Ruin, Part 1: My Call to Self-Ruin
This is part 1 of 2 in a two part series on the experience of self-ruin. The second post will come out next week.
When I articulate my sense of call into this ministry of spiritual formation, I often describe the preceding call that came right before it…or maybe in conjunction with it. There were two calls that came at more or less the same time. The one was centered around what I was called to do, spiritual direction. The second was more of a call to a way of being. It’s this second call that feels more important to me, but it’s also harder to describe. When I describe it, I often use a phrase that seems to make people a little bit uncomfortable. I sense an awkward silence after I use it, because people don’t know how to respond to me. The call is simply this:
“To bring my ‘self’ to ruin.”
This is a loose translation of the call that Jesus makes to all his disciples found throughout the gospels. I like the way it’s recorded in Matthew because of the surrounding exchange he has with Peter, which gives greater definition to what this call really means. Jesus says this:
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16:24-25, NIV
Jesus’s call to deny ourselves and take up our cross, to me, equates with the personalized call I heard to “bring my ‘self’ to ruin.” I like saying it this way because it helps me distinguish between my “self” and my “life.” I believe that bringing my “self” to ruin paradoxically leads to a rich, full, and satisfying life. I imagine Jesus saying it like this:
“I so badly want to explain this paradoxical truth to you…please believe me. Your ‘self’ must die for you to gain the life you really want.”
Remembering this tone is helpful for me, because the experience of actually bringing my “self” to ruin is excruciatingly painful. It can feel like my life is ending. That’s why, I have to remind myself over and over that the well being of my “self” is not the same as achieving a good, flourishing life. Making the distinction between my “self” and my “life” helps me remember that self-ruin is in my own best interest.
What is this self?
When I use the word “self” in the context of bringing my “self” to ruin, I mean my false self. There is a rich history of spiritual writings about the false self, but, to me, the most helpful definition of the false self comes from Thomas Merton. Here is a sample of his description of it:
“Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self.... A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin. All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.” ~Merton
This “self” that Merton is describing is not who we really are. It’s who we appear to be through our possessions, achievements, and status. The spiritual journey largely consists in severing our unhealthy attachment to our false self and learning to trust that God loves us and will give us what we need if we stop obeying the compulsive needs of our false self.
For Jesus, denying the desires of the false self led him to the cross. As he followed his Father’s call to love, it led him into suffering and death. If we want to follow Jesus, i.e. go the way of sacrificial love, then we must take up our crosses as well. This is the essence of the call that I heard. I was invited to believe that God wants me to bring my “self to ruin” as I give my life to sacrificial love. I don’t have to be proactive in seeking self-ruining things. Rather, I am proactive in living out a life of sacrificial love, and then I practice an intentionality about welcoming things that bring my “self” to ruin. This is what Jesus did as he set his face for Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen and he walked directly towards that painful reality.
What this means for us is that we are called to welcome everything that comes into our lives that feels destructive to our “self” as we go the way of love. We do not run from things that diminish our “self.” We welcome physical suffering that leaves us feeling weak. We welcome social rejection that causes us to feel humiliated. We welcome persecution, oppression, and plain old criticism because we know this all contributes to the crucifying of our “self.” We don’t seek these things as an end in themselves, but rather welcome them as we live out of love.
This is very counter-cultural and counter-intuitive, which means it is very hard. In fact saying it’s hard fails to capture what I am trying to communicate. It is awful. It’s gut-wrenching. By default, I resist it with all my will. It’s also painful to observe in those I love. I don’t wish ruin on anyone. But I believe self-ruin is the gateway to life. There is a way that loss leads to life if we can welcome that loss as part of our dying to self.
What is this Life?
The life that we find as we welcome our crosses and bring our “self” to ruin is the life of the Spirit. It is the life defined by God’s presence. As our false self dies, we awaken more and more to the presence of God, who is so, so near to us. We are also set free from the “self” pre-occupation that blinds us to all the good gifts the LORD gives. As the false self dies, we become aware of God’s presence, which is our deepest desire, and the riches of his grace that are coming to us every day.
This life can only be discovered by praying. It is only through prayer that we are able to notice the profound and mysterious way that life in the kingdom of God is opened to us as we welcome the crosses in our lives. Like a key to a secret room, our willing embrace of suffering with Christ gives us access to a life out of reach to our good-looking “self.” The pain of ruin invites a regular turning away from our dying self, which receives mocking and scorn from those around us, and turning towards the LORD who nurtures us with his presence.
As I sit with people in spiritual direction and notice the work of God in their lives, I must believe that the LORD works through ruin. Otherwise, our time in prayer together will inevitable devolve into me giving advice about how they can fix up their self. But that’s not the goal. God’s purposes aren’t focused on polishing our “self.” The goal is to live life with God. And in order to offer myself to others in this way, I must believe it for my own “self” as well.
What crosses are you facing today? How might you welcome them in the spirit of brining your “self” to ruin so that you can discover the life that Jesus promises us?
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