“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.” John 12:24
Every morning I wake up, blink, and wish I could sleep till noon. It is usually still dark and at least two of our five children have joined us in our increasingly cramped queen bed for the night. I rarely feel as rested as I’d like and only coffee and the promise of a quiet moment to read my Bible wrests me from the bed and into the land of the living. I am not a “Proverbs 31 woman”.
Some days, the fight for joy and contentment and peace starts before my feet hit the floor. Other days, I wake up with renewed resolve to do better, try harder, be more joyful. Usually, I’ve messed up by breakfast. Sometimes I make it until lunch. No matter how long it takes for me to fall into failure, I always think it shouldn’t be this hard. I must be doing it wrong. Things should be easier.
I suspect I am not alone. I know some of you have found the secret to joy and contentment, but even the best of us lose sight of our purpose on earth. I think it’s because it is so incredibly unnatural. We were created for eternal life and yet throughout scripture and history, men and women far wiser and godly than I acknowledge “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”*
God made us to never die, but in our post-fall broken world, we are asked to die daily in a myriad of ways. When Eve took the fruit and ate it, when she countered God’s kindness with her own plans and purposes, she began the entropic catastrophe and everything started tending toward disorder instead of order. Everything began to die. Everything became less alive.
The truth is, I hate death and I am supposed to hate death. Death is not what I was created for. And yet, like Christ, we are called to death. From the Coptic Egyptian Christians who were martyred in cold blood this past Palm Sunday, to their families who are openly and actively choosing to forgive their murders. From the husband who patiently and lovingly moves toward his angry wife, day after day, year after year, to the mother who denies her own comforts and longings to read books and play games and change diapers. From the person who receives a stranger when all they want to do is curl up in quiet and read a book, to the person who gives out of their want.
There are so many ways to die. I suspect death will look different for each of us and may change with our life season. Dying can be brilliant and famous. Or dying can look like daily giving children the last sip, the last bite, space in the bed or even discipline when you just want to disengage. Dying doesn’t have to be martyrdom. It doesn’t have to be dramatic. But every time we die we know more of Jesus, whose whole life was lived with the thought of his death for the sake of something he valued more than himself.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 2 Corinthians 1:8-9
It is not quickly won or simple, but I’m beginning to see that the way to find life is to lose it. I’ve always known that to be true, but having to live it feels much harder. I am having to acknowledge that the battle I engage each morning is more than just a fight for contentment. It is a battle for my soul. The evil one wants to turn my eyes away from Christ and onto myself. If he can keep me thinking about me, my needs, my life, my desires, then there is no need to look to Jesus.
We are not to die for the sake of death, nor sacrifice for the sake of being sacrificial. Rather, when “we are utterly burdened beyond our strength,” when we taste a little death, whether literal or metaphorical, we learn not to “rely on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.” It is a fight to keep my eyes on my Father, on Jesus my brother, who makes this kind of death possible. I cannot make sacrifices hoping to earn his love and work my way into a better place or better day. Rather, the sacrifice is because of his love.
In some mysterious way, the surrendering of our lives for someone or something else points to and allies us with the One who has suffered, who has died, and who also gives more grace and more life for the taking. I am not good at this, yet. I may never be. There are even days when I choose to sacrifice in some bizarre effort to earn my righteousness rather than receive it.
But on the best days, I receive the stranger. I give out of my lack, not my excess. I welcome the little one into my lap even if I would rather be alone in the quiet of the morning. I sit with the quarrelling kids and walk them through their sin and pain and shame rather than yelling at them to get it together for heaven’s sake! On the best days, I put other lives ahead of my own, and the more I die, the more I come alive to the person I was created to be; the more I know the one who died so that I might have life.
*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
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