In the Sunday school class I teach at Crooked Creek Baptist Church, we found ourselves spending much time on a single verse, John 12:25, “Whoever loves his life will lose it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it unto eternal life”. For my wife, when she lived in Romania during the Communist era, it was clear what this meant – Christians were aware that they could be arrested, imprisoned, and perhaps even “disappear” if they were vocal about their faith, or even went so far as to try to promote it.
But what does a teaching like this mean in other contexts, including the United States, where we sometimes hear religious believers whine about persecution if someone disagrees with them, or if they don’t always get their way? I think the saying is ultimately about our values, and I found myself revisiting the subject raised in The Lucifer Effect in the context of our discussion. In a society like that in North America, one’s freedoms are protected. But in some ways, it is much more straightforward to make a decision about what is important knowing in advance that one might face severe consequences, than to never know quite when one will find oneself in a situation where it might be expected that we will act in ways that may depart from our core values. Before we know it, we have gone along with something that we never would have foreseen.
The Confucian sage Mencius famously wrote, “I love life, but I also love righteousness, and if I cannot have both at the same time, I will sacrifice life to have righteousness. I love life, but there is something that I love more than life, and thereforeI would not have life at any price.” Mencius makes a comparison with having two menu choices that one likes (fish and bear paw). Since bear paw is not as popular nowadays in most English-speaking countries, let me suggest substituting a hamburger and lobster. I like both, but if I have to choose, I definitely prefer one to the other. Mencius is not concerned with the afterlife, since Confucianism does not place its focus on such uncertain matters. He simply loves doing the right thing more than living a long life, if he has to choose between them. It is not that he will not take both if he can, and in the same way the saying of Jesus in John 12:25 presumably is not a call to willful self-destruction. Since something else is ultimately valuable, life is viewed as a means to righteousnss, rather than an end in itself.
The key to not getting pulled along with things we will regret with hindsight is to have our minds made up in advance that we love something not only more than life, but more than reputation, more than popularity, more than anything. After all, eternal life in the Gospel of John is not simply about afterlife, but about a particular way of living in the present. Even in relation to ideas like rewards in the afterlife, sometimes all that we see is a shift of selfishness from a short-term focus on the present to a willingness to go for “what’s behind door number 2”. But when we understand “eternal life” as a different set of values, then it challenges us to make a much more fundamental change, and to regard going along with something that we never thought we could as a “punishment” in and of itself.
Last night’s episode of “Chuck” also explored these themes in an entertaining way. The episode began with a painting which was described by a series of individuals as “crap” and “looks like it was painted by a 5-year old”, but people were still killing each other for it. As it turned out, they were after plutonium hidden in the frame. The picture was just a means to an end. But plutonium isn’t an end in itself. It is a means – to wealth, to world domination, to destructive power, to something else. But are those really ends? What, we need to ask ourselves, is ultimately valuable to us?
The character of Chuck poses this question at the episode’s end when he asks “What’s the good of being a hero if nobody knows it?” Sara answers, “You know it…and so do I.” The concepts of honor and shame (how others view us) were important ones in the development of human moral sensibilities. But perhaps best of all is when it is sufficient that we know it, and are satisfied with having done the right thing even if no one else ever finds out. Even reputation can be less than ultimate.
So what do you ultimately value, and why? What do you love more than life?