When I say “the way up is down” I do not mean to infer this as a strategy for personal success, honor, or reward.
When the disciples were caught arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus rebuked them and said, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). Jesus was not saying that downward mobility in this life is the way to acquire upward mobility in the next. Jesus was not laying out a strategy for accumulating rewards in the next life or for moving up in the pecking order. What he was saying is that in God’s kingdom there is no pecking order. It does not operate on the basis of meritocracy. God’s kingdom is not about being first or last; it’s not about winners and losers. It’s all about loving one another and being the servant of all, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
Jesus was, however, expounding the way to experience fullness of life in God’s kingdom now and later. This way involves relinquishment of personal ambition and commitment to self-giving service for the good of others.
In a paradoxical teaching Jesus puts it this way, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34–35).
The way of life––life in relationship with God and participation in God’s work— is the way of the cross, the way of sacrificial service, suffering, and death. In order to find life we must lose life, we must “deny” or “renounce” ourselves.
Thomas Merton calls this the false self. We must let go of our false self in order to discover our true self. Others call this the little or small self, or the ego-dominated self. It’s the self caught up in itself. It’s the self wrapped up in my story, or my group’s story, without the balance, perspective, and compassion of the larger story, God’s vision of peace, restorative justice, healing, and life for all.
When Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about the cross, about suffering and death, in response Jesus says, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but human things. You are directing your attention not on God’s concerns, but your own selfish concerns” (Mark 8:33).
That’s the false self. It’s the calculating self. The self that is into competition and comparisons, the self preoccupied with appearances—how I look to others and how others perceive me. It’s the self looking for applause and praise.
One of the ways we can tell whether we are operating out of our false self or true self is by considering how we pray. Do we pray in order to bend God to our own agenda, to persuade God to do what we want God to do, to enhance our well-being? Or do we pray in order to bend our will to God’s purpose? In order to discover what God is doing and participate with others in doing it?
There can be a very stark contrast between the actual purpose and will of God for human beings and the purpose or will that human beings have for themselves, which they tell themselves is the will of God. As long as we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is the will of God, we can feel good and guilt-free in doing it.
It’s no wonder so many of us have ignored, denied, or altered the message of Jesus in the Gospels and turned it into a message about success, self-fulfillment, or the afterlife. The call to lose one’s life and deny one’s self in order to participate in a larger story for the good of all just doesn’t sell in a culture pervaded by the philosophy that bigger is better and more is gain. The idea that less is more and letting go is the path to spiritual life doesn’t quite square with the American Dream.
The paradox of discipleship is that gaining means losing and losing means gaining. The more we cling to the false self, to merit badges, accolades, pecking orders, and working the system to get to the top of the pile, the more we lose. And the more we lose, the more we surrender and denounce in order to embody the love and compassion of Christ, the more we gain. It’s a crazy kind of math in God’s upside down kingdom that defies human calculation and challenges conventional wisdom.