Does God ever call us to die?
I don’t mean the daily cross-bearing that Christ demands of every Christian.
I mean: Does God ever call us to serve in a particular ministry or setting or location that seems to promise our death? A ministry or responsibility or stewardship we know will burden, overwhelm, and press us beyond all capacity? A job or an environment we predict will tax and test and tempt us in such sustained ways that our emotional lives and our vocational sensibilities might rarely be described as “flourishing” from that point forward?
Does God ever call us to die?
Most of us are privileged to live in a country where we’re free to pursue our dreams and goals, and our typical approaches to decision-making reflect this freedom. We’re free to ask what’s wise, what’s best, what will work, and what will lead to our personal flourishing — and hopefully, as a by-product, the flourishing of others.
But does God ever call us to die? Does God ever call us to think in reverse terms? To ask ourselves not what it will cost us, but what it will gain others? To ask not what we need to flourish, but what others need to flourish, regardless of how painful it is to reverse the subject of that verb? Does God ever call us to trust him — indefinitely — that we’ll find our lives if we’ll lose them, that we’ll gain our lives if we give them, and that he might be calling us to limp through life testifying with the apostle Paul, “So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12)?
I love the stories where beauty rises from ashes. The human spirit is hard-wired for tales of redemption. But does God ever call us to burn ourselves to ashes so that others may rise to greater life and beauty and flourishing?
I am confident that he does, but I tremble to ask him what this might mean for my life.
God sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites. Preaching fire and brimstone in an Assyrian capital is not the path to ministry success (much less personal health), but in Jonah’s grumblesome death the Ninevites found repentance and life.
God sent Isaiah to harden the hearts of the Israelites. Before Isaiah even opened his mouth, God promised that they wouldn’t listen (Isaiah 6:9-12). By all appearances, measurements, and metrics, Isaiah’s would be a fruitless ministry. But the new creation itself still stands on the far side of his prophecies (Isaiah 65:17-19).
God sent Jeremiah to preach against Jerusalem, a city Jeremiah knew and loved well. He would become known as “the weeping prophet” — a man of sorrows, mingling his tears with the rain of God’s judgment. But mercies would dawn with each morning (Lamentations 3:22-24), and a new covenant would rise amidst Jerusalem’s ashes (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
And in his utmost act of life through death, God sent Jesus the Messiah to save the world through the most counter-intuitive method in the history of the world: planting life through the death of life himself (John 12:24).
The implications of these stories, and many more, are staggering. They would silence us if we would still ourselves. They would slow us if we would stop to think. They would give us pause if we would ponder their upside-down power.
I don’t want to spend my life searching for my favorite job in the garden and miss the cruciform opportunity to die and plant the seed of my life deep into the ground of God’s purposes where it will bear much fruit. I don’t want to manufacture my own harvests through best practices whose calculus often matches the prosperity gospel more than the Calvary road.
Increasingly it is clear to me that God works in mysterious ways. Not just crucifixion and not just flourishing, but something in between, some kind of gospel hybrid — something that looks like a cross first and a crown later, like a plant dying and a seed planted, like a cross-bearing life and a life-giving grave.
I don’t know how all of this works, and I don’t always know what to do about it, but I know it’s true.
And if it’s true, I want to listen when God calls me to die.