Life’s Biggest Lesson

Today I want to share one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. I believe it is the absolute key to a fruitful and godly life.

I’ve spoken on this subject in many places over the past forty years, sometimes calling it “The Secret of Happiness.”

Here’s the interesting back story on that.

Life’s Hardest Lesson

Some years ago, my wife and I participated in a small group meeting where the question was asked, “What season of life are you in?” (They meant “fall” = things are going downhill, “winter” = life is hard, “spring” = things are improving, and “summer” = life is great!”).

When my turn came to answer, I said to the group, “I don’t really accept the premise of the question. Life doesn’t revolve around our feelings. The truth of the Good News places me in eternal summer because years ago I discovered the secret of happiness.”

I wasn’t trying to be a troublemaker, just honest about a very important idea.

The normal way most theologians describe this biblical lesson doesn’t carry the same positive ring. In fact, a famous saint called it “The Dark Night of the Soul” (St. John of the Cross). But its primary name is “Death to Self,” and all experienced it in biblical times and continue to do so in the modern world—for their good.

The second largest best-selling book of the past forty years (after the Bible) is Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life. It begins with this profound little sentence:

“It’s not about you.”

I agree. The biggest lesson in life and the secret of a happy life is death to self. It’s our necessary response to receive Christ’s salvation. Dying to ourselves–repenting and believing– involves:

  • Laying down all self-effort and turning away from sin.
  • Coming alive to love and serve God.
  • A change of center in your thoughts and motivations.
  • Giving up your own personal happiness as your goal in life and living to make God happy.

Finding personal happiness through self-effort is like chasing a shadow. You can never quite grab it. True happiness comes when we give it up as an end in life and live for the glory of God.

When we make that choice (and renew it each day), a deep settled joy (happiness) permeates our being. It’s how we were made to live. We don’t find it by striving.

We find it by dying.

Death to self is the repentant and faith-filled action that reconciles a person to God. In humility, you say to your Creator and Savior, “I was wrong. Forgive me. I will live for you, not me.”

You die to your self-centered pride.

We also face the death to self “choice” in various practical areas of life including personal dreams, marriage, children and grandchildren, vocation, church, friendships, finances, and health. God uses these challenges to get us to die to self-effort and control and yield ourselves to Him alone.

I’m writing on this topic today out of a present experience. For the past six weeks I’ve had an inflamed throat which makes it difficult to speak (something most people do every day and I’ve done for a living for fifty years). This was my “thorn in the flesh” thirty years ago as described in my autobiography One Small Life—and for some reason, I’m experiencing it again.

I’m seeking help–“medical or miracle.” (Just yesterday a hospital test may have discovered the problem and could lead to a surgical solution.) But mainly I’m dying to plans and desires each day and learning once again to rely upon God. That involves pain, concern, prayer, submission to His will, waiting…while living by simple faith.

Recently God spoke to me during my daily devotions out of Psalm 43: 5: (The Message):

“Why are you down in the dumps dear soul? Why are you crying the blues? Fix my eyes on God—soon I’ll be praising again. He puts a smile on my face. He’s my God.”

Whether I can talk or not.

William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, was told later in his life that he was going blind. Instead of despairing or worrying, he reportedly exclaimed:

“I’ve served God with my eyes. Now I’m going to serve Him without my eyes!”

Notice the focus. It was not about him. It was all about living for the glory and happiness of God.

All of us will experience the ultimate form of life’s biggest lesson at the end of our lives–the time of literal death. Many experience weakness, loss of function, pain, and many other difficulties as they endure the process of leaving this body and facing God in the spirit.

I have a good friend who passed away recently who said that she didn’t fear death itself (she was a strong believer in Jesus) but did have some anxiety over the process of death before her graduation to eternal life.

During the literal dying process, no one wants to go through difficulty and suffering. But God uses it to help us get right with him, die to self effort and control, and submit to his will–just as Jesus faced physical torture and death:

“Not my will but yours be done (Luke 22:42)”

That’s the clearest application of life’s biggest lesson.

It has to be learned. It’s not about me. “When I’m weak, then I’m strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10) because God becomes bigger in my life (consciously giving him his rightful place).

Whether you’re suffering or not, die to yourself today. Bask in God’s eternal salvation and simply ask for his daily marching orders. Then do them with all your heart. Joy and blessedness will meet you coming and going as you live by faith in Him.

The following quotes are my favorites on the wisdom and necessity of death to self.

“The Cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life. The Cross meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a person, he bids him to come and die.”–Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“The man who has died to self has no ambitions, so he has nothing to be jealous about. He has no reputation, so he has nothing to fight about. He has no possessions, so he has nothing to worry about. He has no rights, so he can’t suffer any wrongs. He is already dead–so no one can kill him.” –Leonard Ravenhill

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” — Jesus in John 12:34,35.

I’ve often described physical death as God building a cocoon around us that gets tighter and more restraining each day. We get weaker and more helpless. The strands begin to restrict every aspect of life until we can’t do anything physical at all but yield our lives and future to God.

The beautiful aspect of this analogy is when a caterpillar is completely stuck in the confining cocoon, an amazing metamorphosis takes place and it emerges as a butterfly!

The “death to self” of the caterpillar is the means of its transformation.

The same is true for us. We must go through it spiritually to be born again. We will all experience it physically at death.

It’s life’s biggest lesson.

Learn it well.


  1. Paul Bunge on February 25, 2024 at 9:27 pm

    Very True! In my work as a physician over the years, I have seen this necessary message become fainter and fainter in the culture, even in the lives of Christians. The fear of death, the fear of the process of dying, the fear of everything in general because of the other fears, has become stronger. It is possibly related to the “success” of medical science, which without God often makes the false promise of immortality and perpetual happiness. We need this message again and again in every generation!

  2. Leroy Corbett Demmert on February 21, 2024 at 8:30 pm

    Hi Ron, sooo right on ! a few years ago when God showed me and Holy Spirit showed me how and helps throughout each day to “die to self” my life became so less-complicated, i experienced so much more peace, joy, fulfillment by dying to me and putting others before me. It is such a huge better way to live out each day and i am so thankful to our Lord for showing me how to live this way. Live out each day
    God’s truth and wisdom it so much better than the world’s!!

    • John Briggs on February 22, 2024 at 3:14 pm

      Very timely message, Ron, thank you! Several friends around me have recently passed into eternity and the sting is very real. Being reminded of dying to self and celebrating them, rather than my sorrows may help lessen my sense of loss. Until then, I know Jesus is present, and pray for their families that indeed, His will be done. Blessings to you for your timely healing. In Jesus – John

  3. Pete Battjes on February 21, 2024 at 8:15 pm

    Amen Ron! Full surrender to Christ brings the full life of freedom that takes us into eternity with Him.

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