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.