Catholics and Congregationalists. Presbyterians and Pentecostals. Sunday-only Christians and legalists. All manner of Christian people on all sorts of journeys. When it comes to their practice of Christianity, what are they all up to? Some Christians are seeking God, but for many others, the goal is self-improvement, adherence to a religious code of conduct, appeasing God, pleasing God, justification of sins, subjection of the will, avoidance of God’s anger and wrath, maintaining a clear conscience despite bad behavior, rationalization of a chosen lifestyle, and health/wealth.
Jesus, being the smartest man to have every walked on the planet, had a simpler explanation: “For whoever wishes to save his life…” Jesus did not waste his time talking about the problems of a small group of people. When he spoke, his words applied to everyone: all people across all time, regardless of race, creed, or religion. When Jesus said “whoever,” he was referring to potentially everyone on the planet, past, present, and future. His statements in Matthew 16 are crucially insightful: there is a very strong tendency amongst human beings, including Jews and Christians, to figure out how to save themselves and the world around them.
Many of us truly believe that we can do it, too. We become doctors and missionaries; teachers and taxi-drivers; builders and board members; scientists and inventors. We fully intend to make the world a better place. Religion shows up on the scene, too. Not only are we intent on improving the world, but we aspire to be better people, as well. As Christians, we work very hard at being good and loving people. We endeavor to be in church every time the doors are open. We obey all the commandments. We study the Bible, believing that the truth about God will set us free. And, we mount an enormous effort at recruiting as many people as possible to join us.
Curiously, Jesus said that all this salvation activity is extremely dangerous: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it.” No ifs-ands-or-buts. Jesus did not mince words about the problem and he was equally straightforward about the solution: “…but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” It is a pretty simple choice, really. Go one way and you lose your life. Go the other way, and you find your life. Lest there be any question about how one finds life, Jesus immediately explained: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
There is hardly another verse in the New Testament as enigmatic to modern Christians as this verse. Why? because we are certain that Jesus could not possibly have meant what he said. Taking his words at face value would result in the ruin of our lives, but alternative explanations, that Christ was either lying or did not know what he was talking about, are equally improbable propositions. So, we invoke good Christian scholarship to provide a defense so that we can be Christians without the words of Christ getting too close.
Oh, the price we pay:
What kind of deal is it to get everything you want but lose yourself? What could you ever trade your soul for? (Matthew 16:26, The Message)
When Jesus spoke about losing life or finding life, clearly, he was not referring to the body. The self-denying, cross-carrying, Christ-following life is lived out through the agency of our bodies, but such a life is entirely about the soul. Alternate life strategies also focus on the soul, but according to Jesus, they always result in loss of life. Does this mean that everyone who pursues these alternate strategies will end up in hell? I’d have to say that the possibility is quite real, but I choose to let the theologians argue that one. For my part, I prefer to think of the contrast that Jesus draws in terms of a healthy soul versus a sick one. St. Teresa used the analogy of a healthy body versus a palsied one, with twisted and useless arms and legs.
“…there are souls so infirm and accustomed to think of nothing but earthly matters, that there seems no cure for them. It appears impossible for them to retire into their own hearts; accustomed as they are to be with the reptiles and other creatures which live outside the castle, they have come at last to imitate their habits. Though these souls are by their nature so richly endowed, capable of communion even with God Himself, yet their case seems hopeless.”1
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These days we do not care that much about the soul. That seems to be a problem, since the smartest man the world has ever known thought the soul was supremely valuable. We behave as if we think he was wrong about this. We neglect our souls, but spend a great deal of time and money on our bodies. The people of the United States of America spent 2.5 trillion dollars on medical care last year. (This figure does not include the cost of manicures, pedicures, facials, haircuts, shampoo, lotions, potions, and over-the-counter drugs.) The great debate in the country at present is focused on health care. The discussion has involved the highest levels of government including the President and Congress, the AMA, economists, business, academia, and the public, in general. The scientific enterprise in support of strategies for insuring our health and for restoring us from sickness is hardly pocket-change. The National Institutes of Health will be allocated over 31 billion dollars for medical research in 2010 and most observers believe this amount is too small given the enormity of the medical challenges that we face.
What about the soul?
Apparently, the government does not care about the soul. Maybe our religious institutions do. But, I do not remember the last time I heard a sermon that included specific reference to the soul. I never once attended a Sunday School class that tackled the subject of how to care for and nurture one’s soul. In my small group, there is never any reference to soul-health. Statistics are available that gauge the cost, in terms of human life, of lack of good medical healthcare. We have little sense of the cost of chronic neglect of our souls, but it is not trivial:
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. (I Peter 2:11)
War is fought for one purpose: to kill the enemy. War or not, when our bodies are at risk of death, we will pay any cost to get to an emergency room. Why doesn’t anyone notice that our souls, as a consequence of an unrelenting war, mounted by an extraordinarily powerful adversary, are in grave danger? Just as we ignore the advice to exercise and eat well for a long life, we ignore Jesus’ imperative:
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26)
It is a certainty that we need a savior far more than we can even imagine.
1 Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle or The Mansions, ed. by B. Zimmerman, Grand Rapids, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.