Dying To Live (John 12)

You may have heard of an autobiographical book (and eventually a  movie) called Eat Pray Love written by Liz Gilbert in 2006. Here’s a brief synopsis thanks to Google:

“Liz Gilbert thought she had everything she wanted in life: a home, a husband and a successful career. Now newly divorced and facing a turning point, she finds that she is confused about what is important to her. Daring to step out of her comfort zone, Liz embarks on a quest of self-discovery that takes her to Italy, India and Bali.”

A quest for self-discovery. Sounds fantastic!  But this was not the first time Gilbert had discovered something about herself. In 2015, Gilbert wrote an article in the New York Times in entitled “Confessions Of A Seduction Addict.”[1] In it she describes what she found out about herself in the years before the events Eat Pray Love.

"It started with a boy I met at summer camp and ended with the man for whom I left my first husband. In between, I careened from one intimate entanglement to the next — dozens of them — without so much as a day off between romances. You might have called me a serial monogamist, except that I was never exactly monogamous. Relationships overlapped, and those overlaps were always marked by exhausting theatricality: sobbing arguments, shaming confrontations, broken hearts. Still, I kept doing it. I couldn’t not do it.… If the man was already involved in a committed relationship, I knew that I didn’t need to be prettier or better than his existing girlfriend; I just needed to be different…

Soon enough, and sure enough, I might begin to see that man’s gaze toward me change from indifference, to friendship, to open desire. That’s what I was after: the telekinesis-like sensation of steadily dragging somebody’s fullest attention toward me and only me. My guilt about the other woman was no match for the intoxicating knowledge that — somewhere on the other side of town — somebody couldn’t sleep that night because he was thinking about me. If he needed to sneak out of his house after midnight in order to call, better still. That was power, but it was also affirmation. I was someone’s irresistible treasure. I loved that sensation, and I needed it, not sometimes, not even often, but always…

In my mid-20s, I married, but not even matrimony slowed me down. Predictably, I grew restless and lonely. Soon enough I seduced someone new; the marriage collapsed. But it was worse than just that. Before my divorce agreement was even signed, I was already breaking up with the guy I had broken up my marriage for… If you asked me what I was up to, I might have claimed that I was a helpless romantic — and how can you judge that? If really cornered, I might have argued that I was a revolutionary feminist, taking brazen agency over my own sexuality…

For the first time, I forced myself to admit that I had a problem — indeed, that I was a problem. Tinkering with other people’s most vulnerable emotions didn’t make me a romantic; it just made me a swindler. Lying and cheating didn’t make me brazen; it just made me a needy coward. Stealing other women’s boyfriends didn’t make me a revolutionary feminist; it just made me a menace. I hated that it took me almost 20 years to realize this. There are 16-year-old kids who know better than to behave this way. It felt shameful. But once I got it, I really got it: There is no way to stop a destructive behavior, except to stop…"

She then tells a story about meeting a man to whom she was really attracted but whom she resisted. She stopped her pattern of destructive behavior. As far as one can tell when the article ends, all is well. It’s heart-breaking to read, but there’s an apparently happy ending. Then she traveled on her quest for self-discovery as chronicled in Eat Pray Love, which culminated in her marrying someone new. Then, one year after her perhaps too hasty article about her move into maturity, this appeared in the New York Times[2]:

"Ms. Gilbert, speaking directly to her readers in a Facebook post, said that after 12 years she was separating from José Nunes, the Brazilian importer whom she met during her travels and later married, and who was a central character in the book… In April, Ms. Gilbert said that she missed travel: “I’ve never been to Japan, Iceland, South Africa and other places that it would be a pity to come to this earth and miss.”

So there was no happy ending. In her journey of self-discovery she discovered things about herself, but to what end? To what purpose? The act of discovery is not enough. One needs to discover not just things but true and good things – and then allow those things to transform you.

Mrs. Gilbert’s self-discovery didn’t solve an apparently returning restlessness, what some would call an existential void that she has had all her life. It might manifest in different ways at different times, but what she was seeking at the deepest level simply won’t be found - and can’t be found - with the things she is pursuing. They offer her moments and times that are strong and even feel overwhelmingly good in the moment – but they don’t last. They can’t. They are only glimpse of what she’s looking for, like seeing a snapshot of the Grand Canyon and thinking it’s the same thing as being there.

Sadly, her story has a lot of fans who are apparently convinced that her approach is the way to a good life. The Daily Mail wrote just this week:

“Eat Pray Love had struck a chord with an entire generation of women who, Gilbert feels, didn’t ‘get the memo that they are in charge of their own lives.’”[3]

Frankly, as much as she used the language of choice, self-empowerment and self-discovery, I didn’t get the impression that she has been in charge of her life.

We all serve something to which we give our allegiance. To use biblical language, we will all be servants or slaves to something. We all give our lives to something that we believe will ultimately satisfy our deepest longings, and that thing we first intrigues us, then it molds us, then leads us, and then defines us. You don’t have to be a Christian to see this. I am fascinated with the insight by a novelist named David Foster Wallace. He was not a Christian by any stretch, but he noted the following:

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”

He finished his 2005 speech[4] by saying,

 “It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

David Foster Wallace did not make it to 50. Four years after he gave this speech, he committed suicide. I am reminded of what the always quotable C.S. Lewis had to say:

"Thomas More said... 'If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead.' Will it really make no difference if it was women [or men] or patriotism, cocaine or art, whiskey or a seat in the Cabinet, money or science? Well, surely no difference that matters. We shall have all missed the end for which we are formed and rejected the only thing that satisfies. Does it matter to a man dying in the desert, by which choice of route he missed the only well?"

Everybody worships. And we will either worship something that always leaves us unsatisfied – “wells that run dry or leave us thirsty,” (Isaiah 58) and leads us to disillusionment, unhappiness or despair, or we will draw our refreshment from a well that will never run dry and will lead to hope and satisfaction as we worship a God who meets us in the deepest and most profound levels of our longing (John 4).


Jesus’ final public teaching is recorded in John 12. It is an exhortation, and appeal to the people to respond to a God of life. He had just raised Lazarus, and he had quite a crowd following him. In this teaching he makes the turn from physical resurrection to spiritual resurrection. I told you last week we will talk about how to experience the fullness of life in Christ on this side of heaven, so here we go with a quick review: It will be glorious but messy.

It won’t yet be perfection – even God’s people wait in anticipation for the final renewal of all things. But there is a fullness that God offers through Christ in this life in anticipation of the life to come.  Jesus comes back to a theme again and again.  If we pursue Christ, he will mold us an eventually define us. In the process, the glory of Jesus will be seen by us and in us.I’m condensing all of the teaching in this chapter to one paragraph that focuses on what I believe is the main topic.

 I tell you the truth: unless a grain of wheat is planted in the ground and dies, it remains a solitary seed. But when it is planted, it produces in death a great harvest. The one who loves this life will lose it, and the one who despises it in this world will have life forevermore. Anyone who serves Me must follow My path; anyone who serves Me will want to be where I am, and he will be honored by the Father… (v.23-26)

How do we experience the fullness of this beautiful, messy life on this side of heaven?

  • We must love Christ more than ourselves.
  • We must love the Kingdom of Heaven more than the Kingdoms of Earth.
  • We must ‘die’ to self and follow the teaching and the path of Jesus.  

This ‘call to die” sounds unusual, but the reality is that everybody dies to something so they can live for something else.  Everybody eventually enslaves themselves to something that they believe will bring them the greatest freedom.  The radical part of this call is not the call to die: the radical part is the call to die to self and for someone else – in this case, Jesus.

But this dying to self is not simply the way to bring life to ourselves.  It’s how we bring life to everyone around us. Everybody worships , right? And whenever we worship, somebody dies, and it will be either us or others.

  • If I worship my comfort, I will sacrifice my wife and kids. They will pay the cost of my comfort. “Stop bothering me. We will talk when I’m good and ready. No, you adjust your hopes and dreams and priorities because they don’t match mine.”  I will sacrifice my friends. “You upset or hurt me. Clearly you are the problem. I need a better class of friends.” I remain dead in my selfishness and sin, and I drag down those close to me.
  • If I worship my reputation, I will sacrifice any of you who don’t make me look good. “You think I’m wrong? You’re an idiot. You don’t like how I pastor? You clearly have a heart issue. You are winning an argument with me? I will lash out and try to humiliate you or keep beating this argument to death because I can’t be wrong.”  And I will remain dead in myself selfishness and sin and drag down those around me.
  • If I worship money, I will choose work time over relationship time and I will choose profit over people.  If I worship my health, I will make everyone else take second place to my diet and workout schedule. If I worship sex, all that will matter is my fulfillment and my happiness, and I will sacrifice the dignity and autonomy of people around me as I manipulate and pressure and use… And I will remain dead in my selfishness and sin and drag down those around me.

You want to know what you worship? Ask yourself whom you sacrifice; then ask yourself why.


So what do we do if we are caught in this trap? To use language from last week, how do we turn from being dead to being fully alive? What does it mean to present our bodies as living sacrifices, wholly acceptable unto God? (Romans 12:1)This is going to take several weeks, and John conveniently gives us more insight in the next several chapters in which Jesus is teaching his disciples about life in the Kingdome. But we are going to stay focused today on the first crucial step: dying to self.

 In the same way you gave your bodily members away as slaves to corrupt and lawless living and found yourselves deeper in your unruly lives, now devote your members as slaves to right and reconciled lives so you will find yourselves deeper in holy living. In the days when you lived as slaves to sin, you had no obligation to do the right thing. In that regard, you were free. But what do you have to show from your former lives besides shame? The outcome of that life is death, guaranteed. But now that you have been emancipated from the death grip of sin and are God’s slave, you have a different sort of life, a growing holiness. The outcome of that life is eternal life. The payoff for a life of sin is death, but God is offering us a free gift—eternal life through our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, the Liberating King. (Romans 6: 19-23)

It begins with a commitment to Jesus. Acknowledge the reality of who Jesus is; surrender your life to Him; commit to following his path.  This is the biblical idea of ‘dying’ so that we can be raised to life. We must commit to learning what it means to love Jesus and others more than ourselves, to valuing the kingdom of God over the Kingdom of the earth. And part of that re-ordering of our loves and priorities is learning where to place our focus: specifically, how to sacrifice ourselves. We turn to C.S. Lewis again for a great summary:

“The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether. Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him…

The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours.

Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”

I remember thinking as a young man that I wanted to make a difference in the Kingdom of God. I really wanted my life to count. I saw some older folks who were godly and whose presence had really impacted my life. I knew it was because of Jesus at work in them, and I wanted that! It took me years to realize I couldn't just want that. I had to be willing to die. If I wanted to live, I had to be crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20). If I wanted the power of the resurrection, I needed to participate in the fellowship of His suffering (Philippians 3:10).

  • If I wanted to become wise, I had to die prioritize certain things in my life that would lead to wisdom.
  • If I wanted to self-controlled, I had to practice self-control.
  • If I wanted to overcome anger, I had to address my anger and the issues fueling my anger.
  • If I wanted to move from lustful thoughts to pure thoughts, I had to change my habits and my focus and bring in something new. 

There was no amount of wishful thinking that was going to change me in those areas.  There was prayer, and study of the Bible, and seeking Christian counsel both casual and professional that would help to guide me in the path of righteousness.  There was accountability to others. There was reading and studying, then putting into practice what I learned.  

Lest I sound like I am suggesting I have arrived, I am not saying that at all. Ask anyone around me.  The need for new life is ongoing. The problem with a ‘living sacrifice’ is that it can crawl off the altar and put somebody else up there instead. Every day, we surrender our pride, our time, our desires for comfort and fun.

But what we find on the other side of death is resurrection, and when we finally get up on that altar so that we die instead of others and the life of Jesus begins to work in us and through us – then we begin to truly see how the Kingdom of God is meant for our good and God’s glory.

This is the pattern. This is how God accomplishes his work of bringing us to life, then growing us in a new life. Our lives become characterized by self-sacrifice rather than self-indulgence. That sacrifice is not just a vague practice of denial: it’s a purposeful commitment to living for Jesus by living like Jesus. And in that process, that seed of our life that ‘dies’ comes to life and bears a crop in which the goodness of God is multiplied for the good of others and the glory of God.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/magazine/confessions-of-a-seduction-addict.html?src=recg&_r=0

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/style/elizabeth-gilbert-separation-eat-pray-love.html?_r=0

[3] Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3683437/What-happens-romance-inspired-thousands-happy-comes-bubble-popping-end.html#ixzz4ECYoi98w

[4] “This Is Water.” http://bulletin.kenyon.edu/x4280.html