What Does It Mean to Take Up Our Cross?
As Christians, most of us say that we are willing to bear our crosses, but I think most of us say that without putting much thought into it and what it really means to do so. When we realize just what taking up our individual cross means our attitudes often changes. The cross we are asked to bear is not typically what we wish it was or think it should be. We often want to pick the cross that is the lightest to carry and the one that offers the least amount of suffering when we are on it. Instead of carrying a heavy cross and then getting nailed to it with spikes, we want a cross that is light as a feather and soft as a luxurious bed with Egyptian cotton sheets. We want to be laid gently on the soft bed of a cross with the option to get off of it whenever we want, and that my friends, is not how it works.
Jesus did not say, “I want you to give up the world for my sake, but only if it is easy,” he said he wanted us to give up the world for his sake, period. The cross is sacrifice, it is pain, it is suffering, and yes, it is death. The question is, what are we putting to death on the cross? We sometimes look at other people’s crosses and say, “That’s easy, we take up our cross daily and follow Jesus,” but it makes no sense to nail something to the cross that is already dead. If a person who never drinks is nailing alcohol to the cross they are wasting their time and allowing the real criminal to run free and rule his or her life.
We don’t all have the same cross and our crosses are often not even similar. There are many types of crosses and they come in all shapes and sizes, individually constructed for every person on earth. What is a temptation for you may pose no problem for me, and the sin I can’t seam to overcome may be one that you have never committed. I don't have an alcohol or chemical dependency, so I can't say that I am taking up my cross by not having a drink or shooting up. For me it is easy to not do drugs and it is easy to not get drunk, but those things are not my cross. I can't judge how well or poorly I am carrying my cross by the successes or failures of others, and I similarly can't judge others on my success or failures. Also, I should be so focused on my own cross that I don't have time to worry about those other people carry or choose not to carry; that is between them and God.
Before I get too far into what our crosses are or could be, I think I should talk about what it means to take up the cross. There is a lot of talk in Christianity of taking up the cross, which is one of the many terms in Christianese that is often thrown around, and like most words and terms, it is commonly misused. I hear people say they are taking up their cross by not eating desert and I hear them say they are taking up their cross when they have to work on a weekend, etc. I heard someone say, "I have to spend time with my in-laws, but that is the cross I have to bear." That is not taking up the cross, that is doing the bare minimum to keep your spouse happy and keep peace in your house. Taking up the cross is not and will never be meeting the lowest possible standard.
When Jesus said we are to daily take up our cross and follow him, I reckon he wasn't talking about our diets or missing a football game, he was talking about giving up anything that gets in between us and our relationship with God. In most instances, spending time with your in-laws does not hinder your relationship with God, but the way in which you treat them probably does. Perhaps you should try to love them instead of grudgingly eating dinner with them once or twice a year.
Anything that in any way hinders our relationship with God, even though it may not be inherently evil, is something we must willingly give up to be closer to God. Holding hatred or animosity toward anyone definitely gets in the way of our relationship with God, even if it is toward the dreaded in-laws.
Jesus said we are to take up our cross and follow him, indication there was a choice. Jesus never said he would take us to the cross crying and screaming, but the awful truth is that if we don't willingly take up our cross and follow Jesus than we will eventually be dragged crying and screaming to somewhere else, someplace we don't want to be. When people came to realize that Jesus was indeed the messiah they thought he would be a warrior who would overthrow the Roman government and bring political freedom to the Jewish people, so when he started talking about going to the cross many people stopped following him. People were so set on getting what they wanted that they shunned what they needed. Jesus did come to bring freedom, but not the kind of freedom people expected.
Even the apostles fell into the error of thinking Jesus would be the political leader they and the Jewish culture expected the messiah to be. When Peter heard Jesus talking about going to the cross and being put to death he rebuked him and said that it should never be so, not realizing the implications of what he was saying. Jesus called Peter Satan and told him that he was hindering the work of God, which I am quite certain was not the response Peter expected. The cross had one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to kill in a gruesome, painful and shameful manner.
Going without a few cups
Is not taking up your cross
When Jesus said he was going to the cross no one thought he was referring to something mildly uncomfortable like not buying our daily Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat, Caramel Macchiato because we are saving to buy a new flat screen television. To go to the cross is to die, and Jesus died on the cross to overcome death and sin on our behalf. Going to the cross was not easy for Jesus and it was excruciatingly painful, but he did it willingly out of love.
When we take up our cross we are also to die, though physical death is not the death we are likely asked to suffer, though it asked of some of us. When we take up our cross we are to die to the world and live for Jesus. Taking up the cross is to willingly die to the world and to fully commit to God, regardless of the cost in this world. You must willingly count the cost and agree to it. Most of us are fully aware of what we may be asked to give up to follow Jesus, and if we are not willing to comply than we are not truly willing to follow Jesus.
I am not judging people who are struggling to give up a sin or bad habit, and I am sure you judge yourself enough for the both of us, but those who have decided they are not ready to give up whatever it is they have been asked to give up are saying they are not ready to fully follow Jesus, even if they don't realize that is what they are saying.
When the young rich ruler came to Jesus and asked him what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor, a lot of people misinterpret that to mean that serving the poor is extremely important or that it was meant to illustrate the evils of money and wealth, and while those are important themes, that was not the point of Jesus asking him to give up his wealth.
I am going to share the story, found in Matthew 19:16-38 (NIV), and I want you to pay attention to the interaction, especially the reaction the man had to the words of Jesus. It is also important to remember that the way in which Jesus interacted with people, even in similar situations, differed greatly. A good example is when he healed some blind people just by touching them and others he mixed his spit with dirt and put it on their eyes. Jesus always knew the best way to handle the situation and he always handled the situation accordingly.
"Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, 'Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?'
Largely because of the teachings of the Jewish leaders of the time, this man thought that it was some culmination or special combination of good works that would earn him his place in heaven, and here and throughout the Bible we learn that we can't earn heaven and only Jesus can get us there.
“Why do you ask me about what is good?' Jesus replied. 'There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
I always point out at this pint in the story that Jesus never denied being good, nor did he insinuate that he wasn't good; he was basically asking the man if he truly knew who he was talking to. Jesus was saying, "You are calling me good, but the only one who is actually good is God. Are you aware that you are acknowledging me as God? Are you aware that I am God?"
“Which ones?' [the man] inquired.
Jesus replied, “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
“All these I have kept,'“ the young man said. “What do I still lack?'“
Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
First, notice that Jesus did not say that we have to be perfect, he said if you want to be perfect, there is a difference. Next, notice the pattern, Jesus said to give something up and then to follow him. We all have something we have to give up to follow Jesus, and it is individually tailored to us as individuals. As I said before, many Christians falsely believe that Jesus asked this man to give up his money because money is evil, but that is not the case. Many people falsely think the Bible says money is the root of all evil, but what it really says is that the love of money is the root to all kinds of evil.
So far as I know, this is the only place recorded in the Bible where Jesus specifically asked a rich person to give up their vast wealth. It was not a matter of wealth, it was a matter of heart. Jesus wanted to know if this man loved God more than he loved his power and money, just like Jesus later wanted to know that Peter loved him more than he loved fishing and that he was willing to give up his simple and comfortable life for a life of peril spreading the word of God. Peter made the correct choice, the choice that led to eternal life with God, this rich young man did not.
Many of the things that we are asked to give up are inherently evil, such as lust, greed, envy, hate, murder, etc. but a lot of the things we are asked to give up are not evil in and of themselves. Many of the things we are asked to give up we are asked to part with because we have placed them in a position of higher importance than we place God. When we make anything more important than God we make it an idol and a false god, and in essence, we worship our wealth, our power, or jobs, our relationships and many other things, instead of worshiping the one true God. God wants us to worship him and him alone and does not want to have to compete for our affection.
I love fishing and the sport is not evil or bad on its own, despite what PETA says, but if fishing started getting in the way of my relationship with God than it would have become evil, and so it is with anything else that is not a sin on its own. A lot of the time the thing itself is not a sin, but placing it above God in our heart certainly is.Back to the story,
When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Jesus was saying that it is difficult for a rich person to go to heaven, not because money is evil, but because it is common for people with vast wealth to love their money more than they love God. Jesus could have just as easily said that it is more difficult for a person who loves technology or sex, football or practically anything else, to enter the kingdom of heaven than it is for a camel to enter the eye of a needle. The important thing here is that it is only possible with God.
Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life."
Jesus was teaching that it may be extremely difficult to give up whatever it is that is keeping us from following him, but that what we gain from giving it up to follow him is far greater than the loss of whatever it was we gave up. It is like what Jesus said about giving up things that cause you to sin and that if you have an eye or a hand that causes you to sin than it is far better to go into heaven blind or maimed than it is to go to hell with you eye and your hand. Anything that keeps a person from following God is something he or she must give up, and I do mean anything, and so does God.
“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell,” (Matthew 18:8-9 NIV).
Paul said that we are not just to part with our sins and the things that keep us from God, he said that we are to put them to death. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator, ,” (Colossians 3:5-10).
It is not just our sins we must to death but also our own ideas, plans, ambitions, desires and anything else that hinders us from having a strong relationship with God. Nothing on this earth, regardless of how much we want it or think we need it, regardless of how much pleasure it brings, nothing is worth keeping us from a life and an eternity with God, nothing.
Jesus said that no one who says the are following him but looks back longingly at his or her old life is fit for the kingdom of heaven, and that is why Lot’s wife was turned to salt when she looked back at Sodom; she wasn’t ready to give up that life and she could not leave without one last look at it. Some of us (or should I say many of us?) who are trying to give up a sin are just not ready to part with it and say, “We gill give it up, starting tomorrow,” or “I want to do it one last time, just to get it out of my system.” For the record, further indulging in something does the exact opposite of getting it our of your system. Doing something to get it out of your system makes about as much sense as pouring water into your gas tank while trying to get all the water out of the gas lines. It is an exercise in futility.
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God,” (Luke 9:57-62).
Taking up you cross does not necessarily mean to suffer, but there is often suffering involved; taking up the cross was not meant to be easy. Taking up the cross is a death, not a stroll in the park. If we have to give up things that are important to us for the sake of the kingdom, it very well could be painful. Nothing in life comes without a cost, regardless of what society tries to tell you. Jesus paid the entire price for our salvation and we can’t earn it by our works, but in order to accept what he did on our behalf we have to give up the world.
We must willingly
part with our sins
Thinking we are going to be saved by grace while living for the world is like wanting to be rescued from a house fire but refusing to give the firefighters the key to the lock you have used to chain yourself to the house. You can be saved, but you must let go of what is killing you! If we don’t kill our sins they will kill us.
Jesus told us that we must be willing to leave everything without looking back. “It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left,” (Luke 17:30-33).
The reason the one woman grinding grain was taken and the other left is because the one taken was ready, and the reason one person in bed was taken and the other was left was because the one taken was ready. As John the Baptist proclaimed, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
As anyone who knows me personally or has listened to this podcast or read my blog for any length of time knows, I drove a bus for a lot of years, and in all those years I drove a bus I can’t count the number of people I left behind because they were not ready when it was time for the bus to leave. I had a schedule to keep and could not make everyone else late to accommodate the people who could not get their stuff together. On several occasions I pulled out of the parking lot, bus stop or station with people chasing the bus, but I was given strict orders not to wait for anyone.
An eternity with God is the bus we want to be on, and death can be looked at as the driver who refuses to wait or go on our schedule. No one is promised tomorrow so it is important to be ready today. If we say we are not ready to give up whatever it is that it is keeping us from God and that we will do it tomorrow, it may work out for us, or there may be no tomorrow. It is not worth the risk.
Anything that keeps you from following Jesus is something you need to give up, and don’t just get rid of it, murder it, murder it violently. As we learn from Saul when he was commanded to kill the Amalekites but failed to do so, if you don’t completely get rid of things that are hindering your relationship with God they will most definitely cause problems later. C.S. Lewis, widely considered to be one of the greatest Christian writers of all time, said that each of us has our favorite sin and that some people are not willing to part with their favorite sin for all of heaven. I am fairly certain that quote came from The Great Divorce.
There is always a cost for following Jesus, but the cost is always worth it. Everything in the world minus Jesus is nothing while Jesus minus everything else is still everything. Ask yourself if you would you still follow Jesus if you knew the worldly cost. Would you still follow Jesus if you knew doing so would cost you your job? What about your retirement? Would you still follow Jesus if you knew it would cost you a relationship, a marriage, or even children? Would you still follow Jesus if you knew it would cost you your very life?
Not many of us in the Unites States ever have to give our physical lives for the sake of the kingdom, but it is a real threat in other parts of the world. Throughout the history of Christianity, starting with Jesus himself, people have often been called upon to choose between their lives and the gospel, and those who chose the gospel have been rewarded in heaven, while those who chose life over the gospel have likely chosen something other than heaven.
Most of us will never be asked to die for the cause of the gospel, but we are definitely asked to give up aspects of our lives to put our lives in line with the gospel, and sometimes those changes take great courage and sacrifice on our parts. Some people who know the the truth of the gospel are unwilling to part with family traditions that are not compatible with the gospel because they are afraid of loosing family or friends, but it profits nothing to gain the whole world and loose your soul.
We might not be asked to die physically, but separating ourselves from friends or family who prevent us from living the gospel can be a painful thing and can even be more difficult and painful than dying.
When an addict gives his or her life to God and gives up the drugs or alcohol he or she usually has to completely cut ties with old life and all associates who may lead them back down the rabbit hole of addiction. The addict may still love those old friends and acquaintances, but if they keep him or her from sobriety and from living a life for God than those ties must be cut.
For some people taking up the cross has nothing to do with addiction of any kind and has more to do with his or her pride, the way they treat people and their love for things other than God.
If you have a job of power and prestige and you let what others think of you be more important that God than perhaps your cross is to leave your job and take a lower paying job out of the spotlight where it is more difficult to place your image over what you think of God.
If you have an addiction to pornography perhaps your cross is to get rid of your computer, the internet, your phone or to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure you spend your time on God and not worldly and sinful pursuits.
For some people taking up their cross is to literally die, but more often than not it is to die to the world. For some people it is impossible for them to have wealth and still go to heaven because they allow their wealth to get in the way of their relationship with God, and perhaps those people would be taking up their cross by dedicating their life to a life of poverty and serving others like Mother Teresa did.
On the other side of the coin are people who take up a life of poverty so that the world will look at them fondly and think that they are extremely righteous and devout because they gave up all to serve God and those in need, but what they didn’t give up was their pride and vain ambition. Paul gave a laundry list of things that amounted to nothing if we don’t have love, and among them was giving all you have to feed the poor.
If I speak in the tongues a of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 NIV).
If you give up all you have to serve the poor but do it out of pride instead of love than you might as well have kept the money because the money was not your problem, it was pride and concern over what others thought of you. Those who give up their money to be glorified by the world might as well ask, “Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the most pious of all?” The thing some people need to take to the cross is anger, and issues such as anger often require help from others, such as a therapist, to overcome. Seeking out the help of others often requires the person to nail another thing to the nail; his or her pride.
Sometimes we are afraid to take our sins and nail them to the cross, we are afraid of the process of overcoming our sins and dedicating our life to God because we know it will not be pleasant or easy. When I was a boy, like most boys, I was always climbing trees, digging holes and doing other rambunctious things that often led to injury and I was almost constantly acquiring some new, self inflicted, injury. One time I was playing In an old barn and severely cut my hand on a broken piece of weathered wood, leaving splinters in the wound. The cut hurt and the splinters within the cut hurt more, but I hid the injury from my mother because, while I knew she would make it better, I knew the process she would use to fix the injury would hurt more than the injury itself.
I hid the injury for several hours before I finally accepted defeat and asked my mother for help. If my mother had discovered the injury on her own she would have forced help upon me, God, however, is not that way and will not help us without our consent. When I told my mother about the injury she scolded me for waiting so long and told me it could have gotten infected and caused me to loose my hand or die from some illness.
When my mother started the process of repairing the damage I had caused I winced In anticipation of the increased pain because my mother’s approach to first aid had all the tenderness of an angry bull that got locked in an antique store full of glass trinkets. Don’t get me wrong, my mother was not intentionally causing pain when she fixed an injury, she was just doing the first aid in the quickest and most effective manner she knew, which just happened to be the painful way. See, my mother cared more about preventing infection and starting the mending process than she did about the temporary pain the process caused.
My mother pulled off the blood soaked cloth on my hand, which the dried blood had firmly attached to my tender injured flesh. After washing the injury with soap and water my mother pulled out all of the wooden splinters, poured on rubbing alcohol to kill infection, and bandaged me up.
In the end, I was so afraid of the pain involved with getting the injury fixed that I suffered needlessly for hours before accepting that I could not do it on my own and asking for help, and I still had to go through the pain of my mother’s first aid. Once the wound was mended the relief was almost instant, and there was no more pain so long as I didn’t bump it.
How long do we suffer from sin of our own making because we are too afraid to ask for help. There are many, many instances in life when people suffer needlessly in their sin because they are too afraid or too proud to ask for help or because they know the process of ridding themselves from the sin will be painful.
Jesus knew just how painful the cross would be, yet he went without hesitation so that we could be forgiven of our sins and have eternal life. Yes, sometimes there is pain involved when we turn our sins over to Jesus, but anything we suffer as a result of turning our life over to God will be well worth the cost.
-God bless, your brother in Christ, Gene Curl