December 2, 2020

Difficult Scriptures: Mark 8:35

Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self (Mark 8:35, The Message).

There are times I like a verse or passage from The Message better than any other translation, and this is one of them. You may be more familiar with the way most other Bibles phrase this: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it (NIV).

Yet isn’t that what saving one’s life really is—self-help? And isn’t that what so much of Evangelical Christianity is about these days?

I find nothing in Scripture that tells us we are on our own to improve our lives. Nowhere do I read that it is our responsibility to become better, more moral, people. Instead I see Jesus going to the losers and sinners and dying and saying, “Because of your lostness, your lastness, your death, you will live.” Thus I agree with how Eugene Peterson interprets this verse: “Self-help is of no help at all.”

Am I misreading this passage? Perhaps I should go back to the saying I was taught in college: “Your life is God’s gift to you. What you do with that life is your gift back to God.” And if that is so, then I need help becoming the best self I can be.

But if this is not so, then what is my life about? What am I to offer up to God? How am I to lose my life for Jesus and the Gospel?

Ok iMonks, wrestle this one out.


  1. It is only in total submission to the will of the Father that Jesus was able to do that which He was sent to do. John’s gospel is quite clear about this, over and over again (ie, John 17). Only in imitating Christ, are we fulfilling the “role” for which we are created: to be holy, to be like Christ, (2Peter 1:4).

    Mary, the Virgin Mother of Jesus (the Theotokos or “God-Bearer”), showed us how this is done: “may it be to me, according to your word”, submitting to God’s will…as enormous a decision as that was for herself and for all mankind!

    So yes, Jeff, you’ve got it right. 😉 Self-help is no help at all, at all!

  2. Hi All,

    It’s one of those sayings of Jesus that had me perplexed for some time too. If one looks that the Greek word, psuchen, used in Mark 8:35, which is translated “life” that word does convey more than merely the wooden meaning of “life”. On the surface, it almost sounds like Jesus is suggesting a sort of suicide in order to gain his life, but that would be a doubtful intention of the author of Mark.

    I do think it is helpful to see that “psuchen” can be understood to mean “soul” or the seat of a persons emotions and will. So according to my understanding, the “soulish” man must die to itself so that the mind of Christ may take residence in its place. The natural man’s emotions and will has to give way to Christ because if it doesn’t then that is tantamount to resisting Christ, which results in losing one’s life. But, if we stick to a literal and wooden meaning of “life” strictly in its biological meaning then we run into all sorts of conundrums. Yet, I think that Jesus was referring to the inner life of a person that place where a person pledges allegiance to a state, philosophical system, religion, or whatever. One mustn’t forget how deeply embedded first century Jewish lives were in their culture, religion, and genealogy.

    I also find it helpful to read this saying in the light of John 12:24, which speaks of “unless a grain of wheat dies” to be parallel in thought and meaning.


  3. Thanks for the reminder, as my most recent attempts to improve myself and be a better Christian have fallen lower than the Dows-Jones index in the last five years.

    The harder I try the worse I do…..time to turn it all back over…A-G-A-I-N

  4. You said: Instead I see Jesus going to the losers and sinners and dying and saying, “Because of your lostness, your lastness, your death, you will live.”

    I think that you are misreading it at that point. Jesus says that the losing and death is because of him, not because they are simply sinners, losing, and dying. It’s losing it for Jesus that counts.

    I don’t know if there is a formula. Some people spend their lives for Jesus (the Auca martyrs), others use their gifts and resources (including their health and personality) carefully over the years. God can and does use either and both. The important part is to do faithfully what God calls us to do and be the people he calls us to be.

    • I’m pretty sure that is what Jeff meant by that. Its about trusting in Him and Him alone totally dieing to yourself and your ways of making yourself right before God. I think starting at a place where you relize you could never be what God called you to be is a good start. Jesus does all the work we simply trust in his way of doing it. There is no way I can be where God wants me to be apart from Christ.

  5. David Cornwell says

    I think Yuri is onto something here: “…read this saying in the light of John 12:24, which speaks of “unless a grain of wheat dies” to be parallel in thought and meaning.

    This line of thought runs through everything that Jesus taught. That which is hidden, that which dies brings forth new life. Another image he uses for this that of the yeast. The yeast becomes more than hidden, it becomes unseen, but yet without it there is no bread.

    Maybe this is where Jesus is leading us in the words of this hard teaching. Much of the work of the Kingdom remains hidden– for now. Christ leads us to become hidden in Him. We don’t have to be be the superheroes of the faith. Or the celebrity leader. In fact this isn’t what He wants. We die with Christ, are hidden in Him, and are raised to new life in Him.

    Some day the hidden Kingdom will be revealed in all its power and glory.

    • What?? You mean the whole point is not for me to have my best life now? You mean I DO need to have some compassion on those poor, sad individuals who have screwed up their lives and live in a daily dysfunctional mess? You mean Christ might be hiding there????

    • Very good and encouraging point, David. Thanks.

  6. “What am I to offer up to God? How am I to lose my life for Jesus and the Gospel?”


    Isn’t God wonderful?

    He even takes care of that for us (dying to sin) and living again for, and with Jesus.


    It’s all right there in Romans 6 (as well as MANY other places).

    In Baptism we are drowned…put to death. And then in that same baptism we are raised agin to new life with Christ!

    What a great and awesome God we have!


  7. As someone who has become a reluctant fan of “self help” I of course find this interpretation not totally comforting. What makes it worse is that quite a bit of “self-help” seems to bleed into church polity with mixed results. Is learning how to manage a businesses part of “self-help”? Yes. You need the skills of time management, communication, and persuasion to run a businesses. Is World Vision’s mission congruent with God’s work in the world? Yes it is. God likes it when we feed children. Does a former Business CEO now run World Vision? Yes he does. Can we probably infer that he practices a lot of “self-help” stuff?

    That’s the problem.

    I have serious disdain for preaching that just *is* self-help mantra. It bothers me even more when it they say it is Biblical.

    I think the discussion needs to begin with a definition of what self help is, without evaluating whether it is good or evil.

    I submit that self help is this (and I invite others to add to this list)
    1. Time Management
    2. Communication (listening, clarifying, and persuading)
    3. Goal setting (and goal measuring)
    4. Stress management
    5. ???

    Go ahead and add!

    • All of that stuff is great, and it may improve our lives and the lives of others around us.

      But you don’t need church for that, and it really has nothing to do with the gospel.

      • Steve many Christians make the mistake of assuming you need God to be a better employee, raise a family, be loving, show charity, etc.. Many atheists and agnostics without believing in God can do the same thing.

    • Randy Thompson says

      You make an interesting and helpful point here. “Self help,” as you illustrate it here, is learning specific skills that help people organize themselves, communicate better, set goals, and (maybe) manage stress. (I’m not sure that the latter (stress) fits in here, though.)

      But, the Christian life goes well beyond simply being effective, because one can be effective in living an ungodly life! The Christian life, as far as I can see, is an ongoing journey toward Christ and with Christ, during which the life of Christ rubs off on us. We become like our traveling companion!

      The journey metaphor illustrates what it means to gain your life by losing it, because any journey can begin only when you leave some place behind–yourself (or, your ego-centered life).

      Self-help doesn’t lead to self-transcendence. The self-needing help is the same self that’s giving the help!

      • Yes, Randy, I do not think anyone claims that “self-help” leads to self-transcendence. Likewise, Steve, only the most foolish and worst exegetes of the Bible think that the things listed here are exclusive to Christianity or dependent on Christianity.

        The point I am making is that these things, (communication, time-management, and so on) seem to have place in running organizations -like World Vision- that have a place in God’s mission in the world.

        Now, maybe Eugene Peterson has a completely different definition of “self-help” than I do here. That is why I thought it was important to describe exactly what self-help is first.

        • Joel,

          You’d be suprised at how many Christians hear about self-help programs or techniques or plans from the pulpit. With all the best intentions.

          I’m sorry, but there’s no plce for it during a worshp service or sermon. The gospel is too important and someone’s eternal destiny may depend on whether they hear about their great need of a Savior, and just what He has done for them…as opposed to hearing about becoming a better whatever.

          • Steve, I am not the least bit surprised about hearing self-help from the pulpit. It annoys and at times completely disgusts me.

            Now back to what I mentioned about world vision, and the need to define what self-help is…

    • Self help is not the Gospel never was never will be.

  8. Funny, I never contrasted “self-help” and “self-sacrifice” as opposite sides of a continuum. Saving your life vs losing it–those are clearly opposite. Self-help vs self-sacrifice, not so much.

    I think there is something to be said for considering how easy it was to actually *lose* one’s *life* in the times when Jesus said what He did, and the impact of the original phrasing. If you are threatened with losing your life, you do anything you can to save it (generally speaking). You revise your plans, you hedge, you compromise, you tell your killers anything they want to hear, you keep from rocking the boat. But once again, he stands our usual way of thinking on its head. The people who were listening to him were some of them going to be burned alive, eaten by lions, crucified and lose their lives in the most horrible deaths imaginable, and he was telling them so, warning them on the one hand of what was coming and promising them on the other that it was the only way forward.

    Simply complaining about self-help books, on the other hand, seems to be on a completely different plane. Besides, “self-sacrifice” seems just way too co-dependent in its phrasing. 😛

  9. Context: this follows Peter rebuking Jesus for announcing that he will suffer, be rejected and be killed.

    The fall begins with the temptation to become like God. This disintegrates into eons of individuals and tribes battling for dominance, self-actualization, and self-preservation. Along come Jesus, who proclaims and demonstrates that the fight for self-preservation destroys us. When we can let go of that fear of defeat, irrelevance, being forgotten, and death, then life actually begins. This courage is only possible, because Jesus took the sting of death and defeated it by rising from the dead. A life not wasted on self-preservation is free to love. When we stop trying to help self, we are free to help others. When we stop trying to make our lives better, then we are free to actually become something better than self-centered individuals.

  10. The self help approach to faith is toxic. Again it’s one of the things that broke me and pushed me over the edge. Look at how many books there are for guys about lust, porn, changing your thought control, etc.. Very little of it works. I had dinner with a guy last month who told me about his dislike for “Every Man’s Battle” series. I knew where he was coming from. It led to a lot of disillusion for me, and Christians are still cranking it out. I wonder how many people are walking wounded due to self help programs, etc.. Standing from the sidelines I see much of Christianity to be consumed by this movement.

    • And most of those programs present a flawed either/or: If you succeed in “overcoming” ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ may be, it is the work of God in your life.

      If you fail to overcome, it is all YOUR fault.

      NOT saying that we can do it all alone, but rather than what we THINK our big flaw that needs fixing is may not be what GOD wants us to be worrying about or learning right this second. To turn a parable around, maybe we are so busy with the speck of wood in one eye that we know about than letting the Lord do something about the plank we don’t know we have in the other eye…

      • That was my reaction to Osteen’s new book: if you’re not happy all the time, you’re not choosing to be; it’s your fault.

      • Lot of times it does either that ofit forces you to lie, and threatens your charachter and integrity. Another thing that is legalistic and kind of “self help” is accountability. My accountability partner ended up living a double life while I had the crap beaten out of me. Gotta love the “good news” of the gospel!! (Eagle rolls eyes and reaches for his barf bag)

    • This is slightly tangential, but I really hate the “every man’s battle” kind of stuff too. It keeps telling us that male sexuality is evil. That sex is ‘good’ but here are the ways that it is sinful. Then, it wants us to pursue something (marriage) the culminates in sex, but if we can’t think about sex then how are supposed to pursue it?

      • Because Christian men, especially those under age forty or so, are dealing with a very basic biolnogical imperative that they cannot ignore. Since not all men are married (especially young men, in whom the testosterone is raging the most) and even though who ARE have wives that are not always available or well, they are stuck with an overwhelming drive that cannot be “prayed away”. So……they deal with and then feel guilty.

        I am a nurse…there is a world of difference between focusing on porn and being a single man (or one with a sick wife) who could not ignore his sexuality if he was locked in a cold, drak cave. This is one church teaching that I always felt made men (and a fair number of women) feel guilty for being a healthy mammal……

        • Pattie…I whole heartedly agree. One thing Christianity does is criminalize being human. You can’t do anything right!!! And then you have the sick and twisted way that fundgelicals define sin. By their defintion many describe sin as something that the other person struggles with…not me. No sir…. But how evangelicals Christians handle sexuality is a joke. It usually involves a list, some legalistic program and then the Bible is used as a weapon to beat the shit out of someone. And do they take this same approach to gluttony? Nope… What about greed? Nope…. Anger? Hell no….Pride and arrogance? A major hell no!! Where would the Mark Driscolls, John Pipers and local mega church fudngelical pastor be if he didn’t have the spotlight or a stage to bask in the glow of it all?

          Evangelical Christianity is such a joke…. I’d laugh had it not screwed up part of my life and had I not known the people hurt by it all…

        • Thanks for saying that. It is nice to hear it especially from a woman. I actually have begun to believe that Evangelicalism does not treat male heterosexuality any better than homosexuality (of any gender). Like many here, I was involved in evangelicalism for many years, and I cannot remember a single time the Christian romance gurus ever said a single thing positive about male sexuality.

          And yes, evangelicalism really did drop the ball with sexual ethics while completely ignoring others. The message is “not even thinking about (or having) sex is really important because God made sex to be very good!” So stupid.

          Eagle, it is funny you should mention gluttony. I’ve never heard of a minister get into scandel for over eating. I suppose the pyschology of being “big” and being perceived as leader just runs to deep. Though you might think in the most obese nation in the civilized world we might hear a sermon on the sin of over eating.

          Oh well, I am happy to watch my eating habits and equally happy to discard the evangelical sexual ethics. It doesn’t work.

  11. So it’s a choice between the crappy Message and the crappy new and improved NIV2011, with it’s newspeak “their”? Whoever wants to save his Bible, let him lose these translations.

  12. I think this distinction is a really difficult one for people to get. As soon as you start saying things like “it’s not about your effort,” you get a bunch of workaholics warning you that you’re sliding into licentiousness and everything.

    And it’s worth noting that results often proceed from hard work (the goal of that work may be a different story). I like to have things explained to me so that I can do a better job at something. In the classroom (or equivalent setting), when it’s appropriate for me to hear, and not in such a way where my belovedness or salvation is on the line.

    But the distinction Jesus is making here I believe is that he knows what he’s about to do- to go and die. And he’s warning against the testimony of humanity’s tragic history- that life, happiness, God, and reputation are things that are approached through the pursuit of security and self-preservation (self “help” so to speak). That we really know what our goals ought to be, and we should work towards those goals, when really we’re all a picture of Peter- trying to prevent Jesus crucifixion, thinking we know what’s best and missing the mark entirely.

    When I work, let me work as one who cannot dwell on his own efforts, but only on the huge, undeserved gift I’ve been given that makes it possible for me to work…

    I love the Message.