The Apostle Paul and Dying to Self

The apostle Paul wanted the church to understand the life and message of Christ in the aftermath of his puzzling ministry. It’s puzzling in part because Jesus’ message flew in the face of our every compulsion. We want security, but Jesus said give away all that you have. We want to be loved, but Jesus said that we would be hated because of him. We want control, but Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter. What are we to make of all this? We need help in coming to terms with a message that runs counter to our every desire and this why Paul helped the early church develop their understanding of the radical Christian call to die to self. 

Before we get to Paul, let’s ask again, “what is the false self like?” Have you ever had a problem with your phone or computer and after some frustration, you learn that you have to change your default settings? It turns out that we each have our own default settings. Some would call this your Enneagram number (or your specific type of false self) and these silent programs or settings, run in the background of our lives. These constant, self-absorbed agendas run certain strategies to gain esteem/ affection, power/control, and safety/security. 

Paul is talking about these warped default settings when he talks about the “flesh.” He is asking us to no longer run off of these settings in Colossians 3:3 when he reminds us, “you have died!” Paul is always talking about our death with Christ in his letters and in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 Paul says: “We are convinced that one [Christ] has died for all, therefore all have died… and he died for all in order that those who live might no longer live for themselves [the self-absorbed life], but for him who died [the Christ-centered life] and was raised for them.” So we are steeped in a self-centered default setting and we must die to these and become a new creation with a whole new host of settings all referenced to and oriented around Christ.

 

Paul, however, takes the notion of the false self to a whole new level. You see, Paul’s religious conversion is the story of his freedom from a “religious false self.” Paul’s false self (and ours too) is so crafty that it attaches itself to our most noble desires. For Paul and many of us in the church today this means that our desire to be religious, spiritual beings is mixed with a pride that corrupts our faith. I think this often begins in innocent and sincere ways. We want to be good followers of Christ and so we begin to keep the rules and put on the religious veneer of those around us who may (or may not) be older, wiser, and more spiritual than us. This seems to work at first and we become pretty pleased with ourselves and right there… it happens! Right in that moment when we become pleased with (or ashamed of) ourselves… our religious false self awakens. Paul knew all about this. After all, he was a “Hebrew of Hebrews and in regard to the law-- a Pharisee” (Phil 3:4). Paul was so good at keeping the rules that he began persecuting and killing those who weren’t keeping the law. 

Paul demonstrates his intimate understanding of the religious false self in Colossians as he writes to an audience who has already made a commitment to following Christ, but their lives are still being controlled by the same powers that ran their lives before they became Christians (sound familiar?). In a situation like this we might expect Paul to criticize the powers that are controlling their lives or to write about the evil vices that are still present in their actions, but Paul surprises us. He asks the Colossians: “Why are you living by rules like, ‘do not handle. Do not taste. Do not touch?’” M. Robert Mullholland points out that “this is not a list of vices, but a list that that indicates scrupulous religiosity.” In short, this is a religious community that is defining themselves by what they do NOT do. They do NOT curse, or watch THOSE movies, or listen to THAT music. And their abstinence from a given set of behaviors makes them feel pretty special— they have become a religious false self.  

The call to follow Christ is not primarily a call to follow the rules. It is a call to dethatch from whatever gives you esteem/ affection, power/control, and safety/security and keeping the rules will make you feel one or all of these things and different times. Instead, it is a call to attach to the Triune God. Incidentally, when we attach ourselves to the living God we might just find ourselves following a rule or two, but we will do this from a place of depth and unity with God. We will do this as God’s beloved child, who does not need to gain favor with God through the law because the true self knows there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less.