Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. This may come as shocking to some people, but rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to the podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
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Chapter 22 of the Tao te Ching is all about dying to yourself, surrendering your desires, and choosing a life of total humility in order to find wholeness and have the most positive impact on the world around you. It’s one of those chapters that makes it easy to live up to the name of this series. Sometimes, being a Christian reading the Tao te Ching takes a lot of discernment, nuance, and careful navigation; but chapters like this one require virtually none of that. We can take this chapter exactly as it is, because it so closely lines up with the teachings and life of Jesus.
Because this chapter is so simple and straightforward, I’m not going to be breaking it down with the same textual precision that I normally do. I’m not going to be comparing a bunch of different translations, although I recommend checking out my list of sources and translations to compare a few yourself; it’s always best to find one that resonates with you as you read and meditate on the text. Instead, I’m going to go more explicitly theological than I normally do and talk about how this chapter relates to the reality and metaphor of death and resurrection that is at the heart of the universe and the heart of Christian faith.
If you want to become whole,
let yourself be partial.
If you want to become straight,
let yourself be crooked.
If you want to become full,
let yourself be empty.
If you want to be reborn,
let yourself die.
If you want to be given everything,
give everything up.
The Master, by residing in the Tao,
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn’t display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn’t know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goad in mind,
everything he does succeeds.
When the ancient Masters said,
“If you want to be given everything,
give everything up,”
they weren’t using empty phrases.
Only in being lived by the Tao
can you be truly yourself.
-Translator: Stephen Mitchell
A resurrection perspective
One of the central messages of Jesus’ teaching was that you must “lose your life if you want to find it,” a concept which he brings from the abstract down to the gut-level when he says, “If you would be my disciple, you must take up your cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:23)
It’s interesting to find that Jesus isn’t alone in teaching this principle, even though it goes completely against all natural human impulse. Lao Tzu was writing somewhere around the time Jerusalem was being burned and the Israelites were going into 70 years of exile in Babylon. While they were weeping and wailing over the disruption of their status quo and the destruction of their gold-covered temple, trying to come to terms with why God was inflicting all this punishment on them, Lao Tzu was four thousand miles away speaking in words that were closer to the heart of Christ’s value system than almost anything we find in the Old Testament. It’s such an interesting thing to consider.
What is it that prompts such similarities? Is it something buried deep in human consciousness or DNA? Something built into the fabric of the universe, or what Lao Tzu calls the Tao? The cycle of death and rebirth/resurrection does seem to be “built in” as a general principle of nature and, therefore, the way God designed things to operate. (I’m not talking about whether or not humans were never meant to die in Eden - that’s a touchy doctrinal issue that goes well beyond the purpose of this show.) Let’s start by looking at this reality in the physical universe.
The four seasons are a good place to start. The vision of death and rebirth is built right into our yearly calendars. We watch as nature goes through its own stages of life and death, blossoming back into life in the spring. If we move down in scale, we see the same thing applying to plants and seeds. Jesus taught, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This wasn’t just a scientific observation. For him, it was a principle to be directly applied to spiritual life.
Continuing down the scale into a cellular level, scientists tell us that every 7-10 years, every single cell in our body has been replaced by a new one, meaning we go through our own microscopic rebirths every decade. And that’s not even to mention the mini “rebirth” that happens every few seconds as our lungs fill with oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide.
If we move up to the galactic scale, we see that even stars die and are born. I’m no scientist, so I won’t even pretend to understand the details, but if you Google the word “nebula,” you will see some of the most stunning pictures in the universe - and you will read that a nebula is actually nothing more than a giant cloud of dust and gas. The fascinating thing, though, is that some nebulae come from the gas and dust thrown out by the explosion of a dying star; but other nebulae are regions where new stars are beginning to form. What a beautiful and compelling image. Death and rebirth often look the same from the outside, and they are both part of one seamless process on the inside.
Lao Tzu has observed a similar process within the human psyche. The road to wholeness, he claims, is one of accepting and even embracing brokenness as we become willing to die to ourselves and our desires in the way Jesus taught. Stephen Mitchell’s translation says, “If you want to reborn, let yourself die.”
What Jesus followers often fail to realize and communicate is that the Cross is not the heart of Christianity. That may sound blasphemous to some, but the reality is that resurrection is at the core of Christian faith - not crucifixion. However, this isn’t to minimize the Cross, because there is no resurrection without a crucifixion. This is why Jesus is insistent that we first take up our own crosses to walk with him down the road of dying to self. In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, Jesus said, “Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.” (Matthew 16:24-25, MSG)
There’s a word to describe this perspective on theology and discipleship: cruciform, which just means “in the shape of the cross.” When we make Christ’s death just a “special calling” reserved for him and him alone, as I’ve heard so many Christians do, then we fail to make it the example and model for life and spirituality that it is intended to be. Jesus wasn’t just a special exception to the rule whose sole purpose was to clear up our overdue balance with God. As literally God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth - in his life, death, and resurrection - shows us true humanity, or what a person united with God looks like. Ironically, Lao Tzu’s words sound more cruciform than a lot of preachers do. (I’ve written an article called Why the cross isn’t “special” if you’re interested in reading more about this.)
Now, you could challenge me here by saying I’m reading way more “resurrection” into the Tao te Ching than is actually there, or that I’m imposing Christian thoughts and ideas onto the text. And to an extent, you’re right. I accept that, but I think it’s because death and resurrection are so central - not only to Christian faith but to my own journey and my own story - that I can’t help it. Still, I find it amazing that 600 years before Jesus, Lao Tzu said, “If you want to be reborn, you must let yourself die,” or “If you want to be made new, first let yourself become old.” To whatever extent he grasped the concept of dying to self in order to find life, I would say that he caught a glimpse of the heart of God.
The path of dying to self
So what does all of this mean for us? In a sense, this chapter is just another lens on so much of what Lao Tzu has already been saying: letting go of our unhealthy desires, refusing to hold on tightly to illusions of control and self-sufficiency, pulling back from our endless quests for so-called success, and instead just learning to go with the flow. But this can seem kind of arbitrary, and it’s so counterintuitive that it’s not an easy package to sell. If you haven’t experienced the incredible freedom, joy, and life that comes with this kind of dying to self, then it isn’t going to sound very appealing.
Sadly, in the times where cruciformity is actually taught from the church, it often sounds like denial for the sake of denial. It can seem like “picking up our cross” is just embracing arbitrary suffering because somehow that suffering honors God or makes us more holy. It can feel like dying to self is just the cost of admission to heaven. Richard Rohr cuts to the heart of this issue in the way that only he can,
Most of us have learned to say no without the deeper joy of yes. We were trained to put up with all the “dying” and just take it on the chin. Saying no to the False Self does not necessarily please God or please anybody, and surely not you. There is too much resentment and self-pity involved in this kind of false dying. There is a good dying and there is a bad dying. Good dying is unto something bigger and better; bad dying is just damn stupid dying that profits nobody. It is too much no and not enough yes. You must hold out for yes! Don’t be against anything unless you are much more for it first or for something else that is better. … God tries to first create a joyous yes inside you, far more than any kind of no. Then you have become God’s full work of art, and for you, love is now stronger than death, and Christ is surely risen in you! (Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 182-183)
The thing that mystics like Richard Rohr, Lao Tzu - and yes, Jesus - know deep down in their inmost being is that the “crosses” of life are absolutely necessary, but they aren’t the goal in and of themselves. They aren’t about just ending this life or finishing this story so we can start a new one. They aren’t about paying our dues to become better people or earn more points on the scoreboard of life. God forbid! The path to wholeness is always the path of dying to self, but that is because those “crosses” are like what the ancient Celtic Christians called the “thin places” of the world - places in space and time where heaven and earth are closest to meeting. When we come to a cross - a place where we can choose to let go a little more of our false self - then we are actually standing in a “thin space,” and we are given an opportunity to get a glimpse of heaven by encountering God and, through the Spirit of God, our own True Selves.
Don’t fool yourself and think this is a one-time thing. The pursuit of spiritual wholeness is always marked by crosses; and trust me, they may hurt like hell, but they are a taste of heaven. Every chance we have to choose service over selfishness, to put a greater emphasis on the needs around us than on our own desires, to follow what we can clearly see is the will of God even when it disrupts our plans and our dreams, or to work through the process of forgiveness even when we feel fully justified in holding onto the wound is a chance to become what Lao Tzu calls whole, straight, full, and new by accepting that we are broken, crooked, empty, and dying. “If you want to be given everything,” this chapter says, “then give everything up.”