Bishop Sheen used to say that at the end of our earthly life, we will meet one of two figures: Jesus or Satan. And one of them will say, “You’re mine.”
The questions we will consider in this chapter are about the choice we have between Jesus and the devil, Heaven and Hell, life and death: “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?” (Mark 8:36–37).
We need to live with the end of our lives in mind. Heaven will fulfill our every desire. All the happiness, beauty, and joy we can find in this life are but a tiny reflection of the happiness, beauty, and joy of God Himself. Heaven is going to fulfill every hope we’ve ever had; every dream will come true. And Hell will fulfill every dread we’ve ever had; every nightmare will come true.
The stakes are high. It’s eternal happiness or eternal misery. We have to live each day making sure we follow the way that will lead us to Christ. That’s the purpose of Jesus’ questions in this chapter.
It can be shocking to hear Our Lord talk about the lengths we should go to in order to see Heaven and avoid Hell. He famously said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). Now, He doesn’t mean for us to do that literally. The point is that there should be nothing in this life that we should be unwilling to sacrifice if it stands in the way of our getting to Heaven.
Vince Lombardi used to say that, in football, winning isn’t the main thing; it’s the only thing. We can adapt that to the Christian life: salvation isn’t the main thing; it’s the only thing.
God created us to be in the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s why we’re here. The Trinity — God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are perfectly happy for all eternity. God doesn’t really need us humans. He created us, though, so that we might share His happiness. Spending eternity in Heaven is the very purpose for which we were created. If we don’t reach that goal, we miss the whole reason for our existence. That would be beyond tragic. And that’s why Jesus challenges us to live our lives faithfully so that we will be found worthy to enter into His Kingdom.
The world, the flesh, and the devil will give you pleasure. They will give you an illusion of greatness through success and popularity, but it won’t be fulfilling. Why? Because the world doesn’t give you joy. Joy comes in a commitment to love others so we can participate in the joy of Christ. After all, we were made for Jesus.
The Fruitfulness of Love
Let’s take a look at Jesus’ teaching here in its entirety:
And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34–38)
In this passage Jesus tells us that there are three things that a person has to do to join Him in His Kingdom: “deny himself,” “take up his cross,” and “follow me.” You and I must live the way that God created us to live, not the way our culture wants us to live. That means we have to deny ourselves certain things — first of all, sin. We have to remove from our lives occasions of sin, which are circumstances — people, places, situations — that make us vulnerable to serious sin, even if those things are enjoyable.
Then we have to strive to overcome our sinful habits and to control our passions. St. Paul tells us that the flesh fights against the Holy Spirit within us. If we follow the way the Spirit leads us, practicing and growing in the virtues in our everyday life, we will find peace and will gradually overcome our passions.
Secondly, Jesus says we have to take up our cross. We all have a cross in life, and to take it up means to fulfill our responsibilities and to accept the burdens that come along with those responsibilities. These are different for everyone, depending on our circumstances, our vocation, and so on. As we patiently bear our trials, we learn how to forget ourselves while loving others. The beautiful thing about that love is that, as it grows, it helps us in so many ways. It allows us to take up our cross cheerfully. It makes it easier for us to sacrifice our time and energy for others. In fact, it challenges us to serve more and more. Love, like life itself, is most fruitful when it is given.
Love grows as we give it away but shrinks as we try to keep it for ourselves. The very nature of love is self-giving. When we give our lives in service and in love, we will find more and more love for others and for Christ in our lives.
And finally, the third thing Jesus tells us is simply to follow Him — to follow the example He sets for us. Jesus is the only way: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). If we follow anyone else, we will get lost. “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness” (John 8:12). We need to follow Jesus as the authentic way to salvation.
Yes, there will be sufferings. But remember Jesus’ teaching about the grain of wheat: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). When we die to ourselves by emptying ourselves in the service of others, we will be like that grain of wheat, and the world will be a better place due to a bountiful harvest of grace and goodness for the Church.
This is what the Lord means when He says, in the original passage, “whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Anyone who wants to keep his life for himself by refusing to give of himself to help others will finish in the end with nothing. But in dying to ourselves, we become fruitful in Christ.
Let’s compare the last words of two Catholic leaders who served under King Henry VIII. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey put his earthly power above his duties to Christ and the Church. He died in great pain, saying, “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” While an important figure in his age, Wolsey is remembered more for his failures than his accomplishments. St. Thomas More, however, is remembered to this day as a great saint who put his duties to Christ and the Church first and who was martyred for his devotion. His last words: “I die the king’s good servant — but God’s first.”
Finally, Jesus tells us in this passage that we should not be ashamed of Him. If we are faithful to Jesus, He will return that faithfulness, acknowledging us to His Heavenly Father.
Don’t sell out for the promises of the world. When I see Catholic politicians who say they are Catholic but who embrace values that conflict with the gospel, it seems as if they are ashamed of Christ. More than that, it seems as if they’re looking for something in this world to exchange for their very soul. We must pray for them.
These temptations affect all of us, though, even if we’re not in positions of secular authority. We are constantly asked by our culture to sell out on the gospel for a little money, or a little power, or a little prestige. When we feel that temptation, we must remember that question of Jesus: “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
There is no fair exchange for our eternal happiness.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do I go about my everyday life remembering the promise of Heaven and the pains of Hell?
- Do I conscientiously avoid occasions of sin?
- Am I ever ashamed of the gospel, choosing other values and actions that seem more “modern” or “practical”?
- How would I respond to this question of Jesus if it were addressed directly to me: “What can a man give in return for his life?”
Editor’s note: This article is from a chapter in Fr. Apostoli’s Answering the Questions of Jesus, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.