Living by Dying
- Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone,
but if it dies, it brings forth much fruit.
- —John 12:24—
- That which you sow is not quickened except it dies.
- —1 Corinthians 15:36—
- Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth.
- —Colossians 3:5—
- If you mortify the deeds of the body you shall live.
- —Romans 8:13—
- If we be dead with Him, we shall also live with Him.
- —2 Timothy 2:11—
- If your eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you.
- —Matthew 5:29—
To have life through death seems like a strange paradox. Thinking of making spiritual advance by what reasonably appears to be extinguishment of the very life we want enlarged is a way we would never choose of ourselves. And yet there is a real sense in which “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), in the line of spiritual progress.
What death is may best be told by defining what life is. But when I try to define life I can best do so by first telling what death is. Perhaps we shall have to begin quite a long way off and come gradually up to the idea of dying to get more and better life, in order to fully understand it, or even come to a profitable apprehension of it.
We have usually considered death as an end, because it stopped, or ended its subject as we perceive it, that is, in our “sense world.” Our friends die, and to our touch and sight and hearing they are out of the world. They have ended their stay here.
The swallow that so deftly and beautifully curved in midair its lines of flight, in an ill-timed movement struck the telegraph wire, and now lies dead on the soil which before it scorned to touch. Its history and continuance in our sense world is ended; it is dead.
That field of growing corn, which a few days since had such promise of fruitfulness, was touched the other night with the icy fingers of the frost king, and now stands with rasping and rattling blades in the autumn winds, faded and dead. In all these examples we have a common idea of death: death is an end.
There is, however, another meaning; let us advance to that. Death is not only an end, but also a separation of things which are not yet ended. Relationships end, but not the things related. Combinations cease their coherence, but not the factors that joined them together. Attachments end, but not the individuals attached. The leaf drops from the tree, and forever after the the leaf and the tree are two, and no longer one. The attachment ends, yet the tree exists, and the leaf exists. Neither has ceased to be. They are parted, however; they are dead to each other. They no longer serve each other. They exist, but are not in touch. The life of the one no longer interchanges and affects the life and destiny of the other. Death does not end all; it ends the relationship. In this there may be profit or loss, as the case may be.
In the true order of God, we were foreordained to get through and out of every condition on its better side. The leaves in God’s book turn forward. The wheels in the machinery of time have no reverse motion. There are no return trains on that road. To all who are in God’s order, death must “be gain.”
Suppose we define death to be a falling out of appropriating touch with that around us which ministered to our needs. We have in this the same idea of severed attachments, connections, and associations. We can readily see how that physical life is dependent upon unbroken connections of this kind. As soon as the connection between my thirst and the supply of water, food, and air is broken, my body dies. Death may occur either by the failure of the environment to supply these needs, or it may occur in my inability to receive and appropriate this supply. The breaking of the connection is to fall out of appropriating touch with the necessary supplies. That body is dead which has a hand and cannot reach it for the bread of life. To fall out of the appropriating touch of the things which sustain physical life is physical death.
The human spirit has an outside world of supply to feed its inward demands. In this realm also, to fall out of appropriating touch is to die, spiritually. No man lives of himself. No man “can keep alive his own soul” (Psalm 22:29). There are no reserve forces in the human spirit by which it can, unaided, rise up and recuperate its wasted or failing resources. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). In this field of investigation we confront the same general law, namely, that spiritual death is a falling out of appropriating touch with the external sources of supply. Herbert Spencer would say that death is the breaking of “the continuous adjustment of internal and external relations.”2 When our outside environment and our inside organism fail to be in appropriating touch, we are dead. In this life the within and without must be in correspondence, or appropriating touch. “To be irresponsive is to be dead.”
Spiritual environment, or the spiritual without, is as real as the natural without. It may be less easily discerned; it may seem more dim and vision-like; it may be of far higher order, and last longer; yet it certainly is. We see our natural without passing away, and find our spiritual within going on and maintaining its life with increasing potencies. More than that, we find places, serious passes in life’s pilgrimage, where we gladly submit to loss of the natural without, so that the spiritual within may be saved alive. I went the other day to hold Sabbath afternoon services at the Cottage Hospital; but the service could not be held because a man had been shot in a melee the night before, and the hour for service was the hour set for the amputation of his shattered arm. The nurse who opened the door for me told me the poor man was begging piteously that his arm might be spared, but the physicians said no; its shattered condition endangered life, and to save his life, the amputation was required. This is life by loss, life by the death of the arm. This principle is by no means uncommon, in our natural or material life. Jesus recognized it as applying also to spiritual life. “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell!” (Matthew 5:29)
Here is life by the way of death. It is life by the loss of one of its members only, not of the entire body; it is life in the within of the spirit, by loss in the physical without. This is a law that pertains to our spiritual life all the way along. We get by giving up. We rise by sinking. We obtain freedom by surrendering. We die to our own way and find His way.
To understand this arrangement more fully, remember that I am identified with that which I appropriate from without. “According to their pasture, so were they filled” (Hosea 13:6). Spiritually, to feed the mind with the world is to make it worldly. To keep it in correspondence with God is to make it godly. The material world is the natural without of the man. God is the real without for the spirit. To be in appropriating touch with God is to live in the spirit. To lack this appropriating of God is to die spiritually. As sinners, we are out of touch with God and alive unto sin; that is, we have fallen out of appropriating touch with God, and our life is an actual correspondence with evil, so that we are really “dead unto God,” and “alive unto sin.” This is the opposite of God’s intention that we should be “alive unto God” and “dead indeed unto sin” (Romans 6:11). So life comes by death. “As dying, and behold we live” (2 Corinthians 6:9).
- The text itself is public domain. The original book, How They Grow, was transcribed by Jim Kerwin, biographer of Isaiah Reid, and co-edited and emended with Denise Kerwin. Annotations and emendations are copyright © 2008, 2011 by Jim Kerwin along with his other contributions to the online, print, and e-book versions of Isaiah Reid's How They Grow. ↩
- Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was a world-renowned English biologist and sociologist. After reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it was Spencer who coined the now-common phrase “survival of the fittest.” In his most famous work, Principles of Biology (1864, Volume 1, page 80), Spencer defines life as follows:
…the broadest and most complete definition of Life will be—The continuous adjustment of internal relations to external relations.
Reid is taking that quote and defining death as the opposite of Spencer’s definition of life. ↩