How to Be Yourself While Dying to Yourself

A post from three months ago recently received a very short flurry of attention, during which two people commented with very similar concerns: how can I suggest that we retain our own identities and individuality when Christ asks us to die to ourselves and take up our crosses? It’s a tough question, because there are two ideas at play here using similar words to mean very different things. There are, however, some very important distinctions to make.

We must understand both sides of this issue: individualism and retaining identity. Individualism, while something of a poorly-defined concept, is roughly the idea that the individual stands alone, free to make his own decisions and carving out meaning for himself. The problem is that, as the expression goes, no man is an island, and we all exist in a vast, interconnected web of people. Individualism denies that reality and focuses intensely on the self.

For example, an individualistic perspective on health care might think that one can choose whether or not to buy health coverage without impacting anyone else; however, the fact is that we will all have health problems, and when emergencies strike those who choose not to buy coverage, the rest of us pick up the tab. Thus, the individualist neglects that the consequences of his/her actions affect other people. No one exists in a vacuum.

Being yourself, or retaining your identity, means something very different. It means that we must be honest in giving ourselves to God. For example, many in more conservative/fundamentalist churches would demand that I believe certain things about God and the Bible (see here infallibility, Creationism, complimentarianism, exclusivism, etc.). If I were a slave to their concerns, I would be dishonest with myself and with God, presenting to Him a false concept of myself. My identity as myself would disappear, and I would forfeit my identity through my fear of betraying others’ expectations. In simpler terms, I would stop being myself because I would fear what others think. Fear would consume my identity.

The Christian life takes place while discerning how to be yourself. An individualist decides to seek his/her good without consideration of others, whereas the Christian seeks the good of all. “Dying to yourself” is not losing your identity — a dangerous thought! — but denying individualism.

This is how we understand the relationship God has even with Himself. The three parts of the Trinity remain distinct, yet they come together as one. Even if we cannot prove the metaphysics of the Trinity, this cooperative agreement is foundational to Christianity. We give of ourselves, not of anyone else that we might pretend to be. Each of us remains important as ourselves, and we do not disappear into the collective church or anything of the sort.

So I agree we must “die to ourselves,” which entails giving up individualism and learning to love and live with others and God. But you must be the one dying, or else you’ve only tricked yourself into a weird sort of false life. Oftentimes, I see this in the form of denying very basic things about oneself, like the ability to reason or one’s sexual/gender identity. Please don’t do this. Don’t lie to yourself to try to earn God’s favor. God wants you, not posturing as someone else but as you are. Be yourself as you die to yourself.

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About Chris Attaway

Chris Attaway is a Christian philosopher seeking to refine the way we live through reasoning and reflection. Be sure to follow his blog, The Discerning Christian, for challenging articles which offer new perspectives on old problems.
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5 Responses to How to Be Yourself While Dying to Yourself

  1. 17Sevens says:

    This is very helpful. Like, really. I over think these kinds of issues too much…

  2. DM says:

    What is the point of repentance?
    Shouldn’t Jesus have just said, “uh, never mind, just keep plugging away as your true selves.”
    What if someone is selfish by nature? Did God create them that way? Why should they lie to themselves and change. It appears as though you believe selfishness is bad and ought to be changed within someone. You appear to allude to the idea that it would be selfish to cause others to pick up the slack of the uninsured.

    Help me understand what you believe God wants changed within people (if anything) and what you believe God doesn’t want changed within people; also how you know this to be the case.

    • In the classical understanding of good and evil in Christianity, we understand good as fullness of being and evil as privation thereof. God then desires us to be our full selves, and we repent from those things which diminish us.

      Goodness does not exist in a vacuum but in consideration to your part in the community. Selfishness, then, detracts from your being a part of the community.

      Does this help?

  3. Chara says:

    Thank you so much for writing this Chris. I am one of those who feel compelled to maintain harmony – sometimes, by conforming to a group identity. When amongst fellow Christians, ithis tendency manifests itself in the strangest of ways. For instance, in the odd notion that I’m not doing my part to serve God unless I’m, say, playing on the worship team, handing out tracts at the corner store or going on missions. Whilst all of that is excellent work, it is in my nature to witness in more humble ways. As an introverted personality, I do prefer to spend my time as ‘an island’ rather than on a public stage. Yet, this does not take away from the fact that I love God and actually do my best to reach out to others, albeit in quieter ways. Your article is a reminder that I can be myself and yet be in Christ.

    • We may disagree on the goodness of certain things like handing out tracts (keep reading my blog and you may find out why!), but I am glad to have had a positive influence here. So much of Christianity seems so focused on creating split personalities within people who don’t necessarily fit the established norms. We need wholeness, where each of the “part of the body” can be healthy and performing their best.

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