The Victorious Christian Life

A Lesson Series for the Earnest Christian

© 2002 by Thomas W. Finley, 2013 Revised Edition

Lesson Thirteen: Characteristics of the Overcomer – Willingness to Suffer - Dying to Self

The matter of “dying to self” cannot be exhausted by the comments and illustrations of this lesson. We human beings have many avenues of self-desire and self-will which can oppose the character or will of God in any given circumstance. Also, because each personality is unique, there can be expressions of the self-life in one person that are not existent in another person with a different personality. For this reason, each disciple must learn from the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit when his attitudes and actions are wrong before God and he needs to put them to death by the Spirit. There are, of course, some matters of selfish desire that are universally wrong and “sinful” in God’s eyes, being clearly recorded in the Bible. For instance, the “works of the flesh” as recorded in Gal. 5:19-21 are clearly wrong for all disciples. This list of sins in Galatians 5 is well known by believers, and many believers think that if they are not doing these things then they have achieved a good measure of victory. Although these sins often present a real battle for the believer, victory in these things does not equate to full Christian victory. Lack of humility and inward submission towards fellow believers, as well as unforgiveness, are other examples of the self-life, among many, that are clearly spelled out as wrong in Scripture. Yet, as we truly grow in Christ, learning of His character and ways, we will realize that our self-life needs to die in many ways that are not always clearly spelled out in explicit commandments in the New Testament. Still, Jesus’ command to us to die to self is sweeping and all inclusive: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself [totally], and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate [in comparison to love and obedience to Me] his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple” (Lk. 14:26).

Let us briefly explore some of the ways that the self-life might be alive in us in order to help us recognize where the Holy Spirit might desire to work in our lives.

We must realize that our fallen soul is pleased by many things, and if we allow it to have its satisfaction unchecked by the Spirit within us, then we will not experience the overcoming life in Christ. The Lord pictured one of the dimensions of this problem in His parable of the sower, where He told us that a fruitful life can be frustrated by our desires for material things and pleasures. “And the seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Lk. 8:14).

The pursuit of more and more material things and pleasures is a sign of an important aspect of self-indulgence. The influence of materialism on American Christianity probably cannot be overstated. It has stunted the spiritual growth of most believers in America, as church members have imitated unbelievers in going after material goods, pleasures and entertainments in a myriad of forms. Instead of being satisfied with what God has given in the basic needs of life and in the joy of knowing and serving the Lord, many believers in America have gone into burdensome debt (beyond what might be modest and prudent) in pursuit of a lifestyle of “enjoyment,” fueled by all manner of goods and avenues of pleasure for the soul. What is missing is the cross of Christ – applied to their worldly appetites. Paul witnessed this same problem in his day and warned the believers in Philippi about it:

Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 3:17-20)

The writer of Hebrews spoke similarly of the example of Esau as a warning for believers. Esau traded the privilege of his birthright (a type of future rewards) for the momentary pleasure of a bowl of stew. “See to it . . . that there be no immoral or godless person like Esau, who sold his own birthright for a single meal” (Heb. 12:15-16).

The desire to been entertained to the delight of the soul has even entered the meetings of the church. Many modern church musical and dramatic performances, if truly spiritually discerned, cater more to the eye, the ear and the emotions than to the spirit. Our worship to God is tainted when it is geared for the soul’s delight. A picture of this is seen in Exodus 32, when the Israelites created a golden calf and worshipped it as if they were worshipping the Lord. The Israelites mixed pleasure into their worship in order to satisfy their souls’ longings: “So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6).

Notice also the matter of worries in the passage in Luke 8 noted above: “as they go on their way they are choked with worries...and bring no fruit to maturity” (Lk. 8:14). We humans can be fully caught up with our problems and our worries. When we do this and do not let go of our worries by bringing them to the Lord in trustful prayer, then our soul is caught up with its own problems and we cannot fully function spiritually in hearing and serving the Lord. This matter of being “choked with worries” is a significant problem of the self-life. This is why God wants us to bring our anxious thoughts to Him in prayer (Phil. 4:6-7; 1 Pet. 5:6-7).

Another arena where Christ calls us to die to self is in our family loves and ties. Our soul can be so wrapped up with the pleasures, problems and emotions of family life that these can keep us from following the Lord fully and realizing His plan for our lives. Jesus plainly tells us that we need to know His cross in our family relationships. "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matt. 10:37-38). The blockage that love, sympathy or concern for a family member can cause to our full following of Christ very often goes undetected by believers. They may love Christ, and truly desire to honor Him, yet often their emotions towards their family members short-circuit obedience to God’s will for them.

King David was an example of one whose sympathies for his children led him astray from doing his duty to God. God had given him the throne and he was to rule Israel effectively for God’s purposes. Yet, we see him lacking the will to discipline Amnon his son for raping his half-sister (2 Sam. 13:1-21). Is this how God wanted the king to rule in righteousness? Again, when David’s son Absalom murdered Amnon, David did not act. Instead, his heart yearned for his son Absalom (2 Sam. 13:39; 14:33). When Absalom raised up a huge rebellion to overthrow David’s throne, David the King had to go to war against him. Yet, David seemed more concerned for his son’s welfare than for the successful defense of the throne (2 Sam. 18:5). When David learned that Absalom had fallen in the battle, he was so overcome with grief that he expressed no concern for his own men who had risked their lives to save the king and the kingdom. Joab had to confront him for his lack of care for his own loyal servants (2 Sam. 18:33-19:8).

We are surely called to be good parents and to help our children. Yet, I have seen that it is easy for parents to be so wrapped up in concern for their children that they are not really free to hear God and follow His plan for them. It seems sometimes as if the whole life of the parent is wrapped up almost every hour with the child. The Lord may want to use the parent in service, but the parent is not free to serve. Instead he or she is bound because of concerns for the child. Thus, the parent’s decisions are really primarily influenced by concern for the child, not by concern for God’s kingdom. And, unfortunately, this pattern can even be witnessed in the parents of grown children who are out on their own and may even be married! May God open our eyes to see this matter of self-denial in the familial emotions.

How do we react when we are suffering? Is self-pity and complaining at work in our hearts? Is this not contrary to God’s way of accepting all things in our lives as being allowed by God and trusting in Him to care for us (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 5:20; 1 Pet. 5:6-7)? In Matthew 11 we see that the Lord Jesus describes how three different cities in Israel had rejected His ministry, even though they had been blessed with His miraculous works. As He spoke of the lack of the response of these cities to His ministry, He thanked the Father saying, “Yes, Father, for this way was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father” (Matt. 11:26-27a). In other words, Jesus recognized God’s sovereignty in allowing the rejection of His ministry. Immediately following this, Jesus gives His disciples an important lesson: "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-29). The Greek word for “gentle” as used in this passage has been explained by Greek experts as meaning that Christ was willing to accept God’s sovereign dealings in His life without complaint or resistance. We must learn to agree to die to self-pity through our identification with Christ in His death, and to believe that we are now alive to God, yielded to Him in order to learn of Him and glorify Him, even in the very difficult circumstances of life.

How do we react when we are misunderstood? Do we immediately begin to set the record straight, so that others will not think wrongly of us? The root of instant self-vindication is the self-life. It is God’s way to wait upon the Lord and seek His mind as to whether, and how, we should correct a misunderstanding. God may be calling us to suffer a misunderstanding in silence.

In our relationships with others around us, whether family or co-workers or fellow-believers, are we self-assertive? Are we unhappy because our ideas or our desires are not being accepted by others? Are we looking for ways that we can knock down the road blocks set up by others to our desires? Are we not willing to sincerely listen to their ideas and concerns because we only want things “our way?” Do we have such a high regard for our ideas only, indicating self-respect? James advises us: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy” (Jas. 3:17, NKJV). The Greek word translated “willing to yield,” means “easily persuaded” and is translated in various versions as: “reasonable,” “open to reason,” and “easily entreated.” In other words, this wisdom means that the believer is open to the ideas of others and is not just respecting his own ideas and constantly pushing for his own way.

When we have any successes in life, is our heart filled with self-congratulation and self-admiration? Do we feed on and nurture these thoughts within us? Or, when such thoughts start to come to us do we immediately run from them and humble ourselves before God, telling Him that without Him we can do nothing and that to Him belongs all the glory?

What about when we have failures in life? Is our first reaction to excuse ourselves and justify ourselves? This aspect of the self-life is very strong in some believers. They do not want to admit that the fault lies with them, but instead always shift the blame to some other person or cause. This self-excusing and self-justification must go to the cross of Christ and we must learn to take responsibility for our failures, without casting blame upon circumstances or others. If we do not deal with this aspect of the self-life, our progress in the Christian life will be cut short.

One of the great signs of an “alive” self-life is our reaction to criticism. The self simply does not like to be criticized by others. When someone criticizes us, do we immediately bristle inside, rejecting the criticism outright, instantly embracing self-approval? Or, do we stand against this natural tendency by humbling ourselves before God, looking to Him that we might be willing to receive and humbly evaluate the criticism of others in an objective way? Even if we decide that the criticism may not be accurate, we still need to avoid any prideful attitude within concerning our “rightness” and the other person’s “wrongness.” Any attitude of “how dare him say that,” or any attitude that is now negative towards that person just because he or she dared to criticize us must be dealt with in the light of the Lord. It is too easy to let pride give us the wrong attitude towards others or about ourselves.

A general sign of the self-life is the tendency toward self-absorption. This means that the person is wrapped up with his plans, his interests, his problems and his desires. One significant result is that he is not attuned to the needs, the interests or the desires of others. Others are around him and in his life, but he has little true care or heart towards them. This is certainly not the way Jesus was. He was constantly tuned in to the needs of others. So Paul admonishes us: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

Each new day opens up opportunities for us in terms of what we might do or how we might spend our time. Regrettably, the daily routine of many of God’s children is ordered by self-pleasing and self-choosing. Instead of deliberately dying to self and looking to God for His will in the daily matters of life, the self-life is left to run on “auto pilot.” We must learn to start each day with an agreement with God’s truth that we have died to sin (including the self-life) and now we are alive in resurrection solely unto Him, with the members of our body yielded to Him for His will in our daily affairs. Then, throughout the day we should keep our submission in our daily affairs to Him alive by inner contact with the Lord. Will we do this?

Then there is self-confidence. It is good that one may have confidence when facing the challenges and affairs of life. But self-confidence runs against the whole counsel of Scripture. Our confidence should be in God, not in ourselves. Maybe we may have successfully handled our job or our affairs for years, perhaps even on “our own steam,” apart from the Lord’s strength. But our “success,” or even our education or training, should never lead us to the deadly sin of “self-confidence.” After all, can we truly be a fully proper employee, a fully proper family member or a fully proper citizen anyway? If so, why would we need God? Self-confidence is the opposite attitude of that portrayed in the very first Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Matt. 5:3). It is knowing the destitution of one’s self and then reaching out to God that brings in the Holy Spirit. To be “poor in spirit” means we lose our self-sufficiency and our self-dependency. We recognize that we cannot, in ourselves, be who we should be or do what we should do. So, we turn to God in complete dependency upon Him. We need to especially repent of self-confidence in spiritual endeavors: “being manifested that you are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:3-5). All self-confidence must go to the cross and we must take our proper place of dependency upon God, trusting confidently in Him to be all that we need to live our lives.

Although God does not deliberately aim to obliterate our distinct personalities, Christian testimonies concerning the work of the Holy Spirit do indicate that God sometimes desires to adjust some characteristics of our unique self-life that frustrate Christ being manifest in our living. For example, one saint may learn from God that his constant humorous comments are not truly reflective of Christ. Another saint may be enlightened by God that his talkativeness must be curbed by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps, on the other extreme, a saint may be touched by God that his shyness and unwillingness to speak up is a hindrance to God’s life within him and it must go to the cross so that God can speak through him. One person may have been raised in an untidy home atmosphere and he tends to carry this sloppiness with him in his adult life. Yet, God may touch him that this lifestyle does not reflect the orderliness of God. On the other hand, a person may be brought up to be extremely tidy and thorough, yet God may show him that he is so attuned to this way as a lifestyle habit that he is hindering God’s desire to use him at certain times in caring for others because he is preoccupied with personal organization. These examples show that God is ever desirous to have us cooperate in putting the self-life to death – our desires, our choices and our ways of living – so that Christ can live through us.

May we humble ourselves before God concerning this great matter of willingness to die to self. “Oh, Father, I am sure that there is much of the self-life in me that I have not yet seen and that has not yet been put to death by the cross. By your grace I tell you today that I am willing to suffer death to my self-life. I want to deny myself, take up my cross and follow You, Jesus. I ask for enlightenment through Your word and by Your Spirit in my life so that this matter of self-denial can become a reality in my life. I ask that Christ be glorified in my life. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Thank You, Lord.”

The writer gratefully acknowledges that some of the ideas in this lesson come directly from L. E. Maxwell’s book, “Born Crucified.”

Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ Seekers of Christ

And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13, NASB)