Dear Christian, your marriage is not supposed to kill you

addressing the false teaching of “daily dying to self,” part 1
Your marriage is not supposed to kill you.

by Rebecca Davis

A couple of months ago blogger Darrell Harrison posted this blog article (link), which told us our marriages are supposed to kill us. (It was also reposted here and in a few other places.) My thanks to the reader who alerted me to it.

I wrote to the author of the article over a month ago, telling him I disagreed with it and might blog a response, but pleading with him at the very least to add a disclaimer to say that he opposed domestic abuse. I never received a reply, and he hasn’t posted a disclaimer.

Aside from the fact that any blog post with a title such as this should have a disclaimer that repudiates domestic abuse, I believe the basic tenets of the article are incorrect.

So since I also think for myself—as the post author says he does in his website’s name—and especially since I read the Bible, here we go. . . .

Your marriage is not supposed to kill you

There is no place, no place, no place in the Bible that even hints that your marriage should cause your death, physically or spiritually.

Did you get that? NO PLACE.

I can’t even pull up the Scriptures that reference the concept to explain them, because they’re not even there.

You’re not supposed to die in your marriage. You’re supposed to live.

That’s good news, isn’t it?

How can I say that, you might be wondering, when there are all those Scriptures telling us we’re supposed to die to self, we’re supposed to die to self every day?

Well, guess what.

There aren’t any Scriptures like that.

Instead, Jesus said, “I am come that they [His sheep] might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

How I decided to stop trying to die daily

It’s been a long journey for me from the “I die daily” sign I posted beside my bed in college in the 1970s. (It didn’t work—people still told me I was proud and condescending. That made me cry, but they were right.)

Along the way, in the 1990s my young children sang a song for my parents that had this line in it: “And we must die a little every day as we live the servant way of Jesus.” But I changed the words of that line, because I had come to the place where I believed that teaching was untrue.

My mother asked, “Why did you change that line of the song?”

I said, “Because the Bible doesn’t teach about dying every day.”

 “Why does it matter?” she asked. 

I hesitated and finally said, “I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure it does matter.”

Well, twenty years of water have flowed under that bridge, and I came to see why it matters. About 10 or 12 years ago I started researching on the internet to try to find if anyone else talked about how “daily dying to self” was unbiblical, but I couldn’t find where anyone did. (I also tried to find out where the concept came from, since it wasn’t in the Bible, and it looked like it came through Christian mysticism—possibly from Buddhism—but don’t quote me on that.)

Along the way I studied the Biblical concept of “denying self,” what it meant to “take up your cross,” the “death” of Romans 6:11, the “mortification” of Romans 8:13 and Colossians 3:5, the “dying” of II Corinthians 4:10, other Scriptures such as “I die daily” in I Corinthians 15:3, and what it means to be crucified with Christ.

About the same time I asked someone with whom I was barely brave enough to have a conversation about this (since my take on the subject seemed to be bordering on heresy): “When do you think you’re successful in dying to self?” The answer was, of course, never. It’s one of those things we have to keep trying . . . and trying . . . and trying to do, without ever having success.

This is not exactly the Christian life our Lord Jesus told us was available to us.

Mustering the courage to tackle a ubiquitous teaching

Back in 2009 when I started this blog, I said to myself, “One of these days maybe I’ll be brave enough to address that daily dying to self that’s taught everywhere except in the Bible.”

It took a long time to become brave enough. A few things had to coalesce for it, not the least of which was my husband’s passion about the topic and my discovery that Tim Fall had written about it two years ago (link). (“Oh good,” I thought. “Someone else has done it first.” Chicken that I am.)

But of course the primary reason I’m ready to talk about it is that I see Christians who are in the category of the oppressed who have tried to be good Christians by dying . . . or letting their marriages kill them.

And yes, I have friends who when they finally got out of their “Christian” marriages, were very nearly dead.

My husband’s thoughts on “daily dying to self”

As I mentioned, my husband Tim became passionate about the topic, not just because we often have abuse survivors in our home and he sees the deleterious effects of incorrect teachings, but also because he knows this teaching has been confusing and defeating in the lives of non-abused Christians like me . . . and himself.

So since he doesn’t have a blog, he wrote a paper on the subject and handed it to me. Though I want to address some of the misunderstood Scriptures (bringing up ten-year-old Bible study notes), for today I just want to quote my husband, Tim Davis:

“The call to continuing death rings more closely with bondage to the Law than with freedom in Christ. And it can be so used to manipulate people of sensitive consciences, very aware of their faults, while excusing those of calloused consciences who cannot see their own sin—or who redefine it as non-sin.”  

And, like any extra-Biblical teaching, there’s the potential for it to end up doing the exact opposite of what it was supposed to accomplish. Tim again:

“Thus it ironically brings about more sin because it focuses upon our own strength. Our flesh convinces us that determination is the key to a Spirit-led life. Christians think that if we discipline ourselves, we will become spiritual. It sounds like a noble quest. The motives are good, but the means are, according to Romans 7, impossible—even hopeless.”  

“No matter how well-intentioned, any call to continuing death is confusing, pointing believers in the wrong direction, toward defeat and discouragement. We are called to life—to live abundantly—not in and of ourselves, but in Christ, by God’s life-giving Spirit.  

 Personally, I do not come to this truth lightly. I freely admit that my own determination, though fairly strong, has never been sufficient for righteousness.  

But it was from the other side where this truth was brought to bear in my life. After several years of my family’s caring for my aged parents as my mother declined from Alzheimer’s, in 2006 both my parents died within six weeks of each other.

We had all made many sacrifices during that time in our lives, my wife, my children, and I. At the same time, I was working in an abusive office environment to earn what we needed to support us. All through this time, I heard weekly Christian teaching from a well-meaning and good man imploring us to “die to self.” I felt like this teaching was killing me spiritually. [RD note: Apparently accomplishing what a good Christian marriage is supposed to accomplish, according to Darrell Harrison’s article.] We’d given up so much in the past seven years, and now in my grief, looking for strength, I was told I just wasn’t giving up enough.  

When I was about ready to quit church altogether (though as a pastor’s son I’d attended church all my life), I tried a different church where I’d heard something hopeful. The messages concentrated on the believer’s identity in Christ—as His beloved child. I needed to stop looking at myself (and ironically, dying to self put the focus on me). This was where my spiritual healing began.  

I wonder how many others sit under teachings that constantly put their focus on their own inabilities instead of upon God’s ability. Since that time we’ve sat with many who have been over-wracked with feelings of guilt, failure, and insufficiency. Many come from abusive environments where that [“you’re not dying enough”] is constantly reinforced in them until they can stand it no longer. They’ve died a thousand deaths.  

We won’t call them to that. Instead, like Christ, we’ll call them to life.


More coming . . .

I’ll be posting three more parts to this series this week, which will address the Scriptures I mentioned above (which, spoiler alert, are not about daily dying to self and certainly don’t mention marriage).

But for now, I’m just tickled pink that Tim wanted to write something for my blog. It’s the first time that’s happened in eight years of blogging, and I might add, in 32 years of a marriage in which neither one of us has ever considered the possibility that we were supposed to be getting killed by it.

One final thought. If your marriage is supposed to kill you, then maybe you can be like the miserable wife of the tyrant (the Law) in the first part of Romans 7, the one who, in Romans 7:4 represents us as getting killed in her marriage, to then be raised to life again to be married to another, “even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God.”

 Now that’s the way to die!

***

You can read part 2 here, which talks about the “deny yourself” and “take up your cross” Scriptures, and some other things. You can read part 3 here, which addresses the “mortification” Scriptures and some other things. Part 4 is here, which talks about “rest from works” and valuing what is truly valuable. That’s the Christian LIFE!

17 thoughts on “Dear Christian, your marriage is not supposed to kill you

  1. Rebecca, this is very interesting! Somehow, I have missed the fact that we are not called to “die to ourselves”. I had already seen the fallacy of the “I die daily” passage, but not dying to oneself.

    I was just thinking yesterday about how God tells those who already believe, “You ARE dead” (Colossians 3:2), and in Romans 6 he says to count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God. Which, of course, is the flip side: we are also raised to life in Christ!

    Looking forward to the rest of the series!

  2. I love this! I hadn’t thought of it in terms of “dying daily” before; I’ve thought about more in terms of the submission argument in marriage. But I think that there is a strain in Christianity that says that “the more miserable you are, the holier you are.” When I was on a Teen Missions trip in the 1980s, they taught us that “The Way Up is Down”, but instead of pointing you to relying on God, our leaders taught us that suffering was holy.

    No, it’s not. Living in obedience to God is holy, and sometimes that will mean suffering. But suffering, in and of itself, is not good. It is not about suffering–it is about seeking God’s will. In losing ourselves, sometimes we allow other people to act in an ungodly manner. That may feel holy, but it’s not furthering the kingdom of God. It’s hindering it.

    I wrote more about that here:
    http://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2012/08/submission-doesnt-mean-lying-over-and-taking-it/
    in how we often tell women to put up with horrible things in marriage because it means they’re holier.

    • I love that blog post! I especially appreciate how you drew the comparison/contrast with different incidents in Jesus’ life. SO important to understand! He didn’t do only one thing–He lived life to the fullest, and we can look at all of it for our examples.

      That idea of “suffering will make you more holy” was actually why I thought the concept might have come from Buddhism–because my understanding is that is more or less what Buddhism teaches. But all our holiness comes through Jesus Christ, and not through anything we can do. When I finally understood that concept, it was one of the most freeing things ever.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post, that a friend passed along to me. I knew this, but 4 years ago became involved with a group overseas that I can only say that the verse that the Lord used to deliver me from there false Doctrine was, oh you foolish Galatians, who has Bewitched you?! My understanding if you take it in context with the entire word of God, is that when Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him, and also where the Apostle Paul says, I protest, I Die daily… These are not the angst-ridden self effort producing, joyless admonitions to constantly think of something new that I can give up to show Jesus that I’m serious about him, that well meaning, but seriously off base, teachers interpret these passages by. My goodness! Look at it all again, in context with the whole word of God! Especially Galatians, Romans, and Hebrews! These passages are urging us to the exact opposite of this angst-ridden teaching! They are urging us to the joy of the exchanged life! For example, when the Apostle Paul tells us to set our minds on things above. He is not saying here that we are to just stand around all day with our heads Towards the Sky, trying to think lofty thoughts, and live this joyless angsty life! All of these verses are pointing to life, and Jesus, the prince of life! What they are saying is look to the finished work of Jesus, not our own works! It is the exchanged life! How thankful I am that the Lord delivered me from this group and this false teaching. I am still healing, and cry out daily for the Lord to restore to me the joy of his salvation and the innocent childlike relationship that I had with him prior to my encounter with this loveless group. My heart breaks for them, because they are so well-meaning, but so incredibly wrong! They have cut off fellowship with many other groups for the most minor infractions, and basically are just a tiny little cult-like church now, giving up everything, such as getting married, or the simplest and most innocent and godly Joys, and just waiting for the rapture. This is not what God meant by loving the appearing of Jesus! We who look forward to his return should be the most joyful people on earth! But if you are always trying to keep yourself, and don’t realize what Jesus did for you on the cross, you are going to be a Pharisee, there is no other way around that!

    Again, thank you so much for taking this subject on! God bless you and your husband! Jesus came to set the captives free, not imprison people in man-made traditions and laws.

    PS please forgive the interesting capitalization and grammar here, I’m using Google Voice typing, LOL! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for this, Nina Ruth. The description you give of that “bewitched” group is so tragic, and sadly, so common. When you said “Look at it all again in context of the whole Word of God,” that reminded me of my blog post called “The trump card of Romans 7,” which talks about the very same thing. It’s here: http://www.heresthejoy.com/2012/05/the-trump-card-of-romans-7/ I’m so thankful that you’re healing from the trauma caused by the “heavy burdens and grievous to be borne” put on my sometimes very well-meaning people who don’t understand what Jesus Christ is really offering.

  4. This doctrine (or mentality) that we should just take any abuse or suffering in order to become more holy, is quite widespread. Even if not explicitly taught, it has crept in among so many believers. It is assumed that ‘suffer, suffer, so you’ll get a brighter crown one day’ is so destructive, and causes indifference and lack of compassion.. ‘You’re suffering, so God must be teaching you something! Find out the lesson! You seem to need some character refinement!’

    The other extreme, mirroring this ‘holiness through suffering’ of course is the common Charismatic teaching (and sometimes non-Charismatic too) that all challenges and difficulties are a result of our own sin, unfaithfulness, doubt, fear etc… And there is not much compassion there either…
    Haveing been at the receiving end for both of these ‘admonishments’ I can say that there is very little true compassion in the Church – it is easier to look down on suffering sisters& brothers, and blame them for their tragedies.

    God is not expecting us to live in a joyless, mummified existence: it is really a Buddhist goal. In an extreme form of Japanese Buddhism, there are monks who try to mummify themselves through vigorous diet, ascetic denial etc… That is not what our God expects from His chidlren!
    We are not to become mummies, but living witnesses!

  5. Really interesting article, Rebecca… thank you!

    But moving away from the apostle Paul for a moment, Jesus said some things that would seem to support the “die daily” concept. For instance, Luke 9:23-24:

    “And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.
    “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”

    Thoughts?

  6. It’s amazing to me how so easily we fall captive to suppositions that are taught over and over til we become so blind by them that we miss actual truth. That is why I am a firm believer in studying to show THYSELF approved – when it it comes to scripture one must almost have an ‘each man for himself ‘ mindset in order to avoid the “well-meaning” teachings that lead into pitfalls and destruction.

    This article is fantastic, and helped me find my feet again. It also answered my prayer for helping me identify ‘that thing’ I just couldn’t put my finger on but desperately know is wrong. My joy is been blocked, my peace removed, and I’ve been living in a state of deferred-hope sickness for years without any way back to Life, Peace, and Joy. This article gave me the key.

    • I’m very thankful for that, Gumdrop. There is so much life to be lived in Jesus Christ. Part 2 of this series goes on to elaborate on that more, here: http://www.heresthejoy.com/2017/07/dear-christian-stop-trying-to-die/

      I don’t want to have an “every man for himself” attitude toward learning the Word of God, though–there is much to be learned from Christians who have gone before us. But *every* teaching, no matter *how* respected the teacher is, has to be held up against the Word of God as the final authority (just as the Bereans did with Paul). That’s why, though it’s good to study other writers, without question it’s Holy-Spirit-submitted study of the Holy Scriptures themselves (without spending most of that time in commentaries) that must have pre-eminence in our lives.

      It was when I reached a similar point as what you’re describing here–“What’s this wall in my Christian life, Lord?”–that eventually the Lord began to open this truth to me. And it was a truth that many before me had learned, but I just hadn’t been aware of it. I can recommend some good books on the topic that have encouraged and strengthened me–but primarily because the authors showed what God planned for His people through laying open the Word of God, without pre-established premises.

I welcome your thoughts (and of course, please feel free to use a screen name)