Scrolling through Facebook recently, I came across a video of a famous actor, who—speaking about their life—came to the conclusion that “my life is my own.” I don’t mean to comment on the particular context of the actor’s speech so much as to focus on that phrase alone. When I heard those words, my mind went to the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:16-21, who also thought to himself, “my life is my own,” and “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry” (Lk. 12:19). It would not be so, however. The Angel of the Lord informs him that he will die that very night (Lk. 12:20).
I thought also of the confrontation between Bilbo and Gandalf at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring. Bilbo initially responds, “I'll do as I choose and go as I please.” This is met with Gandalf’s anger as he “took a step towards the hobbit, and he seemed to grow tall and menacing; his shadow filled the little room.” In the end, Bilbo chooses to heed Gandalf’s advice and leave the Ring behind.
It is proper, at this point, to wonder why “my life is my own” should sound objectionable to anyone. The Lord gives us an explanation. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). This refers primarily to His own death, but it is also the pattern for our own life in Him. Like the solitary grain of wheat, our life must be buried beneath the earth in order to bear fruit. Christ tells us as much, saying, “he who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal” (Jn. 12:25). We are called in this verse to hate life not as we hate sin, nor as the despairing person might hate their life, but merely to esteem life less and be ready to offer it up. The consistent biblical message about all things we think are important is one and the same: give it up and then you will have it in earnest.
But how does one give up their life? Certainly not in the way that the person committing suicide does. In truth, we have all had the experience of giving up our lives, when we have dropped everything to help a friend in need, when we choose to do what we should even though we don’t want to do it. Possibly even when transfixed in prayer whenever we stop reciting prayers as if they were incantations and truly pray. A life lived in Christ—a human life fully lived, which St. Irenaeus calls the glory of God—is precisely the life which has been thoroughly buried in the rich soil of love of God and neighbor, and which thinks of itself only in the third place. Doing this allows our lives to be intertwined with the lives of all those around us, sprouting like a wheat stalk which reaches up at the Sun of Righteousness and bears fruit one-hundred-fold, both for ourselves and all those around us.
St. Augustine often speaks of the condition of the sinful person as man curved in on himself, like the stubborn grain of wheat which would not let the ground fulfill its destiny. If it ultimately refuses to sprout, its fate is to ultimately rot away and be upended by the plow readying the ground for a new sowing season. The choice before us, then, is either to say “my life is my own,” or “my life is the most precious thing I have, I give it all to You.” When all striving is ended, choosers of both options might be surprised. Those who gave it willingly will find that they never lost it and those who clung to it will find their fist clenched around nothing but air.