He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
There is perhaps no verse in Scripture that more clearly amplifies just how different the kingdom Jesus proclaims is from everyday life: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Think about it: So much of our effort and energy is geared toward saving our lives. From the work we do to put food on our tables to the children we have to preserve and extend our family. From the effort we put in to progressing through school or advancing in work to the networks of friends and colleagues we create to support us. From the homes we buy and security systems we install to the portfolios or savings and retirement accounts we build up.
On one level, this makes a lot of sense. We are, in a very real way, hard-wired by evolution to survive. More over we live in a culture that glorifies accumulation, beating the message remorselessly into our heads that we’ve got to look out for ourselves and that our possessions are the key to our security, wellbeing, and happiness. And so, perhaps quite understandably, much if not most of what we do is to protect, sustain, and advance our lives; that is, to save ourselves.
Yet Jesus seems to invite us, indeed, to command us to let it all go, to lose our lives for his sake and the sake of the gospel.
You can take this, I suspect, in two ways. You can see this as an active pursuit, dedicating one’s life to sharing the faith, getting by with less so that others might have more, and bearing the burdens of others with patience and cheerfulness. There’s a lot that commends this view, not least the intentionality it imagines in “taking up one’s cross.” We can actively seek, that is, to defy the cultural logic of “more” and actively deny ourselves in order to follow and depend upon Jesus.
You can also take Jesus’ words to mean that only when life falls apart do we truly recognize that we cannot save our lives and so look to God. For sooner or later life will fall apart for each of us, whether because of death or illness or disappointment or depression or whatever. At those moments – when it feels like the cross is thrust upon us – we realize that we are met by God precisely in our weakness, that we are ultimately helpless when it comes to saving our lives, and that we need to die to our cultural illusions of self-sufficiency that we might live in God’s grace.
Which of these two views is right? To be honest, I’m not sure we have to choose, as there are times when we are called actively to follow the way of Jesus, and other times when circumstances force upon us the recognition of our limitation. In either case, we are reminded that whatever effort and energy we put into advancing and enhancing our lives, ultimately we are dependent on God, the God who will meet us precisely and only in our weakness and vulnerability.
That recognition is always difficult, because it runs against our evolutionary hard-wiring to survive at any cost. But I’d suggest that there is also a spiritual hard-wiring at work as well. That is, I believe there is planted deep in our hearts the recognition that we are meant for more than mere survival; indeed, that we were born and created for life together and in relationship with God. And at times, only by dying to the former can we live into the latter. As St. Augustine of Hippo said so long ago, so also we learn again and again: “our hearts, O God, are restless until we find our rest in you.” Or, in light of the verses we are reading, “we will seek to save our lives in every way possible, O God, until we let them go only to receive them back from you.”
Prayer: Dear God, calm our fears and encourage our hearts to seek you in all things, that in losing our lives for your sake and the sake of the gospel we might find abundant life now and forever. In Jesus’ name, Amen.