Recently I have been studying the practices of Eastern monks. Zen masters say that “life is suffering” and that “suffering comes from attachment”. They teach that our attachment to this material world, even our own life, causes all our worry, fear, and frustration. They do not teach that is wrong or harmful to have things, as long as what you own does not own you. That is, as long as you do not fear to lose what you have. So anything you cannot live without, you must. I heard one say “Even if you have let everything go, you still have one thing left you are attached to, and that is your own life. If you do not let go of your own life, you will never be free of suffering.” The monks teach that once you have emptied your life of self, once you become nothing, you will achieve nirvana.
The monks have it half right. Once we are empty however, you are not complete. You must be filled with Christ in order to complete the process. These Zen masters seek this “completeness” all their life, but are constantly frustrated in finding it. This is because they only make it halfway there. The Apostle Paul might say they “have a form of godliness but deny its power.” 2 Tim 3:5. Hopefully they will one day understand this.
Nevertheless, we can take their teachings and apply them to our own walk. So often we preach that “I must decrease and Christ must increase”, but many preachers are at a loss as exactly how to achieve this decrease of self. I encourage them to study the Zen masters, because they have a pretty good idea on how to become truly selfless.
Do any of us really understand these passages? They are telling us that as born-again followers of Christ, we are to have no self-worth or identity outside of Christ. In essence, we have exchanged our life for His life. The person we once knew is dead, and not only the sin, but the entire person is gone. In place of that dead man is a new creation in Christ. This new creature that we have become is different in its function than the previous. The new creature lives not for itself, nor concerns itself with its own preservation or happiness. Its sole purpose is to glorify God the Father and Jesus Christ with its life. It is to serve others in humility before men and God, not thinking of itself.
This extends even to self-preservation. Many Christians still fear their own death. There is no greater love than a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13) To live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philip. 1:21)
We must understand that as Christians we have made the decision to die to self. If we have made that decision, what will for ourselves should we have? The answer is none. The only will we have is what God wills for us, and that is obedience to His Word. What does the Word command? Love God above all, and love everyone like you love yourself. Since we have no identity outside Christ, then “love others as you love yourself” means to love people just like Christ loved them. Christ loved humanity so much he gave His life for them even as they hated Him, so that is the example and the measure of what God expects from us.
Why do we find it so difficult to live as Christ lived? Why is it so hard to give all, to serve others, to love without expectation or condition? It is because we have not died to ourselves. We have not emptied out our worldly desires. We are still attached to something in this world, whether it be a possession, a person, or even our own mortal lives. Once we can successfully come to the realization that we are nothing and Christ is everything we can start living the abundant life He promised us.
As a note of caution, many Christians have come to consider “worldly desire” and “sin” as one and the same. This is not true. Worldly desire does not just include sin, but any desire for the things of this world, including what many would call the “American dream”. Wake up, the dream is a lie. Owning a two-story house with a white picket fence is not what Christians should aspire to.
It would be great if we could look to great Christians today for help with this matter. Sadly we have few, if any, good role models among the faith today. Even the “best” of Christians, especially in the United States, are very much still attached to the things of this world. So I have chosen to study the monks of the Far East and their concepts of self-denial and emptiness. Perhaps one day I might be able to teach them how to fill the spiritual void once they’ve emptied it.
So many people believe this death of self and total submission to Christ is horrifying. They believe such a life would be torture, and I was once among these people. As I have grown and I have started the process of emptying myself however, I find more and more that to kill selfish desire is to find freedom and joy in Christ, which is the lesson He has been trying to teach us all along.