Death is quite the undertaking. To die when one wants desperately to go on living is the most gruesome kind of labor any of us will ever know. It’s painful and bloody and empties our pockets of the fortune we think is ours. But we must do it. Each of us must come bearing our dreams and our crosses to silence ourselves once and for all. And when the morning comes, and we find ourselves back at the beginning, we must do it all again. This is what love requires of us.
We often talk about love as if it’s the easiest thing in the world to give. Take a gander at any internet meme, or any semi-moral blogger and you’ll see beautifully designed graphics with sentiments like “Spread kindness around like confetti.” As if it’s easy for us to deny our thirst for vengeance, our penchant for glory and grab hold of grace and humility instead. Love is the most expensive thing we’ll ever have to give and yet, we perpetuate the myth that it comes naturally – that it costs nothing. The greatest lie this generation will believe is that love is free.
In our defense, it seems simple. After all, how hard is it to treat people nicely? To offer a smile, an encouragement, or to simply refrain from saying anything at all? But love is much more than being nice. Love demands that we offer ourselves wholly and without contempt, even and especially when people don’t deserve it. Love is the conscious release of power, the intended denial of self. It is the slow and deliberate death of our desires, our rights, and our safety for the desires, rights, and safety of someone else. It is a sacrifice. A laying down of our lives for our friends (John 15:13). Don’t you see? The recipe for a better world is calling, inadvertently, for our execution.
We die to ourselves because love, like any other sacrifice, is an intentional loss of something we treasure on behalf of somebody else. But can we be honest with each other, here? What about that sounds appealing to you? When I hear the word “execution” my immediate reaction is to run for my life. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to deny myself an evening of guilty pleasures so I can labor on behalf of anyone except me. I don’t want to say no to something fun to love my friends through what is so obviously not a crisis. I don’t want to have to stop hating someone who really rubs me the wrong way and work toward a friendship instead. So why do we do it? Why would we approach the gallows not just willingly, but with joy in our hearts? Why would anyone ever volunteer to die?
The answer, of course, is because we met grace: the man come to set us free.
At one point, we were this man’s mortal enemy. Despite his goodness and his mission, we gloried in our rebellion against his kingdom. We were happy to break his laws, unapologetic in mocking his name, and overjoyed to see him suffer. We were so far from choosing God, that he had to come down from his throne and choose us instead. He saw us smitten with sin, dancing in our graves and gave us grace for condemnation. He settled death’s accounts by offering his life in our place. He came for us – denied himself all the way through his crucifixion in order that we might live. We die to our indwelling sin because we want to live – because we get to live. Death is no longer our master and this, Church, is our great liberation.
We are hard pressed to barter for love when it comes expensive and without applause. Nevertheless we are urged – commanded, even – to give ourselves up for our friends. We forget our pursuits and our desires in view of God’s mercy and chase after that which will benefit our neighbors, whatever the price. We let Christ reign in our hearts and crown our enemies with love. It will cost us a fortune but hear me when I say that the well of riches is deep, the heart of life is everlasting, and death is but a doorway to the greatest gift of all.
Because it’s only there, in the very place we lay down our lives, that we find them: wholly new and utterly alive.