Humility is throwing oneself away in complete concentration on something or someone else.
Sometimes I banter with God. Every now and then, I’ll tease him, telling him that since he disciplines the children he loves (Heb. 12:6), he must really love me because he often disciplines me by driving me into the desert and allowing me to spend long periods of time there. Other times, I wonder aloud to him about whether I am as stubborn and as stiff-necked as the Israelites. I’d like to think I am not, but then I’d be kidding myself. Maybe he’s trying to break me of my stubbornness and (as he did with Moses) trying to form me into one of the most humble people on earth by making me at home in the desert. I can’t get away with anything, not a single thing. The Lord won’t let me get away with a single un-Christlike disposition, behavior, or thought—not for long anyway.
The Holy Spirit is intent on immediately convicting me and calling me to repentance. Of course, that’s not unique to me. All of us are called to repent immediately and make things right, even if it’s uncomfortable. All of us become more sensitive to the Holy Spirit the longer we walk with God. Can’t God just cut us some slack when it comes to immediate conviction of wrongdoing and repentance in the little things? That’s a thought I have when I’m in a foul mood and don’t feel like repenting and reconciling right away, even though I know I have to if I am to keep destruction in myself and in the world at bay. As I tell our little girls, “We must obey right away.”
God is continually calling me (and every one of us) to take up the cross of obedience. In God’s hands, crosses that are considered instruments of death become instruments of life-giving grace and conduits of shalom. Of course, few of us look forward to taking up our crosses daily and dying a thousand deaths to self in the span of a lifetime. Need we be reminded again that such dying is the Jesus way? In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the call to discipleship is the call to die. The wisdom of God teaches us that we must die these deaths so that we might live.
Every time we refuse to die to the godless self, the life of God in us weakens. The process of dying to ourselves takes a lot out of us. We vacillate between putting to death the deeds of the ﬂesh (in obedience to God) and hanging on to familiar death. We panic, and then we rationalize our decisions to cling to the unredeemed parts of ourselves. Sometimes we hesitate and decide we want to keep the godless parts of us alive after all. We don’t like to die even when it’s good for us.
We cling to the unredeemed parts of ourselves out of fear and because doing so is what we know. We don’t have enough of a God-bathed imagination to imagine anything else. We are scared of the uncertainty involved in surrendering to God. But as we learn to become completely dependent on God, who has always shown himself to be trustworthy, we learn to stop ﬁghting the demise of godlessness in us, like a restless child who ﬁnally stops ﬁghting sleep. As we confess our sins and waywardness and put to death the deeds of the ﬂesh, trusted others function as pallbearers at our “death of self” funeral. Together with us, our friendly pallbearers bid adieu to the old, rebellious us. With us, they bid good riddance to what unleashes destruction in the world. We don’t shed any tears.
Because we are at our weakest in the desert, the desert experience almost forces us to practice becoming utterly dependent on God, as we should always be. When we are submissive to him in our dying to self, we can be submissive to him in the ways and means of resurrection life. Yet we must keep in mind that each death and resurrection is unique. Just when we think we’ve got dying to self down pat, we must relearn mortiﬁcation. Dying is never easy. Still, after much practice, dying to self becomes easier. Maybe it’s because we ﬁnally come to terms with the reality that we have to die in order to live. There’s no way around it. John Chryssavgis writes, “The more involved our exposure to the way of the cross, the more intense our experience of the light of resurrection.”
Although it is quite bewildering and counterintuitive, as we are submissive to God and his ways amid our weaknesses (including our death to self), we are growing spiritual muscles and becoming strong. We are becoming whole. This truth of God—that at our weakest points we are strongest—can seem like such foolishness to us. Nevertheless, it is in this weakened state of death and dying that we are most powerful. It’s in our weaknesses that God’s strength is revealed. That is why the apostle Paul could say:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9–11)
Like the desert fathers and mothers, we become athletes of God as we throw ourselves upon the grace and mercy of our loving God and submissively obey him in our weakest moments. The wisdom of the desert, the wisdom of God, teaches us that those skilled in dying to themselves are athletes of God and the most powerful souls in existence.