Dying to Live: Lilias Trotter’s Parables of the Cross

by Allyson Todd July 15, 2020

Every dandelion in our front yard, the church lawn, or practically anywhere else they congregated, stood no chance against me. It was my quest to take every dandelion I could find and use all the breath I could store in my lungs to remove their manes. I had no idea that my quest only served to create the opposite effect. Little did I know that every tuft from the dandelion’s head could become another dandelion in the future. I simply wanted to watch the seeds dance in the air. 

For Lilias Trotter, dandelions and all other forms of vegetation pointed to the Cross. They pointed to life and death, a resounding story woven through all Creation, a story that would change us if we would only listen.

In Parables of the Cross, Lilias Trotter writes a reflection on the gospel through her observation of plants. Though that seems strange at first, those familiar with the Bible shouldn’t be surprised at all, given how often Jesus himself uses plant growth to teach us about Himself.

Lillias studied plants as a young artist, painting flowers and landscapes with radiant colors. When she gave up a promising career as an artist to become a missionary to Algeria, she did not give up her love of Creation. Rather, she grew more fond of Earth’s vegetation, and through paying attention, she learned “the lesson of death in its delivering power” (p.6). I invite you to walk with me through these parables and consider what dying you might need to do today. 

Initial Death

Everyone will die. There is no doubt about that. Death, once it occurs, can only produce two outcomes. Either death is death forever, or death turns into life (Matthew 25:46). 

“Death is the only way out of the world of condemnation wherein we lie. Shut into that world, it is vain to try by any self-effort to battle out; nothing can revoke the decree ‘the soul that sinneth it shall die.’ The only choice left is this. Shall it be, under the old headship of Adam, our own death, in all that God means by the word, or shall it be, under the headship of Christ, the death of another in our place?” (p.9). 

Those of us who have received the life of Christ as a payment for our own know that death has no hold on us. We are sealed by Christ and we will live forever with Him. To receive this great gift of eternal life, though, we must repent and believe that God is able to purify us from all unrighteousness (Romans 6:23, Romans 10:9-10, 1 John 1:9). 

If you are not a Christian, I ask, are you holding tightly to your sin today? Heed Lilias’ warning that you can not fight or earn your way out of death. You cannot beat it. Your choice is death or life. Will you allow Christ’s life to be your ransom today? Will you trust the Savior who gave up His live that yours might be saved?

Do not be the seed that never takes root (Matthew 13:4).

Complete Death

After the “initial” death and receipt of Christ’s life for our own, we may be tempted to think, I’ve achieved salvation; I can now live however I want.

“Woe to the soul that stops there, thinking that the goal is reached, and dwindles, so to speak, into a stunted bud. Holiness, not safety, is the end of our calling” (p.11).

Holiness, not safety, is the end of our calling.

– I. Lilias trotter

How do we achieve this holiness? Do we work hard, be kind, and try to do everything right? Even our best effort could not bring forth holiness. It is only by dying. 

“A stage of dying must come over the plant before the new leaves can grow and thrive. There must be a deliberate choice between the former growth and the new; one must give way to the other; the acorn has to come to the point where it ceases to keep its rag of former existence, and lets everything go to the fresh shoot: the twig must withdraw its sap from last year’s leaf, and let it flow into this year’s bud” (p.12).

The Christian life is a constant yielding of our own will, and we daily must take up our cross and steadily follow in Jesus’ footsteps. For a tree or plant to grow and produce fruit, it must be pruned. If we allow dead branches to remain fastened to us, there will be no room for fruit-bearing branches to come forth (John 15:1-8). 

Just like when we first became believers, we must go to the Cross, look at what Jesus has done for us, and give up our sin for His sake. 

When we do, “From His side God will come in with a breath of His resurrection power; for the Cross and the empty tomb cannot be long divided. The law of the Spirit of Life can work now, as you deliberately loose hold of all clinging to sin; the expulsive power of His working within, and the play of His winds around, will make you ‘free indeed,’ like these young shoots when last years leaves have fallen” (p.19).

Quickly will the sanctifying work of God come upon us when we let Him prune our withered and ruinous sins. Yet we are not simply pruned for pruning’s sake. We are pruned for a purpose, pruned for fruit, pruned for life – but not our own life; it is the perfect life of Jesus that comes forth and blossoms into righteousness (p.20).

This shedding of the old and developing of the new often feels impossible. Countless times I’ve battled my sin or been in a difficult season and thought, this will never go away, this can’t end. Maybe a tiny bit of hope buds every month or so, but it seems the dead branches will have their way, and hope will never flourish.

“Never mind if the trouble shews no sign of giving way: it is just when it seems most hopelessly unyielding, holding on through the spring days, alive and strong, it is then that the tiny buds appear that soon will clothe it with glory. Take the very hardest thing in your life – the place of difficulty, outward or inward, and expect God to triumph gloriously in that very spot. Just there He can bring your soul into blossom!” (p. 26-29).

Are you doubting God’s ability to free you from your sin? Are you trusting God with the deepest, hardest parts of your life, that He can and will “bring your soul into blossom” if you would only trust Him? You can either live with dead branches hanging on, relinquishing all hope of newness, or you can yield everything to Christ, let Him prune your sinful soul, and let him develop His life in you. The trials of this life are brief, sure to fade away (2 Corinthians 4:17). Though the sun is hot and the thorns are sharp, Jesus Christ has defeated them. He knows our affliction and he offers his broken body and shed blood to liberate us from despair.

Do not be the seed quenched by the sun or suffocated by thorns (Matthew 13:5-7).

Reproducing Death

Christ’s life produced in us is glorious work, and our personal sanctification is an essential part of obedience to Jesus. However, “we were created for more than our own spiritual development; reproduction, not mere development, is the goal of matured being – reproduction in other lives” (p.29). 

Here is where I think many of us may get stuck. We focus on our own spiritual disciplines, growing in prayer, studying Scripture, and repenting of sin. But does our own spiritual growth stop with us? 

Like a flower that focuses too much on its own growth that it produces no reproductive ability, when we focus all our attention on our own growth and “spiritual well-being,” ignoring all others, we may halt all efforts to fulfill the Great Commission. We are not saved for our sake. We do not receive the abundant blessings of God to hoard them or set them in a trophy case. 

“The true, ideal flower is the one that uses its gifts as means to an end; the brightness and sweetness are not for its own glory; they are but to attract the bees and butterflies that will fertilise and make it fruitful. All may go when the work is done – ‘it is more blessed to give than to receive” (p.29-30).

We exist to glorify God and love others. We cannot do this without sacrifice. “This is how we have come to know love: He laid down his life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16).

Are we existing like a flower, growing in the shadows, never to be seen by another? Never to welcome others into our arms and give others the same nourishment given to us? Are you using your gifts, not just for your own gain, but for the benefit of others? Are you willing to lose your life so that someone else could find their life in Jesus? 

Be the seed that takes deep roots, surrenders all, and multiplies itself in others (Matthew 13:8)

Resurrection Life

Here is the grand paradox of the Cross: life comes when you die.

This life is not all that we are promised. We cannot cling to the seventy or eighty years we have on this life as our hope, for they are brief (Psalm 90). We must hold all things loosely, willing to surrender them to God if He calls us. Only then will we have true life. 

“You have told Him that you want Him only. Are you ready to ratify the words when His emptying begins to come? Is God enough? Is it still “My God” that you cry, even as Jesus cried when nothing else was left Him?” (p.35).

Emptying yourself for others is dangerous work. You may never receive the same level of sacrifice, you may be rejected, you may never have the earthly gift you so strongly desire. You may even die. In fact, you will die. The deeper you go into sacrifice for others, the more opportunity you have for “multiplying in other souls” (p.43).

What are you clinging to today? Are you pouring out your life for others? Is the gospel going forth from your lips at any cost? 

“Are we following His steps; are we? How the dark places of the earth are crying out for all the powers of giving and living and loving that are locked up in hearts at home!” (p.53).

You may never see the fruit of your sacrifice. You may never know if the seed you scattered took root. You are called to die to your sin, your stubbornness, your selfishness. And when you die, you shall live. 

Oh Jesus the crucified I will follow Thee in thy path. Inspire me for the next step, whether it leads down into the shadow or up into the light. Surely in what place my Lord the King shall be, whether in death or life, even there also will thy servants be. Amen.