“Up an’ at ‘em!” my husband, John, called in his wide-awake morning voice. Moans and groans filled the camper as our three sons and I struggled to open our eyes. “We gotta get goin’ to beat the heat.”
We awoke to a picturesque morning in the Smoky Mountains, delicate ribbons of haze wisping around us as we made our way to and from the shower house. Once breakfast was over and the camper secured we launched into our planned hike up the mountain to the Appalachian Trail.
Our trek was well underway when my husband casually inquired, “Did you see the bear in the creek next to the shower house this morning?”
“Stop it!” I chided, “That’s not funny.”
“No, really! There was a bear…musta been thirty feet from the building.”
As we trudged on, my asthma kicked in, the altitude inhibiting my breathing, and I fell behind. The boys were seemingly unaffected by mountain air, and John was unwilling to let them show him up. Soon all four were out of sight.
A branch crackled behind me, then another. The bear! She’s coming up the trail! My steps quickened at the thought. Ahead of me the brush rustled. Must be her cub. Am I between them? I was nearly jogging now, my sons’ chatter no longer audible.
Soon my legs felt as heavy as the logs that lined the path. Side aching, chest burning, I puckered my lips, faintly emitting our family whistle-call. No reply! Knees trembling, heart pounding, I rounded the next bend, the bear’s breath hot on my neck.
My family stood along a fence rail, silently observing the beauty they had stumbled upon, oblivious to the approaching…
Oh, whew! What a relief! A quick glance behind me revealed that the only thing pursuing me was my imagination. I collapsed, gasping for breath.
My family found this incident hilarious. I found it mostly embarrassing. It did, however, confirm how much I value life. During those terrifying minutes (Or was it an hour?) I prayed, I pleaded, I bargained.
Remembering this experience brings the following verse to mind:
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” *
This verse is not speaking of physical death, of course, but of spiritually dying to self. The struggle, however, is the same. It matters not whether we are speaking of physical life or spiritual life. I am bent on self-preservation. But Jesus says that in order to live I must die! How does one so set on living choose to die?
God often reveals the parts of my being that are still clinging to life by putting a cross in my path. I may struggle, cry, plead, and finally, at the point of collapse, die to whatever it is I am selfishly holding onto. What He asks of me, though, is something different. He asks me to daily, voluntarily give up my life so that I can really live!
Dying to self isn’t a very popular concept, especially in the time and culture in which we live. We are constantly encouraged to protect, pamper, and take pride in ourselves. Many saints of old embraced this concept, however. The following was written by Fenelon, a seventeenth century French archbishop who knew firsthand, as well as through the experiences of those he counseled, what it meant to suffer for the cause of Christ.
“The death of self must be voluntary, and it can only be accomplished as far as you allow. Anyone who resists death and repels its advances shows that he is not willing to die. You must be willing to yield to the will of God whenever He decides to remove from you all of the props on which you have leaned. Sometimes you must give up even your most spiritual friends, if they are props. “What fearest thou, oh thou of little faith?”
Do you fear that He may not be able to supply to you from Himself that help which He may have taken away on the human level? And why does He take human help away, except to supply you from Himself, and to purify you by the painful lesson?” **
Fenelon goes straight to the heart of the issue. When I resist dying to self I am actually exhibiting fear –fear that God is insufficient. When I voluntarily die to self I allow Him to supply my every need and recognize His sufficiency to do so.
This is a discipline I am trying to learn. It isn’t easy. It goes against my natural instincts. It could be compared to lying down on a mountain path when convinced a bear is in hot pursuit. The daily practice of dying, however, is what purifies me and allows me to experience Christ living in me. Will it ever be easier and less painful to take up my cross? Not as long as any part of my SELF is still living! Death will always be death, just like a bear will always be a bear, at least as far as my perceptions are concerned.
The following year our family traveled to Yellowstone National Park. As we drove through the park we were inundated with posters and fliers warning of bears. Campers were urged to make excessive noise to keep bears away or to “play dead” if a bear was encountered.
It seemed that soft-sided campers like ours were especially vulnerable because of the food cooked and stored inside. With that in mind, we took many precautions as we prepared our campsite. Our middle son, Tristan, frightened by all of the bear talk, begged to sleep in the van. We conceded, and soon we were sleeping soundly.
Later, a loud r-r-r-r-r-i-p sat me upright as John’s feet hit the floor. Grabbing a pan from the stove, I frantically banged on it with the lid (I certainly made excessive noise!). Meanwhile, John struggled to shove the bear’s paw out of the camper and re-close the opening it had made.
Somehow, above all the commotion, a small voice was heard. “Mom...Dad...it’s me! I just want back in the camper!” The rip had been the sound of Velcro separating as our son reached inside to unlock the door. After calming all three boys, now traumatized by our frenzy, my husband and I fell into each others' arms breathless, hearts pounding. I’m not sure we slept at all the remainder of that night.
I have yet to encounter a real bear. If I do I will most likely die as I run, clamor, and plead for my life, because pleading for life is as natural as breathing. Although my bear illustrations are humorous, the matter of dying to self is not. It is a daily struggle, a test of my true devotion to the one who gave up His life for me. This, then, is my prayer:
Father, please use my foolishness and my fear to remind me how much I desire to live, so that each and every day I will remember to die!
*Luke 9:23-34 New American Standard Version
**Fenelon, Let Go, (Whitaker House, 1973), p.7.