Dying to Become Human

becoming humanSt. Irenaeus was perhaps the first to suggest that the creation of man was a “project.” “Let us make man in our own image,” is strikingly different from “Let there be man!” And the project goes wrong from the beginning. Rather than becoming fully what he is created to be, man breaks communion with God and brings death upon himself. The first time we hear, “It is not good,” is spoken of God in reference to man. This describes the most fundamental existential experience of human beings: something is wrong.

The answer to what is wrong (including “it’s all in your imagination”) lies at the heart of every religious effort. Christ reveals that what is wrong is death. He shows death to be an enemy and not just the natural end to a natural life. He reveals that sin is simply the outworking of death in human life. But most importantly, by His voluntary suffering and death and through His resurrection, He transforms death. That which is rightly named the “Last Enemy,” becomes the means of redemption and life.

In Christian teaching, death is changed into a positive, the very image of redemption.

I affirm, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. (1Cor. 15:31 NKJ)

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25 NKJ)

From the lives of the martyrs, to the lives of the great ascetics, the image of the Christian life is death. We sign ourselves with the Cross and wear it as jewelry. It is the image of death – death that has been transformed into the means of life.

Understanding this lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. We are blessed to have a new volume that richly explores this theme, Fr. John Behr’s, Becoming Human. It is a small book, whose text is interrupted frequently with poetry, sayings and art. Fr. John explained to me last year before its publication that his intention was to break the flow of text and invite the reader to different engagements with what is being said.

The book drives relentlessly and creatively towards the goal of our full humanity. It is Christ’s Pascha that reveals the meaning of our creation “in the image and likeness of God,” and it is Christ Himself who fulfills what the First Adam was unable to do. Christ’s words, “It is finished,” mark the true completion of the “human project” (Fr. John’s words), His resting in death, the true Sabbath.

On the personal level, Fr. John’s writing represent a beautiful presentation of something I already knew, but like every true presentation of the gospel, made it new and fresh. It also carries the gospel to the very point of death itself, and reminds me that my own death, if lived every day, is the opportunity not for the Last Enemy to destroy me, but for my own humanity to be truly fulfilled.

For it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


13 responses to “Dying to Become Human”

  1. Dino Avatar

    Thank you for this from the bottom of my heart Father Stephen!

  2. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen!

  3. Paula Avatar

    Thank you, Father. The way you write about these matters is so very helpful in creating a deeper understanding and to enable me to discuss my faith with others.

  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    In Christian teaching, death is changed into a positive, the very image of redemption.

    Forgive me in advance for my contrarian nature, but as true as what you say is, it is only part of the story….

    It is not just physical death is it. Everybody does that and many die in their sins (may God forgive us and them).

    The death of the Cross is death transformed and transfigured in the light of the Resurrection. After all we still “..weep and wail…” in our services for the dead and it is honest, deep and cathartic grief that leaves a residual of love, loss and longing which, in time, can become a deep reservoir of praise and thanksgiving.

    Let no one think that death for Christians is not existentially painful and fully recognized as such. That grief, like all of human life, must be entered into with Christ in order to be transcended.

    My dear wife reposed nine years ago. The late spouse of the wife God has graciously given me, reposed six years ago. Both on March 6. The love and struggles we each shared with our departed are part of our new marriage in amazing and sustaining ways. That said, there is still the loss even though we know it is but for a season. What we had with our departed ones was special unique and irreplaceable.

    It is a challenging part of being Orthodox that the fact that our departed ones are still present with us (albeit in a different mode but not just in memory) makes their loss both easier and more difficult at the same time.

  5. Dean Avatar

    Thank you for what you shared from the heart. It reminds me of what I experienced while I was a fireman. On my days off I would work for a funeral home driving the family car. I was as such part of one of the most intimate times a family experiences, driving them from home to the chapel and then to the burial. I would describe the grief as despair in the family car of unbelievers, often evidenced by cursing, perhaps railing against a supposed grievance of another family member, unforgiveness, etc. The atmosphere in the family car of believers was palpably different. Of course these families experienced the pain and grief you mentioned. But there was a note of hope intermingled through the tears knowing that in Christ the promise of the resurrection was a reality…”he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live….” I never fail to recall these poignant experiences at every funeral I attend.

  6. […] Rather than becoming fully what he is created to be, man breaks communion with God and brings death upon himself. The first time we hear, “It is not good,” is spoken of God in reference to man. This describes the most …  […]

  7. Karen Avatar

    “I die daily.”

    Isn’t the “death” of which this post speaks more than physical death, more even than the spiritual death of our inherited alienation from God and tendency toward corruption? Isn’t that death now transfigured by our identification with Christ into that of voluntary Self-giving, dying to my own will and desires to honor and serve the other (especially the Other), which is life from death because it is communion with God?

  8. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east


    When we speak of the image of God we are also affirming that everything in the created and uncreated order has a “shape” which is defined by relationship to that same image.

    Speaking of the Biblical account of the creation of Eve which Paul Evdokimov calls “a birth” (because Eve proceeds from Adam) he says:

    “The Fall breaks up this oneness into a bad masculinity and femininity: couples made of two polarized, objectified, and separate individuals, situated outside each other, placed nonetheless side by side… or they are complementaries who love each other…as the prophetic figure of the Kingdom of God; the ultimate unity, the community of the Masculine and Feminine on their totality in God.” (Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love, p. 32)

    In the same way an icon depicts the likeness of a saint, angel or divine person only if the viewer is able to perceive physical and spiritually transformed appearances — and it is the encounter with the prototype (Christ, the image of the Father) who is the giver of this and indeed all the holy gifts.

  9. Karen Avatar

    Catholic facing east,

    You make a good and lovely point, but I’m not really seeing the connection with my comment (probably I’m just thick! :-)). I actually was picking up on the Scriptures Fr. Stephen quoted in his post and responding to Michael Bauman’s comment above (but didn’t clarify that). Also, this is not to deny the grief Michael describes that is part of our natural and appropriate response to death as well.

  10. Geri Avatar

    Recently, someone suggested that I not “do anything” that might possibly be enabling someone else’s addictions. As I thought about what I “do”–a big part of that is my constant thinking about them and their problems and how I could help. It occurs to me that in some ways that constant thinking about others–or even about interesting topics like these–is a “playground of the mind” that I choose to cling to rather than be in a state of prayer. To choose to be in prayer continually–directing my life and thoughts toward God instead of this mental playground–requires a kind of dying to self that apparently is among the hardest.

  11. Catholic facing east Avatar
    Catholic facing east


    My comment was addressed through you rather than to you — you most certainly are not “thick” – just working my way through Lossky et al. God love you. 🙂

  12. Brian McDonald Avatar
    Brian McDonald


    In my former life as a Protestant pastor (over two decades ago), I had much the same experience in conducting funerals for believers and unbelievers. One family in particular exhibited an intensity of pure despair shook me to the roots. I think it was at that time I first really understood the meaning of St. Paul’s words “do not grieve as those with no hope.” He wasn’t saying, “Don’t grieve”; he was saying, “Do not grieve despairingly instead of in hope.” I have experienced the difference, and it is huge. The connection of grief with hope parallels that of Christ’s death and his resurrection. Grief doesn’t become a wall, but a door to something else as Michael so beautifully put it.

  13. […] Well then.  The weight of the Tradition suggests that limbo, understood in this manner, isn’t exactly the kind of destination any of us should be yearning for.  Lewis takes a somewhat more positive angle (“more or less contented”), but even there, it is clear that we are called to something far more than that.  John Behr, on Closer to Truth, quotes St. Ignatius of Antioch to conclude that no one becomes a “true human being” until they are conformed to Christ.  Father Freeman puts it his way: […]

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