Sometimes people are struck by this aspect of the faith. The image or concept of death can take on an uncomfortable prominence. Baptism is, after all, a picture of dying. We follow Paul’s advice and “Put to death . . . what is earthly” in us. We sometimes even call our daily sanctification mortification. This is not a tame and peaceful death, a graceful slipping out of consciousness or drifting into nothingness. It’s violent. Jesus tells us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. The word excruciating comes from the practice of crucifixion. Jesus asks a lot.
But Jesus promises a lot, too. Think of the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price in Matthew’s Gospel. The two men sell everything they have to gain the Kingdom. The takeaway is simple enough. We give all to get more. We sacrifice our egos, ambitions, lusts, goals, agendas, everything for the sake of Christ. Real grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in his book Discipleship, is not cheap; it costs your life. Which is exactly what Jesus said: “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Any Christian really working out their salvation knows the meaning of the word struggle. It’s a battle in the heart, in the mind, in the soul. We have our old lusts grabbing at us from one corner and resentment and discontent and any number of other evils tugging at the rest. To prevail we have fight back. The trouble is, like Paul found in his own life, these urges and habits and temptations are native to us. The lingering effects of the Fall must be battled to the death every day.
And it’s more than just sins we’re putting to death and leaving behind. Sin as we often understand it is too narrow a word. We’re talking here about anything that might hinder our pursuit of Christ. If it cannot become sacramental and part of what draws us into deeper fellowship then it must go. We do not want Christ and something else. We want Christ alone. If our satisfaction, our contentment, our comfort, our security, our poise, our position, our purposes get in the way of treading the narrow path, then we die to those things.
These are small and shabby things anyway. Like Paul says, “what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?” Nothing, really. Our sublime satisfactions and lofty plans are lowly and childish compared what God has in store. Recall C. S. Lewis’ observation in The Weight of Glory, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
And don’t mistake it, infinite joy is on the table. We do not die for nothing. The Christian way knows nothing of morbidity or masochism. Mortification is not mere self denial. Sanctification is not simply self negation. Just as Christ, we lose to gain. As it says in Philippians, Christ became nothing so that God could make him lord of everything. The Letter to the Hebrews urges us to look to Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Jesus died for the joy that his victory over sin and death would bring. We die with Christ to participate in his victory. That is the treasure buried in the field; that is the pearl of great price.
The path of Christian suffering is one of exchange. We are trading lesser things for greater things. We are trading the meaningless for the meaningful; the worthless for the worthwhile; our materialism for real riches; false security for true peace; false peace for a real fight.
Death precedes life. It’s a curveball, yes. It may seem backward. But the witness of the saints is this: It doesn’t work any other way.