Reader’s Note: This article discusses the topic of suicide.
For a Christian, the obvious answer to the question “what needs to die?” is “the self.” As Jesus tells his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23, ESV). We tend to hear this as a command to deny the disordered appetites and desires of the self, and there is surely some truth to that. But perhaps we need to hear Jesus’ words in a more radical way: as a command to deny our default ways of valuing and measuring the self. In a technological age obsessed with metrics that chart our physical activity, intellectual productivity, emotional health, and overall impact, denying the self as a measurable entity—an entity whose worth can be quantified and so judged to be ineffective or effective, insignificant or impactful, dispensable or indispensable—sounds radical indeed.
Yet the arrangement of Luke’s Gospel points us toward this way of reading Jesus’ words. Just a few verses after the disciples hear these instructions, they are arguing over “which of them was the greatest.” Jesus responds by taking a child on his lap and pointing toward a different view of the self: “He who is least among you all is the one who is great” (Luke 9:48, ESV). This paradox, one that lies at the heart of the kingdom of God, suggests that if I die to a vision of my self as great or essential, I may be freed to live faithfully in childlike wonder and gratitude.
In his wry self-help book Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy offers a thought experiment relating to suicide that might help us feel the radical weight of Jesus’ command to deny the self. Percy does not take the reality of suicide lightly: his grandfather and father committed suicide, and Percy believes his mother’s death in a car accident was also a suicide. While suicide can seem like the ultimate denial of self-worth, Percy frames it differently. In response to the rise of depression and suicide in the 1980s—problems that have only grown more endemic in recent years—Percy invites an imagined suicidal patient to consider that perhaps “you are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. … You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”
Percy’s prescription for such deep-seated despair is not to deny the many valid reasons for despair. Rather, Percy seeks to relinquish the myth of the indispensable self. The potential suicide must confess: I am not essential. Percy invites his patient to imagine the aftermath of suicide. He enumerates the likely consequences of this act on family members, neighbors, and coworkers. Despite the disruptions death causes, “in a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.” Hence the result of the thought experiment: “You are not indispensable, after all.”
For Percy, this realization should lift an immense burden from the patient’s shoulders: “Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life.” Everyone else may still be “worried sick … over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.” But the ex-suicide has been set free from these burdens of a measurable self. Percy’s point is that the intrinsic value of our lives does not stem from our productivity or efficacy or perceived importance; when we die to these ways of measuring the self we may be freed to receive life as an immeasurable gift.
Percy concludes with two vignettes that contrast a non-suicide, still struggling against the temptation to end his life in despair, with an ex-suicide, who has entertained the possibility of suicide and has embraced his dispensability:
The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.
The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn't have to.
Percy may falsely diminish the real consequences of someone’s death. Surely the loss of any human person is felt acutely by family members and loved ones, and though life may go on, it is irrevocably altered. Nevertheless, his deeper point remains: if we let go of the measurable self, we are freed to receive the given self, and this exchange has profound implications for how we live. In particular, relinquishing the measurable self dethrones the idol of greatness—and its mirror image: paralyzing futility—and allows us to live faithfully without worrying about our potential impact or significance.
If we cling to the myth that we are indispensable, we—both as individuals and institutions—will be tempted by any technology or political movement that promises to extend our reach and make us more effective. If we think that success depends on our efforts, we will turn to the thought leaders and celebrities that have achieved apparent greatness. What productivity hack do they use? What app enables them to maximize their reach? What political strategy have they followed? Aspirations to greatness can justify all manner of means.
This is precisely the temptation that Jesus faced at the outset of his ministry when the Devil came to him in the wilderness. Jesus is offered authority over all the kingdoms of the world if he will merely worship the Devil (Luke 4:6–7). Jesus could have achieved the goal of his earthly mission without having to undergo the suffering and indignity of the passion. That seems a lot more efficient! But his mission also entailed fidelity and obedience to the Father, obedience that led him to Gethsemane and Golgotha. During our own Lenten journey, we have the opportunity to withdraw—to fast from food or social media or other means that we rely on to live high-impact lifestyles—and reflect on whether the tools we use to be effective are in fact aligned with the way of the Cross, the way of self-denial, the way of Jesus.
The flip side of this obsession with efficacy is a pervasive sense of futility and despair: some other person or institution will always seem more successful than us. And even if we resist the temptation to compare ourselves with others, the problems of our deranged age loom, daunting us with their size and overwhelming all our puny efforts. To use the lingo of a culture that affirms and celebrates the measurable self, no life hack will enable you to “leverage” your assets to “make a difference” or “impact” problems like climate change or racism or religious decline. This sense of futility can induce paralyzing despair.
But if we follow Jesus and deny the self, we receive the childlike wonder and vitality of Percy’s ex-suicide. To cast this attitude in terms of my previous examples, realizing you don’t have to fix climate change frees you to joyfully tend your garden. Realizing you don’t have to eradicate racism frees you to listen to a friend from a different racial background. Realizing you don’t have to turn back the moral decline of culture frees you to invite some neighborhood kids over for a bonfire. Realizing you don’t have to save the world frees you to love your neighbor.
This profound denial of self-importance gives us the confidence we need to pursue fidelity rather than impact, obedience rather than efficacy. Such contrasting standards profoundly affect how we decide which career path to choose, which political strategy to follow, which technology to adopt in our churches, and which patterns of life we adopt.
There is nothing inherently wrong with being efficient or influential. But neither are these inherently good. And if we view our work or our institutions as irreplaceable, we’ll strive endlessly to extend their reach. By contrast, if we work as ex-suicides, we’ll work in a spirit of gratitude. As the Sabbatarian rhythms remind us, we did not create the world or redeem it from bondage; our work merely participates in the work that God has already accomplished.
If Jesus did not consider “equality with God something to be used to his own advantage,” if Jesus “made himself nothing,” how much more should we relinquish our sense of self-importance (Phil. 2:6–7)? God does not need me to accomplish his purposes. I am utterly dispensable. Jesus holds up children as exemplars of this attitude: children are maddeningly—or delightfully—inefficient (Luke 9:47–48; 18:15–17). They do no essential work and often impede the “productivity” of others. As such they remind us that we need to die to our visions of greatness and receive the kingdom of God with the gratitude, wonder, and joy of a little child—or an ex-suicide.
Let us live because we have died. Let us tend our gardens, care for our families, love our neighbors, and set to work because we have died to the measurable self and received the given self.
“If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).”
Jeff Bilbro is an associate professor of English at Grove City College. His latest books include Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News and Loving God’s Wildness: the Christian Roots of Ecological Ethics in American Literature.
This article is part of New Life Rising which features articles and Bible study sessions reflecting on the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Learn more about this special issue that can be used during Lent, the Easter season, or any time of year at http://orderct.com/lent.
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