You have to embrace paradox if you’re going to be a Christian. Our more fundamentalist brethren seem to have difficulty with paradox and nuance, and so twist themselves and the Word of God into pretzels trying to unify it in a linear, rational way. It won’t work. Just ask Nicodemus, whom Jesus told the Kingdom of God was truly knowable by spirit, not intellect alone. The very effort to understand circles as squares takes us further and further away from the Truth, whom we know as Jesus, the master of the paradox.
Here he is again, telling his followers about the cost of being his disciple. They must be prepared to deny themselves, take up their cross – a metaphor for complete helplessness, though in Jesus’ case, much more than a metaphor – and follow him. There’s no room in the suitcase for self-preservation:
How we interpret this hinges on our definition of “life.” If it’s just about breathing, this makes little sense. What person in their right mind would want to lose their physical life before it’s time? If by “life,” however, Jesus means the rich web of interaction and consciousness we call existence, then we might see how a willingness to let go of “the whole world” could make us more receptive to the Life of God, a life beyond what we can make for ourselves.
It is a matter of emptying ourselves and allowing ourselves to filled with God’s power, God’s love, God’s purpose. I don’t know about you, but I’m not crazy about empty. I do a lot of filling… my time, my inbox, my conscious attention, just to avoid confronting the emptiness inside. And yet that emptiness is where God can show up most powerfully, if we will allow the space to develop and not rush to fill it.
What does it mean to you to “gain the whole world?” Another way of asking that is, what are you the most afraid of losing, of getting taken away from you? That’s the place to start in prayer, asking the Spirit to show us why we’re so attached to that thing or person or status. Ask God to help loosen our grip, to feel the feelings that come up when we think about emptying ourselves of that. Ask Jesus what it looks like to “lose your life” in this world – and to gain the life that truly is Life.
A holy life suddenly filling an empty womb. The inexplicable absence of a corpse filling an empty tomb. From birth to death and beyond, Jesus’ life was one of God showing up in emptiness. As Paul wrote, "But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are." (I Cor 1:27-29)
Can we give up our lives – all the “stuff” that we fill our minds and bodies with, and see what God might do with our emptiness if we offer God the space?