In today’s culture, there’s a strong push to lean in to things that feel good, natural, and joyful. And I actually agree with some of that. The first question in the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” to which the response is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
Joy is meant to be an integral component in our relationship with God. David wrote in Psalm 144:15, “Joyful indeed are those whose God is the Lord!”
However, the Bible also shows how difficult it can be to live in relationship with God, and it doesn’t always feel good. We can have conflicting emotions and thoughts (see Romans 7:19: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”)
Suffering As Shaping
Suffering is real, and the writers of Scripture, directed by the Holy Spirit, acknowledged that life includes suffering (see all of Lamentations). But the writers of Scripture also acknowledge that there’s something in suffering that deepens and shapes us in true and meaningful ways.
Psalm 119:71-72 – “My suffering was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your decrees. Your instructions are more valuable to me than millions in gold and silver.”
1 Corinthians 9:24 – “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.”
We’re directed by Scripture to follow Jesus by “taking up his cross.” Jesus addressed the concept of “dying to self” through his own coming death and sacrifice: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but however loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).
The apostle Paul wrote to people in the church in Thessalonica (northern Greece), saying to imitate him and Jesus, including through suffering (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
Feel Like You’re Dying?
When our life and work are labor-intensive and perpetually exhausting, it can feel like dying. There’s a constant chipping away at my personal desires and my hunger for rest in order to love well and live by my values, not just my feelings.
In today’s culture, I can imagine a certain level of outrage at this. Why shouldn’t I do what gives me joy?! Life shouldn’t feel like death, and it’s unhealthy to think that way! OR… I should find ways to trick my brain in order to make it feel good about things I don’t normally feel good about! (TikTok abounds with stuff like this.)
As we consider “dying to self,” we can steward our whole selves in a way that align to God’s purpose. There is joy, and there is sometimes soul wrenching work. Imagine Jesus as he sweat blood in his anguished prayers in the garden of Gethsemane before being arrested.
A More Beautiful Jesus
When we make intentional movements toward God, God honors these movements. The great hope and promise is that, in dying to myself, in practicing elevating the needs of others before my own in God-conscious ways, Jesus will make himself more known and more beautiful to me and to others.
As you and I practice dying to self, we’ll have moments of weakness. But also know that God may be doing something greater when we commit to this effort. He is with us in those moments. Our hope is that through the daily, regular acts of faithfulness, he is able to do more with our efforts than we ourselves are capable of.
Jennifer Lim, RN, BSN, OCN, works as an oncology nurse in Chicago suburb. She can also be found on YourChurchNurse.org, which is dedicated to reflections and content related to faith and health.
Visit the Resources page of the NCF website for books and Bible studies related to spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. NCF membership will give you a plethora of in-person and online options for professional and personal support and growth.
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