What is the true cost of following Jesus Christ? Everything! Jesus addresses a crowd of people along with his disciples here in this passage in Mark’s Gospel. He has taught them first that if one wants to truly follow him one must first “deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Deny oneself? In earthly wisdom this sounds insane. What does Jesus mean?
Jesus is talking about the ego here, that self-centered “I” that sees and demands all things for itself. This is the great stumbling block. The reality is that I am nothing without God’s love and faithfulness to me. I did not create myself, and I can not save myself. Only God can do this. Yet my ego so often denies this truth. It is blinded by my inability to see any truth beyond that which I create or am willing to accept for myself. This is what I must let go of in order to follow Jesus. I must submit my will to his will, for his will is perfect and always for the good, while mine, in its finite human “wisdom,” is imperfect, willful, and flawed. In submitting to the will of God, I submit to nothing less than perfect, self-giving and eternally faithful love, true freedom. This is the only way of true happiness, the only way to eternal life.
The great irony is that the ego is really, despite all of its bravado, a cowering thing, moved exclusively by fear. Jesus tells us: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it” (verse 35). The ego is driven by a terrible fear of losing mere things. It fears the loss of things like: wealth, power, status, and reputation. It gets caught up in comparing itself to others. When it compares itself as better than the other it considers the other as not as valuable as the self, and treats the other accordingly. Or, more often, it sees itself as not as good as the other. When this happens it is riven with rage, filled to overflowing with jealousy and bitterness. The ego gets caught up in competition with other egos and there can only be one winner; everybody else must be losers. But this is a vicious cycle, because the egos of the others still want to be number one. Because there is no room for God in any of this, there can only be an atmosphere of distrust and hate, even violence toward the other. Does this sound familiar? The great irony is that in forgetting about God the ego has no life in it. Indeed, it becomes anti-life, destructive toward the other and ultimately it destroys itself.
This, then, is why Jesus asks the crowd, the disciples, and us, the ultimate rhetorical question: “What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life” (verse 36)? The life he is talking about here is our eternal lives. We all have heard the aphorism, “Be careful of what you wish for.” There is only one thing that we can desire that has eternal life in it, that is, to follow Jesus, for as he said of himself, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). It is in Jesus alone that we have our greatest treasure, that is, eternal life. It is what we choose in this life, in our thoughts and in our actions, that determines our eternity. Do we willfully choose to try to “gain the whole world” pursuing all the material, finite desires and demands of our egos only to lose “everything” in the end? Or, do we willingly choose to let go of those earthly and infertile desires, to “deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus” into that eternal joy that our souls were made for from the beginning? If God becomes our sole desire, then we will find the one true treasure our hearts naturally yearn for, that is, to live forever in the blissful presence of God in heaven. That is ‘Everything!’ We must ask ourselves then: Are we ashamed of Jesus? Are we fearful of his words? If so, “The Son of Man will be ashamed of us when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (verse 38). That would be a loss beyond comprehension.
Lord, without you we are nothing and have nothing. Give us hearts that desire only to follow you. Increase our faith and inspire in us the courage to deny ourselves, to willingly pick up our crosses and follow you in our daily lives. We ask these things in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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