“For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” ~ Jesus, Luke 9:25
In a single moment we come alive. Two cells fuse together and begin to multiply and grow, reproducing and reshaping until organs and body parts develop. Then we burst forth into the world and gasp that first breath. In a single moment we die. Sometimes we live out our days to a ripe old age, other times tragedy robs us far too soon. But that moment happens where the lungs exhale their final breath and the heart pulses its final beat.
On the headstone of many graves the story of everything between these two moments often finds its summary in a single dash.
A brief mark that encompasses a life. What do we do with that dash?
Often, life seems to be about survival. We work and fight through exercise and diet and doctors and pills in order to extend the distance of that last breath as far as possible from our first. Life also seems to be about comfort. If we’re happy then what must we do to maintain that happiness? If we’re not, then what must we add (or subtract) to achieve a state of bliss? Life can be about achievement. What are we going to be known for? What are people going to remember about that dash after the end date is carved into the stone?
When it comes to finding the best meaning, though, Jesus said, “I want you to let go”—don’t make it about survival, comfort, or achievement.
It’s a paradox that follows on the heels of hard words. First, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Self denial and self death. Some people like to say, “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Yet it’s not always immediate to see how a wonderful plan fits into the language of take up your cross.
The Roman cross was an instrument of brutal death, unlike many the world has seen. Involving public humiliation, being stripped naked and marched in open to be jeered by the crowds around you. You might be beaten, you might be whipped, and you might be stabbed. And then either with nails or rope or both you would be attached to wooden beams and left to agonize for gasps of air in the scorching of day and the chill of night until your body could bear no more.
It’s the path that Jesus walked and he called out to us to daily do the same: a daily death, daily setting aside of rights and wants and desires.
Yet, the paradox: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (9:24-25).
If our ultimate goal is survival, comfort, or achievement then we’re going to be quite disappointed at the end of that dash. You can have it all: the best health, the best genes, the best doctors, the longest life, the least pain, the largest house, the most money, the most toys—every bit of pleasure and every experience of a “good life” that you desire. But when that final heart beat comes, it’s gone.
We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world (1 Timothy 6:7).
When Jesus said to deny self and take up our crosses, his aim wasn’t to make us poor and miserable wretches who lack happiness in this life. Rather his aim was to show us how to find true life. Momentary pain today pales in comparison to eternal loss. Conversely, momentary pain today is not even worth comparing to the eternal glories and happiness of people who are willing to let go their grasps on this world for the sake of Christ (Romans 8:18).
In telling us to lose our lives, Jesus was teaching us how to gain life. In telling us to loose our grips on things we think will make us happy, Jesus was teaching us how to find true joy.
In Luke 12, Jesus taught that we are not to be anxious about food and clothing and gain in this world. Instead, we are to trust the Father. God indeed has a wonderful plan, the best plan: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32). We gain this not by seeking survival, comfort, or achievement as our ultimate sources of meaning and happiness. We gain this by seeking his kingdom (12:31).
Practically, then, we become self-deniers and cross-bearers as we give ourselves for the sake of others: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with money-bags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (12:33-34).
Give yourself away with a love of God and love for others and you will gain. That is the heart of the Christian life.
This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.