This truth is a very odd and difficult part of our faith. We see it all over in scripture – especially in the New Testament – and we have the beautiful example of Jesus demonstrating it for us in his life, death, and resurrection. ‘Death to self’ is the essence of the paschal mystery – in Christ’s life and in our own.
But I think for many of us, we have not really given this enough thought or time in prayer. We have not been able to internalize it or to live it. At least I know that’s true for me. My desires and my focus on self keep me from my full potential as an instrument of God. They often prevent me from taking a genuine interest in others and always loving them, even in the face of anger or hostility. Instead, I usually find myself trying to prove my case and preserve my reputation or dignity. Thinking that I always have to look out for my own needs and desires keeps me caught up in all kinds of anxieties and I am so concerned about trying to work all that out that I miss so much of the joy and beauty of life. When this happens, I am no longer able to reach out and serve others with true compassion, or even really hear what they are saying. I am too caught up in myself. My selfishness keeps me a prisoner of my passions, fears, and insecurities. It holds me back and prevents me from being the person God made me to be – a person who radiates the peace and joy of Christ, a person who is filled with the spirit of power, love, and self-control. (2Tim 1:7)
When we are truly able to let go of our selfish desires and fears, it opens us up to be available and present to the people around us and to the moment we are in. We can enter in and give of ourselves totally to the situation we find ourselves in because we are not worried about results or about protecting our own self interests. We are concerned only with being faithful to God’s call.
Gandhi is one person who understood this concept well and was able to put it into practice. He increasingly found joy in serving others rather than living for himself. When a reporter once asked him for the secret of his life in three words Gandhi replied “Renounce and enjoy.” Many saints have found the same thing: that true freedom comes not in trying to secure a good life for ourselves, but in renouncing our own self interests and in loving and serving both God and neighbor. It is in this process that we are released to find our true selves.
With this understanding we are able to read some of those scripture passages with new meaning: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mk 8:34b-35) or again, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (Jn 12:24) I know that I need to spend more time bringing these words to prayer and asking the Lord how I can purify my heart of those selfish inclinations in my daily life. And I pray that one day I would learn to die so that I may truly live and produce much fruit!