Thoughts of a former evangelical Christian

Crucifying the Self

In Christianity as Tribalism: Cultivating a Tribal Identity on April 28, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Through conversion, however, one achieves an absolutely new beginning. One’s life is divided in half. Split between B.C. and A.D. Everything one once was is washed away. Everything one now is is its antithesis….  One could say that conversion transforms the self, but it would be more appropriate to say that it annihilates it. That is in fact its function….  Here, then, is the real truth of conversion. Fear and hatred of the psyche and a desperate desire to be rid of it….

Walter A. Davis, “The Psychology of Christian Fundamentalism”

      In my mid-teens, I fervently meditated on the renunciate passages of the Bible.  One of the most profound verses of the whole Bible to my adolescent mind was John 3:30, where John the Baptist said this of Jesus and himself:

 “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (KJV)

This crisply spoken verse summed up the self-renunciation theology at the heart of Christian discipleship.

Jesus said that “[w]hoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”  (Luke 17:33).  The concepts of “decreasing” and “losing” one’s life for Christ, however, didn’t completely express how thorough this renunciation had to be.

To really “lose” my life in order to follow Christ, I needed to hate my life:

“The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  (John 12:25)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

And so I learned to hate myself.  And why shouldn’t I?  From an early age, countless Good News Club bible stories and Sunday School curriculum lessons had relentlessly pressed the dogma that God hated sin so much that it had to be punished with death.   I already knew I was by nature bad, so I had already internalized some self-hatred.  As a teenager, I contemplated passages like this: “If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.”  (Galatians 6:3).  “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.”  (Romans 7:18).  My natural self was so abhorrent that I had “become worthless” (Romans 2:12).  I was, “by nature [an] object[] of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).

Next, I began to crucify myself.  This, I learned, was an essential part of the process of “sanctification.”  Although I didn’t practice physical self-mutilation, I practiced a mental self-mutilation that was just as damaging.

     When I was 15 years old, I attended Bill Gothard’s Advanced Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts.  There, he challenged his young audience to memorize and meditate daily on the extraordinarily renunciate passage of Romans 6-8.  In that passage – which I quote in the King James Version that I memorized –  Paul repeatedly implores the believer to reckon his old self – the part that still wants to sin – as “dead” and “crucified” and “buried” with Christ:

 2  How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

 3  Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?

 4  Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

 5  For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

 6  Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin….

 11  Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

 12  Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof….

 23  For the wages of sin is death….

A believer who searches the Bible intensely finds the theme of crucifixion with Christ expressed repeatedly in the New Testament epistles:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual[a] act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:1-2)

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.   For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”  (2 Corinthians 4:10-12)

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

“Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24)

“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 6:16-17)

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”  (Philippians 3:7-11)

“In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature,[a] not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  (Colossians 2:11-12)

“….you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world…” (Colossians 2:20)

For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” (Colossians 3:5-6)

“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”  (I Peter 2:24)

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin.  As a result, he does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”  (I Peter 4:1-2)

But self-crucifixion is not a one-time event.  A believer can never be done with the sinful nature all at once.  In the psychologically tortured narrative of Romans 7, Paul admits that a believer’s life will involve an endless war between the splitted self:

 14 ….  I am carnal, sold under sin.

 15   For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

 16   If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.

 17   Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

 18  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

 19  For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.

 20  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

 21  I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.

 22  For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23  But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

 24  O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?  25I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin.

In Romans 8, Paul again proposes repeated self-crucifixion as the response to the believer’s dilemma, as the believer groans and “patiently” waits for “the redemption of our bodies” and the release it will give us from “the bondage of corruption.”

 7  Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.

 8  So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

 But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you….

 10  And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

 11  But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.

 12  Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.

 13  For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live….

 21  Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.

 22  For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

 23  And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.

And so to deal with the sinful flesh, the believer must learn to crucify himself daily.  As Jesus said:

 “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.”  (Luke 9:23-24).

As Paul put it, we were to present ourselves as “living sacrifices.”  (Romans 12:1).  This daily self-crucifixion would be “holy and pleasing to God … your spiritual act of worship.”  (Romans 12:1).

Returning to Romans 8, Paul promised that in the believer’s continual process of self-crucifixion, the Spirit would help us “in our weakness” (Romans 8:26), that God would work it out for good (Romans 8:29), that Jesus would “intercede” for us (Romans 8:34), that nothing would separate us from Jesus’s love (Romans 8:35), and that we would become “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37).

Bill Gothard likewise assured his young mostly teenage audience that if they memorized and daily recited and meditated Romans 6-8, it would result in the transformation and ultimate victory Paul promised.

So over a period of about 2-3 months when I was 15 years old, I memorized Romans 6-8.  Then, over the next year at least, I recited that long passage on a daily basis.  As I recited the words, I imagined putting myself to death, of hammering those nails into my sinful flesh, and of becoming dead to its desires.   I loathed myself and its carnality, so I hammered away with a passionate and punitive self-hatred.

My self-imposed depression suppressed my natural desires to a degree, but it did not destroy them completely.  I was still an essentially self-interested person.  In disgust I crucified myself over and over and over.

My repeated efforts at self-renunciation were a form of self-torture.  And they were a failure.  They made me feel awful, and evil, and worthy of real death.  I felt defeated because my intense efforts to become “dead” to desire did not succeed.  I had not become a “conqueror,” and I sensed no help from the Spirit in my weakness.  But like Paul said in Romans 8:23, I “groaned” within myself.  I wanted to be “delivered” from the “bondage of corruption.”

So my thoughts frequently progressed from imagining my vicarious crucifixion to imaging really taking my life.  With the exception of one suicide attempt in my pre-teen years (the punitive authoritarian theology of evangelical Christianity stalwarts like Child Evangelism Fellowship can drive even a young child to despair and suicide), I never followed all the way through an actual suicide attempt.  But for someone so thoroughly immersed in the renunciate passages and theology of the New Testament as I was – as one who recited these passages on a daily basis – the thought of actual suicide was not a very great leap.

I so hated myself for my inability to overcome my carnality, and I was so wearied of my efforts to be free of all sin, that I wanted to die.  I fantasized about suicide often.  I wasn’t good at being a “living sacrifice,” but I could very completely become a sacrifice if I actually died.  Such an ultimate act of self crucifixion would finally vanquish the sinful self – so abhorrent to God and the judgmental Christians around me – forever.   And then I could finally become like Jesus in his death.

Disturbing, isn’t it?  For years as a believer I tormented my mind with such thoughts.  But I never shared those thoughts with others.  They were too terrible, too ultimate.  Besides, most believers are utterly unfamiliar with the New Testament’s many renunciate passages.  They wouldn’t understand, or they would just try to negate them all – as if that would make them go away – with other passages.

The Bible’s renunciate teachings inexorably drive the believer who really embraces them to depression and despair.  It is no way to live.  It isn’t the answer.

Most believers introduced to fundamentalist Christianity as adults will never take its renunciate teachings nearly this far.  They already have a well-developed healthy sense of self that causes them to either suspend cognition when they read renunciate passages like the ones in this post, or to sequester them off into some distant, harmless mental compartment that denies the passages any opportunity to affect them.  Or they pretend that passages like this are “trendy” and “cool” because they are so “radical” and say that I just missed their mystical symbolic meaning:  “It’s just a mind trip; one of many excursions a pilgrim should take; but a brief one.  You weren’t supposed to dwell on that!  You were supposed to move on!”  Yeah, right.  People who react that way haven’t read the passages very intently.

Try relentlessly feeding that complete-self-denial theology to your children – like so many evangelical mothers do – and from an early enough age, before your children ever have a chance to develop a healthy sense of self.  If your children are attentive and contemplative enough, and learn to read the Bible regularly and with the devotional intensity that I did, then some of them will take it this far, and come perilously close to suicide.

And some will take it the ultimate distance.  I knew two Christians who committed suicide, and others who attempted it.  They were raised much like I was, immersed in Child Evangelism Fellowship bible lessons that relentlessly pressed the themes of obedience and surrender as the highest goods, sin as something that God hated infinitely and which had to be punished with death, and one’s nature as something that is fundamentally evil.

One of those Christians took his own life as a preteen.  Neither of my now-dead Christian friends openly discussed the ultimate self-despairing and self-hating thoughts I describe in this post, but I am confident that a similar self-hating logic must have driven them to their own despair.

The problem is nurturing such a divided view of self:

If part of what is socially designated as bad is an inescapable part of being human, this context sets the stage for dividing people’s psyches.  It is from this split that an internal struggle for control ensues….  What results is that the goodself has aspects one would be far better off without; while the badself contains elements that need to be legitimized and expressed.  Our view is that health and well-being involve truly being whole, which means not internally warring….

[T]he goodself is not as benign as its espoused values seem….  The goodself … is dictatorial, judgmental, structured, often a puritanical harsh taskmaster; and above all it is fearful — fearful that without always maintaining control, one’s life would unravel….

The goodself is involved in “taming the beast,” meaning keeping the carnal, the animal, within acceptable bounds….  It is this division between the animal and the rational, the spiritual and material, and ultimately between the selfless and self-centered that does not allow the carnal and self-centered to be integrated and valued as part of a whole being.

Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad, The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power (1993), at 221, 223, 224.

  1. I am very sad to hear all this, and very glad that you survived and came to recognize your own goodness.

  2. “I loathed myself and its carnality, so I hammered away with a passionate and punitive self-hatred.”

    That sentence struck home… I was raised similarly you… and as a 29 year old, I still struggle with loathing myself and telling myself that nothing I do is good enough… “all of my righteousnesses are like filthy rags.”

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