What does “lay down one’s life” mean?

I was doing a morning Lectio Divina reflection on John Chapter 15. In it, Christ says “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life one’s friends.” (verse 13)

Of course when we read that, our first thought is generally about what Christ later did: He died on the Cross for all of His friends… US! And so I think it is only natural for us to think in these terms. But what if that’s just the first layer of the onion, a layer that could possibly be an obstacle to us growing in faith?

How often is death actually asked of us in service of others? Not very often, right? So how are we to change our day to day life to conform to that truth? If all we’re doing is spiritually preparing ourselves for the unlikely possibility that someday we may be called to die for God, it seems like we’re not really doing all that much, nor is it something we can test ourselves against to see how we’re progressing in love of God.

Luckily, I think there’s another layer below that. What if we make the word substitution of “giving” instead of “laying down”? It still fits the literal/top layer. We can give our life for our friends. That terminology is often used for someone who died for another.

Yet at the same time, giving our life can also mean that we dedicate every moment of our life to another. We speak of giving our life to our spouse or our children and by that we mean that we no longer use our days for our own benefit, but give those days of service to them.

So I think it is better if we understand this passage in two ways. The first literal way is worth keeping and valuable. But we should also see it in terms of service of God and our fellow man. We can “lay down” our life by every day making the self-less decision to serve God. We can transform our perspective from one that is selfish and mostly concerned with what is for our own good into a life that is self-less and where every day is given to the service of others.

That’s something we can work on getting better at every day. That’s something we can measure whether we’re making progress in our relationship with God. That’s something that come the end of our life we can have hope that we’ll hear the refrain we all hope to hear: “Well done, faithful servant.”

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