The Christian life seems to strike people as unappealing, even Christians. I major reason I believe this is the case, however, is because we have an incomplete vision of the Christian life. We see some of its more striking parts without viewing the more intricate whole.
Take, for example, one of the classic works of Christian living, Imitation of Christ, by Thomas Kempis. The “true religious” are characterized by “the complete mortification of passions.” Notice the incongruity of categories: the religious life (positive) is the denial of all passions (negative). Lewis, in his sermon, The Weight of Glory, notes a similar problem in modern Christian thought: the greatest Christian virtue is thought to be selflessness (negative). On the contrary, says Lewis, the greatest Christian virtue is love (positive).
Sure, the acquiring of love demands the negation of selfishness. And, I believe this is where Kempis intends his thought process to lead. What I take issue with is not the denial with self to acquire Divine love, but the complete denial of self.
Let me explain. One of the most powerful biblical teachings on humility comes form Philippians 2. The Philippian believers are told to consider others as more important than themselves (v.4) by imitating Christ, who left deity to become man and die on a cross (vv.5–8). Is this emptying (v. 7) the end of the process? No, there is a “therefore.” Because of the emptying, Jesus was exalted over all (vv.9–11). What is the “therefore” for the church? It’s two-fold: 1) they enter into the joy of exalting Christ forever (vv. 10–11) and they become unified in that. In fact, the entire passage is a call to unity (vv. 1–2). So, there is the unified vision: humility leads to unity, specifically, unity in Christ. In other words, we empty ourselves in order to become a more complete self.
Back to the issue of complete self denial. We are called to humble ourselves not to completely erase our passions, but to reorient our passions, to awaken them. We become more passionate, more desiring. And we become desirous of the right things.
This is important for pastoral exhortation. When we call the church to follow Christ in humiliation, we are not bidding them to become nothing. We are bidding them to become more satisfied than they have ever been. Jesus does call us to take up a cross, but the cross, when mounted, is an easy yoke.