We often associate Jesus’ word in Mark 8:35 with martyrdom. The reason for this, in context, is obvious:
Mar 8:34-37 ESV And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (35) For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (36) For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (37) For what can a man give in return for his soul?
I suggest that neither Jesus nor the early disciples treated literally dying for the gospel as a necessary consequence of discipleship. In fact, later in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is clear that with the possibility of persecutions in this life, so also there could be several elements traditionally associated with the good life in this life (also, the elements of the good life will be certain in the age to come):
Mar 10:29-31 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, (30) who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. (31) But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
The point being that losing ones life, in Mark 8:35, is not necessarily the same thing as literally dying. It would seem that it is a commitment to a form of personal transformation under Jesus’ tutelage. I think that George Herbert captures this concept quite well in his poem Clasping of Hands.
Clasping of Hands
LORD, thou art mine, and I am thine,
If mine I am: and thine much more,
Than I or ought, or can be mine.
Yet to be thine, doth me restore;
So that again I now am mine,
And with advantage mine the more.
Since this being mine, brings with it thine,
And thou with me dost thee restore.
If I without thee would be mine,
I neither should be mine nor thine.
Lord, I am thine, and thou art mine:
So mine thou art, that something more
I may presume thee mine, then thine
For thou didst suffer to restore
Not thee, but me, and to be mine:
And with advantage mine the more,
Since thou in death wast none of thine,
Yet then as mine didst me restore.
O be mine still! still make me thine;
Or rather make no Thine and Mine!
George Herbert, The Works of George Herbert (London: George Routledge & Co., 1854), 165.
Herbert essentially captures that learning to be possessed of God is precisely to come to oneself as well. Jesus makes this same claim in the parable of the prodigal son. His repentance is described as, “coming to himself” (Luke 15:17). In losing oneself, one comes to knowledge of God. Similarly, in coming to knowledge of God, one comes to true self-ownership.