Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” I’ve been thinking lately about those daily crosses. Into daily life come little inconveniences which require me to set aside what I planned to do and remind me to look to the needs of others. Some seasons have larger crosses — when health fails or finances dwindle and resources are tight; when children suffer or friends have burdens that weigh heavy on the mind. The crosses of relational harm and misunderstanding leave scars and wounds too painful to ignore. And yet, to be His disciple (student, follower, imitator) I am to take these up and follow Him.
Jesus echoed this idea six times in scripture and may have said it other unrecorded times. It obviously was and is a vital message to his followers. One of these incidents gives me pause: We call him the “rich young ruler” and when he came to Jesus calling Him good and asking what he must do to be saved, this is what happened: Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, “One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” As I read through this passage in Mark 10:21 today I was struck by something I hadn’t made note of before. Jesus, beholding him, loved him. Jesus loved him. Jesus loves you in this same way. And, everything he says to this young ruler was said from that eternal, incomprehensible, self-denying love. He says, “you lack something,” in other words, something stands in the way of your heart coming freely to me. He says that to you and He says it to me. We have little idol factories in our hearts and without thought we manufacture things to worship and those things block the way to Jesus. We must be rid of them. For this man it was wealth. We can idolize our children, our marriages, our friendships, our fitness (or the striving for fitness), finances, addictive behaviors or substances. And those things must be named and they must be given away so we can follow Him. They must take their rightful place in order that He can take His.
Jesus then admonishes this man to “take up his cross” and follow Jesus. He says this same command and instruction again in Matt 10: 37-8, Matt 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23 and Luke 14:27. Sometimes he adds that we need to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Him. Other times He says we won’t be worthy (equal, congruent with Him) if we do not do this. When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves He means for us to to “forget our self, lose sight of our self and our own interests” (in the Greek). How do we lose sight of ourselves? It’s like me telling you not to think about elephants. There you go. Thinking about an elephant. We don’t forget something by thinking about it. But, God knows this and He gives us alternatives. He tells us to fix our hearts on the things above, not of this earth (Col 3). He tells us to have the same mind as Christ had, thinking of others as more important than ourselves (Php 2) and He tells us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12). Self-forgetting means God-remembering. When we are fixed on Him, we are not distracted by self.
What does this self-denial look like in the day-to-day of our lives? It means when my four-year-old comes and wants to play Candyland (which to me is akin to Chinese-water-torture), I fix my eyes not on my own comfort or desires, but on his desire to connect and play something he enjoys with me. I set aside my wishes for his. It means when my husband wants to talk about details of his day and I really want to check my Facebook notifications, I set the computer down and give him my undivided attention because he matters and I love him. By letting his need be more important than my little habit of social media, I am dying to self and showing him (and Jesus) love. Little crosses. Little deaths to self. Insignificant as these seem, they are the way of the cross. The cross-centered life means giving up of my way, my wants, my desires, my comfort so that I can love you and thereby love Him simultaneously. And we all have daily little crosses.
Sometimes the crosses are heavier. They are more burdensome. There are offenses and rejections from friends and loved ones that sting like a barbed arrow into our heart. There are afflictions like cancer, MS, or other illnesses which beset us or our loved ones. And still Jesus encourages us to take them up. In Greek the word for take up means to “raise up” or “bear.” As it is used in the verses in Matthew it means “to take what is one’s own, or to take to one’s self and make one’s own.” I need to make these burdens my own as Jesus made the cross His own. He bore it for me — for you. I can bear these afflictions for Him. I have a few friends whose children are seriously ill. One friend has a son with diabetes. She gets up many times each night and checks his blood sugar, administers medications or protein, prays, serves and sacrifices. Her life is one of constant vigilance for his sake. She is taking up her cross. I have another friend whose daughter suffers from severe eczema. Her daughter wakes scratching herself and crying from the pain of itching. She wakes and gives her daughter a bath to soothe her. My friend is tired and weary of the constant giving and her own sleep deprivation, but she is taking up her cross. She is making the suffering of her daughter her own. She is bearing it
Matthew Henry said, “We must accustom ourselves to all instances of self-denial and patience. This is the best preparative for martyrdom. We must live a life of self-denial, mortification [putting ourselves to death], and contempt of the world; we must not indulge our ease and appetite, for then it will be hard to bear toil, and weariness, and want, for Christ. We are daily subject to affliction, and we must accommodate ourselves to it, and acquiesce in the will of God in it, and must learn to endure hardship. We frequently meet with crosses in the way of duty; and, though we must not pull them upon our own heads, yet, when they are laid for us, we must take them up, carry them after Christ, and make the best of them.” This type of self-denial and death to self is no longer popular in our world — even our Christian circles. But, Jesus isn’t about popular. His message is the same today as it was when He walked among men and said these life-shaking comments years ago.
Strong’s defines the cross as “a well known instrument of most cruel and ignominious punishment, borrowed by the Greeks and Romans from the Phoenicians; to it were affixed among the Romans, down to the time of Constantine the Great, the guiltiest criminals, particularly the basest slaves, robbers, the authors and abetters of insurrections, and occasionally in the provinces, at the arbitrary pleasure of the governors, upright and peaceable men also, and even Roman citizens themselves.” The cross isn’t cozy. It is a tool of death. It hurts. It is uncomfortable. It is sometimes shameful and lonely. Why should our cross be any different than His?
We must take up this instrument and to it we must affix our own self. And we take it up as Jesus did. In Hebrews 12: 2 we are told Jesus took up the cross and thereby “finished our faith” and He did it “for the joy that was set before him.” He “endured the cross, despising [disregarding, thinking nothing of] the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” This is the promise of the cross. We can take it up, as painful as it may be, and we can do it with joy set before us. The cross is the precursor to resurrection. There must be a death before there can be new life. We must die to self and in that dying we will be reborn in newness and more Christ-likeness. The cross is never the final word for Christians. It is a pathway to freedom and joy and wholeness.
Mike Donehey of the band, Tenth Avenue North, said,
The cross is evidence to our minds, and balm for our souls that our God is a God who brings beauty out of pain. Art out of chaos. Beauty out of ugliness. Or as some of the poets have said, He conquers death by death itself. Our Redeemer beat Death at his own game.
When we trust Christ, and the mysterious work on Calvary, we trust that He’s always up to something good even in the darkest days. In fact, that’s probably when He’s up to the most good, because that’s when the most good grows in me.
Each cross has its purposes and every cross promises blessings as fruit of our suffering. In 1 Cor 1:18 Paul reminds us that the cross seems foolish to those who are perishing (the ones who are rejecting Jesus), but to us who are saved it is the power of God. The cross is the way of power. As in most things in God’s kingdom there is this upside-down way. We go to death and we find power. We let go of our way and we find strength. We suffer and we are freed. It seems foolish in the world’s eye to let go of our way, to yield to the troubles life brings and allow them to have their way in our heart and character. But, in God’s economy, this is the way of peace and life. It is the crushing of the wheat that produces flour which has so many uses. It is the crushing of our will that produces great usefulness as well.
Paul reminds us in Gal 6:14 that through the cross we are crucified to the world and the world is crucified to us. We can boast only in this cross — the cross of Jesus. It is the gate that leads us to relationship with God and it is the act which showed His love like nothing else before or since. Ultimately the cross is a tool of reconciliation (Eph 2:16). Through the cross Jesus reconciled us to God; He reconciled all people to one another; and He offered forgiveness to all. Through my crosses I can do the same. I can offer forgiveness because it was offered to me and at a great price. I can show love — and I can show it at a cost to myself. But, unlike Jesus, who was forsaken for our sakes, when we take up our crosses we are not forsaken, but we are united to Him even more than before. So, whether it be inconveniences or burdens we can bear these crosses with an eye to what they hold: the joy set before us as we grow in Him and His love.