READ : Mark 8:35-37
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?
Mark 8:35-37 rsv
“From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy servant who would follow thee.”
I can’t recall when or where I first heard those lines, but I remember the impression they made on me. The adjective especially seized my attention: silken. Why was I so taken by it? Perhaps it was the note of the incongruous, that people would need to be freed from something as soft and smooth as silk. Maybe it was the startling thought of a captivity so comfortable that we might not welcome deliverance from it. Maybe it was the sobering sense that following Jesus doesn’t really happen until this beguiling, beautiful bondage is broken.
“From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy servant who would follow thee.”
Is “self,” then, a great problem in our lives, a sort of bondage which holds us? That’s a puzzling question. In some ways, a sense of self is a good thing. The clear awareness of personal identity is an important, positive thing in our development as human beings. Self-esteem can also be a plus in life – a genuine love for ourselves. After all, aren’t we called by God to love others as we love ourselves?
“Silken self” must mean something different from self-awareness and self-esteem. It must mean a kind of self-addiction, a self-preoccupation, a self-centeredness. It must mean that “looking out for Number 1” has become the highest priority in life.
I think that’s what Jesus is speaking about in the passage of Scripture I’m going to read you now. It’s from Mark, chapter 8, beginning at verse 34:
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
Jesus seems to be saying that our greatest temptation in life is to save ourselves. That was the underlying motif in all the testings He faced. Remember those experiences He had in the wilderness after His baptism? “If you are the Son of God,” whispered the tempter, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). For a man who had been without food for a long time, that was an alluring prospect. Why not use your power as God’s Messiah to minister to this urgent, personal need? Let the barren rocks of the desert become life-giving bread. Why not?
But Jesus saw in that suggestion something sinister. It was a call to carry on His ministry independently of the Father who had sent Him. It meant using the power of God for His own comfort and advantage. It sounded like an invitation to save Himself. So Jesus said no. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (v. 4).
Again, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple]” (v. 6). It will be a dramatic testimony to Your identify as the Messiah. You’ll have the attention of the masses. They’ll respond powerfully to Your claims. But again, it meant for Jesus choosing another path than the one the Father had laid out for Him. It meant winning acclaim by dazzling feats instead of by steady obedience. It was leaving the way of the cross for the world’s way. It was saving Himself, and Jesus wouldn’t do it.
Then came the word about the kingdoms of the world. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (v. 9). In other words, compromise this one time. You can have universal dominion without rejection, agony and death. Save Yourself. But Jesus refused. He was so intent on doing His Father’s will and saving us that He wouldn’t turn aside to spare Himself.
Jesus sensed the same pressure when the eager crowds wanted to make Him a king. That was another detour, another escape from the path that led to the cross. Then came Peter’s advice when Jesus had predicted His coming rejection and death. Peter objected, “God forbid, Lord, this shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). That is, don’t walk that lonely way of suffering and rejection, Jesus. Don’t even think about it. Save Yourself!
Remember how that taunt became a kind of chorus as Jesus hung on the cross? The mockers cried, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself.” Again, “He saved others. He cannot save Himself.” And “Are you not the Christ?” mocked one of the thieves. “Save yourself and us” (see Luke 23:35-36). But no, in the wilderness and among the multitudes, in the garden and on the hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus refused to give way to silken self. He would not save Himself.
How about us? How are we tempted to save our lives, to look out for ourselves? I find the tendency in me to try to save myself from blame. When things go wrong in family relationships, who is responsible? “Surely I’m not the one!” Or, “It must have been my wife’s fault or my children’s.” Something inside me starts up to say, “Don’t look at me! I’m not to blame. You’re not going to lay this on me, are you?” It’s more comfortable for me to find some scapegoat than to take responsibility myself. Something within me wants to save myself from being held accountable, from being considered in the wrong.
Are you ever tempted to save yourself from ridicule? I am. I don’t like to be laughed at. So when truth is unpopular with those around me, when loyalty to Christ is met with smug contempt, it’s easy for me to clam up. It’s hard for any of us to run the risk of being scorned. Quietly, carefully, we move away from the “hot seat.” We rescue ourselves from being mocked. We do what Simon Peter did: give the impression, perhaps by our silence, that we don’t know this one, Jesus.
In more commonplace ways and days, we’ll spare ourselves inconvenience, won’t we? Our children need us. Our spouse longs for a listening ear. But we’re tired, feeling out of sorts. “Don’t bother me with this,” we say. Or sometimes friends may drain us with the troubles and sorrows they share. We find ourselves pulling away. We can’t handle that. Someone at work pleads for our time, our help, but we feel too pressured, too busy. Can’t they see that we need to be about our main business: pursuing our own agenda, saving ourselves?
Whenever self-preservation is my first law, whenever my most important question becomes, “What’s in it for me?,” I’m feeling the constraints of what the poet calls “silken self.”
It may feel comfortable to go along that path, but Jesus warns us that it leads nowhere. He says, in effect, Don’t believe the lie that self-fulfillment is your life’s true goal. If you buy that, you’ll end up betraying the people who depend on you most. You’ll stifle the whisperings of conscience and wander from the Lord’s path. And sadly, ironically, your whole enterprise will end in failure. You won’t find yourself, you won’t experience fulfillment, you’ll end up losing the very self you tried so hard to preserve. “Whoever would save his life,” said Jesus, “will lose it.”
But the alternative Jesus proposes hardly sounds promising, does it? He calls us to lose our lives, to abandon ourselves, and that strikes us as risky business. We haven’t always heard that note clearly enough in our Lord’s teaching. Following Him is a risk. This, He says, is what it takes. “If any one will come after me, let him deny himself.” Renounce himself would be another way to render it. Give up that pattern of selfishness, of controlling self-interest. Say no to self as the organizing center, as the dictator of your life and destiny.
Then, He says, take up your cross. We today may conveniently spiritualize what it means to take up a cross. We may regard cross-bearing as some difficulty we have in life, recurring headaches or family members hard to get along with. But there could be no such confusion for those who first heard Jesus’ words. In the ancient world, carrying a cross on your back had but one meaning. You were headed out somewhere to die. If people want to follow Jesus, He says, they have to be ready to risk everything, even life itself. They have to take on all the dangers and difficulties that may be involved in obeying Christ and serving His kingly rule in this world. They’re to be identified with Him, sharing His lot.
So the choice with which those first hearers were confronted was: Are you going to save your life or are you going to lose it? Will you hoard and preserve that self of yours or will you freely give it away?
LOSING TO WIN
Now why in the world, we wonder, would anyone want to lose his life? Why would a person choose stern self-denial over comfortable self-pleasing? Why would a person decide to carry a cross when he could walk free in paths of his own choosing? Here’s the key for Christians: Jesus says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s.” Friends, that makes all the difference. There’s no virtue in self- limiting, self-denial, self-renunciation for its own sake. We don’t win favor with God by being hard on ourselves. And whatever superiority we feel toward those who are more self-indulgent falls far short of human fulfillment. Everything depends on why we deny ourselves.
Jesus says, “For my sake.” That’s what’s liberating. That’s what’s redemptive. Suppose now that Jesus is a hard taskmaster who simply wants to control us for His own advantage, exploit us for His plans, lord it over us. No one would want to go through fire and water, through mockery, tears, blood and death for such a person. But suppose He is the sinner’s friend. Suppose He’s the Lord of great compassion. Suppose He’s the one who comes from His glory to spend Himself utterly for our sakes. Suppose He’s meek and lowly in heart. Suppose He loves us deathlessly. Then He’s worth any sacrifice, worth fronting every difficulty, every danger. We choose, we risk, we follow because we are captured by His grace.
We do it for Jesus and “for the sake of the gospel.” Not only out of personal loyalty to Him but out of commitment to His cause. We follow so that His name may be everywhere known and praised, so that His gospel may be proclaimed to all peoples. We risk ourselves, spend ourselves, lose ourselves to see His kingdom fully come.
That’s what the Lord wants for us. He wants you and me to give ourselves to Him so that we can take the risks of love for others. He wants us to pass along what we’ve received, loving as we’ve been loved, forgiving as we’ve been forgiven, caring as we’ve been cared for. He wants us to lose ourselves for His sake in His great cause, pouring our life’s energies into something bigger and grander than our own security and success.
And where people do that, where they forget themselves to follow Him, where they risk themselves in concern for others, an amazing miracle takes place. People find themselves. They gain what they had seemed to throw away. They discover the life that is life indeed.
That’s the power and grace of Jesus. By loving us and laying down His life for us, He wins us from our calculating selfishness. He leads us to take the risk of trusting, loving Him and spending ourselves in His service. And whatever we seem to lose, He more than repays. That’s how He, our great Captain, saves us from “silken self.”