Have you ever had the experience while reading of one sentence almost literally leaping off the page? Amidst all the little black marks on white pages arranged in neat little rows, one collection of markings sets itself apart from the herd, towering above the others, reaching out, grabbing you by the throat, forcing you to reckon with it. Not all words are created equal. Some matter more, are bigger, deeper, more terrifying than others. Some words drag us into the ring and force us to face foes we would prefer to ignore. That we have even, perhaps, spent long years determinedly ignoring.
I had this experience recently while reading Mark 8 in preparation for a sermon. It’s an impressive chapter, on the whole. You have Jesus feeding a hungry crowd of four thousand, refusing the Pharisees demands for a miraculous sign, and curing a blind man. You have Peter’s powerful declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, followed by Jesus’ wildly counterintuitive (and decidedly unwelcome) declaration that this same Messiah will suffer and die at the hands of the collusion of religion and empire and rise from the dead. You have Peter rebuking Jesus for failing to understand what Messiahs are supposed to be and do, and you have Jesus describing this rebuke as satanic. You have Jesus’ call for his followers to take up their crosses and follow him into a life of suffering. But in the midst of all these words and sentences and stories, one sentence has long loomed large in the Christian imagination:
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
This one sentence strikes at the heart of all that we love, all that we hope for, all that stands, explicitly or implicitly, behind what we pursue and how we pursue it. This sentence is our judge, as we chase after things that cannot last and neglect the one thing that might. It hovers over us as we love what we are always leaving, as we dismiss the idea of eternity as little more than a fiction that we collectively dreamed up as an antidote for the misery and the brevity of our days. This sentence asks us why we are so determined to settle for a bad bargain.
And yet, if I’m honest, sometimes my soul seems like a pretty poor trade for the whole world. The whole world contains so much of what I love—people, places, experiences, things that I actually want to gain, things that I have spent a lot of time and effort pursuing, things that I have given myself to in the deepest ways I know how to, things whose absence would undoubtedly hollow me out and shrink me down. Sometimes the whole world, even with all its awful bits, seems so shatteringly beautiful and drenched in mystery and glory, that I couldn’t imagine wanting anything more. Sometimes it feels like I would gladly part with my soul for the simple loves that God has seen fit to send my way.
And who can say what a soul really is, anyway? Is it some kind of dualistic immaterial compartment of my self? The nonphysical stuff, the stuff that isn’t wasting away? Is it my brain? My heart? It is some kind of invisible entity that lives somewhere inside my skin, pulling the strings, pressing the buttons? Is it the part of me that will float up into the clouds to meet Jesus and the angels and the harps, and take my place in the heavenly choir?
Surely there is more to a soul than this. There has to be, to justify the bargain Jesus holds before us.
So, maybe “soul” points to the part of me that makes me me. The part of me that is always stretching toward a goodness I am convinced has yet to be fully realized, a kingdom I am determined to see coming. The part of me that craves eternity. The part of me that weeps for the world’s wickedness and hungers for the losers to get a taste of winning. The part of me that is desperate for mercy. The part of me that longs for eyes to truly see that Love is, finally, the one writing the story that I am moving through. The part of me that would be unspeakably glad to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but would probably settle for, “All is forgiven. Welcome home.”
Maybe this is the part of me that I ought to be afraid of losing as I’m chasing after things that can never be kept. Maybe this is the part of me could possibly imagine taking up something like a cross and following the One who, for the joy set before him endured the pain and the shame, to bring many sons and daughters to glory. Maybe this is the part of me that I couldn’t imagine trading. Not even for the whole world.