Poeman said that a brother asked Moses, ‘How does someone die to self? Is it through his neighbor?’ He answered, ‘Unless you think in your heart that you have been shut in a tomb for three years, you cannot attain to self-loss.’ —The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks
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Legend has it that Robert Johnson, the famous blues guitarist, met the devil one night at a country crossroads and signed over his soul in exchange for extraordinary musical talent. I met the devil myself late one night in my daughter’s nursery, and if he had offered me a good night’s sleep, I might have made the same choice Robert Johnson did.
You see, I am the father of four small children ages 5, 4, 3 and 2, and I have not slept for five years. It’s not water boarding, but sleep deprivation is a recognized and effective form of torture. Other people may pray for world peace. I pray for sleep.
It was on one of those sleepless nights some years back that I ran face-first into that demon. My eldest daughter was up crying again. I may have been in the room for the second or third time, trying to coax her back to sweet slumber, but she was having none of it, was sitting up in her crib rigid and unmoving, unbelievably not getting it, not caring at all how much I needed to get some shut-eye. Doesn’t she know how hard it is to crawl into work every morning by my fingernails and pretend to do something productive when I am snoring behind taped-open eyes? No, selfish Miss absolutely did not care about that at all.
When her wailing got louder, I began to forcibly assist her back to sleep. “Lay down now,” I said sternly as I pushed her back, standing on my tiptoes to gain extra leverage. Of course, she managed to stay upright with her own ridiculous brute toddler force. There we were when my wife joined us, the mechanical sit-up doll and the sleep-deprived maniac locked in a clash of wills and getting angrier by the minute. My delightful bride gently offered to help, but by now I was furious and wouldn’t admit defeat. Keeping one hand on my daughter I turned in the dark and pointed an angry finger at my wife (which she thankfully couldn’t see in the pitch black) and said, “I’ll deal with you later.”
What was that? I met the devil, and he looked and sounded remarkably like me.
Immediately chastened, I stopped forcing my daughter down, picked her up and soothed her to sleep in my arms. But I went to bed more than ashamed. Truly, I was crushed for having been that guy — the wretch, the failure. I loved my wife and children and had looked forward to having a family for so long. Where had I gone wrong?
The next day, as I asked for forgiveness and generally moped around in spirit, I found a little gem among the sayings of the Desert Fathers. These monks (and nuns) left the cities in the fourth and fifth centuries to live in the desert and devote themselves to prayer, fasting and humble living. I came across the story of John the Short who asked God to take away his temptations. John shared this with another hermit who told him, “Go and ask the Lord to stir up a new war inside of you. Fighting is good for the soul.” The story goes that John’s inner conflict returned, and he no longer prayed for it to go away. Instead, he asked, “Lord, grant me strength to endure this fight.”
For so long I had prayed for my children to JUST BE QUIET at night so I could get some sleep. Reading this story moved me to pray instead that the Lord would help me endure — not end — the struggles of being a husband and parent. The next night I was five times tested, yet each trip to the nursery had me smiling. I had already begun to see how the fight was good for my soul. It had revealed that “what went wrong with me?” was not the question to ask. The Apostle Paul plainly answers that in Romans 3:10 when he writes, “There is no one righteous, not even one.”
The better question, and the one I began to ponder, is “How am I made to live?” Certainly the answer was not to embitter my children, threaten my wife and feel wretched about myself.
Jesus answers this question many times in word and deed, but there is something radical and unsettling in the call He issues in Luke 9:23: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'”
I don’t suspect that saying was any easier 2,000 years ago than it is today. German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains why in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Truth is, we have very little experience with death and dying. We need not daily fear the threat of fatal disease or starvation as many in the world do today. We have technology and advanced medicine and know how to cough into our sleeves and wash our hands properly. More than health and safety, though, we are being constantly diverted from thoughtful reflection on eternal questions by our culture’s endless worship of youth and beauty. This distraction works perfectly. We are in love with ourselves, and we feel immortal. We have no idea how to die to self or why it’s even important. The very idea is a hard swallow.
I suspect so many of us are unsettled by the idea of dying to self because deep down we understand that Jesus is talking about something more challenging than physical death. To follow Christ most often involves the death of ego, pride, selfishness, lust, greed, gluttony, malice. It means starving those powerfully nagging thoughts that incessantly say, “I want.” This is particularly difficult when many of our “wants” are good in and of themselves, like marriage, children, or a good and stable job.
Yet so much of life depends on the posture of our hearts. I wanted marriage and children, and assumed that these desires were good. I nourished them through a fair amount of time daydreaming about the qualities I wanted in a wife. Constantly scanning faces in the crowd, I wondered if she was “the one.” I saw too clearly with the sight of my eyes, not understanding that my eyes were self-serving.
The trouble was that a godly and beautiful woman was near me for some time before I noticed her, and it took an act of God (like scales falling from my eyes) to get me to wake up to her. I wish I had spent more of my younger days looking honestly in the mirror and acting on what I saw than daydreaming about the perfect spouse — who does not exist.
It took me a long while to learn there is something far more precise than the sight of the eyes. It is the sight of the spirit. As you are work your way into greater harmony with God’s rhythm and will for your life, you begin to see with this greater sense. You start to see what you have to offer the world and perhaps a particular someone in the world.
Passages from Ephesians 5 are popular at Christian weddings, but how many people really know what they mean? Men, is this the model to which you are already conforming? Once married, are you prepared to die for your bride as Christ did? What if that “dying” means giving up poker night, mountain biking on Saturdays or guys’ night out? What if that means caring for very sick little children or doing the dishes at 11 at night or running to the store when the football game is about to start? What if it means changing your wife’s soiled bedding late in life when she can no longer remember your name? Are you ready to die?
Ladies, do you know what it means to love your husband? He may look sharp and smell nice on the wedding day, but he is far from “finished.” Society ill-prepares boys to become men, and today’s young men are more inclined to play Peter Pan than accept the challenges of adulthood. Sociologists conclude that marriage matures men and gives them the final prompting they need to grow up. This was true for me and for all the men I know. We were boys when we got married, and we had to work at becoming men, loving husbands and good fathers. It is a task and often feels like a chore. You will need a lot of sacrifice and patience to help your husband through that time. Are you ready to love?
The fact is that marriage for most people is really not how they pictured it beforehand. Not only is it very difficult to stay united to a sinful human being, married life is often very mundane. There is cooking and cleaning and hosting annoying in-laws and dealing with job stress and financial pressures and, of course, coming to grips with the really significant differences, such as the natural position for the toilet seat and who controls the remote.
Perhaps this is why Catholic priest Cormac Burke called marriage one of God’s “most intensive schools of love.” He pointed out that:
“The purpose of marriage is not to give spouses happiness, but to mature them for it. In everything here on earth, God is trying to teach us to love, which we will enjoy fully in heaven. Happiness demands an effort.… Happiness is not possible inside or outside marriage for the person who is determined to get more than he or she is prepared to give. In marriage, then, one has to learn to love. If people don’t learn, they remain stuck in selfishness, like the devil or the soul in hell. Yet marriage remains a divine institution to gradually draw them out of that selfishness.”
Dying to self doesn’t happen in an evening; it is a process that we move through over a long period of time until it becomes a way of life. Perhaps this is why the Desert Fathers spoke of keeping death always before one’s eyes. Three years shut up in a tomb is a long time to picture, but some of us have to imagine it for longer than that. There was a lot of “me” clogging the pathways to my heart when I got married. I’m thankful for a wife who brought many mature and godly qualities to our relationship. I’m grateful to learn from her example.
I know this now; although, I did not know it when I got married: My true self is the self that gives and does not seek to take. When I can give myself fully in love to those around me I am happiest. It was never mine to find a wife to suit my needs but to become a husband to suit one woman’s needs. My children do not exist to make me happy; I exist to teach them how they were made to live — to love God and to love their neighbors.
If you want a happy, fulfilling marriage and family life, you must start to become the kind of person that can handle such a thing. All true gifts require sacrifice. You can learn the gift of sacrifice by embracing the classic Christian virtues and by training yourself to see through the eyes of the spirit, that is, through the eyes of God. How much different the world looks when we turn our focus away from our desires and toward the needs of others. We begin to see what we are made for.
Copyright 2011 Christopher Riordan. All rights reserved.