Dying Is Easy
George Washington stole the show for me the first time I watched Hamilton. I mean, listen to Christopher Jackson's powerful vocal performance, and this really cool-sounding line he delivered: “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.” I wish I could say something that sounded that cool. Ever. As I hear that line, I don't hesitate thinking it has to be accurate. Life is hard. And dying seems, well, pretty straightforward. It’s inevitable. We don’t have to argue much about that. Even Jesus died.
But the funny part about the processes of death and life that we know we’re bound to experience all through life is that we view dying as though it’s the much harder thing. Our culture has, for the most part, built its identity around the denial and avoidance of death. We move the old out where nobody can be with them and talk a big game about peaking in our twenties and thirties. As I speak about it, I admit death brings up odd feelings. Sure, it’s something I’m meant to be at peace about as a Christian, but it’s so… unknown. It’s sad to think of all that is going to be left behind when I die, all the people who will be grieving because of my absence. It’s unknown. I’ve never done it before.
Yet we follow a Jesus whose last few days of life involved looking death in the face, and accepting it as reality. And this wasn’t just something he did in the passion narrative. It’s something he told his disciples about more than a few times throughout their journey together. When Jesus thinks about death, he seems to be pretty well acquainted with its inevitability. And he moves through the world with such a sweet trust in his Father. I want to move through the world like Jesus did, so I must ask: Have I made peace with the cross? Am I at peace with the deaths I am called to die? And what next?
We desire agency in the spiritual journey. And much of it is given to us, as we are loved, not forced into life with God. But our agency can lead us to exhaustion as we use it where it is more hurtful than helpful. We all come to places and points where our response to the will of God is more about death than it is about living in some new way. In fact, I often find myself burnt out when I am attempting to engender some new virtue without first allowing God to put to death the lies inside me. If I want, I can act humble. It’ll happen as often as my willpower allows it. But, Christ calls me to follow him, as he is humble. So the thing that may be more helpful if I desire to embody the humility of Jesus is to allow him to put my pride to death.
Dying Is Hard
Washington may be right in theory, but in practice, we don't make dying all that easy. Dying is largely passive, and we don’t like that,. So in our attempts to master the life of faith, we do our best to make dying impossible. And this is a lack of trust. I’m pointing at myself here. My Father invites me into the deepest and most intimate kind of friendship and trust, where I am able to depend upon him, and give of myself with no regard for the results. I’m free, liberated from the tyranny of all my projects that I’ve begun in his name. I’m free to allow God to be God and myself to be myself. And this trust can be put on no greater display than the willingness to die to the places in me it doesn’t exist. In other words, God actually wants me to move through the world like Jesus did, in complete trust, and the extent to which I accept my deaths is the extent to which I accept that beautiful, life-giving invitation.
Look at Jesus handling a conversation about his inevitable death. And look at Peter's response:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Peter’s response, as we read it, seems unintelligent. After all, he literally just called Jesus the Messiah, showing some knowledge that Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy of the suffering servant. But, as I look for myself in the story, I’m more often in the shoes (sandals?) of Peter. There are many good expectations I have for Jesus’ kingdom coming into existence, and I too would push back against a claim that seemed to undermine all of them. These people deeply desired the kingdom of God, dealing with oppressive rulers and dead religious systems on a day-to-day basis. And they saw in Jesus the coming of God’s kingdom, where peace and freedom would replace anxiety and slavery. And they watched as Jesus healed people from sickness, stood up to religious corruption. Peter saw that Jesus’ life was a gift to the world, bringing about the kingdom he longed to see. So, it only makes sense that at the thought of his Rabbi’s death, he would push back. His life is what seemed to be making things better. How could he offer any of that same hope if he was supposed to die? Do you see yourself in Peter’s struggle to understand? I know I do.
But I don’t necessarily want to stay here and justify Peter’s psychological motivations for acting out against Jesus. Jesus rebuked him, so I don’t have to do that. What is interesting to me is the two very different responses to death represented by Peter and Jesus. Here is Jesus, speaking openly about something he sees as not only inevitable, but good, and it involves him being wrongfully accused, bruised, beaten, and killed. Back to the Hamilton quote, if you’ve seen the play, Alexander Hamilton has to be told what he’s told because he’s a lot like Peter. At least his character in the play is. Hamilton is set on a greatness that can only come through his force in battle. He wants an epic story, to make a mark. Obviously I’m trivializing some of his desires here, but they mirror Peter in that he has an expectation of how this kingdom is going to get built, and it's not going to be through something as passive as being a secretary. Hamilton, like Peter, isn’t willing to accept that the narrative might play out in a much more anticlimactic way for himself. He sees a corrupt rule being overthrown with force, and himself on the battlefield. Peter may see similar sights. The expectation of how the story of redemption is going to be written leads Peter to deny the process as it will actually play out. The process, in Jesus’ Way, is death followed by resurrection. And our role in death is, as Jesus speaks of it, a little more passive than we are comfortable admitting. It involves much prayer, but not much planning and strategizing. It involves much acceptance of what the Father has said and what people are doing despite that.
This whole story, depicting different reactions to the path of the cross, speaks volumes to me about the spiritual journey. The more time I spend with my Father, the more I know I have to die, not just physically, but to so many ways of thinking, acting, reacting, and going about daily life. In God’s patience, he tends to not bring all of them to my attention at once. But, this is true for everyone who follows Jesus. When my wife and I have a recurring fight, in which I hear that she feels like she doesn’t really know me, because I don’t express emotions very readily, I can respond with offense, or inner work. It’s offensive. It makes me feel like I’m a liar, even though I’m not trying to be, but there is a necessary bit of information that God is using to make me a more whole and redeemed person. So, with some time in prayer, God may begin to reveal to me that it’s true. I do believe I’ve found a way to mitigate pain and avoid emotions, deeming them evil if they are ever used in conversation. And the Jesus who weeps at the garden of Gethsemane, quoting the deeply emotional psalms of the Hebrew Bible, tells me that that’s no way to be fully human. And I must die right there. Dying is easy in the sense that it is the lowering of my defenses and idolatry. Instead of doubling down and holding back tears next time I feel them coming, I can lower that defense and allow God to work with me in the vulnerable expression of emotions. There’s a rather personal example that’s still being worked out, very slowly in my life. But it’s a death, and my role in dying looks annoyingly passive. I cannot engineer doing these things, but I can allow the death to happen, trusting that on the other side of it, God has a more comprehensive, full, and loving life for me.
Lament And Acceptance
Look at the verbs Jesus uses when telling this story: “suffer”, “be killed”, “be raised”. And then look at how he experiences the reality of his coming death:
“My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.” And going forward a little he fell down on his face, praying and saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
In Jesus' prayer, making peace with the cross looks like lamenting in honest pain, followed by a lot of letting things happen to him. Lament and acceptance seem to be the core spiritual disciplines of making peace with the cross. There are deaths we must die, and we cannot do so by our brilliant plans for prayer retreats, reading all the right books, and whatever other good things we may desire to add to our schedule. What is required is honesty before God and an acceptance of the events that come with the deaths we die.
While I don’t think it's as easy as simply doing these two things, I do think there's a helpful pattern here. When we look at Jesus in this story, we can receive his way of being. This way looks like security, where Peter's is insecurity. As I get away with my Father to listen and to let his love wash over me, I will come to recognize the deaths I’m called to die. He will patiently reveal them to us. You may be like me, and get all hyped up about this. “Yes, I’m gonna go name the things that I have to die to and get going on the process!” And as much as I'm sure Jesus appreciates your enthusiasm, this is his process to instigate. In other words, I don't know how to die. I’m bent toward self-preservation. Which isn’t necessarily bad if I’m being chased by a mountain lion. But this tendency I have toward fear isn't going to help me die the deaths I need to die so that I might experience the life of Jesus’ kingdom. See, when I respond with building my own five-year plan for dying to self, I am going to construct it out of fear: fear that I might not do it unless I implement my plan, fear that the process of dying is going to take too long so I better get on it, etc. And I love plans. Plan to be with God, and plan to allow him to do the work, though. In the journey through death, allow God to be God. Lament, cry out, be with God in the pain, and then walk with an acceptance that he is doing the work in you.
Unfortunately I feel I must add the disclaimer that this isn’t a time to be resigned to sin. Complacency toward life with God isn’t the answer either. But deeper trust is. And the deeper trust is that we allow God to do deep within our souls the work that we could neither name nor instigate without his help. Stay with your Father, as Jesus did.
I want to look at one more story from the New Testament that I think helpfully paints this picture. Paul, who had a radical moment of conversion to faith in Jesus, recalls his encounter with the risen Jesus by saying this:
I saw a light from heaven, more than the brightness of the sun, shining around me and those who were traveling with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Aramaic language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads!’ So I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
I love that phrase “it is hard for you to kick against the goads!” For those of you who don’t know (which was me until I looked it up), goads are used to spur cattle forward. They are these devices that, when noticed, actually get the cattle to go where the farmer(?) Wants them to go. They’re not necessarily painful until you try to go directly against them. And that’s the idea. Paul, until this moment in his life, had experienced himself as somebody who was preserving the Jewish movement. He thought by persecuting the Way of Jesus, he was helping the people of Israel get back on track to orthodoxy and waiting for the Messiah. If Jesus were a fraud, he’s be kind of right. But, Jesus meets Paul and tells him that he’s actually experiencing this difficulty because the thing he’s trying to preserve is the thing he’s going against. Paul was invited to die a death to his understanding of the way the kingdom of God was going to be brought into existence. Paul was invited to quit trying to so actively preserve what God was asking him to let die. And, if you know the story, he accepts, and ends up writing most of what we call the New Testament. But more than he writes good letters, he experiences the life of the resurrected Jesus. As he says, he carries the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus might be made known through him. He learns to be content in all things, because he accepts that he must die, and God must bring resurrection.
Now, I’m not trying to give a comprehensive overview of how to die the right way. But I do want us to see that our role in dying the deaths looks a lot more like making peace with the cross than kicking against the goads. If you are in a season where you feel a death that is necessary happening in you, that is a beautiful part of the journey. I am in one at this very moment, and it feels like I’m alone sometimes. It feels like I’m being lazy because I don’t do some of the same things I used to do. I feel unproductive in my prayer, because it seems like God keeps telling me the same thing over and over again, which is to wait, and grow more and more in the knowledge of his love. For you and I to begin to experience the abundant life that Jesus desires for us, we must become more skilled in our dependence upon God than we are in our ability to make plans for him.
May you have the courage to lament and grieve the ideas of salvation that aren't true to Jesus. May you have the courage to accept what must die, so that you might experience the resurrection life.