My wife got me the movie The Martian recently (which if you haven’t seen it yet is an awesome movie!), and without going into too many spoilers, there was a gritty realness to the storyline that caught my attention right from the start. I mean, you have this guy marooned on this planet, and by the end of the film he’s done pretty much everything except get off the planet. He’s learned how to survive, he’s kept himself alive, and he’s even physically gotten himself to where he needs to be to be rescued. There’s only one thing he hasn’t done, which is also the one thing he can’t do, and that is escape the prison he’s in. His knowledge and ingenuity can keep him alive in the short-term, but those abilities are powerless to ultimately save his life and get him home. His only way home is to entrust himself to those who have come back for him, and who have a crazy, risky rescue plan that will either save him or kill him. He has to choose to throw away the supposed safety he’s built for himself so far, and risk it all on a throw of the dice.
If we see the Gospel as the Great Story, the one which continues to play out in all of our smaller stories, then it shouldn’t surprise us to find echoes of that story in places like Hollywood blockbusters. In Mark 8:34-36, we are told that Jesus, “when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, ‘Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'”
If you’ve been around the church much at all, the odds are good that you’ve encountered this passage before. (If you haven’t been around church much at all, bear with me; this will make sense in a moment.) When I read “whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it,” I used to take it to refer to martyrdom. Basically, if I’m ever persecuted to the point that I give my life for Christ, then I will either chose to physically give my life or not and the results will be as Jesus describes here.
The problem, however, is that words can have a lot of different meanings. Take “life,” for instance, which can as easily refer to your physical life as it can to your hopes, dreams, desires, and whatever else it is that makes up your existence on this planet. To which of these meanings is Jesus referring to? “Life,” in this context, refers to “that which makes you a person.” A better English word to get this sense across might be “soul”. In short, Jesus is talking here about the very things which make you who you are. (Given the focus of many of my other posts here, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.)
So what exactly is the context in which we get this sense of life as soul? Earlier in this chapter, in v. 14-21, Jesus talks to His disciples about the Pharisees, the Jewish religious elite of the day who had reduced religion to a soul-killing list of rules and obligations. In doing so, however, they had earned themselves a great deal of respect, albeit at the cost of totally missing the point of who Jesus is. In seeking to save themselves through building a life that brought respect and stability, they had in fact given up the very things that made them who they were as persons. Jesus’ point, then, is that in looking to respect, money, societal position, etc., to provide a life for yourself, it is possible to gain those things (that’s the “whole world” He refers to later on in the passage) and yet lose the things that make you who you are.
Most of us, if we’re honest, probably wouldn’t argue with that logic. At the very least, we know (or have heard about) those who put so much time and energy into pursuing things that gave them that sense of respect or whatnot that they lost everything else. Sure, they may have reached their goal in the end, but something in them died a little along the way. In this, we’re not much different from Matt Damon’s character in The Martian. We can build a life of sorts for ourselves, in much the same way that Damon’s character can keep himself alive in the short-term, but just as Damon’s character is powerless to get himself off Mars, so are we just as powerless to save our own lives. What, then, is the solution? Just as Damon’s colleagues in the film offer him a dangerous, risky way out, so too does Jesus.
At the end of Mark 8:35, He says, “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” Again, this isn’t referring to martyrdom, but rather to the very things which make us who we are. We think we’ll save ourselves through respect at our workplaces, or in our relationships, or in financial stability, and while these are not bad things in and of themselves, if we make them the priority they’ll kill us on a soul level. What Jesus asks us to do with those things seems just as crazy at first as does the plan to get Damon’s character off of Mars. We give them up. We forfeit them to Him and trust Him to give us the things we think we need so desperately. Such a decision may not be as physically dangerous as the one Damon’s character has to make, but it can certainly feel like it. What if we lose the things we care about the most? Can we trust Jesus enough to take Him at His word in this? Does He really have our best interests at heart? This is a decision we each have to make on our own, meaning those are questions I can’t answer for you. What I can say, without giving away whether or not Matt Damon’s character survives, is that if he doesn’t trust the plan his rescuers have to save him, then he’s dead. Maybe that’s not quite a bad description of our own situations.