I am not convinced that Christians today properly answer Jesus' call to "take up your cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). We hear it, nod our heads in agreement, quote it, but go on living almost as though the idea never entered our minds. It is clear that, as a society, we are distracted by insignificant things, and so it is no surprise that something as significant as Jesus' words is as easily forgotten as heard.
These words teach us to die to self, which has of late been commonly interpreted in light of social action. In 21st-century thought, dying to self means to help the poor and less fortunate. However, this is merely one of the many practical actions resulting from dying to self.
Jesus' command is first and foremost a call to die to our sinful inclination. Paul is helpful at this point, explaining what Jesus meant:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7)
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
When we die to self, we die to the sin which characterizes our flesh. We die in Christ with hope because of His resurrection, knowing that when we die to sin, we will live by faith in Christ.
John Owen famously exhorted, "Be killing, or sin will be killing you." He was making the point that if we do not make any effort to kill our sin, but become comfortable and flippant with its presence in our lives, we will miss out on Christ. To follow Christ means to put to death our sin.
Out of this come the following three points of application:
a. Put Others First
Augustine was correct when, answering the question concerning a word or idea which encapsulated Christianity, he replied: "Humility." If pride is truly "the mother pregnant with all the other sins" (a brilliant phrase from Augustine), humility must be the fountainhead of virtue. Moreover, when we see the things in life which are truly significant, we will see that every one of them is built upon humility.
In our time, we care most about ourselves. We put off traditional pursuits which force us to think of others first (i.e. marriage, raising a family, committing to the local church, etc.) for pursuits where we can "live the life we've always wanted" before settling down.
The reminder of an elderly pastor to a younger pastor rings true here: "One day you're going to die, and they're going to put you in a box, and throw dirt on your face, and go back to the fellowship hall and eat potato salad." What will others remember you by? Better yet, what impact will you have had on others? Those are the questions that truly matter. No one is remembered fondly for the things they did for themselves.
b. Study History
When we are to think of others, we are not to only think of those around us, but we are to consider those who have gone before us. Their wisdom guides us, and the course of their lives teach us. When we study history, we not only see the mistakes we are to avoid, but we are put in our proper place. I think the latter is a much greater benefit than the former, for it gives us perspective regarding life.
In light of history, we see our current situation as fleeting, we see our similar shortcomings, we see our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and we see that this world will keep going when we cease living. Perhaps history teaches us to die to self, but I am prone to think that dying to self teaches us to spend time studying history, for when we die to self, we are more apt to learn from history than neglect or revise it.
c. Live Like You're Dead
Think about your life from the perspective of having died. Did you do everything you should have? Did you live a significant life, or were you consumed with insignificance?
Dying to self not only includes thinking about those around us and in the past, but also those who will come after us. Because we live in the confines of time, we ought to know the present is fleeting, and therefore have a general bent to live for the future. We must consider not only the results of our actions towards others today, or in light of others in the past, but also to those in the future. When we live as though we are dead, we will live selfless lives, not easily distracted by insignificance, and lives that reflect a follower of Jesus.
Of course, those of the world will have a different perspective of living as though dead, but for us in Christ, it means that we make every effort to leave the next generation with a faithful explanation of the gospel. That is, as it turns out, most significant.
When we die to self, we not only live significant lives, we live lives that display Christ's kingdom to the world. We show the world that there is more to life than self. We show the world that we are a part of a picture far grander than we can create in our short lifespans. We show the world, most of all, that Jesus' message to die to self is the message of true, everlasting life.