One of the advantages of having New Testament scholar Robert Gagnon as a friend is getting a text in which he casually points out that, in 2 Corinthians 6, the apostle Paul mentions ten difficult circumstances, followed by nine phrases describing a kind of challenging scenario in which Paul shows endurance. Then eight demonstrations of the Spirit-empowered life, three antinomies, and seven paradoxes with correlating polarities: a negative experience in the fleshly dimension and an opposite positive experience in the spiritual dimension.

“The most important of these polarities is the middle one,” Gagnon added, “the only one with the interjection ‘look!’ telling the reader to pay special attention: ‘dying and yet we live.’ This is the quintessential paradox or polarity expressed in the letter, underscoring that there is no living in Christ apart from dying to self” (emphasis added, and a few technicalities trimmed).

Life and death.

In our fallen world, there appears to be an operative principle at work; Tim Keller wrote about this. To save a life, cancer cells may need to be destroyed. To redeem the world, Christ had to die. And for us to live as we were meant to live, we have to die to self.

Such a message is eminently unpopular in our cultural moment, but this gives believers a golden opportunity to sound a countercultural message. But more importantly, a biblical one.

The professional ethics codes of psychologists nowadays are an attempt to encapsulate their guiding values, including autonomy, non-malfeasance, beneficence, justice, fidelity, veracity, integrity, respect for rights and dignity, and the like. Unique to modernism in this list is autonomy and the notion that this is something that should be categorically promoted.

Now, something like self-love is arguably a created disposition altogether appropriate. The Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, after all. But inappropriate self-love comes about because what’s healthy and ordained has been twisted and warped by sin.

This dichotomy furnishes a crystal clear example of where biblical and worldly values can and do diverge. Privileging autonomy and “self-legislation”—treating everything as negotiable, malleable, fluid, etc.—easily becomes idolatrous self-apotheosis, the antithesis of the death to self to which we’re called.

I see this in my own area of specialization. A well-known objection to theistic ethics is the autonomy objection, one version of which is that if we let God tell us what to do, we have sacrificed our moral autonomy.

The situation on occasion has even devolved to this laughable state: some have used an appeal to autonomy to pose an objection to moral objectivity itself—the unmitigated audacity of morality to tell us what we ought to do contrary to our wishes!

Some trace the autonomy objection back to Immanuel Kant, who had quite a bit to say about autonomy, but in fact Kant is often misunderstood on this score. Kant encouraged those who follow moral truths to appropriate them for themselves, not simply to see such truths as something externally imposed. Autonomy is self-imposition of the moral law, of which we are not the authors.

But the more modern and crasser variant of autonomy involves people defining what’s right or wrong, good or bad, vice or virtue, for themselves. On this view, rather than having to die to certain desires, they are conferred the authority to determine the best path ahead. Therapists constrained by such a secular conception can easily start to perform a function akin to a mirror, reflecting back to patients whatever their prevailing desires dictate, only able to challenge views out of step with prevailing secular paradigms.

Incidentally, this shows that even a code of ethics in professional organizations may mislead. They often tend to capture prevailing views at odds with biblical truth. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes: Who will guard the guards themselves? Who watches the watchers? (A relevant question in many areas, including the emergence of AI technologies.)

At any rate, the Christian perspective is quite a bit different from this contemporary variant of autonomy. Former Asbury College (now University) president and Old Testament scholar Dennis Kinlaw made the point most poignantly: “Satan disguises submission to himself under the ruse of personal autonomy. He never asks us to become his servants. Never once did the serpent say to Eve, ‘I want to be your master.’ The shift in commitment is never from Christ to evil; it is always from Christ to self. And instead of his will, self-interest now rules and what I want reigns. And that is the essence of sin.”

This is a powerful truth we should remember, most assuredly, although I might demur on just one point, which brings our conversation full circle. By “self-interest” here, Kinlaw perhaps instead meant something like “selfishness,” which is importantly different. Exercising and eating right is in our self-interest, but not inherently selfish in the least. Likewise, our true self-interest is not something as Christians we need ever sacrifice. Serving God and doing right never goes against our ultimate self-interest. Rejecting God and the good, in contrast, is never in our ultimate self-interest. We serve a God who in his providential care will ensure an ultimate airtight correspondence between holiness and our deepest joy.

In this sense, we often aren’t self-interested enough. In a series of sermons, the 18th-century divine Joseph Butler made this very point, arguing that human beings, rather than tending to operate out of too much concern for self-interest, often fail to be self-interested enough in the requisitely enlightened, expansive, and long-term way. Almost by way of providing colorful examples and thick thought experiments of this recurring dynamic, in The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce C. S. Lewis adroitly explores the psychology of temptation and obstinate resistance to redemption and joy, venturing an answer for why human beings irrationally act against what is ultimately in their self-interest.

Remember the paradox: by dying to our self we become most alive in Christ. By submitting to God’s kingship, we are most free. By losing our life we find it.[1]


[1] Thanks to recent conversations with Marybeth Baggett, Rob Gagnon, Elton Higgs, Eric Johnson, and Jerry Walls for helpful insight that culminated in this piece.

— David Baggett is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for the Foundations of Ethics at Houston Christian University. He is the author or editor of about fifteen books, most recently Ted Lasso and Philosophy: No Question Is Into Touch edited with Marybeth Baggett.

Image by Hilary Clark from Pixabay