Lent: Dying That We Might Live

Lectionary readings and guidance on using the lectionary
Fifth Sunday in Lent: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24

I’ll never forget walking to lunch with several young leaders after a teaching on the season of the spiritual life in which God is dismantling the false self in order for the true self to emerge more fully. We had talked about the fact that this season feels like death, and in fact it is—the death of that which is false in order for something truer to come to life.

Clearly the teaching had unnerved them, for as we walked together one of them asked, “Does everyone have to go through this painful place in the spiritual life?” I stopped and thought for a moment and finally said the only thing I could think to say: “Well, even Jesus had to die in order for the will of God to come forth in his life.”

We, Too, Must Die

This week’s lesson brings us face to face with one of the great paradoxes of our faith—that in order to really live, we must die. That before we can reign with Christ we must first share in his sufferings. That when God begins to do a new thing, old things must pass away. That in order to experience resurrection we, too, must die.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the only thing we stand to lose is the false self, which is not real anyway. The only thing passing away is that crusty old thing that is no longer useful.

Fr. Thomas Keating in The Human Condition writes, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of small humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound. These make room inside us for the Holy Spirit to come and heal. What prevents us from being available to God is gradually evacuated as we keep getting closer and closer to our Center”—the place where God dwells within us as redeemed people. Oftentimes it is suffering that initiates these necessary “evacuations”; even Jesus learned obedience through the things he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)

A Time to Practice

Lent, then, is a time to practice dying in small ways so that when the bigger deaths come, we will know how to let go of that which is no longer needed. It is time to learn obedience in and through the things we suffer, just like Jesus did. It is a time for experiencing what it is like to have our outer nature wasting away while our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess. O Lord, I am self-centered, concerned about myself, my career, my future, my name and fame. Often I even feel that I use you to my own advantage.

Yes, Lord, I know it is true. I know that often I have spoken about you, written about you, and acted in your name for my own glory and success. Your name has not led me to persecution, oppression, or rejection. Your name has brought me rewards! I see clearly how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones.
Let me find you again.

Henri Nouwen, “Spirituality of Waiting”

stations of the cross prayer guide

Pray the stations of the cross with An Invitation to Walk with Christ.

© Ruth Haley Barton, 2018. This post is an excerpt of Lent: A Season of Returning, Ruth Haley Barton (2015, Transforming Resources).

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.


  1. Mark Mixter on March 16, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    As I consider things in my life which need to die—speaking before really listening; being convinced acquiring more knowledge will solve any problem — I wonder after reading this— are these really alive? Active to be sure, but actually aspects of life? I don’t think so. Yet without pausing, without taking time to just be with Jesus, I don’t think I’d be aware how present these things are in me, and probably not even put them on the “put to death” list. I’m also quite certain I cannot do the killing only engage in practices, in community, so God in his mercy can.

  2. Susan V Mills on March 16, 2018 at 12:10 pm

    Read this beautiful David Whyte poem this morning and thought of the conversation at TC 14 around “should’s” and “ought’s”:

    Make a place of prayer, no fuss,
    just lean into the white brilliance
    and say what you needed to say
    all along, nothing too much, words
    as simple and as yours and as heard
    as the bird song above your head
    or the river running gently beside you.

    Let your words join one to another
    the way stone nestles on stone,
    the way water just leaves
    and goes to the sea,
    the way your promise
    breathes and belongs
    with every other promise
    the world has ever made.

    Now, leave them to go on,
    let your words carry their own life
    without you, let the promise
    go with the river.
    Have faith. Stand up. Walk away.

    Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love’
    © David Whyte and Many Rivers Press

    • Laura Crosby on March 17, 2018 at 5:57 am

      Thank you so much for sharing this! Much needed imagery during a time I’m feeling deeply burdened in prayer for others.

  3. Wendy on March 16, 2018 at 7:32 am

    Do you have a book recommendation to learn more about the false self and then transforming to the new self?

    • Ruth Barton on March 16, 2018 at 2:54 pm

      Yes. The Human Condition by Fr. Thomas Keating, The Deeper Journey by Robert Mulholland, Coming Home to Your True Self by Fr. Albert Haas, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, chaps. 2,3.

      • Wendy on March 17, 2018 at 7:59 am

        Thanks Ruth. God is doing this, something deeper in my heart, and I want to keep growing. Thanks for all your resources that are making a big difference in my life.

  4. Annette Elder on March 15, 2018 at 4:32 pm

    Yes, it seems it is in the crucible of leadership rough spots, when all don’t agree with us and the false self feels pricked that we feel strife. Rather than trying to just make it through the rough spot or defend ourselves, let’s recognize the false self in the new light that the strife affords us; let’s embrace the opportunity to dismantle it all the more! Thanks for bringing this painful yet life giving process to light again.

  5. Mark Mixter on March 14, 2018 at 4:12 pm

    So helpful Ruth!
    I think I need to die to the concept of externally imposed ‘oughts and shoulds’ as the drivers for my life. The difficulty, I think, is discerning who, or what, is imposing the “ought”. For example, the command to honor one’s parents may not mean they have permanent permission to dictate behavior or values

    • Ruth Barton on March 17, 2018 at 2:35 pm

      Yep. The identity we create around “oughts and shoulds” is a false identity that we must let go of in order to find our true-self-in-Christ. It feels risky but there is freedom on the other side. Over time we may even discover that some of the things we used to do out of a sense of “ought and should” are actually in some way connected with true desires of the heart. When that happens, we might engage in some of the same behaviors but from a completely different (and truer) motivation because they come from inside us, rather than from voices that are external to us.

  6. Bill McKay on March 14, 2018 at 11:22 am

    Thanks, Ruth.
    This frightening truth is also exhilarating. Just think of the beauty God is bringing out as my false self sheds away and God’s new self comes to light.

    • Ruth Barton on March 15, 2018 at 7:41 am

      So true!

  7. Laura Crosby on March 14, 2018 at 7:17 am

    Oh this is so timely and so important! Love the Keating quote!
    As a 7 on the Enneagram, choosing discomfort, or death to self is a huge challenge, and yet, in the past, because I didn’t practice death in the small things, when large “deaths”came my false self felt violently ripped from me. God has been gracious, but the reminder of the practice of death in the small things is important.

    • Ruth Barton on March 14, 2018 at 10:28 am

      This is such profound sharing, Laura–especially the specific application you make to what you know about your false self patterns. May we all be so brave!

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