“Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” -Matthew 16: 24-25
“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” -2 Corinthians 4: 10
Fourteen-year-old Allan lived with his divorced mother and two younger half-sisters, born from his mom’s failed second marriage to a flagrant alcoholic. Allan adored his mom, and tried to help her any way he could, especially by taking care of his sisters during the many hours when she was gone working, running errands, or emoting with her friends on the phone.
Allan learned early at the neighborhood school what it takes to fit in: dress cool, act like you don’t care, and reject everyone who doesn’t conform to the gang mold. Places like church junior high youth groups were pretty safe for Allan: half the girls had a crush on him, and the boys were easy to “hang out with.” After all, hadn’t he grown up with one foot in the Christianese culture, and one foot in the public school social center?
As an adult Allan found his niche by becoming a Christian caregiver—a widely-respected associate pastor in a seeker-friendly culture-copying youth church, complete with loud music and rave dances to attract the “unsaved”. Allan’s relational style was a habit learned from his earliest days: he was looked on by most as humble, gentle, attentive, hard-working. His consistent effort to find the best in others, coupled with his ability and willingness to reconcile opposing viewpoints, made him a popular addition to church board meetings and mediation sessions.
However, Allan’s wife and children told a different story. They sensed he tried to avoid conflict and intimacy altogether. He was so busy being the friendly guy at church, he didn’t have time to be home when they needed him, either to help in resolving inevitable family disagreements or to share in times of togetherness.
Without analyzing all the love deficits, wounds, and disconnections in Allan’s childhood, we would like to approach his conduct from the standpoint of self-protection as sin. Sin can be seen in visible acts against clearly written Biblical standards, but also in subtle violations of Jesus’ commands—that we love the Lord with all our being, and care for others as we do ourselves. Unhealthy self-protection is a sin of “omission”, the demand not to be hurt that keeps us from close involvement.
When Christians stay occupied only with outward violations (sins of commission), central heart problems are never addressed, and neither authentic closeness nor depth change are facilitated. Consequently, Body members feel desperately lonely, frustrated, and stressed by ever-increasing inner urges to perform for group acceptance. “Doing good things for God” increases the pain of self-rejection, as they are admonished with doctrines of “dying to self” and “crucifying the flesh”.
Even when suspicions of emotional exploitation and toxic spiritual abuse in church leadership surface, members may be encouraged to interpret their feelings as “the flesh”, unworthy of consideration. This can lead to renewed efforts to set aside one’s own priorities and “serve” however required, often to the detriment of family, health, and God’s plan. Sad to say, if we’re busy doing something other than God’s plan, we won’t be able to fulfill God’s plan, even when our motive is to please religious authorities.
Sin often starts in the heart as self-protection, in all its many forms. Self-protection’s fruit is the sacrifice of someone else’s feelings to protect my public image; or the compromise of an opportunity to freely love, in order to feel safe. Self-protection can look righteous to others, as when Allan worked at church to avoid facing issues at home.
Self-protection is the way we took as children to hide from and relieve pain. Without acknowledging that pain, we will never see what we are protecting. Neither will we have healthy passion for Christ, because our hearts will remain disconnected from outward behavior.
Self-protection prevents self-acceptance; without the desire for self-exposure, we will always approach God with fear, thinking He may show us something else that we can’t “fix”. Under these conditions, we will never read the Bible with the drive to know intimately the One who is reaching out from its pages. Reading the Bible to see ourselves as we are is radically different than reading it to gain head knowledge.
Mechanistic mental control to break bad habits, flat Biblical instruction without the draw into relationship, and insistence on taking charge of attitudes and actions as the path to holiness will never bring seekers closer to Christ, because the thirst in all our hearts is to deeply love and be loved.
Self-protection also leads to the demand that others fulfill our need for acceptance and significance. We are disappointed and angry when those needs are unmet. Our “trust in God” becomes the false confidence that He will eventually give us what we want, and that will make us feel clean and whole. In truth, only His love filling us will make us whole, and that can only happen as we allow ourselves out of hiding, relinquishing roles and pretenses and facing Him with our own inability ever to deserve His grace.
We believe dying to self is dying to the self-images and self-identities we employ to keep from exposing our hearts in openness and transparency. To “pick up our cross and carry it” is to accept the difficult circumstances, grief, temperamental weaknesses, disappointments, and painful rejections which are parts of all our lives in this fallen world. Dying to self is dying to our need to appear anything else than what we really are: needy people whose hope is in relationship with Christ alone. When we can do that, progressively more “space” in our hearts is available for Him to fill, and less playacting stands between His presence in us and the world around us.