I have been thinking about how often in nature we see a pattern of life coming from death. A seed planted in the ground must die before it can come to life again as a new plant. The bulbs we plant wither away above ground, but renew themselves each spring. They become “resurrected”. The same pattern is seen in spiritual things. Christ had to die to bring us reconciliation with God. The only way to being fully conformed to a living Christ is through the death of self. He must increase and I must decrease. In baptism we go under the water as a symbol of the death of our old selves, and rise again in newness of life. As our faith journey progresses, layer by layer we gradually relinquish ourselves, die to self, and find ourselves more and more spiritually alive, more conformed to the image of Christ.
It is hard to learn to die to self. It is counter-intuitive. It is only by believing absolutely in His goodness and His unwavering love for His own (and me specifically) that I can approach the idea even distantly. At times the mind of God seems very hard to understand… and even harder to obey willingly. However, as C.S. Lewis said, it is not what I think about God, but what He thinks about me that is important. Since I don’t understand all of His choices and processes, I must faithfully accept His sovereignty, and rest on His grace, which is the only wisdom I can trust.
The path is not always pleasant. Death of any kind is a hard disconnection. “Self” takes the form of self-determination and a desire for autonomy. We want to make our own choices, live our own lives. The deliberate choice of the “death of self” in order to let Christ rule our hearts and actions may take us through pain, despair, or fear of our circumstances ~ but in the end, we hope that we will have grown, will have gained wisdom. We die to our old nature in order to become re-born, to let the Holy Spirit develop the fruit of the spirit in us. For whatever reasons in this process, God seems to need us to understand suffering if we are to understand Him. After a lifetime of following Christ, I have come to realize that we must have some understanding of suffering in order to understand, even a little, the enormity of the cross.
I am sometimes puzzled as to why some Christians seem to have such happy, secure lives, and others go through so much. Some Christians live lives of crisis after crisis. It has made me upset at times to see what appears to be injustice from the hand of God or by His allowance… and yet the greatest saints of God I have known have all been those whose lives were filled with struggle and occasional doubt, but whose faith in God ultimately remained steadfast.
I recently read an explanation which may make sense. Stuart Sacks’ book, When You Haven’t Got A Prayer, states that rabbinical discussions led scholars to the conclusion that “the one whom God loves much may receive riches, but the one whom God loves most is allowed to suffer”. The Godhead’s plan for the life, death and resurrection of Christ for the salvation of the world is perhaps the supreme example. Christ’s suffering went beyond anything we will ever endure, and God allowed it. Indeed, Christ’s coming to earth, the Incarnation of God as man, was for the sole purpose of His accepting the sin of the world on Himself, and being separated from the Father in that moment. The whole point of the Incarnation was to suffer that which was unthinkable, but the intention behind it was Love.
If allowing suffering is often a part of God’s training in order to bring us to greater strength, then is it always wise to pray that God take away suffering, either for myself or for others? If God allowed His Son to suffer, do I think that any human should be above suffering? The perpetual question is always, “Why me?”. The objective answer is, “Why NOT you?”. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Problems and trials happen to all of God’s creatures. There are those who believe that if we are suffering, it is because we don’t have sufficient faith. However, I believe that it is not by circumstances, but by our response to circumstances, that the degree and quality of our faith is revealed.
If I pray for mercy, I need to be willing to ask for mercy if that be His will, and mean it. Instead of mercy, He may see that I need tough love. I need to be able to accept His answer of “No” and be content. That is incredibly hard. I must trust His wisdom and His knowledge of what I need, and not presume that mercy is always in my best interests. There was no mercy for Christ. I hear Christ’s plea to the Father to take this cup from Him, if it be the Father’s will. Yet the pure and holy Christ knew that acceptance of the weight of the total depravity of mankind and the consequent total separation from the Father was the only path possible. It wasn’t that He was afraid. He was coming into His purpose, but He realized what that separation from the Father would mean. Still, in His grace, He endured God’s wrath, and was obedient to the Father’s will, for our sake.
If I am to follow Christ, I realize that I must embrace my trials and offer them up to God as a sacrifice ~ to let myself be broken, in obedience and in faith, and to let that suffering be a stepping stone to the next level of knowledge of Him. This is all part of the same teaching methods He has used with me all my life. He brings an issue to my consciousness, asking me to make a choice; to choose to relinquish some part of myself to Him, or possibly be frozen at my present level of knowledge of Him. I struggle for a time, trying to hold on to self, but inevitably must let go of that part of me which He wants. I have learned where all this is going. Then things are all right for a little while, until He brings another issue to my mind, and the process happens all over again. Eventually I must choose for Him because what is the bottom line?
Either I trust Him or I don’t.
I keep hearing in my head the Lord’s words to Peter, “Do you love Me?” I can almost see His eyes as He searches the face of Peter, knowing what was in his heart. I know He is giving me that same penetrating look. He is asking me, “Do you love Me enough to trust Me again? Do you love Me more than things, than comfort, than the human desire to know love and acceptance from other people? Do you love Me more than financial security, than family, than physical wholeness? More than life? How much do you love Me, Barbara? How much do you trust that I want only your ultimate good?”
I don’t want to be broken again, but I must trust You, Father. When I innocently told You over sixty years ago that I wanted to be made like Jesus, I didn’t know what I was asking, but You hold me to my prayer. You are letting me experience all I need in order to take me to that goal. It was Your goal for me all the time, but I didn’t know it then. I know it now…..
I have wanted passion in life, a sense of joy, humor, pleasure in learning, creativity ~ some sense of meaning. I have wanted to be fully alive. I have come to see that it is You in the passion and beauty, it is You in the mystery and joy. It is You Who are both the yearning and the One for Whom I yearn…
I have learned that You only ask things of me in love. Whatever You want, whatever You judge best, wherever this takes me: in this moment I trust You. You told Peter to feed your sheep. Please translate this for me, to help me understand what You want me to do. Let me use my remaining life for Your service, whatever that involves, and let me give freely from my love, and not grudgingly from necessity or conformity. You are Love. Let me, as Your servant, trust that Love enough to accept whatever You choose to allow in my life, and let others see Your Love in me.
“If my life is broken when given to Jesus, it may be because the pieces will feed a multitude when a loaf would satisfy only a small boy.” (Author unknown)