For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
This saying of Jesus appears to be a paradox. How can we lose our life by saving it or save our life by losing it? Like any paradox, if we take the words at face value we can’t. However, if we look below the surface we find a nuance hidden, lost in translation, from which a deeper meaning emerges.
As far as we know, the original language of the New Testament is Greek and in Greek, the verb used by Matthew for “save” really means “to keep safe.” Thus, Jesus is counseling us not to keep safe; that is, to risk being hurt, for only when we do that can we enjoy eternal life with God in heaven.
Although that might help us understand the paradox, it doesn’t make things any easier. It seems as if Jesus is teaching that the way to avoid suffering in the afterlife is to endure suffering in this life. That seems cruel! Does Jesus really want us to suffer?
Perhaps it’s best to answer that question by remembering that God is Love, that we are made in the image of God, and that no one modeled that image better than Jesus, his only Son. By his Incarnation Jesus taught that true love seeks neither isolation nor safety but entanglement and risk. God could have chosen to save fallen humanity from the safety of pure divinity. He didn’t; he chose to dwell among us, to take on the nature he created and raise it from within; to bind himself to the human condition beyond any untying and restore it to its original capacity for the deepest love possible: Eternal union with him.
Jesus spent his life and ministry showing us what it means to love as God loves: He made himself vulnerable in the sight of others, exposed his deepest longings, deepest fears, deepest joys, his deepest self. Of course, he risked rejection and it cost him his life, but that is what love does; it was in the nature of his perfect divinity that from the depths of his infinite love and mercy, he glorified what mankind so quickly crucified.
This tells us that Jesus doesn’t want us to suffer, he wants us to love; by its very nature, love risks suffering and will endure it for the sake of the beloved. Of course we are free to refuse, but refusing to love means that we give nothing, share nothing, resist the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and remain isolated even from God himself. Some may call that safety but Christ calls it loss, for he knows that the only thing we bring to heaven is the love that we have given away.