When Jesus says we must lose our lives if we are to find them, he is teaching, on the negative side, that we must not make ourselves and our “survival” the ultimate point of reference in our world—must not, in effect, treat ourselves as God should be treated, or treat ourselves as God. Thus Paul shockingly said, “Covetousness is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5, par). Isn’t that somewhat exaggerated? No. Covetousness is self-idolatry, for it makes my desires paramount. It means I would take what I want if I could. To defeat covetousness we learn to rejoice that others enjoy the benefits they do.
Living In a State of Death
To make my desires paramount is what Paul again described as having a “flesh mind” or “mind of the flesh,” which is a state of death (Romans 8:6, par). Such a mind “sows to one’s own flesh”—invests only in one’s natural self—and “out of that flesh reaps corruption” (Galatians 6:8, par). “Corruption” or “coming apart” is the natural end of the flesh. “Flesh” can only be preserved by being caught up within the higher life of the kingdom of God and thus “losing” the life peculiar to it.
In other words, when Jesus said that those who find their lives or souls shall lose them, he was pointing out that those who think they are in control of their lives—“I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul,” as the poet William Ernest Henley said[i]—will find that they definitely are not in control: they are totally at the mercy of forces beyond them, and even within them. They are on a sure course to disintegration and powerlessness, of lostness both to themselves and to God. They must surrender.
By contrast, if they give up the project of being the ultimate point of reference in their lives—of doing only what they want, of “sowing to the flesh” or to the natural aims and abilities of a human being—there can be hope. If they in that sense lose their lives in favor of God’s life, or for the sake of Jesus and what he is doing on earth—remember the ongoing world revolution he is now conducting—then their souls (lives) will be preserved and thus given back to them.
Wanting to Be Good
What does that mean? It means that they will then for the first time be able to do what they want to do. Of course they will be able to steal, lie, and murder all they want—which will be none at all. But they will also be able to be truthful and transparent and helpful and sacrificially loving, with joy—and they will want to be. Their lives will be in this way caught up in God’s life. They will want the good and be able to do it, the only true human freedom. The mind set on the spiritual is in that sense “life and peace” (Romans 8:6), because it lives from God and, “sowing into the spirit, out of the spirit reaps the eternal kind of life” (Galatians 6:8, par).
So—and this is of utmost importance to those who would enter Christian spiritual formation—life as normally understood, where the object of securing myself, promoting myself, indulging myself is to be set aside.
“Can I still think about such things?” you may ask. Yes, you can. But you increasingly won’t. And when you do, as formation in Christlikeness progresses, they simply won’t matter. In fact, they will seem ridiculous and uninteresting. Jesus’ words on not being anxious about what will happen to you and his admonitions to consider the flowers and birds (Luke 12:13-34) will seem obviously sane and right, whereas they previously sounded obviously crazy and wrong, or “out of touch with reality.”
Who Can Be Jesus’ Disciple?
The same paradoxical tone applies to Jesus’ teaching about who can be his disciple or apprentice. This, too, is put in very shocking language: “If you come to me,” he said, “and do not prefer me over (do not ‘hate’) your own father, mother, wife, children, brothers and sisters—yes, and your very own life (soul)—you cannot be my apprentice” (Luke 14:26, par).
And then he used an absolutely shocking image—one all too familiar to his hearers but rather hard for us to fully appreciate today. It was that of a man carrying on his back the lumber that would be used to kill him when he arrived at the place of execution. “Whoever does not come after me carrying his own cross cannot be my apprentice” (verse 27, par).
The cross is an instrument of death, of “losing your life.” The teaching here is exactly the same as in the statements about losing and finding our lives. It is one of comparative costs, as the following verses in Luke 14 show. Those who are not genuinely convinced that the only real bargain in life is surrendering ourselves to Jesus and his cause, abandoning all that we love to him and for him, cannot learn the other lessons Jesus has to teach us. They cannot proceed to anything like total spiritual transformation. Not that he will not let us, but that we simply cannot succeed. If I tell you that you cannot drive an automobile unless you can see, I am not saying I will not let you, but that you cannot succeed even if I do.
One of the great dangers in the process of spiritual formation is that self-denial and death to self will be taken as but one more technique or “job” for those who wish to save their lives (souls). Self-denial will then externalize itself in overt practices of group identity that may seem very sacrificial but can leave the mind of the flesh in full control. We see this, for example, in many who wear what they regard as plain clothing or who abstain from certain foods.
Practices of “mortification” can become exercises in more self-righteousness. How often this has happened! This dreary and deadly “self-denial,” which is all too commonly associated with religion, can be avoided only if the primary fact of our inner being is a loving vision of Jesus and his kingdom. This is where correctly counting the cost comes in. Then outward manifestation of self-denial, or the absence thereof, will matter little, as it did for him.
The impression gained by most who hear about “counting the cost” of following Jesus is one of how terrible and painful that cost is. But to count the cost is to take into consideration both the losses and the gains of all possible courses of action, to see which is most beneficial. This done, Jesus knew, the trials of apprenticeship (discipleship) would appear to be the only reasonable path. As has been said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”[ii] The cost of nondiscipleship would then be seen for what it is—unbearable. That is why one would become able to sustain cheerfully the much smaller “cost of discipleship” to him.
[i] William Ernest Henley, “Invictus,” in The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. A. T. Quiller-Couch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900 ), 842.
[ii] Jim Elliot, quoted in Elisabeth Elliot, Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (New York: HarperCollins, 1979), 108.