The French have a phrase, La Petite mort, or “the little death” which is roughly defined as “the period of melancholy resulting from having spent one’s life force.” I’m embarrassed to tell you where the expression comes from, but if you must know it refers to the emotional lull that proceeds sex. I apologize for the bluntness, but one must make certain allowances for the free expression of artists, poets and . . . the French. Life is a series of little deaths, a million black dots, major and minor, of varying duration, culminating in a glorious crescendo—“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). We are always rehearsing for that final movement.
In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul describes his trials in similarly poetic terms, though not with the potty mouth or innuendo of the French. In stating that “death is at work in us” (2Cor 4:12), Paul is referring to his trials as a series of little deaths, or an ongoing death experience. But Paul is a poet in the way that George Bush is a poet, that is to say, not at all. Besides an occasional doxology or engrafted creed, issues of clarity not aesthetics govern Paul’s word choice. So, if Paul observes that trials are like “little deaths” it’s because there are important reasons for seeing them this way, not because “hey, isn’t it kinda cool to think of our trials as, like, little deaths and our prayers as mini-screams and our bodies as tiny coffins.” Here then is Paul’s description of trials as perpetual dying or little deaths:
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)
So why refer to trials as “little deaths”? Paul has commandeered the words “death” and “dying” from the lexicon and used them as synonyms for the word “trials.” For Christians the idea of “death” is always coupled to “resurrection;” they are virtually two syllables of the same word. If I were to ask you to complete the sentence: “the death and (blank) of the Lord Jesus Christ,” I doubt you’d labor over it like a crossword puzzle inserting different words to see which fits best. You know it’s the word “resurrection:” “resurrection” always sits across from “death.” Paul wants us to see trials as “deaths” because he wants us to see God’s resurrection power at work in them.
Death (or trials), to Paul’s way of thinking, is raw fuel which God uses to generate spiritual life. It is the principle or dynamic of Genesis: light out of darkness, form out of void, life out of death. This is the principle at work in us as God takes the death of trials and transforms them into life. Paul wants us to see trials as a consumable resource like firewood that can be burned and transferred to heat.
The alchemists invested their time and genius trying to transform waste into gold. Noting its bullion color, Hennig Brand, for example, left 60 buckets of urine to putrefy in his cellar in hopes a residue of gold would be left when it evaporated. It didn’t—though we can thank Brand and his vile experiment for the discovery of phosphorus. The idea of turning raw sewage into something as precious as gold was not insanity: the idea that man could do it was. Few things allow us a vantage point from which to view God’s glory and power than the transmutation of life’s sewage (trials) into life. Who but God could take our trials, our little deaths, and turn them in to spiritual life and vitality?
—the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes (Psalms 118:23)