Laying down our life: doormat, martyr or loving service
Bowen Miller

Laying down our life for another.
We’ve heard this phrase a lot recently, in a few different contexts.
Anzac Day for one.
Our exploration of John’s gospel for another.

Jesus is portrayed in John 10 as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep in his care. Why? So that they might have life in all its fullness.

Note that in giving of himself, Jesus doesn’t lose his identity or sense of self. In giving of himself, Jesus’ personhood and self-expression as son of God are fulfilled.

Then in chapter 15, after the metaphor of Jesus as the vine and his followers as branches (a metaphor for us finding our life fruitful when we immerse ourselves in the life of God) Jesus says:
This is my commandment,
that you love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Or, as The Message paraphrase puts it:

This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you.
This is the very best way to love.
Put your life on the line for your friends.
You are my friends when you do the things I command you.

Jesus has gifted his life, so that we can live life to the full. That is, so we can experience fullness of life as we participate in God’s vibrant community of loving service. This is what God desires for all God’s children! And in doing so, for us to grow relationships characterised by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Lives oriented towards facilitating justice and dignity and peace and wholeness for all people.

Not just for a few. For all people in our sphere of influence – our family, friends, neighbours, digital community, work colleagues, gym buddies, sport and recreational connections and wherever else we find ourselves connecting with others in our world.

So how do we lay down our life for others – ‘putting our life on the line’, so to speak?

Some ways are healthy. Where we retain our sense of self as we sacrifice our interests for the benefit of others. This looks like loving service, where we have the best interests of another at heart, yet also take responsibility for our own wellbeing.

Loving ourselves is not selfish. It’s essential so that we have a well from which we can draw to be able to love others. (Jesus said, “Love your neighbour as yourself”.)

Can you think of a time when you lay down your life for another as a healthy expression of love? Where your sense of self or self-worth wasn’t diminished? Rather, enhanced. How was that for you? and for the other person?

That said, there are also ways of laying down our life for another that are not what Jesus meant. They are imposters. Frauds. Phoney. Unhealthy ways of seeing ourselves in service of others. Where, instead of finding ourselves becoming more whole, we become more broken, more exhausted, and we lose our sense of self. The daunting thing is that we can find ourselves thinking that’s ok! If laying down our life diminishes the very essence of who we are as a beloved child of God, it is not healthy or authentic.

What are these imposters?
One example is being a doormat.
Another is being a martyr with a point to prove, but without a genuine cause.

What does being a doormat look like?
This happens when instead of laying down our life as a gift, we allow ourselves to be walked over. Trampled underfoot. Disrespected and undervalued by others. And where we don’t respect and protect healthy boundaries about where our own self ends and another person’s self begins. Perhaps it’s what we call being taken advantage of. Perhaps emotional abuse. Or other expressions of abuse. In some situations, being a doormat looks like others exercising coercive control over us. Where we lose our autonomy and the right to express our opinions or our needs.

Jesus tells us that when he chooses to lay down his life, it is of his own volition. That is why it is a gift. Laying down our life in love is following the example of Jesus who chooses to give his life in love. It is not demanded of him. There is no coercive control at play. Jesus doesn’t lay down his life because he needs to or has to. Jesus gives his life as a love offering of his own free will. This is grace.

Being a martyr also comes in several guises.
We give thanks for those who, in recent centuries and those long gone, have literally given their lives to defend our freedom and our faith. How grateful we can be for their legacy.

However, there are unhealthy expressions of martyrdom. Like someone wanting to be seen laying down their life for another because it meets a need in themselves – a need to feel needed. A need for recognition. A need for obligation from another. A need for drama. A need for painful self-denial. We might sometimes say about such a person, “They are being quite the martyr”. But it isn’t a complement.

If taking responsibility for your own well-being is a struggle for you, we live at a time when there are many resources available. Anyone on our ministry team can help point you in the direction of finding someone to journey with you and develop healthy boundaries and to grow your self-worth. Bowen has counselling experience that would be helpful here.

When we were ordained, Stewart, Ann, Elroy, Greg and I were all asked this question:
Will you be a faithful pastor to all whom you are called to serve and lead, striving together with them to build up the body of Christ in truth and love, in unity and peace?
Will you encourage and enable those committed to your care to fulfil their ministry and mission in the world?

Pastoral ministry includes helping the people of our church communities to be built up as the body of Christ in truth and love, in unity and peace, so they can be better equipped for laying down their life in loving service. To be fruitful branches on the vine.

What questions might we ask of our own lives, and the expectations we place on ourselves in our relationships?
Are these expectations healthy, or life-giving?
Do we demand change from others as a right, where really, we are the only person from whom we can expect change?
Do we live our lives in loving service for the benefit of others, while also taking responsibility for our own wellbeing?

Laying down our life for others in love can be as simple as being a faithful, trusted friend who has the best interest of another at heart.
To be a safe person in the life journey of others.
In the same way that Jesus loves us as a faithful and trusted friend and has our best interests at heart.
To be a person who understands love as a verb, not simply a noun.

As we come to the end of the Easter season for 2024, I wonder:

“what difference has Easter made to our capacity to love this year?”

At the end of the day it’s easy to talk about love in idealistic ways that never touch our real life. Or to justify our own demands and selfishness.

The writer of the epistle 1 John will have none of that:
“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” That cuts through all our nonsense and all our excuses.

We are called to love one another by laying down our lives in love.
It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

May the spirit of the living God give us grace and strength to live this way in response to God’s call on our lives – to love God, our neighbour and ourselves as a lived expression of God’s community of love in our world so that others might come to know this way of living and loving also. To the glory of God.

Go well,