One of the hardest parts about deconverting out from under a fundagelical marriage was unlearning my indoctrination and re-learning all the rules for how men and women should interact. One of those ideas I had to unlearn was the idea of “dying to yourself.” But it was the one I needed to unlearn the most.
“Dying to yourself” in Christian theology means (generally, as much as any bit of Christianese can be said to mean any one thing) to shove your own needs and desires deep down and ignore them while working to do the best you can to serve your god. A writer for Billy Graham’s website says the phrase means “to set aside what we want in this moment and focus instead on loving God with everything we’ve got and valuing others as highly as we value ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39)”. As one might imagine of an Ancient Near Eastern mystery cult centering around death and resurrection, the Bible is chock-full of verses about dying to yourself–lauding the idea, praising those who can do it, humblebragging on themselves for doing it. Back in church, we also called this concept “mortifying the flesh” and consider it a signal virtue in a Christian.
The newspeak runs strong with this whole idea. As that Billy Graham writer puts it so well, “Dying to self actually makes life easier because, for example, we can be content even when we’re overlooked.” Now, obviously, we need to get over ourselves sometimes; it’s not always about us. But that healthy sort of cooperative spirit isn’t what she is talking about. She’s talking about not caring about ourselves or ever wanting praise or even acknowledgment. What’s awful is that she actually thinks that this kind of fetish-like self-negation is not only acceptable but ideal on a constant basis. It sounds a bit to me like those bondage aficionados who talk about finding their freedom on their knees. Slavery is freedom. Freedom is slavery. Dying to self makes life easier. And I mean that’s fine, YKIOK, but don’t try to tell me this idea is perfect for everybody or that we all need hardcore 24/7 TPE to find our freedom (heads-up: those two last linkies are maybe a teeny bit NSFW).
In marriage, when I was a Christian, this idea of “dying to yourself” got a good workout because it was considered the cardinal virtue of a couple that they each “died to themselves” to “serve” the spouse. Husbands especially are told to die to themselves by giving up their own needs in favor of their wives’ needs and desires. That link declares that doing this fine and grand deed is a sort of imitation of how Jesus died for his Church (we’ll ignore that the Church didn’t even yet exist; he died for everybody, I kinda thought, but that wrecks the metaphor so we’ll let him roll with it for now). This idea of husbands dying for their wives is considered “marriage as it was meant to be,” in the words of the old white dude who wrote that link I just gave you.
Of course women were always dying for their men; we were expected as a matter of necessity to give up all sorts of things we wanted to function in our marriages. All those hundreds of large and small indignities visited upon a fundagelical wife were mine for the suffering, and I was supposed to support, love, and cherish my husband no matter what–and obey him, of course, even when he did something boneheaded or totally wrong. It definitely felt like I was dying to myself. I had to ignore and give up my needs to help him in whatever way he needed, and that was just what I thought marriage was supposed to look like. The idea was he would be doing it too, and so we both would get our needs met that way. Except it didn’t ever seem to work out that way. I was slowly becoming a bottomless churning pit of resentment, and he was getting more and more out of hand with his need to control me. Somehow this whole “dying to ourselves” thing wasn’t producing two happy, functional adults working together, separate but equal, to further our god’s kingdom on Earth.
I didn’t know any better. I certainly had no idea how else to handle a marriage. Even my parents’ marriage had looked a lot like that, with each having to make real sacrifices and deny themselves various things they each wanted and needed to maintain the relationship. It’d been a rocky go of it all right, the whole way through (I have more than a few memories of packed suitcases and grimly-set mouths and slammed doors). I didn’t realize that it could work any other way than that. For things to work, both people had to stuff their needs deep down inside and ignore them a lot of the time. Christianity just put a label on that process: “dying to yourself.” But it worked the same for my semi-Catholic parents and for me.
Then I threw a monkey wrench into the works by deconverting, and began to examine every single thing I’d lived my life by up to that moment. And “dying to yourself” was one of those things I had to re-examine.
Remember, up till then, I was convinced that all two people had to do to stay married was be Christian, be born as opposite genders, and be acting according to their god’s will. That was it. They could be of any temperament; they could have any life goals; they could even be of totally different opinions on a number of political and social platforms. A successful, lifelong marriage didn’t depend on any of those things. If it was our god’s will, then things would just magically work out.
Too bad reality almost never lived up to the fantasy.
Yes, yes, it was a very pretty fantasy for men to “die to their wives.” But they never did, did they? They were always the final “decider.” They always held the trump card: their penis. They might talk a big game, might even call their wives “the boss,” but we always knew who was in control ultimately and who would remember he held the reins when the horse pulling their bulk around town really wanted to go somewhere the real boss didn’t want to go. It was nothing but the sheerest fantasy to imagine anything else than a man who was indulgently and benevolently allowing his little wifey to charge around for a little while before pulling her back into line.
And, too, one must remember that most of these people think their god just loves him some “free will”–except when it comes to him influencing his people to change their minds, at which point who cares about free will? Biff told me he had “died to himself” about having kids before we got married; he told me that he had put this desire “on the altar” and had accepted that if it was our god’s will that he marry me, then children were not on the plate for him anymore despite his deep desire to be a father. I was naive and hopeful enough to believe him. I didn’t realize that the ink on our marriage license would barely be dry before he would be pestering and wheedling me about having children. When I reminded him that he’d put that desire “on the altar,” he’d shape up for a little while, but he would be right back at the cajoling and manipulating tactics almost immediately after making every single renewed promise. I did not realize that he’d been told by our pastor to do these things to “persuade” me to accept that our god had commanded me to have children. And how did Biff know our god had said that? Why, because Biff wanted to have children. It’s just astonishing, I know, that our god’s will seemed to coincide perfectly with Biff’s will and yet was so strangely out of step with my own ideas about the same.
You can bet I got a lot of flack for not “dying to myself” and having children for Biff. I was a woman, you see, and obedience and submission were what were most important for any woman. What I wanted wasn’t important at all. Christians weren’t supposed to care about themselves anyway. Biff really wanted kids, and I did not. That meant something was wrong with me. I wasn’t dying to myself. I wasn’t putting my own needs on the altar. I was living selfishly and being very cruel to my long-suffering, much-put-upon, godly Christian husband. I was an evil Jezebel spirit of a woman. I needed to obey whether I wanted to obey or not, and our god would bless me richly for dying to myself like I should. If you’re wondering, these are things I was explicitly told many times while I was a fundamentalist. I’m not just pulling these statements out of my rear end. This is stuff people actually said to me. I’m very thankful that I didn’t listen to them. I think some last-second sense of self-preservation kicked in; I think I sensed somehow that I wasn’t hearing any sort of divine mandate, but rather the outrage of an entire patriarchal movement that needed to get that dissenter back in line by any means possible.
I’m going to tell you right now why this whole “dying to yourself” idea is pure horseshit and why marriages that rely upon it are almost certainly doomed to fail in dramatic fireworks:
* The whole mindset ignores everything we know about human nature. It tells us “your happiness should be found only in pleasing others” and that our happiness isn’t even that important. But we’re humans. We want to be happy. We’ve been told our whole lives that marriage should make people happy. There’s no reason whatsoever to even get married except for being in love and wanting to be happy with another person. People don’t get married to take one for the team. They don’t even usually get married just to have kids or anything else. They get married because they’re in love. But “dying to yourself” requires you to not care about those things you need that you know (or think) will make you happy. That doesn’t work forever. Sooner or later, your need to be happy will come out. That’s why we call those things “needs.” If they were purely optional, we’d call them “whims,” and it’s easy to give up and ignore whims. But a need is visceral. It’s something we must have. It lurks in our psyche like a prowling beast, and our denial restrains it, but that denial will only last as long as our self-control does. And some of us do indeed have very good self-control, but eventually there’ll be some massive drama if we keep trying to deny ourselves what we need. Instead of trying to change or ignore human nature, we should embrace it and try to find ways to honor and meet those needs in ways that don’t threaten our partnership with our mates. But there we are stymied, because…
* The idea of “dying to yourself” tells people that they are responsible for meeting the needs of their partners, and that their partners are responsible for meeting theirs. This isn’t true either. The other day I got into it with a Christian who told me that my vision of a perfect marriage sounded a lot like “dying to yourself” because I said that if my partner needed to sleep, then by all means he should sleep; if he needed to exercise more, he should exercise; if he said he was going to make a bookcase for me or go to the store but then decided he needed to sleep or eat or whatever first, then I needed to work around that because those are all important needs and I don’t think it’s okay to force someone to do something when exhausted or starving or whatever. But that’s not even close to the idea of “dying to yourself.” By wild contrast, I’m acknowledging that a partner has needs that are important and worth him refusing to do something for me to meet his own needs. I’m not refusing to acknowledge my own needs or saying those needs are unimportant. I’m a big girl and I can meet my own needs. If I need a bookcase made, I can make my own blasted bookcase. If I need to hit the store that bad, then I’ll go myself. I expect that when I have needs, that my partner will understand when I defer his requests so I can meet those needs. If he couldn’t understand that, we wouldn’t be partners.
I don’t expect a partner to put everything on hold to meet my needs. They’re my needs. I’ll take care of them as much as I can. What’s nice is that helping a partner meet his needs is something I can usually do in addition to meeting my own, and vice versa, because I chose someone whose outlook on life and methodology for dealing with situations meshes very well with my own. I’ve got his back, and he’s got mine. I support him as he reaches toward his goals, and he supports me as I reach for my own*. And yes, sometimes I may have to put off some lesser need of my own to help him, but that’s not a permanent situation; I fully expect that sometimes he’ll put off his needs for the greater good, but I don’t expect him to do that every time. And just as he’s allowed to refuse my requests if he thinks he needs something more right then, I’m allowed to do that as well. We both trust in each other’s good natures and best intentions. That’s what a partnership is. It’s not a parenting model. It’s a cooperative model. I don’t need a daddy. I need a partner in crime.
* “Dying to yourself” tells people that they are not good people on their own and need to put on a mask and play a role instead of being themselves. That’s not true or a good way to live either. I just don’t accept that people are so fundamentally broken that there is something drastically terrible about them being themselves. I just don’t accept that a marriage works best when two people are busy pretending to be somebody else. In Christians’ headlong rush to become more Jesus-y, they’re not actually learning to grow and develop as themselves. They’re acting like what they think a good Christian should act like, but that might not necessarily be what their Savior wants–and it certainly may not be what they themselves are like. As a fellow blogger writes of her own mom’s experience,
My mother has been affectionately dubbed the “friendly freight train.” She can talk to anyone, she is cheerful and jubilant pretty much all of the time, she adores people, and she is one of the most sacrificial people I know. But I watched her struggle almost all of my life, because she was being told that she had to fit inside of a rigid, inflexible set of parameters that said that who she was as a person was ungodly. She couldn’t ever be just who she was– she was rarely accepted for being who she was because she was so unlike the “godly woman” being preached about from pulpits and Sunday school rooms and ladies’ retreats.
That certainly sounds like what happened to me as well–I sure didn’t fit the Pentecostal ideal much, remember. And that was a huge problem. “Dying to myself” was far preferable to being my actual real self. But this brings in a new problem: being inauthentic, which means not living true to myself and acting like someone I’m not to make the people around me happier or more comfortable. How long can someone be inauthentic? Some people can make that work for a while, sometimes, sure, but definitely it isn’t a trick most folks can manage forever. BTW, I’m not saying that people can’t improve–of course we all can and should always be striving to learn and grow; this “dying to yourself” nonsense is not learning and growing, though, but rather learning a part in a play that will never, ever end.
* Why are people even ever okay with someone “dying” to make them happy? How sick is that? I know that Christians do it because they want to emulate Jesus, but may we remind folks here please that the Crucifixion was a terrible crime inflicted upon someone against his will and that the whole shebang was a serious and atrocious crime committed against an innocent person by a cruel and evil world? That’s not exactly a model of marriage I’d think people are wise to want to follow. It’s certainly not an ideal I’d expect to form the basis of a healthy, mature, long-lasting partnership, either. When someone is “dead,” there’s nothing left of that person inside anymore; it’s all “Jesus,” according to Christians. They “die” so Jesus can inhabit them more. But Jesus wasn’t exactly marriage material. I know Christians love to talk about him like a perfect K-Pop boyfriend, but really, a homeless, sponging apocalyptic wandering prophet who talked in cryptic riddles and thought “testing” people was a great idea–that kind of guy isn’t someone anybody sensible should want to marry.
Besides, I don’t want my partner to “die” to make me happy. I want him alive–fully alive and flowing like crystal-clear mountain-stream water–I want him quick, aware, present, and involved. I definitely don’t want him to “die” so I can get what I want. Nothing I ever want should ever require anybody to “die” for me to have it. Whatever it was I needed, I would not accept it on those terrible and awful terms. If I require someone to negate himself to make me happy or meet any need of my own, then clearly my need/desire is not healthy and I need to get over my bad self. Why would someone even accept that kind of habitual self-sacrifice from someone they said they loved? That’s not the move of someone who loves, but rather someone who lords. And there seem like there are a lot of petty lordlings in Christianity. It’s like a giant LARP–a fantasy of dominion and idealism that isn’t anywhere near true in real life.
Despite its many failings and shortcomings, though, this concept is one that is beyond axiomatic in Christianity. It’s not even questioned. It’s not even close to being vaguely possible to question. Christian, therefore “die to yourself.” “Die to yourself” and “live for Him.” It’s all over the religion as a concept. There’s a big swathe of Christians who even think that the big problem with young people today is that they’re not being taught to “die to themselves” the right way and that’s clearly why the religion is losing people; one pastor in that link even explicitly says (emphasis mine): “Dying to self is a necessity in order to follow Jesus as we all know.” Now, I would like for you to go take a look at that comment thread and I want you to think about this one thing: Occasionally someone shows up to ask “yes, but how do we know when we’re dying to ourselves the right way? What does that look like?” And I want you to notice something: nobody can answer that question except to give yet more mystical-sounding, oogly-boogly newspeak sound bites and talking-points. “Uh.. it means to surrender!” “Yes, yes, surrender,” (and you can hear the slight worry in the voice of the questioner, like Aziraphale asking the Metatron about the ineffable plan) “but what does ‘surrender’ look like?” And the merry-go-round goes around and around with nobody actually saying what “surrender” looks like any more than they can talk about what “dying to yourself” should look like. These guys are pastors and they can’t even really talk concretely about what this concept should look like when enacted in real life–so what hope do they or we have that parishioners will have any idea how to do it correctly?
I don’t think anybody in Christianity really understands this concept, which is alarming given that it is a complete necessity by most Christians’ theologies. Let’s reiterate: there is this totally necessary, totally mandatory thing that Christians must do to be good Christians that nobody really seems to understand how to actually, uh, do. There is this required piece of behavior that nobody can define, let alone model, let alone discuss in real-world terms. But that ain’t stopping them. Nobody in the religion even knows what it is, much less wonders how to “die to yourself” in a healthy way or even whether or not it’s really necessary to do that at all to be a good person–or even wonders if maybe the religion’s losing people because “dying to yourself” isn’t really a healthy way to live and what kind of nasty, evil god would even require something like that? Certainly nobody even considers that this religious fantasy might not be quite applicable to the real world.
Worst of all, though, the delusion tells Christians that if they just obey and throw themselves into “dying to themselves,” whatever that actually means to them, they’ll be rewarded with happiness and material comforts. If not bliss, at least they will have contentment. And their marriages are guaranteed to last if they can just do this thing right.
So all this was the kind of stuff I had to re-evaluate when I left the religion. I had to think about just what it meant to “die to yourself” and whether or not that was a viable way to conduct a life or a marriage now that I wasn’t required to believe I had to do that to be a good person. As you can see, I discarded the notion fairly quickly.
Given the huge difference in mindsets we had about what constituted a good marriage, you can probably imagine that Biff and I were kind of doomed once I left Christianity. He still subscribed to this “dying to yourself” model of marriage even if he failed at that ideal completely, spectacularly, and constantly, and I just didn’t think that was a healthy way to love someone anymore. I wanted something real. I wanted a more egalitarian marriage of the sort I’ve outlined here–where both partners are not dead, where nobody’s playing a role or a part, where there are no masks and no pretenses and no charades, but one rather where both partners are completely, amazingly, blissfully, shockingly alive: where they both know they have needs and acknowledge and honor those needs rather than stuffing those needs in a dark pit and trying to ignore them to make someone else happy and comfortable.
As an interesting note, since leaving Christianity, I’ve met quite a few men who tried that whole “die to yourself” thing and actually seemed to try really hard at it, and what ended up happening was their wives started taking advantage of their good natures. I didn’t know many of these men while I was actually a Christian, but I can see why; it’s a little embarrassing to realize you’re stuck like that, isn’t it? I mean, it’s got to be a little humiliating to be part of the Happy Christian Marriage facade and try to live up to that strong-jawed Christian husband-providerman image and realize you’ve been taken for a ride. Now that I’m friends with men in Christian marriages, I can see the huge and bizarrely lopsided workload they shoulder and it just looks crazy to me that anybody would ever put up with that sort of treatment. I bet there are more men than most Christians can guess who are sitting reading my words and going “oh my gosh that’s me.”
I’m not kidding here: I’ve seen vanishingly few marriages using this model that actually lasted and were happy. Either the participants couldn’t deny their needs fully, or else they did and just got taken advantage of. So I can safely say that even when someone is trying his or her best to do this thing the way everybody says it should be done, results are still not guaranteed.
I’ve heard Christian men trumpet to the skies that they work daily to “die to themselves” for their wives’ benefit and try to put their wives’ needs first every time because that’s what Jesus would do. I’ve heard these same men tell me sometimes that I’m obviously a terrible evil feminist whose male partners must absolutely hate me because I don’t subscribe to a sexist, complementarian view of marriage anymore and don’t negate myself for the sake of a partner. That revelation would be surprising news to the men I’ve shared my life with over the years, I’ve no doubt, but people who say that sort of thing don’t realize they’re saying more about themselves and their own fears and prejudices than they are about me (it’s also worth mentioning that several of these men are since divorced from their “perfect” Happy Christian Marriages, and all of the ones I’ve ever heard lobbing such accusations at me suffered from some serious anger problems).
I said “fear” for a reason up there, by the way. I see the drilling-down on “dying to yourself” a lot lately and it all has the ring of fear to it. I seriously think that people are emphasizing this concept because they see it as a way to manage and control changes. Things are changing, and I don’t think Christians cope with change all that well as a group. But this is where rubber meets the road–and change is inevitable at this point. You know, Christianity’s had like 2000 years to make “separate but equal” work as a lived-out concept. The religion’s had twenty centuries to figure out how to make a Happy Christian Marriage something that is mutually satisfying and fair for both participants. And somehow we keep hearing about abuses in that system–about men who lord it over their families like those 20-year-old control freaks who write singles ads looking for young women to cook, clean, and sexually submit to their every whim, and we hear about wives who are abused and downtrodden and haunted-eyed, about children who grow up unable to distinguish between abuse and love, about the constant stream of stories about physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of women and children alike by husbands of all denomination abusing their PENIS POWER.
And somehow we still hear about the quiet legions of suffering husbands who end up doing all the housework, working outside the home, and putting off every single thing they ever wanted so their wives will be happy and their kids will have everything they crave, and even then get dumped and lose everything because their wives somehow aren’t made happy enough by their sacrificed lives. There are just too many people wondering in their quietest heart of hearts, in the last bastion of privacy they have, why this isn’t working out for them the way the fantasy writers say it should be working out for them, for me to think for a heartbeat that this system is something we should be pushing for couples to use in their relationships. And most of those poor suffering souls will conclude that they’re doing something wrong, rather than realizing that the fantasy itself just doesn’t fit everybody.
Based upon its astonishing and signal lack of real-world effectiveness, I’m going to call this idea dead in the water. It doesn’t work. There’s just not a way for a marriage to work out well when the people involved think it’s a fine and wonderful thing for anybody to habitually suppress their needs and desires for the other’s benefit. It’s a great fantasy, just like 24/7 TPE bondage if you like that kinda thing, but it just doesn’t play out for most people very well on a real-life basis. And we should not be forcing ourselves into a fantasy mold if it just doesn’t fit very well.
In the end, dying to yourself means you’re not really living. And for someone who is absolutely convinced that there’s another life, wasting decades on stuff that doesn’t even come close to making you happy might be okay, but remember, please, that nobody actually knows what comes next. People who are walking around like zombies, dead to themselves and glorifying this life of negation and abuse they think is ideal, they are wasting years of the only lives they know for sure they’re going to get. This is it. This is the life we’ve got. And many of us are totally squandering it. If you knew this was the only life you were going to get, what would you do differently?
Speaking of doing things differently, we’re going to talk about opportunity costs next. I used to say that if I found out tomorrow that Christianity wasn’t real that I’d still be a Christian because it was just such a wonderful way to live, but I was talking out of my butt. Even then I kinda knew there were some real things I was missing out on by choosing the life I was living. We’re going to talk about some of those things and why I talked like that. I hope you’ll join me.
* FAQ: Yes, Virginia, there is a Mr. Captain. For over a decade. Quite blissful, thanks.