One of the disturbing parts of Christianity is these repeated calls to self-sacrifice. You know, things like "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself" and "Take up your cross" (Matt 16:24) and "make no provision for the flesh" (Rom 13:14) and "count others more significant than yourselves." (Phil 2:3) It seems so ... bleak. Why are we always being asked to give up stuff? And it only gets worse from there. James makes the silly statement that you should "Count it all joy when you meet trials of various kinds." (James 1:2) Paul says things like, "For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for His sake" (Phil 1:29) as if "suffer for His sake" is a good thing. Elsewhere he says, "I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses" and "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities." (2 Cor 12:9-10) What's wrong with these people? Don't they know that suffering hurts, that trials are difficult, that loss is pain?
Most religions, as it turns out, believe in self-sacrifice. "It is a virtue," they assure us. There is, however, an interesting twist in Christianity. Sacrificing our own desires and comforts and pleasures for Christ is actually gain for the believer. Seems counterintuitive, doesn't it?
We can see this when Paul makes the bizarre claim, "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain." (Phil 1:21) In fact, Paul preferred to die (Phil 1:23). Why? Because the ultimate loss -- death -- meant that he would "be with Christ" (Phil 1:23). Ah! Gain! When Jesus said, "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me" (Matt 11:29-30), we might be tempted to see that as loss, but He finished the thought with "you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light." Oh, see? Taking up the yoke produces rest! Gain!
Over and over we find this to be true. We are to deny ourselves and take up our crosses not merely as self-sacrifice, but to follow Christ (Matt 16:24). Gain. We are to abstain from fleshly lusts (loss) because they wage against your soul (gain) (1 Peter 2:11). We choose to endure ill-treatment with the people of God (loss) because the pleasures of sin are passing (gain) (Heb 11:25). Even when Jesus made the remarkable statements about cutting off offensive body parts, He made it clear that it was for gain. "If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off" (loss) "for it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire." (Mark 9:43) And that intolerable "Sell all your possessions" thing includes the promise that "you will have treasure in heaven." (Matt 19:21) On the ultimate loss, Jesus said, "Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life." (Rev 2:10) Dying for Christ includes the promise of great reward.
We have it all turned around. We think that self-sacrifice for Christ is a loss; Scripture is repeatedly clear that God sees it as a gain for us. Conversely, when Paul looks at his wonderful life he says, "But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." (Phil 3:7-8) All turned around. What we think of as gain turns out to be loss, and what we consider loss turns out to be gain. Such is the world of the believer, indwelt by the Spirit, occupied by Christ, under the care of the Father. We are called to die -- to self, to sin, to the world -- so we can gain.