When We Live in Death: Seeing the Cross Anew
It is no accident or coincidence that the central image of the Christian faith is a cross. Death is a focal point of our faith. But most days we try to ignore this disquieting fact. No one likes to be reminded of death. Instead, we love to emphasize the resurrection, Christ’s victory over death. So we look at death and declare the promises of coming life. And we are right to hope. But so often we forget that one is necessary for the other. Ironically you cannot have resurrection, without first having death. And death, at least when you experience it in your own life, is sadly not a thing that lends itself to being glossed over.
Jesus calls for us to take up our cross and follow Him. In other passages, He admonishes us to die to ourselves. For most of my Christian life, I saw this as something I had to strive for. I sought to put down my own desires, to work harder for “the kingdom” and push away my sinful cravings. And more than anything, I tried to shut down my anxiety and depression that so often seemed to get in the way doing anything meaningful for God. This was my daily act of dying, or at least so I thought. Oh, how wrong I was! Little did I know that for all that time I was trying to die to myself, death was waiting for me and not where I expected.
Resisting Death: Fight or Flee
Two years ago, I left my career. Panic attacks and severe anxiety had made it nearly impossible for me to continue working, and I knew I could not continue on the path I had been on. But the toll of anxiety did not stop there. No. Since that day, I’ve lost a second job along with my ability to hold down a job, much of my faith, my church of fourteen years, friends, my self-control, my self-respect, my identity, and some days even the ability to leave my home. And I don’t say that to rant or complain, merely to state the truth. Mental illness has had a field day on my life, and I find myself still in the merciless throws of it.
My instinct in all this is to fight back, hard. I look around me and see my life slipping through my fingers and all I want to do is curb the tide. I scream and beg to God, “How can I possibly be at all effective for your kingdom as this absolute wreck of a human being?” Most days, I am in a panic to just cling to as much as possible of the life I have lost. So I push myself and push myself to hold on. “Just do something productive, just accomplish something. Be worth something,” I scream to myself. But most days all I accomplish is feeling utterly overwhelmed and exhausted.
Eventually, the exhaustion catches up to me, and I stop fighting. I give in to distraction, letting the emotions and difficulties be drowned out by one more episode of Downton Abbey. It is so much easier to put off my troubles for another time when I might have more energy or motivation. But inevitably, I reach the end of my day or week only to look back with disgust at what feels like so much waste. And I push myself back into the frenzy of effort, starting the never-ending and debilitating cycle yet again.
Healing Through Death
In the middle of all this chaos, there are moments of peace and clarity. I would call them divine moments. That is the best description I have. And in these rare times of stillness, I see what is really happening. And it is death. And it is good death. And the thing that is dying is my need to control. My need to constantly prove I am worth something. My need to save myself through my own perfection. My need to be god.
I look back over all those years when I was more “productive for the kingdom”. The time when I was the perfect Christian and could make a good income, attend church regularly, give my time in service, and be there for people. And they were all good things. But at the heart of those things was absolute terror. I was terrified of not being enough, not being accepted, not being loved. That was what drove me, and it drove me to exhaustion.
Now I find myself with all those perfect things taken from me. And it has unmasked the fear and shown me it’s true self filled with pain, and brokenness, and grief. Now I stare into it face to face. And all I want to do is fight it or run from it with everything I have. But some days I let myself sit with the fear and we have a long chat. And then on my most courageous days, I find it within myself to reach out and take fear by the hand and draw it into myself. And I tell the fear that I am sorry, that it too belongs, and that I will endeavor to love it as it has always wanted to be loved. On those days, I feel the pain, the grief, the brokenness heal just a little.
Learning to Surrender
In all this, I have learned that death is not something we strive for. It is something we surrender to. And often it is the opposite of the things we think need to die in our lives. Anxiety, depression, and yes, even sin are teaching me a far more valuable lesson then perfection ever could. I am learning to surrender to death in my life as more and more is stripped away. But God does it hurt. It hurts to lose your old sense of self and worth. It hurts to lose the respect of people who may not understand. More than anything, it hurts to sit with the pain you buried for so long.
In our capitalist society of always doing and striving and attaining, the idea of surrendering to this desolation of self feels completely foreign. It seems desperately wrong and unintuitive. And some days, many days, I still fight this process of death. I do not want to lose anything more. I want to feel productive again. I want to feel accomplished again. I want to feel accepted again. But on my best days, I realize that these things are an illusion. So often we keep ourselves busy for the sake of feeling productive, rather than doing the deep soul work that actually needs doing. A seed buried in the earth may not sprout for many weeks, but that does not mean it is not growing. And the greatest acceptance I can ever receive will be from myself.
A New Paradigm: Seeing the Cross
In all this, I am finding a far deeper appreciation for the cross. As I am learning to surrender to death and pain and suffering, I am reminded that Jesus has walked this road ahead of me. He too poured out terrible grief and unanswerable questions in the garden. Unlike me, he did not fight back or run when death came for Him but walked into its pain and shame willingly. It gives me the courage to do the same. Surely if this process was necessary for Him, it is necessary for me. And if I can share in His death, this great hope remains, that I will share in His resurrection.
If you look carefully, you will see that death and resurrection are not just central to Christianity, but to all life. The cross is not just some religious paradigm, but the central pattern of all creation. Life comes through death, growth through destruction. After all, we must first tear up the ground if we are to plant a seed. We cut away the dead branches to make way for fresh growth, remove crumbling foundations before laying clean stone, break old patterns of thinking to open our minds to new way of seeing. And then we wait in expectation of what will come.
As Paul said, “This hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:5)