She didn’t want to lose herself.
Friends had invited her to church, where she was suddenly confronted with her own fork in the road: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). For the first time, she understood that coming to Christ would mean coming to die.
But there were so many parts of herself that she didn’t want to die: her hobbies, her friends, her sense of humor, her future plans. Who would she be if she handed them over to Jesus? She thought of some Christians she knew — nice, neat, and bland. They seemed to dress their souls in beige every day. She wondered if Jesus would flatten her personality, her identity. She feared, with Nietzsche, that “in heaven, all the interesting people are missing.”
She didn’t want to lose herself. And so, she heard Jesus say, “Follow me,” and she walked away.
Losing your life has never been easy. The age has not yet come, nor will it ever, when self-denial will be convenient, or taking up a cross comfortable. In our culture of self-help and self-realization, of individuality and independence, of “you do you” and “follow your heart,” Jesus’s call to lose ourselves stabs at the very heart. Who will we be if we hand our self over to a Lord who demands all of us?
“The age has not yet come, nor will it ever, when self-denial will be convenient, or taking up a cross comfortable.”
Many in the world hear Jesus’s call and, like the young woman, fear that following him will destroy all that gives meaning to me. They’d prefer to keep their own identity, that self they’ve been fashioning for so many years. And so, they stay in their little land of Shinar, adding bricks to their personality and appearance, their resume and persona, building Babels to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:1–4).
Even in the church, many of us cannot help but be tempted by our culture’s obsession with a self-made self. Though Jesus has taken a wrecking ball to our former selves, we can find ourselves walking wistfully among the ruins, even trying to raise little shacks here and there. Not content to locate our identity simply in him, we seek to be known by something else as well, something all our own: a certain style of clothing or music, a method of raising our children, a unique career or passion, an expertise on some subject, a grade point average.
We take innocent things in themselves and use them as hideouts from the One who would refashion us in his own image. The quiet rebellion spills out when God disrupts (or dismantles) our little fortresses of self.
We have forgotten, as C.S. Lewis puts it,
It is no good trying to be ‘myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. (Mere Christianity, 225–26)
Moons on the Run
The God who made us in his own image has not given us the power to create a self that can survive on its own. From the beginning, our true identity (who we are) has been tied to our Creator (who he is): “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him” (Genesis 1:27). God created us to be like the moon: cold and barren on our own, but aflame with light when we come near the sun.
Any self that flees from God will eventually go dark. Those who give themselves over to themselves do not, in the end, become more interesting, more unique, or even more themselves; they become beasts: “like unreasoning animals” (Jude 10), “like a horse or a mule” (Psalm 32:9), “like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12). The farther we flee from the great Person who created us, the more we forfeit our personhood (Romans 1:21–25).
“The more we pursue self-realization, the more we lose the self God made us to have. We unself ourselves.”
Anything we give ourselves to for our own sake and not for Christ — beauty, wealth, friendship, sex, food, comfort, power — eventually becomes our master, defacing the remnants of that image that God placed upon us (Romans 6:16). Those who quip that they’d rather be in hell with all the interesting people do not know what they are saying. Hell will not be filled with interesting personalities, but with people who are barely recognizable: Nebuchadnezzars finally cast down from their thrones, eating grass like an ox (Daniel 4:33).
The more we pursue self-realization, the more we lose the self God made us to have. We unself ourselves.
If we would find a self that will last forever, we will need to die to the search for a self apart from Christ. We will need to die to self-realization, die to our independence, die to a me-centered universe, and give ourselves up to the one who says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
We will need, in the language of the apostles, to leave behind that old self, crucified with Christ, and embrace that new self, “which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:10). And when we do, we will find that we are finally becoming the person God made us to be — more ourselves than we ever could have been on our own.
Jesus is not interested in obliterating the personalities of those who follow him. He does not aim to fill the kingdom of heaven with clones. He aims, rather, to renew our new self “after the image of its creator” — a creator who is not a bare unity, but a glorious unity of Father, Son, and Spirit.
The triune God who made heaven and earth, the sea and everything in it, is not a God of monotony, as any field of wildflowers can tell you. He is the God of the orchestra and the dance, who makes a world swirling with diversity yet held together in him. When you give yourself up to him, you will become part of a grand whole, but not swallowed up (Colossians 1:17); a member of a worldwide body, but with a distinct part to play (1 Corinthians 12:12); one among myriads upon myriads and thousands upon thousands, but with your own note to add to that colossal chorus (Revelation 5:11–12).
“We become most us when we forget about ourselves and become consumed with him.”
You may lose yourself when you give yourself up to Christ, but only those parts of yourself that deserve to be lost — the parts that will be torn apart and thrown into the lake of fire (Romans 6:21). We will no longer use our hobbies as props for our identity, but will enjoy them as gifts from a kind God. We will no longer restrict our social circle to those who really get us, but will rub shoulders with the most unlikely. We will no longer plan a future around our own bucket list, but will dream about meeting the real needs of needy people.
Parts of you will be burned away, others will be refined and repurposed, and whole new parts of you will come alive. Die to yourself, and you will find the true you.
When we lose ourselves, we do not simply get a new self, increasingly radiant with the glory of our Maker. We begin thinking about ourselves less and less.
We begin to discover that we become most us when we forget about ourselves and become consumed with him. We will discover that we are happiest when we care least about how unique we are, or what sort of personality we have. We would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of God, gazing upon his face, than hold a mirror to our own in the tents of wickedness (Psalm 84:10).
Give yourself up to him. Walk into this river that divides the kingdom of self from the kingdom of Christ, and let it wash the old you away. Don’t worry about losing the best parts of yourself. Anything good in you will be waiting for you on the other bank, transfigured. And on the other side, you will find that the true you has always been hidden away in him.