“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
Jesus in The Gospel According to Mark, chapter 8 verses 35, 36
This sentiment in the Bible is often misunderstood in that the command to “lose one’s life” is viewed as stifling, leading to an empty existence of joyless servitude when in fact the opposite is true, for “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). The reality is that when a person sees Jesus Christ in full, it is out of an abundant joy that he lays down his life—the treasure gained far outweighs the treasure lost. Nevertheless the stereotype exists because many of us have seen examples of joyless religion.
On the other hand the command to lose your life is often taken too lightly, acknowledged in theory but largely ignored in practice. When the following lines are preached during a Sunday morning sermon, warning that “whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38) the initial tingling of healthy fear* so tangible in the moment is diluted to a marginal concern come Monday. While any attempt to will yourself into selfless generosity leads to bitterness and pride, downplaying the command to “lay down your life” ends in wasting the only one you have.
There is however another way, one that enabled the apostle Paul to say “for his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8) and to live a life of profound joy even in the midst of debilitating sorrow. The path between being the religious equivalents of a Tryhard and a Carebear is one that only God can unveil through a relationship of trust built on the promises of the Bible. It comes from a metamorphosis of the heart, cocooned in the redeeming blood of Jesus and born anew through suffering and hardship. It sounds absolutely awful when I put it like that, doesn’t it? Yet every person I have met who has been taught by God through trusting in the truths of the Bible in the midst of difficult or even impossible circumstances is changed in incredible ways, living lives of joy for the benefit of others.
All of this is true, and I’ve seen evidence of it time and again in the lives of men and women I’ve met over the years through the church yet I am personally resistant to the idea of suffering or discomfort of any kind, really. That’s not uncommon, it is quite human to seek out the path of least resistance and to chase after personal ease and give a wide berth to pain. However while it is human, it is not always spiritually healthy.
Recently my wife and I were having a conversation about our neighborhood. It’s not the best— certainly not the middle class, suburban haven in which I grew up. Our neighbors are mostly blue collar, lower income families and we of course are no different in that sense. But along with this demographic there are examples of human depravity and brokenness in our neighborhood that I would rather not have my children exposed to at such a young age, or at any age for that matter. “If we’re here,” my wife said, “it is because God has placed us here and we shouldn’t move unless he leads us otherwise.”
Intellectually I can agree with that statement, but emotionally I railed against it. I was appalled at the idea, imagining the worst (as protective fathers are want to do) and thinking to myself “God’s will or not, we’ll move out if we can.” I was driving at the time, and this tantrum was in part a prayer to God, a wrestling with him of sorts. While I’m slow to learn many things as a Christian and slower still to live by them, I have at least figured out that there is little use in hiding from God. If you’re angry with him you might as well be so in his presence, minding that you do your best to be reverently so. But the result was a profound despair at how distant I was from the likeness of Christ, how poorly I was embracing central truths of the Christian faith.
After that I went into a depression for several days. During that time I was distant from my family and loved ones, wondering when (or if) I would ever change into the selfless, loving man that I want to be. I couldn’t bring myself to explain it to my wife either, other than to assure her that I was not mad at her in any way, but rather myself. All our conversation had done was expose where my heart has been for a long time now, suspicious of God’s character. I was doubtful of his goodness and focused on the everyday comforts of recliners and digital television rather than joy, real irrevocable joy found only in losing my life for Christ’s sake.
When I finally did give my wife a glimpse of how I was feeling, I was equally resistant to her response. With the same forcefulness with which I had refused the prospect of suffering for Christ’s sake, I locked my arms firmly against her offering of understanding, encouragement, and compassion. Among other things she said to me “I love you very much for who you are right now in this very moment. Imagine how much more God loves you” and my silent, internal response was to say “No, that isn’t the way. You don’t pardon this kind of doubt, you don’t forgive. You punish—there must be consequences.” What I struggle to get through my thick skull is that while I am right, there must be consequences, for those who have placed their trust in Jesus Christ his death on the cross is the punishment, paid in full on our behalf. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). None, period.
So how does a person become so suspicious of forgiveness? Of love? I’m reminded of an episode of Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan: Family Edition in which a cocker spaniel had gone years without the care of a proper owner, and the current owners were running out of patience with the nervous dog. Their attempts at caring for the spaniel and tending to his matted fur were met with nips and yelps and fear. When Cesar arrived he did a curious thing, he allowed the dog to go through the panic, through the fear, until he reached a point of exhaustion such that he had no choice but to submit.
The dog was expecting something awful, instead he was brushed clean; painful burs were removed from his fur. He was loved, pet, and embraced. To the untrained outsider with little trust in Cesar or his methods, the process at the beginning seemed cruel. To bodily turn a dog onto its side and hold him gently but firmly until the panic subsided appeared not to be love, but callous indifference. Yet Cesar, in his understanding of the nature of dogs and a clear vision for what peace was in store for the creature on the other side of the frightening experience carefully returned the dog over and over to that place of submission. Through the panic and through the pain he led the dog until it was resigned to the process. And in the end the animal could see for itself that the trainer’s intent was good, not harm. The cocker spaniel was free to love and be loved with a peaceful spirit.
And is that not so different from what I am experiencing in my own walk with God? I couldn’t tell you where my resistance comes from or why I’m so put off by the concept of being loved by God—or anyone for that matter—when I haven’t earned it. All I can see at times is that I deserve the opposite of mercy. So when God continues the process of combing out the matted fur and the painful burs I resist. I’m fearful of the inevitable pain that comes tandem with the process of being made like Christ, sure. But I am equally resistant to the love and forgiveness generously extended to me by God because deep down I know it is not the reception I deserve, even if it is the one provided for me by the death of Jesus Christ. And that’s okay, because I belong to a loving, patient God; one who loves me too much to let me remain in my state of doubt and insecurity and who also loves me enough to work through my resistance and fear with resolute gentleness.
This is the process of growing by faith as a Christian. It is first the exposure of one’s shortcomings and sin—a sick person will not seek to be made well if they do not first admit they are sick. Then it continues through a process of healing that can at times be painful and uncertain but that is always carried out in love. For someone like me—stiff necked and stubborn—it may take many, many circumstances in which I am allowed to buck and twist against the loving arms of God, but eventually I will grow tired. Eventually I will give in to the will of the Almighty, and instead of becoming a man of hypocrisy or indifference, I will be greeted by transformation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is a metamorphosis that reflects the likeness of Jesus Christ whom I admire so much. And I’d give anything to be like him, or at least I will as God continues his work of restoration. Eventually, I will be overcome by love.
“And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear* me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear* of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.”
*(When reading the word “fear” used in this context in the Bible, consider the following passage by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
“The fear of the Lord,” a common phrase in the Bible alludes to a posture of reverence, respect, and awe in accordance with a God who is both almighty and benevolent. Knowing this turn of phrase helps communicate the tone of this passage from Jeremiah.)