Question: I was reading John 12:24-25. It says, “He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it for eternal life.” What does this mean? Why does it say we are to hate this life?
In this passage Jesus is not saying that this material world is evil (Jesus is not teaching Gnosticism!). Rather, Jesus is telling us to forfeit a life of a certain kind for one that is truly life eternal. Jesus is using the term “world” in the sense of one who lives a fleshly life, a carnal life, a life caught up only in this world. This “worldly life” is one that neglects God and His will, and the focus of this kind of life is searching for happiness in earthly things. Jesus calls us to be willing to forfeit worldly things and worldly pleasures when necessary with our goal being eternal life. Jesus tells us we are to hate those things in this world that are opposed to God, and we should turn away from anything or anyone who leads us away from God.
To understand this passage, it can also be helpful to also look at parallel passages in the other Gospels.
Matthew 10:39 – “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” This verse comes after Jesus telling His disciples that nothing in this life should be put before Christ and one must pick up his cross and follow Jesus. [Similar passage in Luke 9:24; 14:26.]
Mark 8:35 – “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” And Mark continues, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (8:36).
All of these passages teach us that Christ calls us to follow Him. And looking at these all in context, Jesus is about to freely offer His own life for us on the cross. He knows that when He is hanging on the cross, the initial response will be to think Jesus failed at His mission. Tortured, mocked, humiliated it will seem Jesus is defeated. But in anticipation of what will soon take place, Jesus prepares His disciples – things are not always as they seem. Jesus’ death on the cross will actually be a victory. Jesus’ mission here on earth is not for worldly power or an earthly kingdom. Rather, His mission is one that has eternal consequences.
And Jesus is telling us that when we pick up our own crosses and follow Him, this is not a metaphor – there will truly be crosses to bear with suffering in this life. Jesus wants us to recognize that discipleship will involve complete surrender to Jesus including a willingness to give up things that the world may hold as desirable. But He tells us in doing so we will be given an eternal reward. Though the world views wealth, power, success, ambition and material possessions as means to happiness, this is an illusion. Jesus tells us that our true treasure and infinite happiness can only be found in God. If necessary we must be willing to sacrifice everything in this earthly life for God, but Christ promises that the result will be everlasting life.
“Conversion is first and foremost a grace, a gift that opens the heart to God’s infinite goodness. He himself anticipates with his grace our desire for conversion and accompanies our efforts for full adherence to his saving will. Therefore, to convert is to let oneself be won over by Jesus (Philippians 3:12) and “to return” with him to the Father. Conversion thus entails placing oneself humbly at the school of Jesus and walking meekly in his footsteps. In this regard, the words with which he himself points out the conditions for being his true disciples are enlightening. After affirming “Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it,” he adds, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:35-36). To what extent does a life that is totally spent in achieving success, longing for prestige, and seeking commodities, to the point of excluding God from one’s horizon, truly lead to happiness? Can true happiness exist when God is left out of consideration? Experience shows that we are not happy because our material expectations and needs are satisfied. In fact, the only joy that fills the human heart is that which comes from God; indeed, we stand in need of infinite joy. Neither daily concerns nor life’s difficulties succeed in extinguishing the joy that is born from friendship with God. Jesus’ invitation to take up one’s cross and follow him may at first seem harsh and contrary to what we hope for, mortifying our desire for personal fulfillment. At a closer look, however, we discover that it is not like this: the witness of the saints shows that in the cross of Christ, in the love that is given, in renouncing the possessions of oneself, one finds that deep serenity which is the source of generous dedication to our brethren, especially to the poor and the needy and this also gives us joy.” (Quote from Lent with Pope Benedict XVI: Meditations for Every Day)