Living Death or Dying Life?

“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” — Jesus (in Matthew 16)

Years ago, I took the opportunity to visit the Garden of Hope in Newport, Kentucky. You can read more about it at the link. It’s an interesting place and worth a visit if you are ever in the area.

From one particular vantage point, you can see the cross and the tomb at the same time. That visual made me think of Jesus’ words quoted above and how life and death are linked in the disciple’s life. There are quite a few parts of Scripture that address this connection. Here are a few others that ran through my mind as I contemplated the sight of the cross and tomb juxtaposed:

— —

Galatians 2:20
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Philippians 1:21
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Romans 12:1
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

Romans 6:1–11
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his….

Colossians 3:3
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

— —

At about this same time, I had been reading an interesting book by the name of Christ the Eternal Tao. I was prompted to pick it up while studying a Japanese martial art known as Ryukyu Kempo. It turns out that I am a much better student of the history and philosophy of the martial arts than I am an actual practitioner of them, and, while I quickly lost interest in punching and kicking, I did become deeply fascinated by the lineage and interconnectedness of all the various martial arts. This led me to read more widely on Eastern religion and philosophy and eventually to wonder about the possible connection between the Eastern concept of Tao (“the Way”) and the Way of and in Christ. So, this was my mindset when visiting the Garden.

(The first half of the book was wonderful, by the way. It got a bit weird in its final half, so I can’t necessarily recommend it, but I can say without reservation that it was an interesting read!)

With all of this tumbling through my mind, I had a realization while praying meditatively: Jesus could not have risen had he not first died. (Neither can we!) It’s simply a logical necessity. Every resurrection must be preceded by death. At the same time, Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that his death would be followed by a return to life (Matthew 12:40). Life itself cannot be killed. It is another logical necessity. Every death experienced by one powered by Christ’s life must be followed by a resurrection. It cannot be any other way.

These two truths seemed to me to be captured well in the Taoist “yin-yang” symbol. I asked my talented wife to draw something up, and the picture above is the result. I thought it turned out pretty cool!

On further reflection, it seems to me that we have only two choices in how we conduct our lives. We must make choices that are characterized by either a constant and perpetual dying to self or a ceaseless grasping for and clinging to whatever it is the flesh desires. No one is a perfect monolith and so we all make choices that fall into both of these camps, but the general tenor of our lives must run one way or the other. It can’t be both in any sort of equal measure, because these two directions are mutually exclusive. You can’t put fleshy desires to death by continually feeding them!

So, we live either a daily dying to self that leads to real, enduring life, a “dying life,” or we live a daily pursuit of selfish desires that leads only to death, a “living death.” There are, I think, no other options available to us.

It’s just another way of picturing what Jesus says in John 12:

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternity.

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