How Does the Beloved Learn to Die?

When I look out over the landscape of my spiritual journey for the past ten years, I can see that it has been one long journey into the depths of my belovedness in God.

This process began with one simple, honest prayer: “God, I don’t understand my need for grace or my need for Jesus Christ. Please, help me understand.” God heard that prayer and began to teach me. He helped me get to know the heart of Jesus I’d never seen before in the Gospels. He led me to the practice of contemplative prayer that brought incredibly healing mercies into my heart and life through the presence and words of Christ spoken directly to me. He brought communities of quirky, idiosyncratic people into my life that taught me about God’s delight in the variety of humanity and the grace and love that can be found in imperfection. He brought individuals into my life that would change me forever, simply by sharing the journey in love with me and letting me share the journey in love with them.

It has not been an easy road by any means — one’s deep-seated propensity for perfectionism and performance is not something unlearned overnight or even over a period of years — but I would not trade this long and determined road to learning the truth of God’s grace and love for anything at all. Through it, I have found freedom and joy. Through it, God claimed my heart for himself.

I thought for the longest time that this was the fullness of life God has for us: the learning of our belovedness. Through my own process of growth, I have seen that this learning brings about the fruits of unabashed love for God and great, compassionate love for others — the two prongs of faith Jesus said we are meant to be about (Matthew 22:36-38).

And to some extent, I still think this is the cornerstone of our faith that must undergird everything else. If we don’t experience the truth of our belovedness, then all that we say we believe will be mere words we recite because it is knowledge in our heads, not in our hearts, and we will find ourselves moving toward God and others because it is what we know we’re supposed to do, not because we can’t help ourselves from doing it. If we don’t experience our belovedness, we won’t have a well from which to draw out love and offer it back to God or extend it to others. The experience of our belovedness in the deepest places of our entire being is where the faith journey must take its root.

But I’ve recently been learning there is more.

A couple months ago I began to notice a subtle shift in my prayer life and my thought life. It’s hard to describe, but it’s almost as though I was losing the need to notice myself. I began to pray for Jesus to hide me in the folds of his garment so that instead of seeing me, people would see Jesus alone. I began to pray earnestly for the same reality Paul had known, that it would be “no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). 

I noticed this shift taking place in my heart and in my conversations with God and wondered what to make of it. And then slowly, as I reflected, I began to sense that these were intimations of a significant turn in my journey God was preparing me to take. I wondered what that turn would be and what it would mean.

Soon the answer came.

It was almost as though I could see God turning a page in my life, and he was saying to me, in front of the clean, new page: “Now it is time for you to learn something new. Now you will learn how to die.” 

At the time it happened, the invitation wasn’t scary. As I already mentioned, my prayers for something akin to this had already preceded my awareness of what God was doing. But I can also tell you this: I do not think I could have embraced this invitation if I had not already spent so many long years learning my belovedness in God. Because of the roots of that journey, I trusted him in this invitation utterly. Because of that journey, I could tell him yes without hesitation.

But in the past month or so, this journey into dying has become quite difficult. I’ve noticed myself avoiding prayer. I feel tired so much of the time. Everything feels like so much work, especially time spent with God, and I’m not used to holding this dynamic between the two of us. It has made me sad, but I have also felt my strong guard of resistance up against the invitations to get close to God these days.

It wasn’t until last week, when I was in a session with my spiritual director, that I began to pay attention to this resistance. I noticed for the first time that I felt angry with God, and I also noticed that this anger seemed rooted in the belief that God keeps asking more and more of me. No longer could I bask in the belovedness and delight of our love. Now we were about the work of dying, and it really did mean work and nothing else.

Or so I thought.

For the first time, I began to notice certain assumptions I had held about the dying process — namely, that it did not include enjoying my belovedness anymore. To me, dying meant coming before a God who wanted to make me aware of all the places I had yet to die so I could get those places good and dead already. I’m not sure where that image of God came from, but as I told a dear friend a few days ago, “I guess I thought being beloved meant not having to die.” Not only that, but I also thought dying meant not being beloved anymore. 

These are some major revelations, to say the least. Recognizing that I thought God no longer embraced me in this dying process — and, rather, that he felt exasperation and impatience with me instead — shows me how much I still have to learn about all this. But thankfully, in realizing these assumptions and beginning to ask questions about what is real and true about God and me in this place, I can feel the smile of God upon me. I can feel him smiling at these realizations and at the questions I’m now asking. I feel more relaxed, realizing that this is a process and that he wants to be with me as I go through it.

I’m so thankful for the example of Jesus in this season, too. It’s been helpful to me this week to realize that throughout the week of his Passion, when he was being tormented and mocked and setting his face ever firmly toward the cross, he was still the beloved Son of the Father.

Postnote: It probably does not warrant explanation, but with all this talk of death and the example given at the end about Jesus dying on the cross, I want to be clear in saying that the death God is teaching me concerns the parts of my inner nature that are not fully taken up and inhabited by God. It is not a physical death I am talking about … although I am also able to see that one outcome of this internal dying process does seem to be a decreasing concern for my own welfare out of an increasingly overwhelming desire to see the will of God be done on earth however he best deems fit.