A Life to Die For …

Sanctification, theologically and spiritually, is a matter of life and death (not necessarily in that order).

From Leadership Journal
By John Ortberg

If our congregations are supposed to be “completely humble and gentle,” as Paul told the church at Ephesus, how’s that going at your church? Any slackers on the humility-development front?

Paul told the believers in Rome: “Let your love be sincere.” No pretending to be nice to anyone while secretly resenting them. No rumors, gossip, factions, or fake geniality. What’s your church’s plan to eliminate insincerity?

Far more books get written about how to get more people in your church than how to get the people already in your church to have more humility and sincere love.

We all want the people in our churches (including ourselves) to be transformed. But too often it takes a back seat to the relentless demands of programs and services and sermons. We end up giving “Six Steps to a Better Attitude” talks. And no one’s life is transformed.

What’s the real route to transformation and godliness?

The answer nobody wants

There actually is a pattern that New Testament writers use with remarkable consistency. At the heart of Christian faith is the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A friend of mine noted that theologically, this same pattern, death and rebirth, is also the foundation for our sanctification. Paul tells the Colossians: “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Transformation happens when this becomes an ongoing pattern: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). Death is the prerequisite to resurrection, the new life God intends.

I saw this lived out in an interesting way when I was preaching at a Catholic, charismatic, African-American church on Chicago’s South Side. The temperature was over 90 degrees, there was no air conditioning, and the service ran well over two hours. The highlight of the service was not (believe me!) the sermon.

It was the offering!

During the offering, no one stayed in their seat. Even though the church was in an under-resourced community, everyone got up and came down the aisle to give. I watched one woman, who looked as though she did not have much money, wave her offering around while she danced forward, as if to say, “I can give something, too!”

It struck me that I was watching people put to death dependence on money, and come alive to God-trusting generosity.

The offering, in that church, was a little exercise in financial death and resurrection.

What happens if we look at death and resurrection not just as events at the center of Holy Week, but as the primary framework for transformation in ordinary lives?

Jesus viewed his own destiny—to be glorified in and through death—as an expression of a kind of cosmic principle: the pathway to life runs through death.

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, 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. Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:23-25).

Rightful death-to-self

The wonderful Scottish preacher Ian Pitt-Watson said about this passage that there have been just two great revolutions in the history of humankind; only two that changed human life forever. (He did not count the revolution of 1776. He was a great guy, but a sore loser.)

The first revolution, he said, began when somebody noticed the strangest thing. Normally, burying something in the ground is a way to get rid of it. But if you do it with a seed, something happens. The seed becomes something it was not. It becomes a plant or a tree, and it produces fruit. Now it isn’t just getting life; it’s actually giving life. But it could never have happened if the seed hadn’t died first.

When some prehistoric person first buried a seed, it must have seemed pretty dumb—deliberately throwing away something edible in a hungry world.

But then a few days later, a tiny green shoot comes up through the dirt. This means something. It means human beings no longer have to be nomads, wandering from place to place in search of food. It means there will be villages and towns and crafts and art and architecture and tools and civilization. It means there can now be a place called home.

Human civilization, Ian said, is built on this one observation. This is not a command. It is just the way things are. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a solitary grain of wheat. But if it dies, it will be a rich harvest.” To die, to be buried in the earth, which looks like its end, turns out to be its glory.

There is a second revolution. It’s not just agriculture. This, Jesus said, is also the way life works. Only it isn’t seeds this time; it’s you. If you love your life, you lose it.

This is a hard saying. Not so much that it’s hard to understand. It’s hard to do. No sacrifice, no harvest. See, there is a part of me that is selfish and greedy and vain and cowardly, and I have to throw it away so it can die. It’s killing me anyway. There is no other way to life. This is what it means to follow Jesus.

I did a sermon once in which I needed a casket as a prop to reflect on death to self. (Initially I actually asked someone on our staff if we could save money by getting a used casket. Then I realized caskets are the one product in the world that you cannot buy secondhand because dead people tend to stay dead. So we borrowed a new casket.)

Here’s the question: What is Jesus calling me to die to if I’m going to live? What needs to go into the casket?

  • I need to die to my giftedness. God gives to every human being gifts and abilities and talents and skills. That’s a good thing. But sin messes our gifts up, and I’m tempted to try to use my gifts to prop up my identity, to try to impress other people. I’ll get competitive about them. I have to die to my gifts, or they will kill my soul.
  • I need to die to my need to control relationships and people in my life. A friend once told me, “You know, John, you love people who love you or speak well of you, but when people are troublesome or a little prickly, your love wears thin real fast.” When I am not dying to myself, I mostly treat other people based on how they make me feel.
  • I need to die to my appetites. The apostle Paul says, “I beat my body to make it my slave.” The body is a collection of appetites. Appetites aren’t bad, but if I indulge every appetite I have, I end up becoming a slave to them.

Jan Paderewski was one of the great pianists of the last century. Somebody once said to him, “Sir, you are a genius.” I love his response, “Madam, before I was a genius, I was a drudge.” If somebody loves music, they bury themselves in practice. They deny themselves the easier routine of just lying around doing whatever they feel like doing. And then something glorious comes to life.

Wrongful deaths

This actually leads to a fundamental aspect of self-denial that is often misunderstood. “Death to self’ is not to be practiced for its own sake. It is a means to an end. The death I am called to is the death of the lesser, petty, meaner self so that a nobler, more joyful self might come to life.

Failure to grasp this has often been tragic. People in churches sometimes pursue what might be called “wrongful death” approaches to spiritual growth. There are some wrong ways of dying:

  • Conflict-avoiding passivity. A man in an unhappy marriage thinks death to self means he is to avoid confronting patterns of selfishness in his wife. He wallows in his unhappiness, but it is not producing spiritual life in him. What he calls death to self is really just a fear of speaking truth.
  • Sometimes pastors can have our lives so consumed by church ministry that our physical, emotional, and spiritual health suffers. We get preoccupied, anxious, and obsessed. We may say that we are dying to self for the sake of ministry; but it is not leading to life in us. It is a wrongful death—we are really living for our own success.
  • Human-powered repression of desire. A long-time church attender staves off sexual urges, or substance desires, year after year by willpower alone. But he does this in hidden isolation while his soul is starving, and eventually a lifetime of soul-starvation creates a crisis of tragic decisions.

Wrongful death-to-self may be done in despair. Rightful death-to-self is always done in hope: “If it dies, it produces many seeds.”

But it is still a form of death. The old language for this is “mortification”—to bring to a mortal end those dynamics in me that keep sin alive. To understand why we need daily dying, it helps to recognize at least three levels of sin.

Three levels of sin

On the surface level is what we might call sinful acts. I lie. I cheat. I gossip. I take what isn’t mine. I use people for my own selfish ends.

At a deeper level is what might be called sinfulness—our entrenched patterns way below the surface. As Paul puts it: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do …. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Rom. 7:15).

The reason mortification is necessary for transformation involves the relationship of sin and habits.

A habit is a relatively permanent pattern of behavior. The capacity for habitual behavior is crucial to life. When you’re learning to tie a shoe or drive a car, it’s hard work. After you learn, it becomes habitual; you don’t have to think about it anymore. It has become second nature. Without habits we couldn’t make it through the day. You are mostly a collection of habits. God made us that way. It’s a good thing. Except for this: sin has gotten into our habits, and affects the recurring way I think, perceive, feel, desire, choose, speak, and act.

I can override a habit by willpower for a moment or two. Over the long haul, my habits will always defeat my willpower. My only hope is not a stronger will, it’s a new set of habits.

In AA, no one uses willpower to stop drinking. It means surrendering my will—all 12 steps (which were in fact attempts to recapture spiritual practices used by the early church) are about establishing new habits.

When Jesus’ followers studied Scripture together, prayed together, gave, served, confessed, received communion—they were replacing sinful habits with kingdom habits.

“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:11-13).

There’s a deeper level of sin yet, that might be thought of as bentness. The idea of “original sin” is that since the fall, there is something wrong or bent in human nature. It’s not like if you could arrange for the perfect family you could raise a morally perfect child. Human beings—all of us—are inevitably bent.

When my kids were born, I could not believe the wonder of their existence. But before they were two, something else was there. Something wicked. (I know where they got it. They got it in the church nursery from other people’s kids.)

There is something intrinsically broken—sinful—about every human being. Merely human efforts: education, environment, therapy, good families—cannot cure the sin problem.

I must die to my self. But not to my God-given self. To my sinful self. I die in hope.

That leads to Sunday.

The case of the missing cross

Keeping death-and-resurrection as the pattern for our spiritual life reminds us that, in a sense, there are two crosses in the gospels. There is the cross upon which Jesus died. Then there is the cross Jesus commanded us to pick up.

The two crosses do not exist in tension with each other. “Picking up our cross” has nothing to do with trying to earn forgiveness from God. Rather, it refers to the way of life by which we appropriate resurrection newness into our lives.

Do we teach the second cross, the one Jesus commanded us to pick up, the one that means death-to-sinful-self?

A scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce wonderfully portrays death-and-resurrection spirituality. A man is approached by an angel. The man carries a lizard on his shoulder; the lizard represents a spirit of lust, of habitually mismanaged sexuality that has turned into calcified habit, dominating the man’s time and thoughts. The man hates the lizard, but can’t abide the thought of life without it.

The angel offers to kill the lizard. The man recoils. He doesn’t want anything that drastic. He doesn’t want the lizard dead—just manageable. He would prefer a gradual process of lizard-management.

The angel tells him the gradual process is of no use at all. Death is the only way. This moment contains all moments. The angel will kill the lizard, but cannot do so without the man’s permission. In his misery and despair, the man finally consents. There is a horrible burning, and the man and the lizard fall to the ground, apparently dead.

But not dead. The man rises—more solid and strong and glorious than ever before.

And the lizard rises as well—only transformed into a spirited stallion. Though he must die to sinful sexuality, it is not destroyed. It is redeemed.

“Nothing, not even the best and noblest, can go on as it is now,” writes Lewis. “Nothing, not even what is lowest and most bestial, will not be raised again if it submits to death. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body …. Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”

It is no accident that we are told in the Gospel of John that when Jesus was crucified, there was a garden nearby. That was their big mistake. They buried him in a garden (John 19:41).

They did not understand that if you want something to stay dead, you don’t bury it in a garden. There, in the dark, in the ground, something happened. Something stirred. And on the third day, the stone was rolled away, and the grave was empty, and the angel came down, and the women were astonished, and the disciples were doubtful, and Jesus appeared to them and said, “I am alive! I am risen.”

This is the foundation of Christian transformation. Try to hold onto your life, try to clutch it, try to center everything around it, and you die every time. If you offer your life, abandon it to God, surrender, something new is birthed. If you choose to die, you will live.

Mortification 101

We die in order to live. The reason we are afraid of dying to self is that we doubt the resurrection; like a child who is afraid to jump in the pool because we don’t believe in floating.

Church historians say that often when the Spirit of God breaks out on people in fresh ways, one of the first indicators is vibrant public confession of sin. People begin to get real.

A recent book by Kent Dunnington, “Addiction and Virtue,” indicates why this might be so. He notes that one of the primary discoveries (or re-discoveries) of 12-step groups is that utterly honest relationships of humiliating vulnerability are central to healing.

When someone stands up and says: “I’m an addict. I’m an alcoholic”—everybody in the circle recognizes this is a huge step in a spiritual battle; everybody knows they fight the same battle. They celebrate-not the addiction, but the confession. Where did that idea come from?

Jesus’ church. “Confess your sins one to each other and pray for each other so that you might be healed” (James 5:16).

He adds this sobering observation: “Of course, many of us are not so sure we want to be in a church that so trains us, for that would entail not only our humiliation but also a vulnerability to others in which many of us have no interest.”

In places that understand transformation involves dying-to-live, the painful practice of sincere confession, a form of self-mortification, is actually celebrated as the first indication of life. Once the kernel is in the ground, the wheat is on the way.

John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. This article was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Leadership Journal.