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All Other Ground Is Sinking Sand

February 18, 2018

Don’t run from suffering, embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?” Mark 8: 34-38, The Message

As a society, we are obsessed with self-help. We are always looking for ways to abate our loneliness, pain, and feelings of despair and self-doubt. If you google “self-help books” you will get thousands of results. There are no shortage of books to tell you how to improve every aspect of your life—from advice on “personal growth” to advice to improve your psyche, your relationships, your opportunities for employment advancement, and you-name-it. Now we also have Ted talks and You Tube to teach us how to be better at countless endeavors.

But Lent is about repentance and denial to self.   As we reflect on Christ’s suffering for our sake, we should also reflect on Jesus’ words: “Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self” (Mark 8: 35, The Message)?[1] Or in another translation: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8: 35, New International Version). Why would Jesus tell us that self-help is no help? It’s important to understand that he is not telling us to sit back and let God do everything for us in our lives. In fact, God is insistent that we work diligently and sacrifice as we work toward fulfilling his goals for our lives (e.g. Colossians 3:23; Psalm 90: 17; Proverbs 12:11; Proverbs 13:4; Proverbs 12:24; Proverbs 14: 23; Genesis 2:3).

In this week’s passage from Mark, Jesus is telling us that we cannot save ourselves. It is God who provides our refuge from loneliness, pain, and feelings of despair and self-doubt. Only God can comfort us during our lives and offer us a life with him forever. We must lean on Christ, our rock.

Before we built our house in the 1980’s, we hired a geologist to test what was beneath the soil to determine if it would sufficiently support the house we wanted to build in our earthquake-prone area. We learned that bedrock is beneath the solid clay soil on our lot and would support the house.  Likewise, if Jesus is the foundation of our lives, we can survive any seismic life event.  Jesus’ words reminded me of the verse from the old hymn My Hope is Built on Nothing Less:[2]My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

As Jesus tells us, self-help is no help. Left to our own devices, we are on sinking sand. He tells us that by relying on him, the rock, we will save ourselves.  Martin Luther understood this first-hand when a price was put on his head by the emperor after the Diet of Worms. He feared God more than the powers that be.  Heavily influenced by St. Augustine, this Roman Catholic monk’s eyes were opened by Romans 1:17: “For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” Like others before him and after him, he put his life on the line because he feared God more than the stake.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was another man who stood up to the challenge during World War II when many other clergymen were trying to appease Hitler. Luther and Bonhoeffer knew that they could not lean on their own understanding. They must be guided by God’s Word. They knew that even if they lost their lives on earth, they would gain eternal life. It is a choice that many people around the world must still make today.

Even after Jesus’ divinity was revealed to the disciples, they were faced with the decision of to whom and when the truth should be revealed. Jesus needed time to complete the work that he had been sent to do, and he needed time to prepare his disciples for what was to come. He needed time to give them the foundation that they would need to weather the storms ahead.

Peter had just confessed to him that “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8: 29),[3] but “Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mark 8: 30). And even though Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, neither he nor any of the disciples knew the full extent of what that meant. Peter wanted Jesus to be the conquering hero—the king—not the suffering servant described by Isaiah in Chapter 53.   Jesus needed time to further instruct them and to prepare them for the coming events that would change the course of history.

And so he began. He warned his disciples and the crowds that gathered around him “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it “ (Mark 8: 35, New International Version). He was telling them that they cannot help themselves—that they must listen to him and put their trust in him. He told them that if they want to save their souls, they must follow him. That was his message. The disciples didn’t turn to self-help manuals to learn how to teach others about the Kingdom of God. They turned to Jesus, the master teacher. They needed Jesus, just as we do.

He helped his followers understand that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8: 31).

The disciples didn’t know it at the time, but even the news of Jesus’ impending death was a message of hope. Paul explained years later that “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we gave gained access into this grace in which we know stand . . . we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 1-5). We don’t always know how God will use the trials of our lives, but if we make him the foundation of our lives, he will use our experiences to further his purposes.

Despite the suffering we are called to endure during our lifetimes on account of the gospel and for other reasons, we have been reconciled through Christ and will live with him always. It is a message of hope that we are called to pass down: “Future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn—for he has done it” (Psalm 22: 30-31).

Self-help is no help—it is sinking sand. Turn to the power source. Turn to the rock. Turn to God and persevere, because perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:5).

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Second Sunday in Lent are Genesis 17: 1-7; Genesis 17: 15-16; Psalm 22: 23-31; Romans 5: 1-11; Mark 8: 27-38.

[2] Edward Mote, 1797-1874

[3] The Son of Man was the name that Jesus most often called himself. It comes from Daniel 7:13, and means the Messiah.

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