This is a continuation of the conversation started in my post titled "Making Peace With The Cross".
A Recap On Dying To Self
There's no getting around dying as we follow Jesus. We just know the good news, that death is followed by resurrection. In our dying to self, we find that we have a lot less to do than we’re comfortable with, which is not necessarily easy. Peter rebuked Jesus for talking about the fact that He’d have to suffer, be crucified, and then raised to life. Most of the time, I see myself in Peter, rebuking something that opposes my view of the kingdom of God coming. But Jesus, who lamented and cried out to God his Father, made peace with the cross before Him. As he entered into that Passion, His path seemed much more about prayer and acceptance than it did about making things happen. He knew that resurrection was His Father’s promise and responsibility. And we are freely invited to approach our deaths in the same way, with lament over the pain of death, and acceptance of God’s loving presence in the middle of it, leading to resurrection.
To continue that conversation, I want to raise some objections that come up in my head as I walk through the process of dying to self. My assumption is that I’m not the only person following Jesus that has felt these things. First, let’s look at a story in John's Gospel. This is right after Jesus has raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. So, it’s pretty evident that He’s the Messiah. Along with this, He’s approaching the tragic end of His life, where He’ll be given over to the religious and political leaders, beaten, humiliated, and crucified. He mentions it in the story, and it’s important again to note that Jesus had an acceptance, albeit a sad acceptance, of the necessity of His role in suffering. The story reads like this:
Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made him a dinner there, and Martha was serving, but Lazarus was one of the ones reclining at table with him. Then Mary took a pound of ointment of very valuable genuine nard and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was going to betray him) said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (Now he said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having the money box, he used to steal what was put into it.) So Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my preparation for burial. For you have the poor with you always, but you do not always have me.”
As much as I hate to say it, I initially feel the same way Judas felt in this story. His reaction, if I ended the story right after it was stated, seems like a good thought to me. “Jesus, I get what he’s saying. I don’t quite get what you’re saying. Giving to the poor is a good thing that you want us to do? Why don’t you call this use of expensive perfume wasteful?”
For the most part, here in the modern western world, there’s a desire to be practical, have your life put together, and be some sort of independent self-starter. Even if you don’t feel like you are any of those things, there’s likely a cultural guilt that comes up as I talk about them. Entrepreneurship has almost been made into a virtue. And this isn’t at all an inherently bad thing. I do want my kids to grow up and have a healthy sense of freedom as they move through life, relationships, and career. Where I live, there are so many freedoms offered that aren’t available elsewhere, and are historically abnormal. It’d be silly for me to say that those should all be ignored. If I can go to art school and professionally spend my time with that craft, I think I should take advantage of it. The Human Freedom Index that measures both personal and economic freedom, based on things like ability to express opinions, vote, get education, and so on. The western world, particularly the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, and those places we view as more “advanced” rank a whole lot higher than most of the world. And I don’t think it’s bad to have a budget and live with practical sensibilities as I deal with day-to-day living in a society with taxes, neighbors, local businesses, schools, and a government. What I want to spend some time looking at is what I think happens as we over-emphasize the importance of such things. When our outlook on the world is more influenced by the American dream and practicality as defined by our culture, we begin to tune out the real invitations of the resurrected Jesus. What we interpret as freedom may begin to enslave us.
Now, the resurrection doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of our minds too often. I’m not sure about you, but I grew up spending a lot more time at the cross of Jesus than the resurrection of Jesus. And spending time at the cross is absolutely necessary. It’s not that we need to lessen our time there. But, I’ve almost found myself with a brand of discipleship to Jesus that views His resurrection as a cool bonus that happened after He forgave my sin, rather than the very foundation from which I get to live my life. There’s a widespread view of the gospel that imposes ideas that are a lot less Christian than they are Gnostic. This influence tells us that this world is an inherently evil place, and we’re all bad, and that God wants to rescue us from the material world. Notice that it labels the physical material world, the one that God created in love, is something we need to view as bad. With this sad influence, we often import Jesus into a gnostic view of heaven, where God is distant and has very little care for the world, and we say that Jesus is the way that we end up leaving this evil world and that we can go to this distant divine place. We view heaven as the good place, earth as irrelevant, and the cross as our ticket off of earth and into the good place. While Jesus did die for my sins, and give me the path to eternal life in the kingdom of God, that view of the gospel robs the resurrection of its beautiful and life-changing implications for my life here and now — on earth. What Scripture is so excited about is not the destruction of earth, but a new heaven and new earth which will be restored by Jesus. It’s why Paul in Romans 8 can say that “the whole creation groans” in anticipation of Jesus’ return — to restore it! The resurrection of Jesus is the seal of approval that this process of restoration has begun, and we can partner with God to bring about that kingdom here and now, until he ultimately re-creates and re-establishes his reign, letting heaven and earth meet together and see death come to an end. The resurrection is completely relevant and foundational to how we live as disciples of Jesus here and now, as people with a future hope and a present hope. We are able to now partner with the God who brings the dead to life, now hopelessly waiting for this rock in space to no longer be where we are.
Okay, that was a whole side note about one of the reasons we don’t think about the resurrection that often. Along with our reduced view of the gospel that leaves little to say about our physical reality being redeemed, it seems we don’t think about the resurrection often because it would cause us to think about death. And we really hate thinking about death. It’s almost a taboo in our society. But the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection isn’t just that we’re free to live without sin and shame’s burden, but that we are free to die. And nothing is more nonsensical to our western sensibilities than dying. Freedom is almost defined by most of our peers as the ability to do whatever we want. And most of what we want is to avoid death. I’m a fan of all the progress we make helping people to stay healthy and not die from common colds. But so much of our focus is on avoiding and fearing death. In all our progress in the name of avoiding it, we’re somehow simultaneously one of the most depressed populations of all time. We’re exhaustingly set on project after project to prevent us from having to die.
Freedom From Self-Preservation
But, it seems that in Jesus’ Way, modeled in His life and so much of the early church movement, freedom is me being released from the need to preserve myself. It is rooted not in my fear of death, but trust in God. Freedom is that the death of Jesus was followed by the resurrection of Jesus, so I no longer need to govern my life as though it’s the survival of the fittest, and I need to make sure I have the best career, most power, and most practical view of moving through the world. This, of course, doesn’t mean we should go jump off a mountain because we don’t have to be afraid. This is to say that if my motive for moving through life is to not die, I will not be governed by God’s rule of resurrection in every area. I will be governed by fear. And this kind of fear masquerades as practicality, self-help, leadership, or business. My life isn’t to be governed by those things. In fact, if they keep me from loving obedience to Jesus, I need to let them die, at every place they reside.
For me, this often looks like a felt sense of responsibility that I carry through daily life. And bear with me, as I’m sharing a wound that still needs so much healing. But I have this sense about me that says I need to be the initiator of good things, often in the name of good things that God wants. It makes sense, being the first child in a family that went through divorce, that I would adopt a need to be the responsible one. In my marriage, this often looks like a need to advise my wife when I think she could be using her time more wisely. If she shows me something she wants to buy for our living room, and I happen to think shopping is bad, because it’s always cause for suspicion if we are really trusting God, I might default to shutting down whatever she’s saying. Why? What stops me from humbly asking her about this? What keeps me from humbly listening before I act out of this “discernment” I’ve taken so much pride in? It’s not love. It’s impatient, and often hurtful, not for reasons that are necessary. It’s ultimately what the biblical authors would refer to as fear. My practicality, that often has with it a commitment to what is good and what is right, causes me to act impatiently toward my wife. And this is because it places far too much of an emphasis on me. It is fear-based, and therefore it has no business living in me if I’m following the Way of Love. Perfect love casts out fear. The choice of words there is very intentional. In my responsible practicality that says I need to be able to approach every conversation with somebody and know how to respond to what they say as right or wrong, I’m driven so much more by fear than I care to admit. I’m afraid that God won’t be able to redeem the situation if I respond without my advice. I’m afraid that God requires me to make the first move before I can listen to Him. And I think a lot of us walk around with these idols, robbing us of life, even though they look a lot like smart principles.
Now, to get back to our story… In practical terms, Judas had a great point. Three hundred denarii could likely be equated to about a year’s wages. Knowing that, my mind doesn’t begin to resonate any less with Judas’s comment. That money could have been used to help the poor — quite a lot. But I don’t think Jesus was unaware of that point. Jesus’ response tells you and I a lot about worship, and therefore a lot about life in His kingdom. Namely, He’s not scared of scarcity. In His kingdom, there is an abundance for all. He served the poor with His entire ministry, often when He had very little to physically give them. But He worked with what He and His disciples actually had, allowing that to be placed in the hands of His Father. If you remember the stories where Jesus fed thousands of people with a few loaves of bread, that’s what was happening — complete freedom from the fear of scarcity in action. And along with this absence of fear, there’s a deep trust that exists. Between Jesus and His Father, and between Mary and Jesus. What Mary did when she poured out that perfume was place all her resources, irresponsibly and impractically, in the presence of the Jesus who said that to find life, we have to lose our lives. While I’m certain Mary had a pretty decent awareness of the monetary potential of her perfume, she lived (or chose to live) with a deeper awareness of what placing that, literally, at the feet of Jesus, could do.
And this kind of seemingly irresponsible trust is what we’re called to in the kingdom of God. I don’t think this story is merely about Jesus being anointed for His burial, but also about the way the kingdom of God works. We foolishly pour ourselves out, abandoned to the love of Jesus, and find that we are tied into a story much greater than even our good ideas could tell. Giving to the poor with a year’s worth of wages is an amazing cause. And it is what Jesus called certain people to do. Think of the story of the rich young ruler. Jesus looked at him with love and told him to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor. Jesus saw what was hindering this man from the kind of freedom that he experienced and spoke to it. So, giving is great. Keep doing it. But our ultimate call is not to the most practical or strategic use of our resources, it is to die, so that we might find life that is abundant. We must be born again.
I love this story, because it highlights how nonsensical it feels to die to ourselves. For me, dying to that felt responsibility is not just difficult because I’m used to living that way. It’s difficult because a lot of good has come out of me living that way. I’ve seen God work through that practicality and responsibility through which I filter life and bring about good things. I echo Judas’s comment when Jesus tells me that I must die to that part of myself, and I tell Him I don’t think that’s wise. Surely I have to find some balance, but dying is too much. Perhaps you feel the same way. Perhaps Jesus has called you to die a certain death, and it feels impractical. It feels like dying to this habit, this attachment, this job, etc. can’t be God’s will because so much good has come of it. And I get it. That’s a valid argument. And I think what’s at play here is, yes, a desire to see the kingdom of heaven come on earth, but again, fear. Fear will do anything to keep us from dying, which is helpful when I see a bear in the forest, but not helpful when God is calling me to abundant life. The good news of Jesus’ life, teachings, death, and resurrection is that you and I no longer have to be afraid of the ultimate fear — death. As Psalm 56v13 says, God has delivers our feet from stumbling so that we might walk before him in the light of life. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t stop at my forgiveness of sin. It isn’t only that I’m free to live without sin’s burden and shame’s effects, but that I am free to die, thereby experiencing the sweetness of resurrection in abundant life. I am free to live in a trust that looks and feels incredibly irresponsible, because what happened to Jesus will happen to me. God is secure in His authority and power to redeem, and He isn’t in desperate need of my practicality. If I’d grow more comfortable pouring out expensive perfume as though there was no shortage in God’s Kingdom, I’d learn this kind of trust more and more deeply.
“God helps those who help themselves.” That is not a good mantra to live by if you really spend any time reading about Jesus and the story of the God who rescues people from slavery. I think we understand what this quote is getting at. But, man, I think its simplicity and directness is not at all a gift that points us to what life with God is actually like. I take this approach to living far more often, though, believing I need to make the first move with God. I need to learn from what Augustine called Jesus’ “perfect weakness.” This “weakness” of Jesus was that He only did what He saw His Father doing. There were no self-help (or self-preservation) actions. The Way of Jesus is a radically complete dependence upon the love of God. As John says, “we love because He first loved us,” we follow a pattern of first quieting down and receiving the love of God before we can do anything to conjure up good. In dying the deaths we are called to die, we enter into an internal emptiness, but all of that emptiness can be filled by the love of God. As Paul said in Philippians, reflecting on Jesus’ humility, Jesus emptied Himself. Jesus was safe to do this not because He’s Jesus and He’s distant and unconnected to our reality, but because He knew the love and security of the Father. He didn’t defend Himself when being put to death because He saw that His Father had the power to undo the seemingly undoable.
Scripture is riddled with these beautiful portraits of God’s security:
Those who trust in Yahweh are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As mountains are round about Jerusalem, so Yahweh is round about his people, from now until forever.
A mountain which cannot be moved is what those who abandon themselves to complete trust in Yahweh are like. Rather than becoming less and less steady as we surrender our perceptions of what is practical and what is not, we become more and more steady, as we approach God in the life He really invites us to live — death followed by resurrection. We aren’t conjuring up our own faithfulness and steadiness by pretending we don’t have emotions and forgetting that we’re afraid. We are taking all of those things in complete and brutal honesty before the steady face of Jesus, who tells us we do not have to walk with these burdens, but that we can depend on Him more than we attempt to act on His behalf. And as we know, we become like what we worship. If I insecurely worship a version of Jesus that is always so “responsible” (not really responsible, but the fear-drivenness that we often call responsibility), I won’t become more secure. I will become more pedantic, afraid of what happens next, afraid of dying, and afraid that God isn’t very dependable if I’m not at work. But, I think what we see in the Jesus who appreciates Mary’s complete outpouring of this expensive perfume, is that it is perfectly safe to depend on the security of God. It is perfectly safe to live as though God is a steady mountain, encamped around me, and as long as I live in light of that, I need not be afraid to die. I can accept His invitations, because He is secure. He isn’t testing me nearly as much as He is inviting me to partake in this steadiness of spirit.
You and I can begin to embody that mountain-like steadiness that already exists in God as we begin to accept and walk in the seemingly irresponsible gift of grace, empowerment by the Holy Spirit to live by dying to all that hinders us from love. This is, I think, a more comprehensive vision of accepting God’s grace. Rather than grace being something that only has to do with my sin and God’s forgiveness, grace is the empowering presence of God in our lives! It is not something we need less as we become more holy, but something we consume more and more as we become more holy. Grace is the work of God in each movement. Grace is the love of God being received by me in each mundane and each monumental task. It is the gift of God, doing what I cannot do without him. So, there is a dependability in God that we are unfamiliar with due to our own felt needs to be dependable. Often, I believe I care more about the events of my life than God does. And this leaves me bitter, angry, resentful, and nervously walking through my days asking God what I should be doing without listening for his response. It’s exhausting, because it’s a refusal to walk in grace. Grace is a vision of life in which God is much more dependable than I am. And of course, where I walk as though I shouldn’t need it, still my life is riddled with grace. Walking by receiving grace frees us up to not be governed by our fears of death. When we begin by receiving this love from the God who knows us and desires to see us live life to the full, we are free to depend upon his security, dying to all our unnecessary practicality and rising to newness of life.
The route ahead, in light of all this, looks incredibly irresponsible. It feels uncomfortable. Where is God asking me to die? Where am I tuning out his invitation because I feel like what needs to die is really good? These are the questions we can begin to ask. Shame has no place in these questions. They are filled with hope, because we know that death is followed by resurrection. As we ask these questions of ourselves and of God, we will of course run into fear, wounds, and walls that we have spent precious time crafting. This is all necessary, and it all points to the fact that we need patience. Remember, love is patient. God is patient with us. We cannot die these deaths with impatience toward ourselves. We’ll leave ourselves exhausted. Death to self, in many ways, is an ongoing process. But it is a process we are invited to by the God who creates the life on the other side of it. Hope remains in every part of it, because it is not our practicality sustaining us as we transform into the new life we are invited to, but because it is initiated and sustained by the God who knows and loves us.