There are two profoundly different sides to the thing commonly called ‘ life’.
It was a hot summer’s afternoon and a group of farm workers had been labouring all day in the hot sun, picking onions on a vegetable farm. By three o’clock in the afternoon the burden of the heat had become all but unbearable; mercifully, the foreman allowed the workers to have half an hour break to refresh and rehydrate. Now, this onion field was located near a wide slow-flowing river, which was used to farm to irrigate the crops. Jutting out into the river from the bank adjacent to the field, was a small jetty which suspended the suction pipe for the irrigation pump, beneath its decking. The decking was about two feet above the water, and provided an attractive place for the workers to sit and cool off.
Two enthusiastic young men ran right to the end of the jetty seeking the best position to capitalize on the refreshment offered by the river.
One of the young man, without a second thought, dove straight into the deep slow-flowing water; splashing freely in its coolness he gained immediate relief, not only cooling off, but washing off the sweat and dirt that had irritated him for most of the day. He also drank liberally from the clean clear water. Refreshment came quickly and effortlessly, but granted, not with the inherent dangers of swimming in a river!
The second young man was much more conservative. He was worried about the hidden currents, the vortex created by the irrigation pump suction, the potential for cramps and the danger of submerged objects that might ensnare and drown him. This cautious young man remained safely on the jetty above the water. In seeking relief, he laid on his stomach and uncomfortably reached down to vigorously scoop up the tantalizing liquid. But he struggled to get enough water to actually quench his thirst, and barely caught enough to dampen his sunburnt brow. From his, undoubtedly safe, position, the soothing water simply ran through the gaps of his fingers. In the end, his endeavours seemed to be a zero sum game, with the relief gained cancelled out by the effort expended. The cool water beckoned with the offer of relief, but fear inhibited it’s attainment.
The story of the two young men provide us with a useful metaphor; a way of thinking about the two approaches to life–one self-preserving, one self-abandoning.
It should come as no surprise that Jesus had much to say about life. In fact, life is the primary reason he came. He taught about it’s value, it’s purpose, its duration, and how one might attain it, and he willingly died to make it ‘truly’ available. Yet, perhaps, his most profound and enigmatic teaching on the subject is derived from his discussions on the value of losing one’s life–the ultimate paradox.
Following his disciples’ recognition and affirmation of Jesus being the Messiah, Jesus drops this bombshell…
‘And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?’ Luke 9:22-25 (NIV)
The disciples held to the notion that Jesus had come to establish a ‘this-worldly’ kingdom, a realm which offered a life of unbounded prosperity and safety. Well, he had, but ‘not yet’ and not in ‘this life’.
The way to the kind of life the disciples sought was paradoxically gained through death. Jesus stated that it was necessary for him to suffer and die in order to deal with the things that hindered humans from attaining the kind of ‘eternal’ life they sought, but could not attain. Not only so, but Jesus asserted that the way of death he was about to embrace, must also be the lot of any who would follow in his footsteps. These life-seekers, must be prepared to adopt this contrarian approach to life. They must be willing to embrace the way of self-denial, to the point of death, predicated on the idea of loss being the means of gain.
Therefore, if a person would seek to preserve, conserve, or keep their life, they must invariably lose or give it up. For, the way of natural human life is ultimately toward natural death, and to try an avoid the inevitable is simply a fool’s errand. On the contrary, Jesus advocates that the person who is willing to give up the life they would naturally be inclined to preserve, they will surely find true life; a kind of life–unbounded and prosperous–which those bound to this world so desperately seek but can never truly grasp.
In essence, Jesus is saying: ‘To gain true life, one must be willing to risk and even lose ‘this’ life, let go of the natural human proclivity for self-preservation and self-fulfillment and trough faith in God, surrender to a quest for a different kind of life, an ‘eternal’ kind of life; life that can only be attained when one yields what they consider to be safe. In short, to get life one must first let it go!’
Of course, this is not a one-off principle randomly promulgated in only one context. On the contrary, it is a golden thread sown into the broader fabric of Jesus’ teaching.
For example, in his teaching on stewardship…
“Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest. “‘Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ Matthew 25:24-30 (NIV)
As you can see, it is the conservative, fearful servant who squanders the opportunity for life offered to him, not only is he ‘not’ rewarded, but what was first given him is taken and given to the other who earned the most; that is, the one who was willing to take the biggest risk. Thus, the principle stands: ‘Those who seek to preserve their own life will invariably lose it. Only those who risk everything ‘this life’ offers by stepping out in faith toward the next, through obedient service to God, will truly gain what is sought’.
Furthermore, toward those who might imagine the best possible human scenario is a life resourced beyond the limits of potential consumption, Jesus also had this to say…
“Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. “And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ “So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. ‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” ‘ “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ “So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Luke 12: 15-21 (KJV)
Therefore, to those inclined to ignore or dismiss the value of surrendering this life in order to gain a greater life, Jesus reminds them that an abundance of possessions is no guarantee of life unlimited–far from it. Even if one had all the resources in the world, and were able to freely dedicate their life to self-indulgence as a consequence, they would still be subject to the vicissitudes of human frailty. Even the best life, hangs on the slender thread of human mortality–even the richest person is only one breath away from losing it all!
So as we can see, there is only one valid side of life to live on; the side of self-denial and self-abandonment–the side of life that seeks to gain true life by willingly giving up it’s temporal entitlements.
For many people, even Christians, the self-preserving and self-seeking way of life, appears to be the only valid side of life to live on. But, the honest person will acknowledge that such a life does little more than expend energy in a vain attempt to gain a form of life that can never be kept. The life they seek is little more than the refreshing water in a cool river, that runs through frail fingers every time it is vainly grasped. Though perpetually sought it is always and ultimately elusive. Such a life ‘is’ a zero sum game–where nothing is truly ventured and nothing is truly gained. It is merely an existence, not a life!
But for those who plunge in, who trust Jesus whole heartedly, who willingly abandon the false security on offer, and are willing to risk it all; they will not only find themselves living a life of satisfaction, but embrace a lively hope of a life without limit–eternal life.
Make no mistake, to live on this side of life takes courage, it takes faith, and it takes love– a love for God that supplants any love this world can offer. It means being willing to embrace death, and to live life as if one is dead–dead to the world and all the false security it offers.
When one can do this, then, and only then, do they begin to live. They enter into a life without fear, without anxiety, a life of characterized by joy and hope that begins now and never ends.
Which side of life are you living on?