By Heather Judd
As a girl, I memorized John 5:13 – “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” I knew this meant that Jesus had demonstrated His great love long ago by dying for me and that, away off in the farthest corners of hypothetical imagination, I should be willing to die for others, too. These equally distant interpretations made the lovely, almost alliterative words seem sweet and holy and heroic to my eager mind. “If I were ever faced with a situation in which I could help a friend by giving up my life,” thought my pious young self, “then I would certainly do so, thereby exemplifying the sacrificial love that Christ demonstrated for us.” The radiant halo inspired by such thoughts glowed all the more brightly with the knowledge that such an “if” was highly unlikely to become reality.
One evening as I listened to a pastor speaking about this passage, I had a new thought. Maybe laying down your life means more than dying for someone. There is life whereby we mean the opposite of death, but there is also life whereby we mean the sum of all our days and hours. Indeed, what is life made of but time? Then what if the call to lay down your life is a call to sacrifice your time for others? Suddenly Christ’s words came into focus not as a distant possibility but as a near and present reality.
Ever since then, I have thought of these words of Christ whenever I find myself unexpectedly facing an opportunity to help someone at (according to my life schedule) an inconvenient time . A friend needs to talk about a troubling situation at a time when a project deadline looms. A student needs a mentor after school. A colleague needs someone to take her shift so she can spend time with an ailing relative. Little by little, in these situations, we lay down the hours of our lives.
The problem with this understanding of laying down your life is that it doesn’t take too long to grow tired of doing it. In fact, it would be far pleasanter to go back to the old, simplified understanding of Jesus’ words. It is much nicer to harbor potential difficult-but-good things that you might do if called upon than to have actual difficult-but-good things that you must do every day.
Nor does it become any easier with maturity. Of late, I have begun to realize that the piecemeal giving up of my time may only be a small part of what it means to lay down my life for my friends, for there is yet another way in which we define life. This is the way that is meant when we ask, “What do you want to do with your life?” Beyond the sum of my life’s hours is the purpose toward which I desire to direct my life. Am I, for the sake of serving others, willing to lay down these plans of what my life should look like?
This type of laying down one’s life is sharply painful. It requires the death of dreams. This is the mother who sets aside her intellectual pursuits for the sake of her child with special needs. This is the single woman who puts aside her hopes of marriage to devote herself to another vocation. This is the daughter who spends her retirement years caring for her aging parents. This is the host of Christians who cry out, “If it is possible, Father, let this cup pass from me, yet not my will but Thine be done.” And when the cup does not pass, when they are called upon to lay down the lives they had planned, they do so.
That cup may be unbearably bitter. It may seem poison that will kill life entirely. But at the dregs of that cup, when we feel no love left to give, that is where we find anew the cross of Christ. There, in the bitterest sacrifice of our most beloved dreams, we finally glimpse the full extent of Christ’s sacrifice, for He laid down His life for us, His friends. He laid down the glory of His divine nature to be born as an impoverished infant. He laid down the years of His life to teach those who were stiff-necked and slow of understanding. And most fully, most beautifully, He laid down His life on the cross to take upon Himself all our selfishness and pride and discontent, so that we might see what love is and so love one another: By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers (I John 3:16).
Image: "The Magdalen Reading" by Rogier van der Weyden