Dead to Self

A powerful, fruitful, influential artist is one who is dead to self.

This truth isn't peculiar to the artist of course, but it's no less so for me an artist than for the litigation lawyer, urban developer, therapist or space shuttle interior decorator. The only way to be truly humanly alive is to be alive to God, and for that to happen we need to be "dead to self."

In continuation of my series on the marks of a mature believer artist I offer an excerpt from Dallas Willard's Renovation of the Heart. The chapter heading is, "Radical Goodness Restored to the Soul." It was part of my reading this morning. The great saints of Christendom have written amply on this subject and I heartily recommend a weekly dose of it for a wonder-working experience on the soul. But for today we have Dr. Willard.

Let me introduce the excerpt by making the following assertion, as a kind of companion assertion to my opening statement: The powerful, fruitful, influential community of artists is that which, together and each in his or her way, commits itself to the radical way of humility. Such a commitment becomes for the community both its common vocabulary and its common habit of being. It is what holds them together, through thick and thin, and what rocket-boosts them into unstoppable, earth-renewing, joy-abounding productivity. This is the kind of community for which I earnestly pray here in Austin.

So then: Willard. Stick with him through the first part of this excerpt because he arrives at some potent juicy stuff in the second.

DEAD TO SELF (pgs. 71-72)

In the clear and forceful vision of Jesus and his kingdom, as our personality becomes progressively more reorganized around God and his eternal life, self-denial moves beyond more or less frequent acts to settled disposition and character.

At the first we must very self-consciously deny ourselves--reject the preeminence of what we want, when and as we want it--and we must look to quite specific motions of God's grace in and around us to guide and strengthen us in our occasions of self-denial. We will also need a wise and constant use of disciplines for the spiritual life. This is because, from where we start, the substance of our selves, formed in a world against God, is ready to act otherwise in all of its dimensions, especially in the social and the bodily. Our very habits of thinking, feeling, and willing are wrongly poised. . . .

But there will come a time in the experience of the apprentice of Jesus where it is appropriate to speak of our being dead to self. There is no one way this comes to us, I think, and the language here must be handled carefully. It has been the source of much misunderstanding and harm in the past. But the fact that it represents is a fundamental, indispensable element in the renovation of the heart, soul, and life.

Being dead to self is the condition where the mere fact that I do not get what I want does not surprise or offend me and has no control over me [emphasis added]. Faithful servants of God know the secret, and many have left their testimony. George Mueller of Bristol, England, said,

"There was a day when I died: died to George Mueller, his opinions, preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren or friends, and since then, I have studied only to show myself 'approved unto God'."

Small wonder that one said of Mueller that he "had the twenty-third psalm written in his face."

We often speak of those who sleep soundly as being "dead to the world." By that we mean that what is happening around them does not disturb them, that they are unconscious of it and are doing nothing with reference to it. There is an important lesson here, though not a precise parallel.

The one who is dead to self will certainly not even notice some things that others would--for example, things such as social slights, verbal put-downs and innuendos, or physical discomforts. But many other rebuffs to "the dear self," as the philosopher Immanuel Kant called it, will be noticed still, often quite clearly. However, if we are dead to self to any significant degree, these rebuffs will not take control of us, not even to the point of disturbing our feelings or peace of mind. We will, as St. Francis of Assisi said, "wear the world like a loose garment, which touches us in a few places and there lightly."

Does this mean that the person who is dead to self is without feeling? Does Christ commend the famous "apathy" of the Stoic or the Buddhist elimination of desire? Far from it. The issue is not just feeling or desire, but right feeling or desire, or being controlled by feeling or desire [emphasis added]. Apprentices of Jesus will be deeply disturbed about many things and will passionately desire many things, but they will be largely indifferent to the fulfillment of their own desires as such. Merely getting their way has no significance for them, does not disturb them.

They know that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). They do not have to look out for themselves because God--and not they--is in charge of their life. They appropriately look after things that concern them, but they do not worry about outcomes that merely affect adversely their own desires and feelings.

They are free to focus their efforts on the service of God and others and the furthering of good generally, and to be as passionate about such things as may be appropriate to such efforts. . . .

What we surely can say is that those who are dead to self are not controlled in thought, feeling, or action by self-exaltation or by the will to have their own way, but are easily controlled by love of God and neighbor [emphasis added]. They still have some sensitivity to self-will, no doubt, and are never totally beyond the possibility of falling under subjugation to it. Only a proper discipline and grace will prevent this from actually happening. But they no longer are locked in a struggle with it.

Choose evermore rather to have less than more.
Seek ever the lower place and to be under all.
Desire ever to pray that the will of God be all and wholly done.
So, such a one enters the land of peace and quiet.

--Thomas a Kempis


Jonathan Dodson said…
If I understand correctly, I agree with what Willard is saying, though I find his round about way of saying it rather exhausting.

Perhaps he could be summarized by saying: Cultivate being dead to the sinful self, but avoid being dead to the divine self, the self that has been remade into the image of God, which awakens good, holy, and beautiful desires, desires that will give way to good art and living when sufficiently guided.
I think this is an especially difficult/important message for visual artists -- we're all about craftsmanship, originality, exhibitionism -- and part of my motivation is, quite frankly, drawing attention to what I'm capable of and what my vision is. Starting my work day with "thy will be done, Lord" helps keep that in check.
You give us such good things to think about.

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