Throw Yourself Away in Hope

The Sacred Death of Fatherhood

Fathering four children under five is a pleasant way to learn to die. The lesson was compulsory. With each additional child grasping at the heel of the other, the space for “myself” went from overcrowded to overboard. As a general watches city by city fall, I have watched family needs (so many needs) steal over the walls and ransack what I used to know as free time, recreation, and sleep.

Fathers lay down their lives for their children. Anthony Esolen says they throw themselves away in hope.

The father throws himself away in hope, looking forward to the time when he will be no more on earth than a name or a rumor of a name but his children will be alive, and people will say of him — if they remember him at all — that he was a good man but his children are better. He hands on his old tools to his sons, tools shiny with the wear of his hands. (No Apologies, 105)

Fathering is a good investment, to be sure, but still an investment; a beautiful and fulfilling death, but still a death. Time, energy, resources withdraw from other relationships, other enterprises, even gospel enterprises — “the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:33–34). Children create more fractures. The good father throws himself away to the very ones who sometimes threaten to interfere with his higher unions, with both his wife and his God. He, as Esolen notes, is a creature that requires explanation.

Seed in the Ground

Fatherhood (and motherhood) can teach us much about the great paradox of following Christ: life through death. The whispered secret of life — the life we desperately hope for — comes only on the other side of the dying we squirm to avoid. To lie still as Isaac upon the altar, to die daily, to hate your life in this world for Christ’s sake leads to life with him beyond.

Fathering has dragged me deeper into the paradox. As I lay myself in the coffin for the other’s good (and ultimately for my own), as I close the lid on one dream after another in this world, I expect the call to rise and come forth in another. To explain this pattern of death begetting life, Jesus holds up a seed. Have we learned its lesson?

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24–25)

“He remains alone” (John 12:24). The preserved life, in the end, is the lonely life. Clutch and guard and caress your free time, your heart, your small loves and ambitions — fondle them, stroke them, and they will betray you in the end. Keep your life to yourself, and you will only have yourself. You will remain alone.

“Fathering is a good investment, to be sure, but still an investment; a beautiful and fulfilling death, but still a death.”

Do we not pity the woman holding her cat in a quiet room just a little too tightly? The man in his sixties without anything better to talk of than his football days? Cold becomes the flame of life lived for nothing higher than self. My kingdom come, my will be done is the shortest prayer to unhappiness. Beyond the television noise in his living room (so falsely named), the undead seed remains alone. He lives with his drawbridge raised to Christ, cannot give himself away, has no higher hope; his heart beats too fragile.

“But if it dies,” Jesus promises, “it bears much fruit.” The Christian life, the Christian father’s life, is a multiplied life. Something beautiful grows from repeated deaths in Christ — life eternal and a harvest of glory that could not have been otherwise.

Bones in the Ground

Allow me to offer another illustration. Of all Joseph’s amazing feats, here is the one that Hebrews highlights: “By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave directions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22). This provides us another image of Christian fatherhood, a sacred act of Christian faith.

As we lay down our lives in love for Jesus, as we press past the body aches to wrestle with sons against dragons, as we sit to talk through our daughter’s day while noiseless burdens pound our thoughts, we sow in hope. We deposit our lives into Christ, who in turn directs us to pour out our lives into theirs, not as codependents, but as fathers. We find our true heartbeat doing what our flesh resists: denying ourselves, dying to carnal pleasures, sending our bones ahead into a land we will never enter.

We hope when our names are remembered — if they are remembered at all — those names inspire faith in all who whisper rumors about them. We pray that our bones, as Joseph’s bones, become an emblem of God’s promises and faithfulness. Though dead, he would speak. His bones whispered words of reminder that God would plant his people where he had promised. They were bound to be buried in a better country. John Calvin puts it beautifully in his commentary:

In ordering his bones to be exported, he had no regard to himself, as though his grave in the land of Canaan would be sweeter or better than in Egypt; but his only object was to sharpen the desire of his own nation, that they might more earnestly aspire after redemption; he wished also to strengthen their faith, so that they might confidently hope that they would be at length delivered.

Man of God, isn’t that what you want? Even after death, to sharpen the desire of the next generation to aspire more earnestly after Christ? If tomorrow should be your last day, what legacy will your bones leave? Have you been throwing your life away in hope — storing your life away in faith — for the good of your soul, your family, your church, your neighbors? If the Lord gives you five, ten, thirty more years of life, how do you wish to be remembered?

Upside-Down Meaning of Life

The hope of bounty following burial is not due to karma but Christ. This is his pattern. Because the Father and Son reign above, verses like Proverbs 11:24–25 are true:

One gives freely, yet grows all the richer;
     another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.
Whoever brings blessing will be enriched,
     and one who waters will himself be watered.

The one gives freely and grows richer; the other clings to his coins and suffers poverty. Because of God, the one who blesses others will be blessed; the one watering — even the harvest he may never see — will be watered himself. The tree yields its fruit, and so its leaf does not wither. Die now, and you will reap thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold in this life and the life to come. Our self-denial is self-deposit; God will not be outgiven.

So, keep your life in this world — hold to it, hope in it, hunger for it — and to dust you shall return. Alone the seed remains. Alone the seed dies. And alone it weeps and gnashes its teeth.

But die. Die to this world. Die to preferring now above later, yourself above family, this life above the next. Die and keep dying this beautiful death, trusting Jesus — the great Seed who went before — and you, little seed, shall go the way of all flesh, but in due time, you will break through the ground to life and blossom in Day unending. Send your bones ahead of you, and you shall wake in the promised land. Throw yourself away on earth, and heaven gets returned to you.

On the other side of dying in Christ is life in Christ, a life overflowing with fruit, fellowship, fullness, and family, in the presence of the Father forever.