Further In: June 2021

What does it mean to die to self?

Each month, three staff members respond to an excerpt from Dr. Stanley’s teachings. For this round, Aline Mello, John VandenOever, and Kayla Yiu discussed in our team Slack channel what it looks like to deny ourselves in spiritually fruitful ways. Specifically, we talked about how to serve others sacrificially. What does it mean to die to self—and at what point does self-denial edge toward becoming self-hatred?  This month’s excerpt comes from chapter 3 of Dr. Stanley’s book Finding God’s Blessings in Brokenness

“Jesus said, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds’ (John 12:24).

As long as Jesus remained alive, a few might turn to God by his teaching and preaching, but ultimately, the world would remain unforgiven.

A single seed will never stop being just a single seed until it is dropped into the earth and covered with soil: the seed has to be buried; it has to be positioned to die with the purpose of reproducing life. Before long, the seed’s outer shell breaks, and a little green sprout begins to push its way up through the soil, until eventually it breaks through into the sunshine. The seed itself disappears as a stalk of grain grows. The head of the wheat holds dozens of grains that could each grow into a plant of its own. From one grain of wheat, a person could eventually plant a million acres of wheat.

Jesus was teaching that as long as the grain remains alone—unplanted and unyielded—it cannot bear fruit. He was describing, of course, what was about to happen to him: his crucifixion and his resurrection. As long as Jesus remained alive, a few people might be healed, a few might benefit from his miracles, a few might turn to God by his teaching and preaching, but ultimately, the world would remain unforgiven.

Before his life could be extended and multiplied, Jesus had to die, and he was willing to die. In turn, he calls upon each of us to take up our cross—sacrificially dying to ourselves and giving ourselves to his cause—in order that we might live for him and according to his purposes.

We must be willing to die to our affections, dreams, desires, ambitions, and goals. We must break ourselves of our intense love of self. We must be totally willing for the Lord Jesus Christ to have his way in our lives. Only then can we truly know life to the fullest and find our purpose in life realized completely. We must die to self in order to become more of ourselves and eternally ourselves.”



John: In reading Dr. Stanley here, I was struck by the thought, How many grains has God planted through me? I have always enjoyed teaching the Bible, but I look at how little I accompanied that by supporting those I taught. I wonder how little impact that has over time?

Aline: I will say that I have heard this preached my whole life, and it always made sense to me. But now I’m looking at the part where he says, “We must break ourselves of our intense love of self,” and I wonder what he means. How do we love ourselves but not in an “intense” way? What’s the difference?


Kayla: Maybe it’s more like not making ourselves the number one priority? I think (hope) we can love ourselves in a healthy way while putting others first.

John: For me, “intense love” means promoting myself, giving myself opportunities for praise, not sharing gifts or supporting others with chances of their own. Like hoarding job responsibilities, for instance, rather than giving them to those on my team who may not be as professionally honed, but they need the job more than they need to see me model the “ideal.”

Aline: I’m not sure I would call that a love of self, but maybe more of an obsession or self-protection. If I’m only thinking of my next opportunity or hoarding good things for myself, I am usually aware that it's not a good thing, so that's why I wouldn't call it love. The motivation isn't self-love—it's something else.

Kayla: It sounds like insecurity.

John: Well, putting myself first is a love of self—an unhealthy, fearful love. As Dr. Stanley says at the end, dying to self elevates us to the true self we’re made to become.  

Kayla: It’s possible that genuine self-love could come from dying to self. The more you become the person God intended, the more you love yourself, if that makes sense.

John: I think in the Scriptures, God assumes a baseline of love for oneself, because we’re called to love others as we already love ourselves. I can be very self-critical, wrestle with guilt a lot, but I haven’t seen that as any interference of the love of myself.

Before his life could be extended and multiplied, Jesus had to die, and he was willing to die.

Aline: I struggle with self-hatred. I feel like I have to constantly put myself down, because maybe if I don’t, I’ll have to face this version of myself that actually has goodness in her. When I am at a peak of self-hatred—criticizing everything, putting myself down—I also act that way toward others.

John: Self-hatred—could it be a form of love? I mean, as people who live in a sinful world where so much gets twisted up, could it be that we love ourselves in wrong or misguided ways?

Kayla: Being critical of ourselves definitely makes it harder to put others first. Maybe because we’re stuck on ourselves? It’s the whole idea of “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

John: I think when I’m most disappointed with myself, or have sinned, I can’t think of others. I am not able to be “salt and light” (See Matt. 5:13-14).

Aline: Oh, for sure. I get stuck in cycles of regret and disappointment, and that takes up all of my attention.

John: That’s why we have to really practice moving from an orphan mentality to a beloved child mentality with God. We can only be fueled to serve others through the Spirit of God. And we can only see and love ourselves properly by seeing our worth in Him.

Kayla: True self-love to me sounds more like security—of who you are in Jesus. So secure that you can give your time, love, attention away. There are many people experiencing homelessness in my neighborhood, and I always wish I were secure enough to invite them home.

John: For me, it’s about being totally available to someone else, outside my family. What would that look like, and who? I want to be a help. I am thankful for God's blessings, and I give, but usually it remains with monetary gifts. How can I take it to the next level?

Dying to self elevates us to the true self we’re made to become.

Aline: We talk in church about giving money as if it’s super hard to do, and I think it is for some people, but definitely not for everyone. For some of us, it’s the most disconnected, safest thing to do.

John: Giving money is a trust thing. We’ve never had more than we need. But if I trust God—not me, not my employer—for my needs, I can give more freely.

Kayla: I don’t think there’s any rule for knowing which things we need to die to. You just know what you need to do through the Holy Spirit.

John: I think God redirects us. My career goals were to be “up front”—to act, speak, host, and star—and God is good: He gave me those desires. I had a chance to really do those things. But He slowly led me away, so that ultimately there’s more fulfillment in the professional roles I’ve had behind the scenes in support of others.

Aline: That gives me a lot of comfort, John. God can redirect and not just say, “You chose this path— now you’re stuck in it.”

John: We can go toward what we think we want, and He can give us a certain amount of success in that way, but I think He sweeps in and changes our desires as He gives us better things. We can disagree with Him and rebel, and still go toward what we think is best. But that’ll get derailed, or we’ll feel less than whole, less loving toward ourselves and others.

Aline: If it’s something biblical, we could say, “This is of God,” but what if it isn’t? It's easy for us to see, for example, robbing a bank down the street is a goal I need to die to, but it gets murkier when the desire isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What if the dream is to have children?

John: Personally, I can’t go very far in something that isn’t of God without feeling the ick all over. That doesn’t mean I turn around immediately, but I just don’t feel well or happy.

We can only be fueled to serve others through the Spirit of God. And we can only see and love ourselves properly by seeing our worth in Him.

Kayla: This might be an unpopular opinion, but with neutral things or good things, I don’t think it really matters if it’s from God or not. I think He’ll be glorified either way.

Aline: I’ve often been paralyzed trying to see if something I wanted to do was God’s will or not, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been drawn to that same sort of thinking you both are talking about.

But I admit there’s a part of me that's still afraid of stepping off course—so afraid that I often don’t take any steps at all.

Kayla: I think that’s why the idea of trust comes into play so much with following Jesus. Because in many situations (good or neutral) there are no rules, or black-and-white lines. This may be too simple, but my method is: Do your best to listen to God, and if you make a mistake, He’ll help you.

John: That’s what I’ve heard at church when it comes to ministry opportunities. Try everything, see what makes your heart sing. Then you’ll find the thing God wants you involved in. I remember in my 20s, I was leading a large singles group. I felt as if I had to do everything the group was doing, and I really didn't like visiting nursing homes, but I tried. And a pastor’s wife told me, “I see what you’re doing. I see how hard you’re working. But you don’t have to do it all. Choose the things that give you joy.” Not that everything we do has to be exciting—I sometimes think that the nursing home would’ve provided its own wonderful rewards to me. But I did give that up.

We're told to hoard and be safe and seek more security and comfort. But maybe dying to self means not prioritizing this pursuit, and to go the opposite way.

I was trying to be everything to all people. But it was in my own strength, not the power of Christ. In my flesh, I thought I should be there for everyone: an unhealthy burden. I think we often forget that God is most glorified in our weakness.

If I really can’t do something well and I’m totally relying on Him, I can be sure I'm not trying to claim glory or honor or credit for it. So I sometimes think about that nursing home and wonder.

It’s not about how many people admire me or like me or how many friends I have—it’s that I'm made to die to all of that to let Christ live and serve others through me. What positions am I in that will allow this to happen? How can I start the road to one million acres of grains of wheat? How can I give my life away?

Aline: I like that question, “What positions am I in that will allow this to happen?” That makes me think of all the blessings and privileges we have and whether we are using them to help others who have less.

Kayla: That’s why I hope one day I can invite one of these people in from the cold.

Aline: Maybe the thinking isn’t “How do I bring everyone into my house?” but what if you start with one?

John: Also, think about the law of God that said not to take all the grain out of your pastures, but to leave it for the poor and the foreigner. How much extra are we leaving behind for others? I don't know if you've seen the Shirley Combs video we produced. She's such an inspiration! She started with a cafe, started giving the homeless what was left over, and now has a house for them. That is really something we can all learn from in some way.

Kayla: That’s a good point, John. I once heard someone say it’s a good idea to have a quick turnaround on your stuff. As in, if you’re not using it, find somebody who needs it.

Aline: For me, dying to self means moving against the current. We are consistently bombarded with consumerism. We're told to hoard and be safe and seek more security and comfort. But maybe dying to self means not prioritizing this pursuit, and to go the opposite way.


Art by Jonathan Todryk

Related Topics:  Service

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24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

13 You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.

14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden;

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