Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36 (NIV)
I’ve always thought of this passage as Jesus speaking of what saves our souls in the next world. In other words, become my disciple by converting, and you will save your soul with eternal life.
Having taken a trip down “Romans Road” and praying the Sinner’s Prayer, I thought I had my soul covered. Perhaps not.
I’m not going to say that “eternal security” is the wrong way to read this passage, but I think I’ve been missing the fuller meaning of Jesus’ teaching. There are depths here that I have yet to explore.
The contrast in this conversation is between a disciple and someone who gains the whole world instead. One has chosen to follow Jesus with the promise of a cross to bear and the safety of his/her soul, while the other gains notoriety, respect, and comfort while losing his/her soul.
My soul isn’t just the part of me that goes to heaven when I die. It’s also a place where I commune with God today. Those who follow Jesus keep in touch, so to speak, with their souls, while those who gain the whole world will lose touch with their souls.
Think of John Wesley’s question: “How is it with your soul?”
Those who have learned to abide in Jesus can answer that question.
Those who do not may well respond with a list of their accomplishments.
Although I have very much considered myself a follow of Jesus for most of my life, I have lost touch with my soul over the years. I’ve pursued financial stability, a career that makes sense based on my talents, and some measure of popularity and acclaim as a writer. Each time I’ve let go of a particular desire or goal, I’ve found that a barrier has been removed between myself and God.
I’ve freed myself to find God a little bit more each time as I’ve let go of my false self and my misplaced priorities.
Jesus is speaking in extremes when he mentions gaining the whole world vs. saving your soul. This isn’t an all or nothing proposition.
I have given up my soul in pursuit of a tiny little piece of the world, nothing close to “gaining the whole world.”
It doesn’t matter if I can point to someone who has sacrificed more of herself or gained more of the world. We can lose ourselves and our connections with God over the smallest distractions and shifts in direction.
I have no interest in saying who is in and who is out when it comes to saving souls for the next life. Jesus warned us specifically against playing the role of judge in such matters. I do know, however, that I have considered my soul safe and sound when, in actuality, I had no clue where it was or how to find it.
My soul had no anchor in the presence of God. I was blown about by my anxieties, the wisdom of others, and my shifting, endless, fruitless goals.
My primary job is to seek the presence of God, making my soul a place for the Spirit of God to rest. Anything else that follows isn’t for me to determine.
In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the spiritual life as a matter of abiding, becoming like a vine that connects to a branch. When I lost my soul to the pursuit of my own desires, I had cut myself off from the branch, hoping to be spiritually fruitful without the “work” of simply abiding.
It’s so hard to fathom how abiding is both work and not work. The work of abiding is the stillness, the surrender, and the desperation that comes from opening ourselves up to God and trusting God to provide everything that follows.
The work of abiding opens our lives up to God so that God can point at our souls and say, “There you are. See how you are loved and how my peace rests on you? Here is who you really have been all of this time and how I will always see you.”
Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer
and Christian spirituality in my latest book:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians
On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)
Amazon | Herald Press | CBD