want in this moment and to focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). This moves us away from self-centeredness and closer to becoming open-hearted followers of Christ who care deeply for others. It’s much easier to pay attention to the concerns, interests and needs of people when our own interests no longer consume us.

Jesus describes the dying-to-self process (to “deny self” is the exact scriptural phrase) as part of following him: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). But dying to self isn’t bleak and terrible. Jesus continues: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (v. 25).

In dying to self, we find genuine life by depending on God who provides much more than we can imagine. Likewise “a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24, NASB). Part of the life that we find and fruit we bear is not only living a richer life with God but also becoming more generous to others, reaching out to them with love and joy.         

 Sometimes people mistake dying to self for death of self. But self-denial is not self-rejection. God treasures your divinely created self. God works within you and reshapes you into the person your renewed-in-Christ self would really like to be: not selfish with what you own, not concerned about how circumstances affect only you and not crabby when others seem to get what you want.

 

What dying to self looks like

As we die to self, we no longer try to get our own way or to get people to look up to us. We stop offering unasked-for advice, as if in self-importance we think we always know better than others. We let go of trying to make a good impression on others. We find freedom from the self-focused life writer Evelyn Underhill describes: “We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to want, to have and to do. Craving, clutching and fussing¼, we are kept in perpetual unrest.” Quite simply, we’re no longer obsessed with self. 

Dying to self actually makes life easier because, for example, we can be content even when we’re overlooked. Several years ago I led a woman through a one-on-one 10-week time of study, conversation and prayer about becoming a disciple of Jesus. When she announced in church that she had decided to give her life to Christ, she talked about the people who had influenced her. I thought she would mention my name, but she didn’t. I considered standing up as if to go to the bathroom—so she would notice me! But I knew the Spirit (not me) had done a great work in her life. I also saw this as an exercise in dying to self by not squeezing myself into the spotlight.

Could I honor others above myself? (Rom 12:10) But this issue goes deeper: Could I be secure in God’s love without public recognition? Could I let God be in charge of my reputation? Was God’s approval enough for me? After this early experiment in dying to self, I eventually found myself relying on God more in small things. I was finding life—the companionship and partnership with God I longed for.

 

A next step

Start simple, start small. Ask God how you might deny yourself a little something every day:  fasting from sweets; not being defensive when attacked; not buying the latest phone you really want because your current one is fine. As you follow through with these choices, watch how God meets your needs and you find life. You forget about the sweets as you engage someone in conversation; you find that someone else sticks up for you; you’re relieved you don’t have to struggle to learn how to use a new phone!

These daily behind-the-scenes denials train us to be selfless in small ways so that when we find ourselves in bigger struggles of faith, we more easily set aside our self-focused desires and think about others instead.

One small death-to-self God has led me into is to stay away from the women’s clothing racks when I shop at a certain discount store. The clothes are such deals—inexpensive and up-to-date. The first time I sensed God inviting me to do this I paused in the aisle that led toward the clothes. If I stepped any closer, I knew I’d find something I supposedly needed. What if I skipped it just for today? I have 10 times more clothes than many people in this world who own just a few changes of clothing. So I walked away.

Since then, it’s become easier. Now it’s freeing not to clutter up my schedule and closet buying things I don’t need. These small self-denials train my character away from self-indulgence and result in giving me more time and resources to seek God and what God is doing in others’ lives (loose paraphrase of Matt. 6:33). This is the routinely easy and light-burdened, light-yoked life I have wanted.

Jan Johnson (www.JanJohnson.org) is a speaker and author of many books including Invitation to the Jesus Life and Abundant Simplicity. This article is reprinted with the author’s permission.  

 

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