Lent: Dying That We Might Live

Lectionary readings and guidance on using the lectionary

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” Mark 8: 35-36

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.”

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. Peter did not understand this dynamic of the spiritual life, and Jesus rebuked him for it.  But for us, Lent can be a season 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. We return to this prayer by Henri Nouwen to support us in this dying season…

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. Amen. 

Henri Nouwen, A Cry for Mercy


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© Ruth Haley Barton, 2021. This post is an excerpt of Lent: A Season of Returning, Ruth Haley Barton (2015, Transforming Resources).

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is Founder and Chief Essence Officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest (Oct 2022).
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I’m in a season of incredible new life….The LORD is indeed doing something new! So I was struck by the words that in such seasons there is also dying. Will now be on the lookout for both new life and the call to let go and die. Thank you for the encouragement! Bless you! Sande


I appreciate your clear teaching so much. I need this reminder in my life everyday. Identifying the false self, and seeing clearly are not easy, as it seems so overwhelming. Little by little, day by day He is opening my eyes to see what to offer up to Him next. Thank you for pointing the way.

You’re welcome! Little by little…

Hi Ruth,
It’s been almost 20 years since you guided me through a season of dying and resurrecting. During one session that occurred during the week of our Lord’s Passion you asked, “Jerry, where are you in Jesus’ passion story.” I quickly and naively replied, “I’m in the tomb in need of resurrection.” After pausing, silent for what seemed an eternity, you replied with words that were as true as they were terrifying, “Oh, Jerry, I believe you’re still writhing on the cross.”

I died a few deaths to the false self during that season, but not enough. I chose to return to the ranks, marching in lockstep to the “loyal soldier” described in Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. I’m comforted to say now, after a long season of drastic, but necessary sufferings and useful humiliations, I’m finally beginning to experience the LIFE that has been here for me all along.

More death and dying to come? Sure. More humiliations? Certainly. More and better LIFE? Yes!!! Making the deaths and humiliations– all resulting from my life-long trust in and dependence upon the “loyal soldier”–not only necessary, but welcome. (And yes, typing and believing in the truth and unavoidability of that last sentence is both frightening and encouraging!)

So good to hear from you, Jerry! Wow! Did I really say that to you?? My young-director self was surprisingly straightforward before she knew any better. 🙂 The journey you describe here sounds good, hard, and true. Knowing that God continues to lead you in the process of “discharging your loyal soldier” even though you may have returned to it from time to time, fills me with great joy. Thank you for bearing witness to what the process I like AND that its worth it!

Your young-director self very likely knew my false self was stubborn, arrogant and impatient, ever in need of straight-talk. And…it’s what I remember you saying. It may not be exactly what you said. In any event, it was an absolutely true and needful thing for me to hear…then and now. I’ve writhed and wiggled my way off too many crosses before the real redemptive work was complete. Yes, the “process” works, but only when my desperation and trust forge in me a resolve to see it through to completion.

I’m pretty sure I said it and pretty sure you heard what you needed to hear. Clearly everything belongs and is for our good!

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.

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

So true!

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.

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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