The Rev. Rob Merola
Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
I’m guessing that if we are honest, most of us feel a pretty found disconnect with the words of Jesus this morning. We hear him saying, “You must hate your life,” and I expect that you, like me, think “Really?
After all, what is there to hate about my life? I am blessed beyond measure. I have a loving and beautiful wife and two of the best kids ever. I live in a beautiful home in a nice neighborhood in the wealthiest county in the country. I have a gorgeous garden, get to go fishing for big fish, eat as much as I want of whatever I want whenever I want… I mean, what’s not to like?
Maybe at this point you’re wondering, can I say that? If Jesus says I need to hate my life, can I say I love mine? I guess I think if we love our lives, there’s no point in pretending we don’t. If we think our lives are pretty darn good, there’s probably not much point in acting as if they are bad. We are some of the most deeply blessed people who have ever lived. Perhaps you’ll be relieved to know that this really isn’t what Jesus is talking about here.
Let’s look a little closer at what Jesus actually says. The life we are supposed to hate is “life in this world.” Now the Bible uses the word “world” much like we do. It’s one of those words that can be used in very different ways. There’s, “Man, the world around us beautiful.” And then there’s, “As a parent, I’ve done everything I can to protect my kids from the world.” In this last sentence, “world” is a negative thing, referring to what is hurtful, harmful, or destructive about the culture around us. It is in this sense that Jesus uses the word “world”. We must hate the life that is shaped by and expresses the destructive aspects of the culture around us.
This is further reinforced by the contrast between “life in this world” and “eternal life”. You probably know that “eternal life” refers as much to the quality of life as to its ongoing duration. In other words, “eternal life” doesn’t just mean everlasting life, but a certain type of life. Eternal life is the kind of life that is built on the values and principle that produce lasting happiness.
And this is further reinforced by the very next statement of Jesus that anyone who follows him must be where he is. Of course he is not talking literally; that is not possible for us. He’s talking about being in the same place in life, and being in the same place in our hearts and minds as he was in his heart and mind.
So we have to ask: Did Jesus hate his life? The answer to that has got to be “no”. He loved his life. He loved his life because his life glorified God, and a big part of how it did this was by showing all of us what real love looks like.
That means that if Jesus loved his life, and he did, and if we are supposed to be where Jesus is, and we are, then we too must love our life. But of course, the life we are meant to love is our truest and best life. It’s the life that God created us to live, as opposed to the broken and damaged life shaped by the broken and damaged aspects of the world that leads us to break and damage others.
With this understanding, we can now get both more specific and more practical. What does life “in this world” look like? Again, there’s plenty of great stuff in the world; plenty to be immensely grateful for. But that’s NOT what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about things like the norms to which we all must conform in order to be socially acceptable.
So, for instance, research indicates that the top four dominant cultural norms, or expectations, for women is that they are:
- Nice (sweet no matter what they really think or feel).
- Domestically responsible.
These norms were identified through an inventory used in which women were asked how strongly they agreed with statements like these:
I am always trying to lose weight.
I would be happier if I was thin
I’d look better if I put on a few pounds (reversed).
I am the one most responsible for the cleaning, cooking, and decorating where I live
I enjoy spending time making my living space look nice
It is important to keep your living space clean
The same research found that the top four norms to which mean are expected to conform are:
- Winning (which is often directly correlated to the Primacy of work and the Pursuit of status)
- Emotional control (what I call being tough)
- Risk taking
But here’s where the problem comes in. When we don’t measure up, we’re back against our old nemesis of Keeping Score. When we don’t feel we meet cultural expectations adequately, we feel a profound sense of shame. If I’m a woman and I’m not thin or my house isn’t clean and well decorated, I feel ashamed. If I’m a man and I’m not tough enough, boy do I ever feel a deep sense of shame.
What is so interesting in all this is that so often we think shame hides in our deepest and darkest secrets, and surely it does. But far more often it blossom and thrives right out in the open, in things such as our
body image, what happens in our homes, particularly in our marriages and parenting, in our relationship to money, in the humiliations of aging. The thing is, none of us are perfect. None of us meet the ideal. And so we all feel shame—every single one of us.
The result is entirely predictable, because shame always leads people down one of three paths: It drives us away from each other. That’s what comparison is all about, isn’t it? Comparing ourselves to others to show that we are somehow different. And so we amass more and more things, more and more prestige, more and more experiences. We hide behind them to create the illusion that we are somehow better than we know ourselves to be.
Shame can also drive us towards each other. We become people-pleasers as we seek to escape it and prove ourselves worthy in their eyes.
And sometimes shame pits us against another or even against ourselves. We become aggressive or cruel or mean, using shame to fight shame. We find ourselves struggling with addictions, with eating patterns and habits, with busy-ness, as we attempt to numb ourselves to ourselves.
None of these things ever works. Instead of loving and affirming the person God created us to be, we seek to destroy those parts of our lives that don’t fit in with what we feel is expected of us. We are constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing, and proving ourselves to God, to each other, to ourselves. But since we’ve basically disowned ourselves in the process, this does not bring the love that we need. It distances us from each other when we long to be deeply connected.
So that brings us back to where we started: we have two lives in front of us. There is a life before us wherein we lose our true selves to fit in with everybody else. Jesus call us to hate that life in order that we can be true to who God created us to be, the life that brings true and lasting happiness.
Finally, then, let me leave you with five questions will help us think more deeply about how to do just that.
What parts of your truest and best self do you bury to protect yourself from shame?
How does shame drive you?
What would it mean to hate the “impostor self” created to meet people’s expectations and love who you really are instead?
In what ways to do you need to die to the destructive ways you protect yourself, such as being harsh and cruel, withdrawing in self-pity, or engaging in being a people-pleaser?
What’s the most courageous thing you could do to be with Jesus in loving who God created you to be, especially when that person seems inadequate or disappointing?
In answering questions like these, may we choose wisely what we will die to and what we will live into more fully. In so doing, may we lose the life that conforms to the hurtful, harmful and destructive patterns of this world, and find the life built on the values which bring true and lasting happiness instead. Amen.