EVERY DISCIPLINE HAS CERTAIN RECOGNIZED PRINCIPLES that are the key to success. In the agricultural world, nitrates (fertilizer) are the key to growth. In the sports world, athleticism and speed are the obvious ingredients. In technology, IQs and creativity are the crucial ingredients for innovation. Similarly, there is a unique foundation for spiritual growth. Without it change just won’t happen.
Spiritual life depends on death! Its needs death. It feeds on it.
This principle is fundamental to Christian theology, and understanding why and how it works is the cause of spiritual flourishing. Jesus became man to demonstrate this principle. His death came before resurrection life. Jesus died then rose from the grave.
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.John 12:24
This truth applies to personal spiritual growth, to marriage, parenting, missions, and the local church.
Each Christian experiences spiritual life to the degree of their death. Jesus forcefully stated this principle exactly three times. When Peter identified Jesus as the Son of God in Matthew sixteen, Jesus shocked him with the following.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.Matthew 16:24–25
He said the same thing when he commissioned the twelve and sent them out to reach the Jews (Matthew 10-:38-39). To winnow the crowds and reduce their size he said it a third time at Luke 14:27.
Later, Paul applied the same principle to sanctification.
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.Romans 8:13
An anonymous Christian even put this concept to verse.
Two natures beat within my breast: One is cursed, the other blessed. The one I love, the other I hate; The one I feed will dominate.
What does it mean to “deny yourself, lose your life” or “take up your cross and follow Jesus?” Sometimes, as in Jesus’ case, it meant physical death. But usually it just means daily death to our sinful desire to pamper and promote ourselves. It means the crucifixion of our egos by imitating Jesus who did “nothing from selfishness or vain conceit, but in humility counted others more important than himself” (Philippians 2:3). To count others more important than ourselves means to consider their plans, desires, attitudes, idiosyncracies, etc. more valuable than our own.
“Dying” means forgiving and loving an enemy when you really want to see them punished ruthlessly (Matthew 5:44). It might mean spending money on someone when you really want to spend it on yourself. It means serving others even when you are cranky, tired, and worn out. It means dying to the craving to pity yourself. When appropriate, it means confessing sin and asking others to forgive you. It might mean promoting someone else at the expense of your own promotion. It means serving the unattractive and befriending the socially unpopular.
The fruit is always resurrection life. For this reason Paul pursued death single-mindedly.
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death that by any means possible I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.Philippians 3:10
Death is not only the source of spiritual life for yourself, but it also brings life to spouses, children, and local churches.
Marriages live to the degree that husbands and wives are willing to put their selfish desires to death with the sword of the Spirit. Love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). It watches the TV channel its spouse wants to watch. It goes to the restaurant its spouse likes. It spends more money on its spouse than its self.
The symptoms of this dying are patience with your spouse’s weaknesses, and words of kindness (1 Corinthians 13:4). It practices good manners. It is always thankful. It treats ladies with respect. It repeatedly subdues the temptation to irritability, and it forgives 70X7 (1 Corinthians 13:5).
This kind of love is costly, but the resurrection life that follows is always more than worth the expense in time and inconvenience.
Children also live to the degree of their parent’s dying. It is most powerfully expressed through the self-denial of a father, but it also works through mothers. The “life” is greatest when both die.
Their dying shows up in conspicuous ways. They discipline their children consistently even when it’s inconvenient. Fathers make it a point to be home for dinner and to lead their families in devotions regularly. When it is not good for their spouse or children, women lay down attractive careers. Fathers do also.
This principle also applies to local churches. Churches thrive on the death of their leaders. Someone must die for the local church to live. Pastors, here is the key to abundant spiritual life emanating from your congregation. Paul lived this out. He was—
Persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.2 Corinthians 4:9–12
How about you and I? Do we understand this principle? Are we living it? Are we experiencing joy as we watch others possess increasing “spiritual life” even at our expense?