She was expanding on Jesus’ message: If you intellectually assent, “Yes, I think Jesus is probably the Son of God; I think he probably died for our sins,” but he is not the center of your life, then you may think you understand, but you really don’t. It’s not just a matter of commitment or lack of discipline, there’s spiritual deadness; you don’t really see it, understand it, get it. Wake yourself up!
Finding a New Identity
Discipleship is not just a matter of bending your will to Jesus’ will; it’s melting your heart into a whole new shape. A disciple is not someone who simply sets a new priority; a disciple finds a new identity. We see this in Luke 9:23–25. At first sight verse 23 looks like it’s just another way of saying set a new priority: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” But there’s more to it than that. In Semitic literature, the second and third sentences often restate the first. And here the second and third sentences say, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for me will save it.” The word life is not the word for physical life. There’s a good Greek word for that: bios, from which we get our word biology. The Greek word that’s translated “life” is psyche, meaning “self.” He’s talking—pretty radically—about the psychological, inner life. “Your old way of having an identity, of gaining a sense of self, has got to end. In a sense you have to die to it. And I can give you a whole new identity. You’ll get a whole new true self.”
Let’s look at this more closely. Verses 24 and 25 show what he’s not saying. He’s not taking the typical Eastern or Western approach to identity. In Buddhism the deepest consciousness of enlightenment is losing all sense that you are an individual self. The boundaries between you and the rest of reality disappear. The Eastern way to humility, to peace, is to actually lose the sense of an individual self.
But Jesus doesn’t stop at, “I want you to lose yourself.” He says, “Lose yourself to find yourself,” which means, “I want you to die to your old approach to identity, and get a new sense of individual self.” He’s not going the Eastern way. But he’s sure not going the Western way either.
W. H. Auden wrote a work called The Age of Anxiety in which he satirizes the modern Western obsession with “finding yourself.” In it there’s a great line that reads: “Miserable wicked me, / How interesting I am.” Others have also noted our obsession with finding and fulfilling your deepest desires as the main thing you’re supposed to do in life. It almost seems that Jesus has us in mind when he says, “You’re never going to find out who you really are by trying to find out who you really are. You’re going to have to lose yourself in serving me.” Some things happen only as a byproduct, and identity is one of them.
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world?” (9:25). Gaining things from the world is the normal way we try to get a self. In fact, the three men at the end of Luke 9 are examples of this. Some people say you’re nobody unless you have a lucrative career. People in more traditional cultures say you’re nobody unless you have a family. But Jesus is saying, “If you get the whole world, it cannot give you a stable self.” He says, “If you lose yourself for me…” In other words, “Instead of trying to gain a self by gaining things, build everything in your life on me, on who I am, on what I have done, then finally you’ll have a true self that is stable, because you were built to know me.”
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