Cross to bear
A stammer. An irritating workmate. An infirm parent. A complaining parishioner. An unpleasant duty. A chronic illness. We might be tempted to call these things “my cross to bear.” But we shouldn’t. Jesus means something very different by the phrase.
But it’s not just the world-weary grumblers who get it wrong. The zealous do-gooders can also misunderstand the saying. As they trudge grim-faced towards their hoped-for redemption they still see “life in the old girl yet.” And strangely these words from Jesus inspire them to greater striving. They hear the call to take up their cross and they attempt to summon all their self-denying powers for a grand display. Such people like to feel “challenged” by Jesus’ words because, deep down, they feel they can rise to the challenge. But this too is a misunderstanding of “bearing our cross.” Jesus doesn’t want us determined, He wants us dead!
Here is what Jesus says. In Luke chapter 14, Jesus turns to the crowds and says:
“Whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)
When Jesus speaks of our “cross to bear” He’s not referring to the inconvenience or the weight of the thing. If a first century man found himself carrying his own cross, its heaviness would be the least of his worries. It’s where he’s headed that is the issue. Any minute the positions will be reversed and the cross on the man will become the man on the cross. If you ever saw someone bearing their cross you knew instantly that they were on their way to die. Their death was a fait accompli.
We get a sense of it in modern times if we’ve seen The Green Mile. As Percy the jailer leads John Coffey to death row he cries out repeatedly: “We’ve got a dead man walking here.” That’s the condition of a man bearing his cross.
Jesus is not referring to some uncomfortable or irritating burden. And He’s not laying out some arduous path in life. He is speaking our death sentence. And He demands that we consider ourselves dead already.
He drives the point home with two illustrations (v28-32). No-one builds a tower and no-one goes to war without counting the cost. And if we haven’t the strength to complete the job, we must face that fact and come clean. The out-numbered general “desireth conditions of peace”… And so should the Christian who is called to follow Jesus.
This command to take up our cross is not our opportunity to prove how strong we are. It’s our cue to surrender. But when we do surrender something wonderful happens.
In Mark chapter 10, James and John get excited about the coming kingdom of Christ. They approach Jesus to ask for top jobs in the new cabinet. He responds:
“Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)
Jesus is referring to the suffering of the cross here. He is clear that the path to glory is through suffering. So He asks His disciples whether they can do what He does. Can they endure His cross? He expects the answer no. But instead they say:
“We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give.” (Mark 10:39-40)
They can’t “drink the cup” in that ultimate sense. But they “shall indeed” drink it. In the ultimate sense they cannot bear the cross – not the way Christ bears it. But they shall.
If anyone thinks they can bear the cross they are as foolish as James and John. But in another sense, every Christian “shall” bear their cross.
How does that work? Paul put it brilliantly in Galatians 2:20:
“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Notice how, for Paul, the cross has happened for him. It is that fait accompli we’ve been considering. There has been a surrender to Christ and now Paul is dead.
How did he do it? Did he summon up all his religious powers for this arduous task of self-denial? No the cross of Jesus itself put Paul to death. He was crucified with Jesus.
You see Paul’s cross was not a precursor to Christ’s cross nor a payback for Christ’s cross. Paul’s cross was accomplished by Christ’s cross. Jesus had taken Paul and all his little self-salvation projects and had put the whole sorry mess to death. Paul no longer lives. He is a dead man walking.
And that is a very good thing. The old Paul did not just need correcting or chastising or challenging or coercing – he needed killing. Yet in Christ’s cross, that is effected. Now the new Paul bears his cross, not as a burden but as the liberating sign of his death to the old. How wonderful to be dead! How freeing to cease relying on myself as a source of life and instead to rely on the Son of God “who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
It’s fascinating to read on in Luke’s Gospel. Following on from this teaching about total self-surrender and cross-bearing what do we read? We might expect the crowds to fade away with only a few rock-hard devotees remaining. It’s the exact opposite.
“Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. And the Pharisees and Scribes murmured.” (Luke 15:1-2)
Surrendering unto the cross of Christ is not a message for the spiritually hard-core – it’s the only refuge for publicans and sinners.
Don’t take up your cross as a sign of your self-denying piety. Take up your cross because you can’t do the Christian life, only He can. But consider His death your death and rejoice – you are a dead man (a dead woman) walking.
“God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” (Galatians 6:14)