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  • The Rev. Dr. Brian Rajcok

Dying to Self and Aligning with God’s Will


In the fourth century, Anthony of Egypt left a comfortable life and sold all he had to give the money to the poor.  He then ventured into the Egyptian desert where he would spend the rest of his life in prayer and meditation, reading scripture and fasting.  Saint Athanasius wrote a detailed account of Anthony’s life.  It describes Anthony’s spiritual journey, his inner conflicts and temptations, and how dedicated he was to dying to himself and following the direction of the Spirit.  Others followed his lead and a community of ascetics developed around him, living on their own but occasionally seeking Anthony’s spiritual advice.  His life inspired many to die to themselves by entering the desert and living a solitary life dedicated to God.


Before the legalization of Christianity, martyrdom was considered the ultimate losing your life for Jesus’ sake, literally dying for your faith.  After Christianity became legal, disciples like Anthony found a new way to give up their life for Christ.  They left their homes and moved to the desert to be hermits.  They died to the world and surrendered their lives completely to God.  This was the period of the desert fathers and mothers.  They spent their days in prayer and contemplation.  They fasted and maintained silence and spiritual isolation.  Without the opportunity to be martyrs, the desert fathers and mothers discovered another way to die to the world, deny themselves, and lose their life for Jesus’ sake. 


Over the generations, these solitary desert hermits formed communities devoted to prayer and contemplation.  They maintained a solitary life but lived together in their solitude.  Such communities became the first monasteries.  And Anthony is considered the father of Christian monasticism.  Over the centuries monasteries changed and evolved, but monastic vows to this day include the idea of dying to yourself and giving up your life for the sake of Christ.  Literal martyrdom still occurred sometimes over the next two thousand years and even continues today in some parts of the world, but death to self in the form of surrendering your life to God came to be seen as the ultimate spiritual path. 


Christian mystics throughout the centuries have looked to these words from Jesus as the blueprint for the spiritual journey.  Dying to self became the goal even more than physical martyrdom.  Dying to ego, your false self, in order to live a life of union with God, became the commitment of spiritual seekers.  Through disciplined practice, they sought to permanently align their self-will with the divine will.  A state of permanent alignment is what the Eastern Orthodox mystics call theosis, a word from Second Peter which means participating in the divine nature.  This union with God, brought about by uniting self-will with the divine will, is the heart of Christian spirituality.  And this surrender of self-will is what Jesus tried to teach his disciples. 


In the Gospel reading we just read, Jesus told his disciples what following him really means.  What being a disciple is all about.  Deny yourself.  Take up your cross and follow him.  Die to yourself.  The whole trajectory of Christian martyrdom and mysticism is summarized here in this little passage.  One anonymous medieval mystic explained it well, saying: “Sin comes about when the creature wills differently from God…selfishness, self-will, sin or the old Adam…they are all the same.” (pg. 68).  “Nothing is without God except wanting differently from what the eternal will wants” (pg. 83)[1]


Basically, he’s saying that if you let go of your self will and align your will with God’s will, you don’t have to worry about sin.  But if you live for your own will—your own idea of happiness—that’s sin, that’s selfishness, no matter how good it looks, that’s the Old Adam that causes all the problems in the world. 


Considering that, it makes sense why Jesus calls Peter “Satan”.  The thing that’s so satanic about what Peter said is that he’s trying to convince Jesus to not follow God’s will.  The satanic tendency to follow our own will, rather than God’s will, is what humanity has been struggling with since the Garden of Eden.  But we were created to freely and willingly align our self-will with God’s will, which is why surrendering to God’s will is in fact perfect freedom.  Because it’s being what we were created to be instead of trying to be something we’re not.  Living in alignment with God is our natural state, which is why it’s so wonderful.  On the other hand, living for ourselves is the unnatural state of sin and selfishness, which is why it’s so frustrating, confusing, and painful.  Jesus wanted to inspire his disciples to deny themselves and willingly enter into whatever suffering that led them (the painful death of the false self or the literal death of martyrdom).  Because it is through that journey that true transformation arises.


Now dying to yourself isn’t some sort of works righteousness that’ll make God love us more or earn us acceptance or salvation.  Dying to self is something the Holy Spirit inspires us to do after we’ve already been touched by God’s love, accepted, saved, and redeemed.  It’s what theologians like Luther call sanctification: being made holy.  Rather than salvation: being saved.  This spiritual journey is what we’re inspired to do as a result of God’s love in our lives, not something we do in order to earn God’s love.  


The Good News in this passage is that Jesus has opened the doors of the kingdom for us to experience union with God, now in this life, as well as in the life to come.  We can die to ourselves and experience the joy of full surrender now.  It can be a strong once-and-for-all commitment, but even more importantly it involves daily resurrender of our lives to God so that it becomes a habit, and maybe even a permanent shift in consciousness.  Surrender of our will to God is the central spiritual practice of 12 Step programs, and it should be the central spiritual practice of all Christianity…better yet of all religions!  


Imagine what the world would be like if all humankind humbly surrendered to the divine will.  Nobody knows exactly what it’d be like, but I’ve got some decent guesses.  No more wars.  No more murders.  No more violence.  Resources would be mobilized to end homelessness and poverty worldwide.  National budgets of wealthy nations wouldn’t be spent on defense, but would be shared to feed the starving people of the world.  People would be more willing to listen and learn, and we would grow beyond humanity’s sinful patterns of greed, racism, and discrimination.


Yeah, it’d be pretty cool if we all aligned our wills with God’s.  And maybe that is the future of the world.  It’s at least the future we should strive for.  And believe it or not, scripture promises us that that is the road ahead.  The biblical message is incredibly optimistic.  It may be more messy because our self-will always getting in the way.  But at the end of the day, God’s Vision of Shalom will be realized, the Kingdom of God will be manifest, God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven! 


The Holy Spirit is gently coaxing us to align our wills with God.  It may not be in our lifetime, but at some point, in history—which the New Testament calls the paraousia and what theologians call the eschaton—all wills will align with the divine will and God will be all in all.


And as the church we get to take part in manifesting this reality now.  As individual disciples and as this community we call the church, we are called to die to our selfishness and align with God’s will.  By surrendering our wills to God, just like Jesus did, and just like he taught his first disciples to do.  God’s will may express itself in you by a deepening of your inner spiritual practice.  God’s will may express itself in you by a desire to reach out and help those in need in a more intentional way.  God’s will may express itself in you through involvement with the work of faith-based organizing, which I hope you’ll come to adult forum to learn more about today.      


Jesus’ call to die to ourselves and live into God’s will is a calling that’s the same and different for everybody.  Your aligning to God’s will may not transform the whole world, but it will transform your life.  And knowing what Jesus promised, we know that no matter how bad the world looks.  No matter how tragic things may appear.  No matter how much suffering we have to go through.  God is transforming this world.  Never forcing.  But always gently inviting.  Calling each of us to die to ourselves and to grow up into the mature children of God were created to be. 


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  


Pastor Brian | Sunday, February 25, 2024


[1] Theologia Germanica


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