“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” ~ Mark 8:36
In asking this question, Jesus challenges us to examine our values from an eternal perspective. The question has two crucial pivots: the first is the definition of profit and the second is the comparative value of a man’s soul versus the value of all the temporal pleasures the world offers.
A profit is an improvement resulting from a transaction. And Jesus is asking us to examine whether the transaction of exchanging our souls to gain the world puts us in a better position eternally. Because in God’s ledger only salvation through the Blood of Jesus Christ counts as profit; only work in the Kingdom of God brings in revenue; everything else is loss.
We, however, often make decisions from a “short-term” (temporal) perspective. At best, we make most of our plans for our lifespan here on earth. Based on our present circumstances we choose where we live, where we work, whom we marry, where we attend church, how many children we have, how much we save, the kind of car we drive, how much we give, etc. Moreover, we evaluate our worth by our standing in the World rather than our standing in the Kingdom of God.
To illustrate this point, consider what many people do when they think they have only a few days left to live. When faced with the prospect of imminent death, most focus on non-material issues. They don’t spend more time working for more money, or on house improvements. Instead, when facing death people are often more generous and less petty. Tracking dirt on the carpet loses its importance compared to spending time with a loved one. The size of the television, the house, the car and the paycheck all fade to insignificance.
It is when we are forced to contemplate the eternal that we reorganize our values. Jesus’ challenge is for us to reorganize our values NOW, not a few days before we pass away. Because the transaction is already complete for (most of) those who wait until their last days: they have already exchanged their souls to gain the world. If we are to ‘profit’ from our stay on earth, we have to make the right transaction: we must determine to lose the whole world to gain our souls.
- “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.” ~ Matthew 13:44
A second illustration that can give us insight is the life of a drug addict. Most of us have seen, heard of or know of substance abusers who give up everything in their lives in pursuit of a drug. For the non-addict it is incredible that people would give up everything for a fleeting pleasure. Addicts often give up money, careers, families, freedom and much more chasing after the next “high”. In the addict’s mind, the need to fulfill a short-term pleasure far outweighs their long-term well-being. On their distorted balance sheets, chemical “highs” are more profitable than anything else is, so they make the “reasonable” decision to exchange their lives to get it.
Similarly, many of us are hooked on the short-term appeal of a worldly lifestyle. Worldly successes give us instant “positive” feedback on which we thrive. We like being important, we enjoy the approval of our peers, we find comfort in financial security, we relish the “finer things of life”.
To be clear, power, pleasure, prosperity, and/or popularity are not sins in and of themselves. Rather, it is when we focus on accumulating power, pleasure, prosperity, and/or popularity that we fall into the trap. When our work in the world and the world’s rewards becomes more important than our work in the Kingdom of God and God’s rewards, then the transaction, the exchange of soul for the world, is “in full swing”. Like the drug addict, we become blind to the long-term perspective of eternity, and cash-in for the fierce urgency of satisfying the flesh now.
Finally, Jesus’ question indicates the options (the soul versus the world) are mutually exclusive. That is, we can’t gain some of the world and only lose some of our soul, because the soul is singular and indivisible. Therefore, “the whole world” indicates the maximum that one could get for one’s soul, not the value of the soul itself. Accordingly, an individual often exchanges his/her soul for much less than “the whole world”. The key point here is that there is no half way. To choose Jesus is to reject the world and to choose the world is to reject Jesus: We can’t play both sides of the game. We can’t serve God and mammon (Matthew 6:24). There are no half-addicts.
Jesus is also not telling us to re-order our priorities; He is telling us there is only one priority: our souls. Before salvation, the choice before each man/woman every day is, “gain the world or gain my soul“. After salvation, our lives are governed by the decision to “gain our souls and lose the world“. In the future, when God brings an end to this world, our eternity will be determined by whether we “gained our souls, or gained the world“.
As we each decide our personal response to Jesus’ question, let us be careful that we get true value for our souls and a real profit that last for eternity.