Understanding how to "die to self"

by Tricia Tillin (Booth)

Jessie Penn LewisIt has been the subject of many sermons; books have been written about it; teachings galore have circulated the Net and yet - what is this "dying to self" really all about? How can we understand it, and why is it necessary? Jesus explained that there is an important and distinct different between the flesh and the spirit:

That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.... It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. John 3:5 and 6:63

Therefore it is necessary to let go the former life in the flesh:

If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. Luke 9:23

This "taking up the cross" means DEATH. It is a daily committment to laying aside the former flesh-life into death. But what is "death" in practical terms? Many of us struggle to know HOW to achieve this "dying to self", even though we know it's necessary and commanded.

Death is 'Sleep' (note one)

I am going to illustrate the biblical way of putting aside the "old man" of self and flesh by using a story. But first we need to know what "death" really is according to the bible.

Death is not non-existence. People who die, never just disappear. The spirit of a person still exists, in the place of their choice, either with God or not. The bible calls death "sleep".

In natural sleep we are not without substance, nor unconscious. We exist, but in a sleep-state that feels like another world. But in death we also continue to exist, so the bible calls it "sleep" - and that does not mean unconsciousness!

  • 1 Thess 5:10 Whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.
  • 1 Thess 4:14 God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
  • Eph 5:14 Therefore He says:"Awake, you who sleep, Arise from the dead
  • John 11:9 Jesus answered, "Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up." Then His disciples said, "Lord, if he sleeps he will get well." However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep.

So the process of putting self to death is really a process of keeping it asleep. You did not cause yourself to fall asleep in the first place. You died "in Christ" and he did all that was needed.

So your task is one of RESISTANCE to its prompts, rather than active assault. As you'll see from the story below. Your old nature HAS been put to death, but don't be surprised to find out that it's still there! A sleeping person is still with us, but inactive in this world. He continues to exist, he can be roused from slumber, but if left alone he has no power to interfere with the lives of others.

A Science Fiction Parable (note two)

I want you to imagine that a very long journey needs to be made across the universe, and the only way to accomplish it is to put the astronauts into stasis pods on the spaceship. Their lives are sustained physically in the pods but they are not actively engaged in the day-to-day running of the ship.

Instead, each astronaut has a hologram image of him/herself to do the tasks on the ship. These holograms are self-aware, intelligent and in every way identical to their physical counterparts, but even more so, since they never tire or age, they do not need food or sleep, and they are plugged directly into the super-intelligence of the ship's computer.

Each hologram individually and in some senses collectively has capability within their own education and training but benefits hugely from the extra talents, strengths, insights and knowledge of the ship's computer. This is important for one main reason: the ship has been programmed with the journey route map and destination coordinates as well as all the information needed to avoid disaster along the way.

The spaceship master computer contains sophisticated weaponry. It self-heals the ship from any damage. It guides the astronauts during times of confusion, and keeps overall check on the process of their journey. The ship's computer even contains leisure activities to stave off boredom and depression, since these holigrams are in all senses like their fleshly counterparts.

They enjoy a full life: friendship, entertainment, discovery, laughter - even love. Yes, some of the astronauts have fallen in love and they can share their feelings for eachother but on a mental and emotional level, since they have no flesh to distract them.

Disaster Strikes

All is well, until one or two of these hologram astrounauts buck the system. Some of them begin to pine for physicality. They enjoyed the mouth-feel of real food; they liked to sleep off a heavy drinking session; they could be lazy, sick, abusive, self-indulgent and altogether find excuses for not doing their work.

Rather like the Israelites in the wilderness, they start to pine for the "fleshpots of Egypt" even though they are perfectly provided for by the ship. Although their human lives were the usual mix of elation, ignorance, disappointment, pain, failure and loss, they somehow look back with fondness and crave their flesh bodies again. The ones who have fallen in love decide that physical lovemaking would be far superior to a close spiritual bond.

So, one day a rebel astronaut decides to switch off his own stasis pod.

He rouses his physical self and welcomes it like a long-lost brother. Now he can run riot around the ship, experiencing everything in a physical way and rejoice in passion, gluttony, and every kind of self-indulgence. Before long most of the other astronauts have followed suit.

They feel elated. They think they can do their jobs more pleasurably and in a fuller way, without hindrances or disciplines. They rejoice in the knowledge that they can taste, touch, and use their physical senses again.

But they have forgotten something. There is not actually enough food and water on board to sustain them. The supplies had been calculated to last only during that brief period of reawakening needed within sight of their new home planet. If they consume all the supplies now, without heed to their future, they will have nothing in days to come.

Even worse, distracted by the glories and feelings of the bodies they have reincorportaed into themselves, they have lost most of the connections to the ship's vital computer.

Every crew member now tries to apply his limited education and training to the tasks of the day, but falls far short of what is needed. (They had not received much training before the journey because it would not have been needed under normal circumstances. In these circumstances, with unfamiliar technology, they can only muddle though at best.)

They do not really know what they are supposed to be doing, or why, or how. They have lost their abilities and wisdom. They have lost all sense of direction and flounder around trying this and that without an aim. Over time they get disheartened, leave off working altogether and spend their time socialising.

Somehow, nonetheless, the pleasures of the human body do compensate for this loss and lack of purpose. They live in the moment. They party, watch videos, listen to loud music, have ridiculous competitions to show off their skills, eat, drink, laugh and make merry and then make love and sleep. Many of them get into fights and arguments and can't control their rage. Every day the same.

Some of them have a guilty conscience about their tasks, and spend time poring over the computer manual, trying to make sense of its limitless intricacies, but without achieving anything but boredom and irritation.

Sooner or later, apart from the dwindling food and water supplies, another problem occurs to the travellers - in their holograms they were immune from harm and everlasting, but in their bodies they are not. They are aging. Some of them are sick and having to cope without medical treatment. It's ocurred to them that eventually they will all die - without having reached their goal!

Plight of the Hologram Crew

A few stalwarts amongst the crew had rebelled against the move to reactivate the bodies from their pods. They had remained in hologram form. But now their plight was perhaps even more troubled than the fleshy crew.

They are a despised minority. They find themselves continually harrassed, bullied and mocked for being mere holograms, and their vital work is constantly interrupted by the squabbles, parties and entertainment going on all around them.

What's to be done?

Some of you may have realised by now that this story is about the conflict between flesh and spirit. It's far from a perfect analogy, but it illustrates the problems Christians face.

"For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace." Rom 8:5

The flesh cannot please God, however hard it tries. (That is, not the human physical body itself but the soul that animates it; the natural drives and motives and activities). Paul said "For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells". Rom 7:19 and "the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God". Rom 8:7

If the flesh CANNOT please God, then what can we do with it? Abandon it! "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts." Rom 13:14 Don't cater for the flesh-life; ignore it. Refuse to listen when it calls but instead listen to God and "walk in the spirit".

Gal 5:16 I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Gal 5:24 Those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.

Gal 6:8 For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life.

Crew Members are Christians

So these astronauts are like Christians on their journey through life, with a purpose and aim known only to God (who is in this story the ship's powerful all-knowing computer). Only God knows what to do, how to do it, and where we are going. Under his direction - in connection to him - we are safe and effective.

When we came to God, our "flesh" was dealt with by the crucifixion.

In other words, we died in Christ. "For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death....But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you". Rom 7:5 and Rom 8:9

Baptism is a visible way of showing that we are dead in Christ. Going under the water is a bit like going into the stasis pod. It is a kind of grave:

Col 2:11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, ...

And in our story, the crew members continued to live a full and genuine experience of life, and as long as they continued in close connection to their Master, enabled by him, guided by him, all was well. Just as the spiritual life of God within energises and enables the life of a Christian:

Col 2:12 & Rom 8:12... in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses.....Therefore, brethren, we are debtors -- not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.

Leave the flesh where it lies

So the flesh died in Christ, and we choose to walk away from that "grave" and accept the Spirit of God as our new life. We leave those stasis chambers where they are, and walk in a new spiritual way. Those are the holograms of the story. (Of course, in reality we are not spirit-beings but it serves as an illustration.)

Yet the "flesh" isn't dead. Remember that we found death is likened to sleep in the bible. It can be roused, it can be re-energised, it can be re-united with its owner as with the foolish crew member. The flesh is indeed "dead" and (by our choice) deactivated. Yet it can (by choice) be reawakened at any time. Therein lies the danger.

Sooner or later the devil tempts you to return to the old ways. He tries to persuade you that sin is enjoyable. He tries to make you look back to activities "in which you once walked according to the course of this world, the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind". Eph 2:1-3

The problems that our crew members encountered are illustrations of the problem of falling back into the flesh. It may seems like doing what you want is an innocent enjoyment, but if you lose touch with the Spirit of God you really have no idea of the repercussions of your actions. Even the "good" that you do could be mistaken and wrong.

Added to which, you no longer have the patience, resilience and ability that God would have provided - you are trying to steer the ship by yourself without any training or ability!

The flesh is SELF. Perhaps having to stay "under orders" might seem restrictive, and forsaking some of the enjoyable things you used to do seems hard - BUT - the alternative is disastrous.

Col 3:5 Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them.

Benefits of Walking in the Spirit

From the story, the disadvantages of going back to the self-driven natural flesh-life are obvious. Gifts wane and everything is hard to achieve, laborious and boring. Spiritual things lose their attraction and sin becomes enticing again. Yet sin is not satisfying or fulfilling. Pleasures are fleeting and empty.

There is no real sense of purpose or direction; troubles crowd in and lightheartedness is gone. We go back to feeling depressed, or impulsive; we suffer the old problems of anger, fear, greed, pride and envy.

Also, anybody who walks in the Spirit will be familiar with the scorn of those in the world. Like the crew members who decided to resist the lure of the stasis pod, they feel ostrasised and mocked, misunderstood and rejected. As Christians we don't want to join the millions of finger-pointing mockers who can't stand a spiritual person... but the flesh will make you do that. It will also eventually turn you away from God altogether!

Yet the benefits of walking in God daily far outweigh the sacrifices. There's no other way to know God's will, and to gain a strong sense of purpose in life. There is no other way to know the gifts of the Spirit or become able to do the tasks set before us.

Being FREED from the pull of sin is gloriously liberating, and feeling fulfilled in the love of God is the best thing in life. When walking in the Lord we can know answers to prayer and deliverance from problems - sometimes in a miraculous way. We can truly help others in the wisdom of God, and be effective in ministry.

There is a calmness, a peace and an untroubled JOY to be had in walking in the Spirit - Jesus said, MY peace I give to you, not as the world gives. John 14:27 None of this entails being unable to feel, think or do, but those things are accomplished in perfect harmony with the will of God instead of being random and usually ineffective or mistaken.

Stay away from the pod!

The message of the story is clear. If you want to be a strong effective faithful Christian who pleases God, then stay away from that stasis chamber and leave the flesh sleeping.

Don't keep running back to your human nature either for self-indulgence, or any other reason - not even to TRY to do godly things. When God sets you a task, let HIM accomplish it in and through you. Rest in HIS ability and don't do it by yourself.

Rom 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.

What brings condemnation is the knowledge that we have acted outside of God's intention. How can condemnation be avoided then? By "walking in the spirit" with God in charge. In that way - just like Jesus - we only do the things that God commands, and furthermore we do them in the strength and wisdom God supplies.

They say "let sleeping dogs lie". That is good advice as far as the sleeping flesh is concerned. God himself decided the ONLY way to deal with the sin-driven human nature was to consign it to an early grave and replace it with the perfect nature of God.

That is why Jesus died. He took your nature (the adamic nature) to the cross, killed it, and rose again in perfection, wisdom, ability and glory. Where does your Christian life come from then? It flows from God, from the Holy Spirit you have allowed to enter your inner being (if indeed you have done so.)


So to return to the question posed at the beginning: what is this dying to self all about? It's about letting the flesh that has been buried with Christ remain buried, sleeping, inactive. Jesus Christ placed it there, and your only task is to leave it alone! Can you do that?


(1) I am not a believer in "soul sleep". My article has no connection to those who teach it.

(2) Please be aware that this "parable" has many flaws and drawbacks. It is not the same as scripture, as it's only a story. In particular, it gives the mistaken impression that the "flesh" and the "spirit" are completly distinct and exist separately in a Christian. In fact, the two are always integrated. It is a false "gnostic" doctrine that teaches a complete eradication of the flesh. God uses our bodies with all their senses, feelings, thoughts and activities and he does not condemn the physical body of a Christian. What this story is meant to convey is the laying-down of the flesh-life, so that it does not interfere with the will of God. We should be motivated by the prompst of the Holy Spirit, not led by the natural flesh and soul. But that does not mean we cannot think or feel ANYthing.

© 2013 Tricia Tillin-Booth. All rights reserved. Birthpangs Website:  This document is the property of its author and is not to be displayed on other websites, redistributed, sold, reprinted, or reproduced in printed in any other format without permission. Websites may link to this article, if they provide proper title and author information.   One copy may be downloaded, stored and/or printed for personal research. All spelling and phraseology is UK English.