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Dying to Live: A Good Friday Reflection
An Excerpt from "Filled To Be Emptied" by Brandan Robertson
In Philippians 2, The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, “being found in human form he humbled himself by becoming obedient as far as death, even the worst kind of death- death that comes through a cross.” In this scripture, we’re told that God in Jesus not only steps out of the role of ultimate privilege and power to stand in solidarity with humanity in our brokenness, not only does the Creator willingly become a servant to their creation, but we are told that God, the creator of life and death, willingly subjects themselves to death of the cruelest kind- capital punishment. In the spectrum of privilege, we have watched Jesus go from the absolute most privileged position to the absolute least privileged position, from King of Kings to executed felon.
This is the most revolutionary concept and that which sets Christianity apart from most other traditions. The one we believe to be the incarnation of God willingly allows themselves to be murdered by the very beings they created as a display of love and as a mirror to show just how broken humanity had become. On the cross, Jesus is killed for proclaiming a gospel of grace, inclusion, and liberation. On the cross, those who watched Jesus and his peaceful revolution see in a moment the stunning contrast between God’s desire for the world and the corrupt ways of the Empire.
Jesus’ death is a most complex picture of breathtaking love and unimaginable depravity. Jesus had done nothing morally wrong- everyone knew that. He simply gave hope to a hopeless people and inspired them to live out the values of their faith more tangibly through subversive acts of love. Yet the righteousness of this way of being shed light on the corruption and wickedness of the powers at work in society, and therefore could not be left unpunished. Thus, the Christian story culminates with a cross.
At the moment of crucifixion, God in Christ stands in solidarity with both the falsely accused and the most wicked humans on earth. There is no position that lacks privilege more than an inmate on death row, who has had every right stripped from them, even the right to live. In our day as in Jesus’, many of those who find themselves on death row are there because they have been falsely accused, usually based on their race or ethnicity.
There is no injustice worse than being sentenced to death for crimes you did not commit, based on prejudice and bias against you. Yet this is where we find Jesus both then and now. In the kenotic descent of Christ, this is rock bottom. From God, to human, to slave, to criminal- God in Christ fully and finally rids themselves of any semblance of privilege and power. What may be more stunning is that not only does Christ do this, but he calls us to do the same.
The path of death demonstrated in the kenosis of Christ is both a tangible death and a spiritual one. It’s a willingness to put one’s life on the line, even in unjust circumstances, in the defense of others. But in order for one to be willing to take such a drastic action in the world, there is a profound spiritual death that must first occur. Many traditions would call this the death of the ego or the part of ourselves that we project into the world that doesn’t actually represent our truest self at our core.
One could argue that most, if not all privilege is rooted in ego. It’s rooted in temporal parts of our identity that will not exist beyond our earthly existence. Yet so much of our daily life consists of promoting, exploiting, and strengthing our egoic self. The image of God in Christ emptying themselves through gradually giving up all of the privilege and identification with their external identities is a profound image for the spiritual path we must all walk if we seek to live in union with God.
The mystic author Cynthia Bourgeaut has written profoundly and yet succinctly about the unique spiritual path that Jesus embodies through his kenosis. In her book “The Wisdom Jesus”, she writes:
“Underlying all of Jesus teaching is a clarion call to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the alienation and polarization of the egoic operating system and into the unified field of divine abundance that can be perceived only through the heart… In whatever life circumstance, Jesus always responded with the same motion of self-emptying- or to put it another way, the same motion of descent: going lower, taking the lower place, not the higher.”
In contrast to most of the worlds spiritual traditions that perceive the way to union with God through ascent, Jesus reveals a stunningly different way: going lower. If we are to experience the kind of abundant life that Jesus speaks of, the path isn’t through reaching for our highest selves but rather is through a reckless emptying of ourselves. A willingness to walk through those moments of our lives where a death of our ego occurs with an awareness that therein lies not only the key to our own spiritual awakening, but also the key to creating a more just and generous world.
Almost all of my spiritual and personal growth has occurred through periods of (unwilling) ego death. It’s probably no surprise to those readers who have utilized the Enneagram that I am an Enneagram 3. Threes are known to be quite ego-driven individuals, people who seek to find love and validation through high public performance and the external affirmation that comes from that. So when threes experience a moment of ego death, its experienced much more acutely than other personality types.
Recently, I transitioned from serving as the Lead Pastor of an incredible church community, and that experience was one of painful but generative ego death. Since my teenage years, my identity has been wrapped up in being a Pastor- everything in my life was aimed at achieving that goal and living into that calling. But after reaching that goal and becoming the Lead Pastor of a church at the age of twenty-five, I slowly began to question if this role was what I was actually called to live into.
Over the course of my nearly four-year tenure, I learned a ton and experienced a lot of public “success”. But internally, I was wrestling deeply with my own spirituality and my personal desires for my life. After pastoring for nearly a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, I had spent a lot of time reassessing the trajectory of my life and the choices I was making both personally and professionally.
During this time, I came to a painful conclusion: that serving as a full-time parish pastor was not where I desired to be for this season of my life. Yet the entirety of my identity was tied up in being “Pastor Brandan”- in work as well in my personal life, my self-understanding was and had always been a “pastor”, albeit a very unconventional one. This realization led me to have difficult conversations with my communities leaders and eventually make the choice to transition out of congregational ministry and into a new season of my personal and professional life.
On the surface, this experience may not seem all that difficult to the average reader. But anyone who has ever gone through a crisis of identity- vocational or otherwise- will know just how painful these moments can be. Reassessing who we are, what our life is actually all about, is one of the scariest journeys we can walk. (This is precisely why we’ve developed language like “quarterlife crisis” and “midlife crisis”)
As Fr. Richard Rohr has taught, the first half of life is generally driven by our ego desires- asserting who we believe ourselves to be, competition, and achievement. This stage is crucial to being a functioning human in the world- we have to understand who we are and we have to establish a trajectory for our lives to work within. The problem is that most Western societies have elevated this half of life as the whole of our lives. We so value ego, competition, and success that anything that pulls us away from these innate drives are often demonized.
But the second half of life, according to Rohr, is where true inner kenosis happens for many people- it’s a process of understanding and appreciating our egoic identity, but not fundamentally identifying with it. We are no longer “the pastor”, “the teacher”, “the star athlete”, but rather, we begin to contemplate how those aspects of our identity can become tools for not only our own fulfillment but in service of the world. We recognize that our identities and accomplishments alone do not actually have the power to fulfill us, and we begin to lean into those things that actually do. This is a very real, very painful dying process. Brene Brown sums it up so poignantly:
“Midlife is not about the fear of death. Midlife is death. Tearing down the walls that we spent our entire life building is death. Like it or not, at some point during midlife, you’re going down, and after that, there are only two choices: staying down or enduring rebirth.”
This is where the narrative of Jesus is so psychologically and spiritually helpful: the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus is a profound metaphor for this process of ego death. As Jesus is arrested, tried, tortured, and murdered, we get a sense of what a painful process it can be to willingly enter into the process of maturation and spiritual evolution. Oftentimes, these processes don’t occur willfully for us- instead we are thrust into painful moments of crisis and failure where we have to reckon with what is truly real and what is most meaningful to us. Is the career, the title, the money really worth it? If we believe that it is, we may well be confronted with a circumstance that dramatically strips it from us, throwing us into an existential crisis. Or perhaps we will have a moment of awakening where we begin to ask critical questions about how we’re living our lives, and more gently but usually no less painfully begin to grapple with the answers.
However we enter into this process and whenever it occurs in our lives (it usually happens many times) ego deaths are a painful but essential part of the spiritual journey. The require a kenotic descent- an emptying of our “false self” in order to discover what is truest about us. And what is truest about us is not our privilege, our power, or our success. What is truest about us is our interconnectivity to God and to everyone else, the realization of non-duality, that there is not “us” and “them”, but that in God we all live and move and have our being, and therefore, we are essentially one. What is good for the other is good for us, and vice versa. Only in this space do we actually begin to find the ability to be reckless enough to give of our privilege in service of others.
Only after an experience of ego death do we experience resurrection to a meaningful life. Only after coming to terms with all of the false promises of our privilege and power do we face the pivotal choice to either stay down, clinging to those identities once considered fundamental, seeking to exploit them for the little power they have left, or to accept a new reality of service and grace. To conserve or to progress.
This is the goal of the kenotic path. It is one that requires inner spiritual work that fuels outward actions to create a more whole and holy world for all. But unlike so many other traditions, the Christian spiritual path is not one that calls for us to aim high, to reach for an unattainable and exalted divine status, but rather to go down low, recklessly giving every ounce of privilege we have without a second thought. Cynthia Bouregeaut writes, “In our voluntary relinquishing of our most cherished possessions, we make manifest what love really looks like.”
What is more cherished then our egoic identity? They alone are the channels through which we lay a hold of positions of power, wealth, influence, and authority. If we are to embody the way of Jesus, we must be willing to relinquish these possessions, first within ourselves, and then to the world around us. The way of Jesus isn’t one of conservation or even ascetic renunciation- it’s the path of radical, sacrificial squandering of any privilege we may have inadvertently inherited by our birth. As the Sufi Mystic Rumi wrote:
“Love gambles away every gift God bestows. Without cause God gave us Being; without cause give it back again. Gambling yourself away is beyond any religion. Religion seeks grace and favor, but those who gamble these away are God's favorites, for they neither put God to the test nor knock at the door of gain and loss.”
This reckless, subversive, relinquishing requires faith and trust in God’s goodness and love, it requires a dying to the ego and a rising again to a realization of fundamental Oneness. Whether we intentionally pursue this path of death or life thrusts it upon us without our consent, each of us will come face to face with the moment of ego death, and our response in that moment will determine the trajectory of our lives and of the world around us.
 The Wisdom Jesus, page 63-64
 Pg. 67
 Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi, “Love Is Reckless”