And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
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. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”” (Mark 8:31–38)
Tucked away in this heart of this passage is a verse which is evocative, which haunts the memory: “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). Ponder the implication: your soul is worth more than the whole world! Within you dwells something so precious, so costly that its value can be weighed against all that can be gained in this life. Something to dwell on, something to chew over. The whole world.
This of course raises the question: why? In today’s materialistic world we don’t really give much attention to the soul. It cannot be detected on scientific instruments, and we cannot put it under the microscope. The modern conclusion is, therefore, that the soul does not exist. That said, there is a faint memory of Christendom which suggests that something carries on past death, but is a vague, distant recollection of a faith long lost. Simply put, in today’s society the soul has no place.
Within Christianity, however, the story is somewhat different. Whilst our bodies might slowly deteriorate, the soul endures. As we are placed in the grave the soul endures, that part of us which gives us identity. It is precious because it continues.
The “whole world” by contrast does not. Oh, we might gain great riches, but they can dwindle. A car will rust, and stock markets will fall. We might gain a great honour, but use is a medal in the grave? Pleasures? Well, they do satisfy at first but they grown mundane or sometimes end up entrapping us. Things which are external to us - money, honour and pleasure - do not ultimately satisfy us or endure. That is the business of the soul alone. The problem is, that the more we focus on the external things of this world, the less we consider our souls and our relation to the God who created us. As one old preacher put it: “decorate the tenement, but suffer not the inhabitant to die of starvation; paint not the ship while you are letting the crew perish for want of stores on board. Look to your soul, as well as to your body; to the life, as well as to that by which you live” (C H Spurgeon).
Over the years I have met quite a few Russians who went through hardships of Soviet rule. As Communism sought to extinguish Christianity, these brave souls met in woods or held clandestine services in their apartments. The phones were tapped, but a “we’re celebrating Natalia’s birthday on Tuesday” indicated that the priest was coming on Wednesday. Their bodies suffered - some priests went to the gulags - but their souls endured. Anchored in heaven, the earthly trials did not overwhelm the soul.
The truth of all this is that when you spend time nourishing your soul with prayer, the reading of scripture and the worship of God a deeper satisfaction is to be found. When you live from the inside out, you find that the outside gains its proper place.
There is a story told about Rowland Hill, a man of Shropshire, Eton and Cambridge. Well born and well educated, he disappointed his parents by taking up itinerant preaching once he had graduated. He has the rare distinction of being refused ordination on six occasions by six different bishops in the Church of England but the seventh - Bishop of Bath and Wells - agreed. He was ordained deacon, but didn’t spend much time in his parish - he was always travelling about, preaching - so was never ordained as priest. Not discouraged in the slightest, he built chapels for himself in Wooton-under-Edge, Cheltenham, Leamington Spa and the Surrey Chapel in London. This held 3,000 people and was the largest of its kind.
The story goes that Lady Ann Erskine was passing in her carriage when she saw crowds and asked her coachman why there were there. He replied that they were there to see the infamous preacher Rowland Hill. Intrigued, the good Lady drew near to hear him for herself. As soon as Hill saw her, he announced to the crowd: “Come, I am going to have an auction. I am going to sell Lady Ann Erskine”. That got her attention. “Who will buy her?”.
Hill first imagined the world coming up. “I will give her all the pomps and vanities of this present life; she shall be a happy woman here, she shall be very rich, she shall have many admirers, she shall go through this world with many joys.” This is not a good bargain - the soul is eternal. Why should temporary riches be able to purchase an everlasting soul?
Another purchaser was imagined, the devil. “Well,” says he, “I will let her enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; she shall indulge in everything her heart shall set itself unto; she shall have everything to delight the eye and the ear; she shall indulge in every sin and vice that can possibly give a transient pleasure.” Poor bargain indeed! This would lead to the destruction of her soul. Hill would not take this offer.
“But, here comes another”, cried out Hill, “I know him—it is the Lord Jesus! What will you give for her?” The reply:“It is not what I will give, it is what I have given; I have given my life, my blood for her; I have bought her with a price, and I will give her heaven for ever and ever; I will give her grace in her heart now and glory throughout eternity.”
“O Lord Jesus Christ, thou shalt have her” said Hill. “Lady Ann Erskine, do you demur to the bargain?” It is reported she came from her carriage in tears of repentance and joy. “It is done,” he said, “it is done; you are the Saviour’s; I have betrothed you unto him; never break that contract.” She never did. She became a great supporter of the work of the gospel and when she died, she died in assurance that her soul was safe in the hands of Christ.
“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”. To whom will you auction your soul?