Self-immolation: Purifying, not condemning, self

The crippling sense of guilt that had seemed to constantly accompany me began to lift, and I was able to make progress.

The writings of Mary Baker Eddy, the Discoverer and Founder of Christian Science, contain several references to a term that’s not exactly common today: self-immolation. The first of these comes as early as the first page of the first chapter of the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. 

Here the author writes, “Prayer, watching, and working, combined with self-immolation, are God’s gracious means for accomplishing whatever has been successfully done for the Christianization and health of mankind.” In the following chapter she states, “The atonement requires constant self-immolation on the sinner’s part” (p. 23).

One dictionary defines self-immolation as “a deliberate and willing sacrifice of oneself often by fire” (merriam-webster.com). Usually, when discussed in the news or in history books, the term refers to people literally setting themselves on fire, sometimes in protest. While I never thought that the intent of statements such as those quoted above was for people to literally set fire to themselves, in my younger years I struggled to understand these references to self-immolation. I equated them with self-condemnation, something I often dealt with. I had a tendency to beat myself up whenever I felt I hadn’t fully lived up to the standards set forth in the teachings of Christian Science. 

However, I gradually realized, with the help of Science and Health as well as articles and testimonies in the Christian Science periodicals, that self-condemnation is not a correct approach to dealing with problems or an apparent lack of spiritual progress. Guilt and self-condemnation are entirely counterproductive. Letting guilt dominate our thought and experience means we’re accepting as reality an inharmonious experience and letting it continue to live on and affect both the present and the future. Science and Health says: “A mental state of self-condemnation and guilt or a faltering and doubting trust in Truth
are unsuitable conditions for healing the sick. Such mental states indicate weakness instead
of strength” (p. 455). 

Christian Science makes it clear that the solution to feelings of guilt is to declare and understand our spiritual perfection as the innocent children of God—and to live accordingly. We have to know that problems or failures in the past are not part of our true, spiritual identity, but rather must be rejected along with any materially based sense of identity. This process of correcting and purifying thought isn’t passive, but active. It doesn’t sweep errors under the rug, but actively confronts and eliminates them on the basis of their unreality, enabling us to move forward and do better.

As I began to pray in this manner, the crippling sense of guilt that had seemed to constantly accompany me, for really no particular reason, began to lift, and I was able to make progress on a variety of fronts.

So what does self-immolation have to do with all of this? As I changed my thought about self-condemnation, I realized I needed to strive for a higher understanding of self-immolation. Clearly, it wasn’t supposed to be self-condemnation, so what was it? More study of the Scriptures, the textbook, and the periodicals gave me new insights. Several articles in the Sentinel brought up the point that self-immolation is actually a process of rectifying one’s thinking. The concept of self-sacrifice in the dictionary definition quoted earlier began to make more sense: It didn’t mean sacrificing good, but rather sacrificing whatever didn’t belong in my thought—any false belief that good isn’t present or that God isn’t all-powerful or that I (or another) am not God’s expression. 

As I prayed about this concept, an angel message from God came to me that, at first, seemed silly—until I realized that God’s ideas can speak to us through humor. The thought was that self-immolation works much the same as a self-cleaning oven. When such an oven becomes caked with grime from repeated use, a built-in function can be turned on that burns away the unwanted material and restores the oven to its original, pristine state—a state that has actually always existed beneath the muck.

Laughing, I realized that when we find that unspiritual impressions have built up in thought, we can “turn on the self-cleaning oven” of self-immolation and burn away those false conceptions, all stemming from the belief in a selfhood apart from God. This self-cleaning brings to light our true, pure, and innocent identity, which is always at one with God, good. This is the powerful action of the spiritual baptism that draws our thoughts and lives closer to God, a very positive step rather than the negative action I had previously assumed self-immolation to be.

Whenever we realize something needs correcting in our thought, rather than sinking into a self-perpetuating cycle of guilt and self-condemnation, we can “turn on the self-cleaning oven” that reveals our true, spiritual nature. This true selfhood can never be destroyed or unworthy because it is the reflection of the one Almighty God.

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