Jesus and Dying to (The False) Self

I defined the Enneagram as a false-self typology. In my last post I explored the overarching movement of the Hebrew Scriptures and selected a specific passage that calls us to place our faith in YHWH and not our “flesh” (read: personality, Enneagram number, Strengths and any other personal resource we might use to save ourselves). Next, let’s trace the theme of the false self in the teaching of Jesus.  

M. Robert Mulholland writes, “when we rely on our false self’s own resources for our identity, meaning, value and purpose… our false self creates a complex matrix of perspectives and attitudes… and modes of relating and reacting to the surrounding world that not only serve to define our identity, but also protect and defend us against real or imagined threats” (Deeper Journey, 33-34). This is true for you and I today just as it was in the first century. Consequently, Jesus routinely addresses the false self’s compulsion to amass power to protect the self. 

The primary threat for the first century Judean community took the form of foreign oppression at the hands of Roman rule and left the Jews desperate for a deliverer who would restore Jewish autonomy. In light of this, Jesus’ contemporaries (like us today) desired power on a national and personal level. While Jesus’ friends are trying to ascend to greatness and gain autonomy, Christ is imploring his disciples and others that “the way up is the way down” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward). For example, the disciples are arguing amongst themselves. They are vying for the greatest status among the group. Jesus responds saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last” (Mark 9:35).  

Later, a rich man departs sad because Jesus advises him that in order to inherit eternal life he must give all that he has to the poor. Jesus concludes the interaction by declaring, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God…many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:23,25,31)

Again Jesus’ disciples are seeking status as James and John submit a request to Jesus to sit next to Jesus’ right and left in glory. Their teacher responds, “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be the first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to be the servant of all, and to be the ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

In addition to his words, Jesus Christ’s life itself is a denial of our automatic tendency to amass power for ourselves. As Jesus enters Jerusalem it is clear that the masses are so desperate for a savior that they miss the fact that Jesus is riding a humble donkey instead of a Warhorse. Again, Jesus is telling them that success in the Kingdom of Heaven means failure on earth and the death of the false self, but the message is so counterintuitive that no one can see it. Instead, the people spread their cloaks along Jesus’ path and wave palm branches. Cloaks on the ground and branches in the air was the traditional greeting for a political messiah. For example, cloaks lined Jehu’s pathway after Elisha anointed him to lead a rebellion against an oppressive dynasty (2 Kings 9:1-13). This is one of the most explicit pronouncements of hope that one day an anointed one would usher in of a new era of independence for Jerusalem and Judea… that one day power might be restored.

Jesus’ epic display of powerlessness crescendos in a final act of dramatic pacification-- the crucifixion. Finally, Jesus is clothed in a purple cloak-- the color of royalty.A crown of thorns is placed on his head instead of a crown of laurel that crowned Roman emperors.These symbols prompt mock salutes from the Roman guards as they address Jesus with tongues firmly planted in their cheeks, “Hail, King of the Jews.”What appears as bitter irony in the face of defeat is actually the most beautiful, unexpected and brilliantly counter-intuitive victory in all of history because “the way up is the way down.”

Everyone was wrong about Jesus. The Jews assumed that he planned to stage a salvific coup and bring freedom of rule and worship to the land of Judea. A successful coup requires power, but Jesus didn’t come to succeed. He came to fail, and show that through failure, through dying to the false self, you enter the kingdom of heaven. Traditional doctrine puts salvation this way: through faith we are saved. But how do you come to a place where you truly trust in anyone but yourself… in anything other than your personality? Perhaps you have to fail before you begin to trust anyone, but yourself. Jesus’ words and life seemed to affirm the mantra: “all spirituality is about letting go.” Letting go of ego, personality, power…success.