Dying is not a favorite topic for most of us. We want to avoid talking about it and would like to circumvent death itself. But it's inevitable here on earth.
As a pastor, I often saw how awkward most people feel around the survivors of loved ones who've died. What do we say or not say to them?
This is especially true in American culture. Most other cultures have specific customs and beliefs about death. Grief and mourning are natural, not something to ignore or avoid.
Insulated or in touch?
Sadly, some cultures and places in the world, even certain neighborhoods in America, are well acquainted with death and grief. There is respect for those who die and those who grieve.
It may be hard to accept, but many cultures have a healthier attitude towards death and grief than westerners who insulate themselves from death and dying.
In contrast, a favorite subject we Americans dwell on is our self. We do selfies and post them on social media. We also have an unhealthy self-focus on comfort, pleasure, and convenience, and an equally unhealthy penchant for self-introspection.
Following Jesus and dying
I believe our trouble with the subject of death and dying, and our obsession with self, is a major reason many Americans, perhaps most westerners, have difficulty with the simple, conditional statement of Jesus to those who would follow Him.
"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me." (Luke 9:23)
Jesus addressed the topic often, and yet it was not His primary focus. He saw death as a means to an end. Rather, Jesus saw death as a path to the beginning of life. Not in a philosophical sense, but in its truest sense.
Here's another statement of Jesus about death—
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)
A casual reading of the verse seems to apply only to Jesus who would soon die on the cross, but that's not true.
What Jesus says in the following verses mirrors what He says about following Him (Luke 9:23-26)—
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:25-26)
This idea of dying and bearing fruit is intended and true for all of us who would follow Jesus.
Missing the mark
Death is unavoidable. Not just physical death, but a dying to self, if you're going to follow Jesus. This is the art of dying.
Denying our self and dying to self may not be what you think. Perhaps you have a caricatured idea what this means.
If you have in mind a person with a dour face and subdued personality, you'd have it wrong. Maybe you envision the idea of life in a monastery—isolation, silence, work, prayer, chanting. Or, there's the overly pious person, like the Pharisees who opposed Jesus.
No, all of these miss the mark.
It should be obvious, but it isn't
It should be obvious, but Jesus is the example we need to have in mind.
Jesus was loved by the people for His compassion, authority, and genuineness. He was scorned by the religious leaders and those with political power. Even one of His chosen followers betrayed Jesus because He didn't meet their expectations.
Those closest to Jesus often didn't understand what He said, what He did, and who He associated with, let alone those who followed at a distance.
Difficult to grasp?
Why is this basic call of discipleship to follow Jesus difficult for us to grasp? As with so many things, we overanalyze it, complicate it, and have our own jaded views of it.
A simple rewording may help—
deny your self— deny or say no to your selfish naturetake up your cross— die to self, or as said in another place, crucify your self (Rom 6:6, 11)follow Me— surrender your will and life to Jesus
Again, this is made more clear by what Jesus says after His call to follow Him—
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matt 16:25-26 NIV)
If we want to follow Him, Jesus says we need to—let go of our life to receive life, so we can exchange our life for the life He will give us, and what may appear as humiliation will actually bring honor.
This may be what we're called to do, but how do we do this day by day? What would this look like for each of us personally?
Of course, we're not all the same. But when we understand and begin to do it, we'll all be traveling on the path that leads to life.
Next week, we'll look at how we can learn and appreciate the art of dying to self.