All along,
Thought I was learning how to take
How to bend not how to break
How to laugh not how to cry—
But really
I’ve been learning how to die.
-Jon Foreman, Learning How to Die

I held up the gingerbread patterned nail file I’d received in my Christmas stocking and said, “This is what my life with God feels like right now.” It was late February, and a friend and I were hosting a women’s retreat. I had asked each person in the circle around me to bring an object which represented their current life with God. A little embarrassed, I tried to explain precisely why I chose a nail file to represent my spiritual life. “Life with God has felt like a rasping, a scraping away of what needs to die,” I continued. “God has been showing me all of the areas in which I am still not free, all the lies about myself that I still believe as truth. It has been uncomfortable—painful, even.” 

And it has been. For the past several months, I have been in a season of being turned upside down and inside out for the purpose of growth and change. And this has not been a pleasant, slowly unfolding growth; rather, it has felt like the spiritual equivalent of leaving a warm bath and being thrust into a cold shower. 

The Death of the False Self
As I spent time with God in the days following the retreat, I realized that the spiritual and emotional upheaval I have experienced has been the conduit of my learning to walk in resurrection. God was mercifully making me uncomfortable with the way I was living my life, so much so that I was forced to either tell God, “That’s quite enough. You can stop your work in me here, thank you,” or be made entirely new from the ground up. The discomfort was the husk that contained within it a seed of new life: the invitation to die to my false self that the true self—my  resurrected self—might live.

I used to think that resurrection started with new life, that it was simply a revivification of the old—like some sort of holy magic trick. Now, I see just how much resurrection requires death, and that to separate the two is to miss out on the fullness of the Kingdom of God. This is the very message Jesus died to bring us. He knew that the invitation to whole-self living contains within it the invitation to whole-self dying. We see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples shortly before his own death in John 12:23-25: 

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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.”
If the seed does not die, it cannot produce life. Neither can we. Resurrection life requires a certain kind of death: the brutal obliteration of everything we were not meant to be. It will hurt. But it is far more costly to cling to the security of our false selves than to die to them. 

So how do we know when we are living from our false selves? It can be difficult to detect, but the false self is typically comprised of old coping mechanisms we’ve developed in response to pain, lies we’ve believed about ourselves, and burdens we carry that are simply not ours to bear. I know I am living from my false self when I try to accomplish things in my own strength instead of God’s, when I live to earn love rather than living from my belovedness, when I do something for applause rather than obedience, when I place my identity in what I do, and when I fearfully choose to protect my heart rather than living with arms wide open to give and receive love. 

It is risky to live naked and exposed in our first and truest skin. To walk in vulnerability and authenticity before God and others is also to open ourselves to being wounded. It is much easier to stay within the calloused realm of the comfortable and familiar. But when Jesus said, “Pick up your cross and follow me,” I believe he meant, “Follow me all the way up that hill. Plant your cross next to mine, and let me teach you how to die. Let me teach you how to really live.” You see, resurrection is not just the opposite of death; it is full and abundant life. It is eternal life as it was meant to be from the beginning. 

The Death of the Body
As it turns out, this season of my life has not just contained the pain of metaphorical death. It has unexpectedly held the grief of physical death, too. Mere days after I had begun to grasp that God was inviting me to die to my old self, I learned that my beloved grandmother was dying and there was not much time left to say goodbye. On March 6th, I found myself on a plane to North Carolina on the one year anniversary of my dear grandfather’s passing. The sorrow was almost too much to bear. 

“Isn’t this enough death for now, Lord?” I wondered as we flew into the setting sun. My grandmother loved Jesus with all her heart, soul, mind, and strength. She lived a life of purest and tenderest devotion to her Lord, and I was not ready to let her go. I still had much to learn from her. My grandmother was one of the most alive people I know; because of this, her death has made Heaven feel so much closer than before. I know her death was no end at all, but a glorious beginning.

Only God could have known that when I chose to write about resurrection several months ago, I would be sending in this piece one week after she died. Yet because of the death of the false self I’d begun to experience, swiftly followed by my grandmother’s mortal death, I no longer know how to talk about resurrection without talking about death. It is almost as if the two have become one; and what a grace that is. I have looked spiritual and physical death in the face and have found new beginnings where I once saw only endings. The apostle Paul describes this no-life-without-death paradox in 2 Corinthians 4:10-12:

“We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” 

What does it look like to carry around the death of Jesus in our bodies as a revelation of the life of Jesus in our bodies? It seems that Paul is saying we cannot separate the corporal from the spiritual. Because of the incarnation of Christ, body and spirit are bound up together in a glorious yet excruciating exchange of death and life. To live as a people of the resurrection, then, is to live faithfully and worshipfully within the tension of living and dying. Isn’t this the good news of the gospel? Because of Jesus, resurrection is no longer a far-off, heavenly concept; it is earthy, it is here, it is now. It is a daily yielding of the spiritual and physical self to the refining work of God. It tastes like death yet has the aroma of life. Resurrection is ours; all we need to do is die. 

Walking in Resurrection
Jesus’ invitation to walk with him in resurrection life is, first and foremost, an invitation to be united with him in his death. In Eugene Peterson’s work Run with the Horses he writes, “Enlightenment is not without pain. But the pain, accepted and endured, is not a maiming but a purging” (pg. 123).  The refining fire of death is both our end and our beginning—our wounding and our cleansing. There is a scene in George MacDonald’s fairy tale The Princess and Curdie which contains one of the most beautiful depictions of resurrection I have read. In it, the God figure is a wise and beautiful grandmother who tends a fire, the flames of which are roses. This ancient-yet-youthful grandmother invites the young Curdie to come closer to the rose fire so she can equip him for a special mission that will save their kingdom from evil. She warns him that this requires a painful yet necessary act of obedience for him to be able to see as she sees, to know as she knows, to walk in the same spirit, power, and presence as her.

“’It will hurt you terribly, Curdie, but that will be all; no real hurt but much good will come to you from it.’ Curdie made no answer but stood gazing with parted lips in the lady’s face.

“’Go and thrust both your hands into that fire,’ she said quickly, almost hurriedly.

“Curdie dared not stop to think. It was much too terrible to think about. He rushed to the fire, and thrust both of his hands right into the middle of the heap of flaming roses, and his arms halfway up to the elbows. And it did hurt! But he did not draw them back. He held the pain as if it were a thing that would kill him if he let it go—as indeed it would have done (pp 69-70).

He held the pain as if it were a thing that would kill him if he let it go. When Curdie removes his hands from the fire, they are tender and new—sensitive and discerning. The grandmother, who wept as Curdie experienced pain, tells him that the rose fire “has brought your real hands so near the outside of your flesh gloves”—which is to say, the fire has brought his true self much closer to the surface, no longer buried. The seed husk has been burned away to reveal the luminous seed of life within. 

This is what it looks like to walk through death into resurrection, just like Jesus. I find it remarkable that the risen Christ chose to be resurrected with scars still in his hands; and that he bears them still. This tells me that walking in resurrection life is not a denial of death, but rather an embracing of death as the key to eternity and whole-self living. It is a death made of fire and roses, beauty and pain. One day, the final death—that of our bodies—will usher us into the ultimate healing: eternal life with Christ. Until that day, we practice dying. We practice living. And we call both of them by one name: Resurrection.

In my end is my beginning.
-T.S. Eliot, East Coker

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