Mark 8:34-37 & John 12:23-25
A Reflection by Dan Spragg.
I seem to get strangely curious when we encounter passages like these. Curious because these are the sorts of ones that we tend to avoid, react to, decide that we don’t like, or write off, usually using the excuse that the cultural and historical differences are too big for us to make sense of it. However, if we learn anything from when we are four years old, the most important question we can ask is… ‘Why?!’ I think I heard that on average a four year old will ask 40,000 questions in that year! For some reason though we get older and seem to just stop asking questions… to our downfall I think. I think the key to dealing with passages like these is to embrace our inner four year old! Why do we react or seek to dismiss these? And why did it seem important enough to record in the first place? Why do we find Jesus’ talk of denying ourselves, of losing our lives in order to find them, so difficult? You may be wondering why we included these passages in our series of parables. You are right in thinking they aren’t parables in the classic sense, but, they are parable like in that the expected outcome comes from the unexpected situation. Jesus is talking of the Kingdom of God and of life in that place. Jesus is talking of the new age, he is talking of liberation, of freedom, of life to the full – and so this is the expected outcome… but it seems that in order to find this life the unexpected way must be followed. True life is found, when one lets go of one’s life. Deny yourself but gain the Kingdom and all that is caught up in that. The expected comes from the unexpected. Simple enough, but why do we find it hard?
I wonder if we find it hard to deal with this kind of talk from Jesus because we assume a negative or defensive posture. Why would we want to place restrictions on ourselves? Why would we want to deny ourselves of things? Why would we want to make life harder for ourselves? Aren’t we told that we’re valued and loved for who we are, so what is this about denying anything? Aren’t we encouraged to develop our own sense of self? Don’t we encourage our children and grandchildren to embrace who they are? It feels restrictive, it feels a little bit like Jesus is saying that who we are doesn’t matter, or in fact that we are to hate who we are… it feels as if Jesus is buying into some sort of old notions that assume we are wretched and worthless individuals. This could be why we don’t like this sort of talk, because we have a bit of self-respect, we know deep down that we are in fact inherently good people created in the image and likeness of God. We forget of course that Jesus was around a good number of years before St Augustine popularised the thought of Original Sin – that we’re all born essentially bad and that is why we need saving. Jesus’ story didn’t start in Genesis 3. He was a Rabbi, and it seems like an insightful one at that, his story would have begun with Genesis 1 – which tells us of course a very different story. So, if Jesus is indeed on the side of humanity, then what is he getting at here that can be a helpful truth for us?
The notion of ‘identity’ has some weight I think. Today I believe we answer the question of ‘who are you?’ quite differently to how it has been answered before. It has always been an important question. ‘Know thyself’ is a maxim that has been around for thousands of years. It seems as if it is quite a hard process to answer this question now though. In the past perhaps one word was enough – I’m English, or I’m a builder, or I’m Presbyterian, I’m liberal, I’m conservative etc. etc. Now however we don’t want to be defined by one dimensional pictures, we don’t want to be pigeon-holed, we don’t want to be judged by what things used to mean. In a sense we want to define ourselves, we don’t want anyone else to do it, we can choose who we are. It does not make for an easy world to grow up in! In the vast world of choice and diversity that we live in – both wonderful things – defining who you are becomes just about a daily battle – what does the word identity even mean anymore?
Having choice means having control. Having many choices means that when we choose, we attach ourselves to that thing not to the other thing. I don’t think the issue is choice itself but rather that all our choices seem to come from external sources and that we cling to these to give us meaning – they are the material things we purchase – I own this therefore I am successful. They are experiences we go and do – I run marathons or climb mountains therefore I am worth something. Not bad things in and of themselves but when we attach our worth to them – it becomes an issue. When we cling to these and believe that we must control them in order to create an identity or an image that will be seen as valuable, when we cling to these in order to know who we are – this is the danger zone – although most of us don’t realise we’re doing it! In doing these things we rely on what we can control. We rely on what we choose. We rely on ourselves to create ourselves – we rely on these externals which we believe give us identity – Hi, my name is Dan, I drive a Subaru, I run and I ride a mountain bike, I eat plants, I only buy Fairtrade coffee and I have just recently joined the PTA. If you look at me it appears to you as if I’ve got everything sorted, this is who I want you to see me as. All these things are external, they come from outside me and I hang onto them fiercely – if not, I don’t know who I am and so in my clinging to these things I rely only on myself and my ability to do and to choose. How many people have we all met who seem to have it together on the outside, but who are in fact in turmoil on the inside. I can imagine someone comes to mind for all of us. Perhaps you’ve even been there yourself. And this way of living is a problem – we strive for the externals and lose the battle within. We strive for the externals and lose ourselves in the process.
Into this, the truth of Jesus comes and says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.” It feels like he is saying, ‘let go of reliance on yourself, take up a life where you have let go of your own fate, follow me… in this you will find true life.’ The word used for life here is ‘psyche’ which encompasses both ‘soul’ and ‘living’. It feels as if he is saying, if you cling to life by hoping to control and to create yourself, you will in fact kill your chances at a true integrated experience of life where both your soul – your interior life – and your living – your exterior life – will be fulfilled. If you cling to it you will kill it. If you let go you will receive abundantly. Life it seems as the Creator intended it can only be found in letting go. This is the only way it can be free, unconstrained, and open. The significance of what Jesus means when he says, “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me” lies in the contradiction – I learn who I truly am, by looking to who Jesus is. Denying oneself is not a call to deny ourselves things or relationships or experiences, nor is it a call to hate who we are – this would be out of character for Jesus’ message of love and grace. It is a call to deny the desperate, clinging, grasping self in order to liberate the greater, more mature, more fulfilled one who you have been created to be. It is uncomfortable for us because it seems counter intuitive, it seems counter cultural, it even at times could seem counter to popular religion. Let go of trying to be that self-made person. Let go of defining yourself by what others think is valuable. Instead, know who you are by looking to Jesus, giving of yourself to others, and knowing that you are caught up in the acceptance and love of God from the very core of your being. What is your identity? You are located with Christ – created, loved, accepted, liked even… and so, take your eyes off yourself, open yourself up to others and to God humbly with grace… do this and you will find true life.
It may be helpful to touch on an event in Jesus’ life where his identity was confronted as leading us towards a way in which we are able to follow. Early on Jesus found himself led to the desert for 40 days of fasting in the wilderness – if ever one is to be confronted with oneself then this would be the time! (see Matthew 4:1-11) Who did he think he was? The confrontation came in three temptations – turn these stones into bread, jump off the Temple, and be worshipped on this mountain. His answers help us on our path. ‘One does not live by bread alone but by the word that comes from God.’ ‘Do not put the Lord to the test.’ And ‘Worship God and no other.’ In other words: ‘Don’t try and impress the world with what you can do.’ ‘Don’t try and impress God with the size of your faith.’ And, ‘don’t try and impress others to be praised by them.’ Because, where do we find our true identity? Or, where do we find true life? By letting go of others opinions; by letting go of what we think God wants; by letting go of trying to impress the world by how great we are. Good lessons from Jesus for us to put into practice in our own lives.
The Ego – the image of ourselves we portray to the world – is fed by the opposite of these, it is fed by others opinions, it is fed by our own view of what we can do, it is fed by what we think we have achieved. The Ego will not let go, this leads to self-imposed death – this is us refusing what God wants for us. Denying ourselves isn’t about denying ourselves things, or experiences, or relationships rather it is firstly about letting go and opening oneself up to God’s truth, opening oneself up to the seemingly upside down way of God, and opening up oneself to love given away to away to our neighbour. This is where we will find true life. This is where we will truly find ourselves. It is a shift from trying to build one’s life from the outside-in to one where we let go and let our Creator build us from the inside-out.
In clinging to ourselves we find death.
In letting go we receive fully and abundantly lives that are good for us, and good for the world around us.
The expected comes from the unexpected.