Life After Death (A Post-Easter Reflection)

Photo by Christophe Hautier on Unsplash

Ideas are incredibly powerful, much more so than we tend to imagine. I know someone who constantly wrestles with the belief that she is destined to fail out of school and end up addicted on the streets, like her mom. This belief is the single most important factor pushing her toward that destiny. When she accepts it as truth, she lives into it. When she fights against it, a new path emerges. Our ideas become our reality. They inhabit our limbs and walk us toward their fulfillment.

The Resurrection Mindset

On Sunday, my community was reflecting on the question, “What does resurrection mean to you?” An idea emerged that was so unpretentious in its simplicity that I almost missed it. Here it is: What if life can follow death? I’m not talking about going to heaven after you die. I’m talking about the possibility that beauty and healing and light can emerge from situations where hatred and violence seem to reign. What if suffering isn’t ultimate? What if peace and joy and love are stronger than chaos and misery and death? Isn’t this the larger implication of a story about a man who enters back into life after he has been killed? If life can follow death, then sobriety can follow addiction, success can follow failure, and love can arise seemingly ex nihilo. (I know this is not a new and profound idea, but bear with me as I flesh it out, because it does have profound implications for our daily lives if we can internalize it.)

What would be the impact if we learned to embody this “resurrection mindset”? What if we genuinely believed, deep down in our guts, down in our cells, our DNA, that we hold in our bodies the same undying Spirit that gave birth to our tragically beautiful planet? What if you knew, with the same confidence that you trust each subsequent breath to flood your brain and blood with the ingredients of life, that there was once a man, made of bone and muscle and skin like you and me, who aligned himself with this Source of Life so thoroughly that when the breath was beaten out of him and Death pulled him beneath the earthy soil, it could only hold him for a few days before Life spread back through his flesh and his heart beat once more – the eternal heartbeat of the universe, which is Love.

It’s hard to pull these lofty ideas down from the clouds and into our minds and bodies. They feel more like fairy tale or myth than scientific reality. But the evidence of neuroscience suggests that, whatever you choose to make of the “truth” of these ideas, our lives actually work better when we believe them.

Here’s a simple illustration: If I believe that I am destined to fail out of college, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to motivate myself to complete my assignments. Why would I, when failure is inevitable? So I skip class and fail my tests and don’t turn in my papers. And with every failing grade, I see a confirmation of my belief, which reinforces the pattern. Over time, I create the reality that I believed from the beginning – I was destined to fail, so I do. But if I take on a “resurrection mindset,” a new interpretation becomes possible. Maybe, instead of proving that I’m destined to fail in an ultimate sense, the failing grade on my test is simply a signpost pointing me toward an area of growth. It’s showing me an area where I need to ask for help. And if I believe that, and let that belief shape my actions, I will ask for help and pass the class.

Here’s another example: If tragedy strikes and I lose someone I love, I could make the meaning that God is punishing me for some unconfessed sin. This belief might lead me to live in fear that God will continue taking from me, so in response I may cling all the more tightly to the things I love. But the tighter I cling, the more unbearable those relationships will become, and I may lose them too, which just confirms my belief that God is punishing me. But if, instead, I believe that God is a loving parent who doesn’t use death as a punishment, who grieves with me in my sorrow, then a new meaning is possible. Instead of turning inward in an attempt to protect what’s “mine,” I can view my experience as something that draws me closer to others who have experienced loss. I can seek to comfort those who grieve, since my experience uniquely equips me to do so. In this way, love can flow from my suffering.

I hope it’s clear that I’m not suggesting that we can “magic away” the pain in the world by thinking positive thoughts. I am not suggesting that our thoughts have any impact whatsoever on our external circumstances (though I don’t discount that possibility). What I am suggesting is that our thoughts deeply impact, perhaps even determine, how we respond to our external circumstances, and our response does impact the world around us.

If I believe that darkness is ultimate, I will let it swallow me. But if I believe that light can follow the dark, I will fight with every fiber of my being to stay awake until the dawn.

Easter was a hard day for me. I got to the end of it, exhausted and heavy with my family’s grief, and wept. I couldn’t have told you why, exactly, except that I felt the suffering of the world as a weight on my body. I wanted to be pulverized by it, so that there would be nothing left of me to hurt. It wasn’t that I wanted to hurt myself – I have never struggled with suicidal thoughts – just that the pain felt overpowering in that moment, and it felt easier to surrender to it.

But this is the lie of depression and grief – the idea that it stretches on forever, an eternity of gray. The idea that this feeling is ultimate. That no relief is coming. Isn’t that what Mary must have felt as she walked to the tomb that Easter morning?

But if, out of the tomb of God, life could emerge, well that would change everything.

Limitless Possibilities

When I got married and became a parent, something very strange happened, seemingly overnight. I suddenly found myself doing and saying things that were undeniably “my mom” or “my dad.” When I spend way too long at the grocery store comparing the “price per ounce” stickers to make sure I’m getting the best possible deal, I am my dad. When I spend my Saturday baking bread from scratch, I am my mom. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that it feels like I am being driven by forces that are beyond my control.

Now of course, there are pros and cons to this. My parents are, by and large, lovely people and instilled in me values that I am deeply grateful for (e.g. hospitality, generosity, frugality). But none of us are perfect, and we inherit the deficiencies of our ancestors alongside their strengths. I can’t imagine that my father’s father, a mechanical engineer who served in WWII, was particularly in touch with his feelings. I can’t imagine that he was able to attend to the emotions of his six children around the dinner table. So how was my dad supposed to learn to talk with his four daughters about matters of the heart?

I go into that history because, now that I’m a parent, I find myself believing the lie that I am limited by the shortcomings of those who came before me. When I struggle to have a meaningful conversation with my step-daughter, instead of thinking about what I could do to grow, I get bogged down by the belief that it’s impossible for me to give something that I didn’t receive. I feel the weight of previous generations like a millstone around my neck, and instead of leaning into the challenge, I am tempted to give up. In those moments, it feels impossible for me to grow into the kind of person I aspire to be. Maybe it just isn’t in the cards.

But on Easter Sunday, as we sat on the front porch of Big Blue, eyes closed in meditative prayer, I heard God say, You can choose to trust me. And in that instant, the heaviness lifted off me, because that simple idea opens up a new horizon of possibilities. It means that when I stagger under the weight of grief, I can choose to trust that joy will outlast pain. When I get caught up in the downward spiral of anxiety, I can choose to lean into a peace that is stronger than chaos. When I feel stuck in the patterns of my forefathers, I can choose to believe that life can spring up in the midst of death.

It’s relatively easy to give lip service to this idea, but devastatingly difficult to live it out. “Death is stronger than life!” our world shouts. “The hateful inherit the earth,” the newspaper headlines read. “You’ll never amount to anything, your dreams are pathetic,” your shame voice rants.

But what if those voices don’t get the last word? What if they are the frantic ravings of a nightmare nearly ended? What if we have access to a kingdom, right here and right now, where love reigns?

If resurrection is possible, then all suffering is temporary. If resurrection is possible, the potential for life is limitless; for love, infinite.

If this all feels terribly unbelievable, then please, just for a moment, pretend with me that it’s true. And in this pretend world, where life is stronger than death, ask yourself, What difference does this make for me? What else might be possible in this limitless reality?

Reflection Questions:

  1. What does this post stir up in you?
  2. Where do you feel stuck in the “death-is-stronger-than-life” mindset?
  3. Where do you need “resurrection” in your life right now?