Whose life is this anyway?
There's all the physical stuff: eating right, getting enough rest, exercising, regular checkups. Then there's the financial stuff: savings and retirement accounts; life, health, and home insurance; mortgages and money markets. Even on the emotional level, it seems that much of what I do - when I'm honest about it - I do for the sake of my own security and protection.
In a smokeless, low-fat, safe-sex, light-beer, caffeine-free, air-bag society, it's hard to listen to Jesus talk about losing one's life. His message flies in the face of our sense of self-preservation and security - a drive that psychologists tell us is at the top of the needs list. Isn't the world dangerous enough as it is? Isn't it natural to want to minimize risks, to make life as safe as possible? Why is Jesus talking about losing one's life?
Look at the context of the passage. Jesus has just told his followers that he will suffer, be rejected, and put to death - not exactly what they wanted to hear. Peter pulls Jesus aside for a good old-fashioned rebuke. I can imagine him saying something like, "Look, Boss, we're on a roll here. You fed the 5,000, you healed the sick, you even walked on water. This could be big, really big. What's all this talk about having to suffer and die? I'm sure we can work around it."
Jesus puts the pope-to-be in his place, saying, in effect, "Your agenda is not God's agenda." (Is there significance in the fact that, while Peter pulled Jesus aside for private rebuking, Jesus turned to the entire community when criticizing Peter?)
I'm a lot like Peter, who wants a triumphant messiah, not a suffering servant. Peter wants a God of Power and Glory. Jesus talks about rejection and death. Peter wants a God who wins. Jesus chooses to lose. The choosing is important.
Jesus was not a victim. Victims have no control over their destinies (or at least believe that they don't, which often amounts to the same thing). Jesus knew what was ahead and could have disappeared into the hills and lived out his days in peaceful obscurity. Instead, he chose to remain faithful to his mission, though that fidelity would cost him dearly.
Immediately preceding Jesus' statement about saving and losing one's life, he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny [in Greek aparneomai: disown, renounce claim to] themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34 - emphasis added). He's not talking about a little healthy self-denial here, such as giving up one's favorite television show for Lent. He's talking about turning one's life and will over to God.
I've met a few people who actually seem to have done this. In most cases, I've not been able to tell if they were saints or lunatics. Their purity of heart throws me. It goes against all the messages I've picked up from my culture, which seem to encourage me to poison my heart with every lust and hunger imaginable, and, above all, to do so pridefully.
I'm certainly nowhere near turning the whole thing over to God. The parts that aren't working, sure: "God, you can have the bad stuff. Help yourself." It's not all that difficult to renounce pain and disappointment, shortcomings and fears. But my successes? You want them, too, God? You want the stuff that's going well, the successful corners of my life? You want me to disown that? Renounce that? I don't think so. Thanks, God, but no thanks.
A bit further along in the gospel saga (Mark 10:17-27), Jesus tells the rich young man who wants to follow him that he will have to give up his riches. It is safe, even comforting, to read that story when you're not particularly rich - "Yea, way to stick it to the rich kid, J.C." - ignoring, of course, that Jesus looked on him with love as he spoke.
It's easy, that is, until you realize that he's saying the same thing to you and me. It may not be material wealth that gets in the way of our turning our lives over to God. It might be our positions, titles, prestige, or influences; our skills, pastimes, or pleasures; our distractions or our dreams.
What gets in the way most of the time is the simple, three-letter word our. Possessive pronouns can really get in the way of God's work. My dream and God's dream for me are not necessarily identical. The more I disown myself and give myself to God, however, the more God's dream has a chance to awaken in me.
Does this mean we have to give up all of life's enjoyments to be good Christians? I haven't done much renouncing or disowning, but I suspect not. It's a matter of trading in old pleasures for new - trading up, even. As we turn ourselves over to God, the old pleasures and pastimes fall away and new, more lasting joys begin to emerge. Our God is a joyous God, after all.
In a world such as ours of inequitable distribution and insufferable persecutions, some simplifying and downsizing will be called for. Disowning ourselves involves some changes in lifestyle and priorities. Equally important, however, has to be a change of heart because what Jesus is talking about in the passage is fidelity.
Jesus chose to be faithful to his mission, even though he knew it would cost him his life. He spoke truth to power, knowing that power does not let that act go unpunished. Fidelity has a cost.
We're to be about the same business, whether on our jobs, in our communities, or with our political leaders. When we're confronted with injustice, our job is to be faithful to the gospel message - not easy work in any time or place and not easy when truth is met with violent oppression, as it is in so many parts of the world. Perhaps it is even harder work when truth is bought and sold by wealthy interests, as often seems to be the case in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
This prophetic stuff makes me queasy because I know that to engage in it is to open myself up for discomfort and dislocation. Beyond issues of personal comfort and security, prophetic witness is risky business because it is often difficult in ambiguous and messy human situations to figure out where the truth is to be found. Power is awfully good at obscuring truth. Nonetheless, these difficulties do not absolve us from seeking the truth and trying to serve it humbly.
Fidelity is also costly closer to home - in the relationships of love and commitment we choose. Communal life in all its manifestations, from partnership to family to monastery to kibbutz, involves hands to be lent and promises to be kept.
Part of denying ourselves, of renouncing claim on ourselves, comes when we recognize that we are not our own creation - we belong, in part, to those to whom we have betrothed ourselves. Their needs aren't always in sync with our own - sometimes they may seem to be diametrically opposed to our own. But our loved ones have the right-of-way when we're committed. We can't ignore the other's needs. We can negotiate, but we can't disregard.
Twelve-step recovery groups have done much good for many people, but on the issue of codependency there has been a tendency of late in our culture to look with suspicion on any intrusion on our own agendas and self-interests.
The "codependent no more" message sometimes gets interpreted as meaning "available no more," or even "committed no more." It seems that we've come to expect that no one has the right to need us or to place any demands on us nor we on them - that to do so would be to manifest unhealthy dependency. But to live in commitment is to be intruded upon at times. It comes with the territory of intimacy.
Our individual and communal relationships with God develop along similar lines, I'm beginning to suspect. I used to think that I could do all the asking and God would be content to do the answering. Isn't that what God is best at, after all? I mean, God has all the answers, right?
Not so, I'm beginning to think. Maybe God doesn't have all the answers. Maybe God doesn't have answers at all. Perhaps God only has responses to sickness, suffering, and need. And maybe we're needed to make those responses. Perhaps without our cooperation, God can't get anything done. Heretical? Only if I insist on thinking of God as Power and Might, instead of as Suffering Servant.
If God needs us to respond to the needs of the world, then God has to be able to communicate with us. But if our lives belong to us and us alone, how does God find a way in?
God is asking for the right-of-way in our lives. I don't know if God needs to ask permission, but God seems to prefer an invitation. Jesus is asking us to give God permission to intrude, to call on us to do the work of building the realm of God, whether or not the assignment comes at our convenience.
To disown ourselves is to sign our certificates of title over to another owner. Jesus asks us to put God's name on the title. Most of the time, I'd rather keep my own name on the first line although I wouldn't mind God as a cosigner, especially when my debts are called in.
"I am not my own," Jesus says to Peter. "I belong to the one who sent me. Don't ask me to betray my mission for the sake of comfort and safety."
To whom do I belong? Maybe it's time I picked up the owner's manual and spent a little more time with these difficult verses from Mark.
Just as soon as I finish flossing.
Dan Grippo, freelance writer living in Kansas City, Kansas.
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|Title Annotation:||importance of self-denial and offering life to God|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1995|
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