“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to 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? And what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” — Jesus
I really hate the gym. Nothing against people who love it – it’s just not my thing. My thing is walks, and the occasional walk-run when I’m feeling particularly energetic, or I need to work off the cookie I just ate. Today, I walked my normal route backwards. (No, I didn’t walk backwards, I just took my loop clockwise instead of counterclockwise). I was stunned to discover that the scenery was new. Just approaching the neighborhood from the opposite direction changed everything. Bushes and trees I passed every day suddenly seemed like I’d never seen them before. I even found an entire house that I barely knew was there.
Jesus often called his disciples to flip the world upside down and see it from a different perspective. Where the world sees success as gathering material possessions, Jesus says, “lay up treasures in heaven”. Where the world clamors for their personal rights, Jesus says, “turn the other cheek”. Where the world frets about issues over which they have no control, Jesus says, “do not be anxious about your life”, and “Come to me. I will give you rest.” If you are a disciple, Jesus calls you to walk the route backwards – to see the world from his perspective. To think and live differently than the world around you.
Jesus lays out his upside-down kingdom ethics in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. But, in Mark 8, he throws down the hammer. He draws the proverbial line in the sand. He describes a no-holds-barred, all-in version of discipleship that frankly scared many of his followers away. After Peter tells Jesus he is going too far with this whole “I’m going to die” business, Jesus first tells Peter that he is a tool of Satan (ouch!), then he gathers the disciples and the crowds around him, and says, “If you really want to follow me, you have to die too.” What?! It is as shocking today as it was to his original audience. They thought Jesus would make their lives better by leading the Jews to revolt against their Roman oppressors. We think Jesus will make our lives better by keeping us from harm, giving us a comfortable life, or helping us overcome our fears or addictions. But Jesus makes no such promises. In fact, he says that the way up is down. The way to life is through death.
Let this sink in. Don’t squirm your way around it, or water down the potency of Jesus’ words. He said you can’t be his disciple if you don’t take up your cross. You have to lose your life if you want to find it. Stop reading for a moment. Pause. Consider the life that Jesus is calling us to. The path is narrow, is it not?
Before we get into the specifics of what it means to take up our cross, though, let’s talk about the payout. Jesus doesn’t expect us to give up everything and get nothing in return. And the carrot that he is dangling in front of us is the thing that every single person in the world craves. Identity.
Who of us, myself included, hasn’t spent a good portion of our lives trying to figure out who we are and where we fit in the grand scheme of things? For all our modern talk of identity, and finding ourselves, we forget that Jesus was the first one to talk about this. He lays out quite a different prescription, though, than the one we hear today. Tim Keller talks about the Eastern vs. Western search for identity in his article, The Call to Discipleship. The Eastern way is to lose all sense of individual self by connecting fully to world around you. The way to peace is through denying you even have a self and living an integrated life free from individuality. The Western approach to identity is through a voyage of self-discovery. We spend our whole lives seeking out the things that will fulfill our deepest longings; obsessing over our individual abilities, needs, interests, contributions. But Jesus takes neither approach. He says, “You will find yourself when you lose yourself.” Or as Keller says, “’You’re never going to find out who you really are by trying to find out who you really are. You’re going to have to lose yourself in serving me (Jesus).’ Some things happen only as a byproduct, and identity is one of them.”
Don’t let your desire to preserve your sense of self keep you from following Jesus. He has promised that in losing yourself in Him, you will truly find yourself. C.S. Lewis says, “It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.”
Now, if you’re like me, you need more detail. What did Jesus mean by taking up the cross? How do I do that on a practical level every day?
Taking Up the Cross
In Bonhoeffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship, he lays out three ways the Christian is called to daily take up his cross. Number one is by forsaking our attachments to this world. God owns. We manage. It is very easy to get those backwards and feel that we own and God manages. Taking up our cross means prying the stuff of earth from the tentacles of our hearts and giving it back to God (who owns it all in the first place) on a daily basis. If you want to see how entrenched you are in the material world, note your reactions when you don’t get what you think you deserve, or when something is taken away from you. Note how your much your happiness depends upon getting what you want. Note how ungrateful and dissatisfied you are with the life you have been assigned. Taking up your cross means flipping the world upside down, discovering joy in being accepted by God and no one else, being filled up by God and nothing else.
Second, Bonhoeffer says we take up our cross by daily doing battle against sin. The notion of having a wicked flesh is quite unpopular today. We like to think about doing battle against the evils without, not the evil within. But being a Christian means staring down the ugly truth about ourselves every day and then picking up our swords and fighting. To put it in athletic terms, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Heb. 12:1) We must not self-validate with phrases like, “Jesus understands my weaknesses”, or “It’s just the way I am”, or “I don’t see the harm in this”, or “At least I’m not as bad as So-and-So.” I love this quote from Bonhoeffer about going too far down the trail of self-justification.
“The outcome is usually that self-imparted absolution confirms the man in his disobedience, and makes him plead ignorance of the kindness as well as the commandment of God.”
How can I know, truly know the price Jesus paid for the forgiveness of my sin, if I am not willing to forsake that sin? If I never fight against my flesh, living by the mantra, “Jesus paid it all”, without knowing the depths of the “all” that he paid for, I have no concept of grace.
Third, we take up our cross by bearing the weight of forgiveness. We are called to be people who bear, just as Jesus bore our bodily flesh, he bore the cross, and he bore our sins. This is perhaps the most costly aspect of taking up our cross. I can think of no greater way to participate in the suffering of Jesus than by my gracious forgiveness of those who wound me. Just as Jesus said, “Forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing,” I am called in love to “bear all things, believe all things, hope all things.” This of course, does not mean I become the whipping post for anyone who wants to abuse me. But, it does mean that I am growing in my willingness to cover in love, to assume the best, and to offer grace. This is also the most radical and yet attractive quality of a true disciple. What baffled the ancient Roman culture about the new Christian “cult” wasn’t their piety, but their compassion. Oh Lord, may we be known for being a forgiving people, full of grace and mercy, bearing the pain of this world on our backs and laying it down at your feet.
How is this possible?
Yeah, there’s that. I don’t know about you, but all of this taking up my cross business seems pretty impossible. And it is. If we’re not careful, we will plunge ourselves headlong into a works-based taking up our cross, measuring our success by the amount of our own blood, sweat and tears. Becoming like Christ is not a checklist of expectations, but rather a life-long process of answering his prodding. He convicts, I respond, He changes me. My tendency is to act without listening, or to mistake my own voice for his. I’m still learning to wait and listen, to be willing to take up whatever cross he gives me, but not to go cutting down trees and making my own crosses. Your tendency might be different than mine. You might be really good at listening, but not so great at obeying. In both cases, we must die to our own desires in order to listen carefully and obey promptly.
C.S. Lewis offers this encouragement in our path of discipleship: “God looks at you as if you were a little Christ: Christ stands beside you to turn you into one.”
The more I lean into him and depend on him to change my stubborn heart, the more like him I become. He is the one doing the real work. I am just surrendering to him. So, even in this, I am living out the paradox of dying in order to really live.