“He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.
A key to unlocking the spiritual treasure in this enigmatic statement may be discerned I think by a deeper understanding of the phrase “eternal life”. Whilst the natural understanding for a modern audience is solely a life beyond the grave, it is also used, particularly in John to denote a quality of life in our mortal life. I’ll give a couple of examples;
In John 5:24 John has Jesus saying “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life”
And in 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”.
In those two statements, also from John’s gospel eternal life is now in this life and is a matter of belief or perception or perhaps we should say enlightenment.
Indeed eternal life could be called spiritual “life” as opposed to spiritual darkness or “death”. Jesus in a famous saying reported in both Matthew and Luke said “Let the dead bury their own dead” talking of people who were very much alive in that they were walking about but spiritually they were dead. They were walking in darkness. “Let the dead bury their own dead”. But you, those who see, those who are spiritually alive, come and follow me”.
So if eternal life is understood as a quality of life, otherwise called “fullness of life”, then the truth of the statement hangs on our attitude to life – how we perceive it.
A person “loving their life” as Jesus puts it, I interpret as a selfish, inward looking existence; lived apart from and in competition with everybody else. A person that sees their own life as the very centre of their own universe in a dog eat dog world. The impulse to live in this way is very pervasive and is one of the major influences in modern western culture. The cult of the individual is very strong.
I would interpret the person “hating their life” as a person who sees that their individual life is not the absolute centre of the universe. It would be a life lived in communion with others and with God, the very source of their life. A life lived with a certain humility and graciousness towards others, who sees their life as part of an interconnecting web of cause and effect, dependent on others for just about everything and is grateful for it.
This person who lives this kind of life had found Life in all its fullness. Because in finding your life bound up with the eternal God at your centre, then death loses its sting in the sense that instead of complete oblivion when you die – a change from being to non being – your life, your essence, your Spirit, or your soul, whatever you want to call it transforms and continues.
A life freed from the confines of birth and death is a life that can be lived freely and openly, with consideration for others instead of in an antagonistic competition with others.
The two meanings of eternal life then have a bearing on each other. Finding one leads to the other.
Finding eternity in the heart of your very self begets eternal life as a quality of life we yearn for – a life of peace. At peace with ourselves, at peace with each other, at peace with the world and all predicated on being at peace with God.
But it’s not easy. I’m certainly not there yet. At least I get fleeting glimpses of it in my life. Converting those fleeting glimpses into a permanent state is the job at hand. For most of us it is a life work involving prayer and meditation. But being on the right path and walking in the right direction means that at least we have started the process and a community of faith is vital as it provides company on the way, people to confide in, to draw strength from and pick us up and dust us down when we fall because God will come to us and help us in other people.