Bearing the Cross How readily we forget that Christianity means death
It is a lack of true discipleship that hinders most people from becoming effective Christians. Yet discipleship is at least discussed. There are scores of books about it, particularly about what is called “discipling” other people. What are we to say about “bearing the cross”, which is a fundamental part of discipleship? In this area it is not only the thing itself that is lacking. Cross-bearing is something about which we do not even speak, at least not often.
Can we really have forgotten that Jesus told those who had confessed him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mat. 16:16) that they must bear a cross? The command to “take up” or “bear” the cross occurs five times in Christ’s teachings (Mat. 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23, 14:27), and it is implied in other passages also.
This is a “hard” saying, of course. We can handle the call to follow Jesus, particularly if we do not think too deeply about what following him means. We can perhaps even handle the thought of being in Christ’s school and taking on his yoke. But a cross? A cross means death –– death to self, and that is not an easy thought to contemplate.
No one wants to die. Yet that is what Jesus said each of his followers must do daily.
Walter J. Chantry, pastor of a Reformed Baptist Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has written a book about cross-bearing entitled The Shadow of the Cross: Studies in Self-Denial in which he suggests several reasons for our neglect of this theme, chiefly the perversion of the doctrine in the past.
But isn’t the real reason why so many people do not talk about self-denial and cross-bearing as essential ingredients of Christianity is that we just do not like these demands? We like having our sins forgiven, if sin is weighing on our consciences. We like the promises of Christianity. We want to be told that God will heal our broken relationships, resolve our inner conflicts and prosper our work.
But denial? Taking up a cross? Suffering? We dislike that teaching.
So a preacher who wants to see his church and ministry prosper soon learns to stop talking about cross-bearing. Instead he tells people things that enhance their self-esteem.
The opposite of self-denial is self-seeking, and the problem with self-seeking is that it has been the essence of sin from the beginning. It is what caused the fall of Satan. Satan said, “I want my way; I want to displace God, to rule the universe.” God said that Satan will actually be brought low (Isa. 14:13-15).
By contrast, Jesus said, “I will go down in self-denial. I will abase myself so that others might be lifted to glory.” God promised that Jesus would be exalted, being given a name which is above every name, and that every tongue would confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:6-11).
It is not only that we are to say “No” to self, which is what denying self is about. We are also to say “Yes” to God, which is the meaning of taking up our cross.
Some speak of cross-bearing as if it means enduring the inevitable. But that is not it at all. There are all kinds of things that cannot be avoided: a physical handicap, a deficient academic background, a drunken husband, a profligate wife. People sometimes refer to inevitable limitations like these as “my cross”, but they are not crosses. Real crosses mean saying “Yes” to something hard for Christ’s sake.
Cross-bearing involves prayer and Bible study. It is not easy to make ourselves do them regularly.
Cross-bearing involves the items Jesus listed in Matthew 25:31-46: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, receiving the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the one who is in prison. These are not easy to do either. They involve denying oneself time, money and convenience.
Taking up our cross involves witnessing. It means putting oneself out for the sake of the people God sends into our lives.
Essentially, taking up our cross means accepting whatever God has given us or made us and then offering it back to him as “our reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1).
Priests take the gifts of the worshiper and offer them to God. We are in that position. We take the gifts God has given us –– whatever they may be –– and then offer them back to God with thanksgiving.
Taking up our cross daily is painful. In Jesus’ day crosses were made of rough wood crudely shaped. To pick up a cross hurt the hands. To carry it on one’s back meant working the splinters of the wood into the skin of one’s shoulders. There was nothing pretty about a cross. A cross hurt. So does Christian service –– at times.
Even more! A cross put the crucified person to death. The death was slow, but it was certain. In our case, it is death to self-importance, self-satisfaction, self-absorption, self-advancement, self-dependence. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died for his commitment to Christ, understood this principle. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” What can motivate a man or woman to such self-sacrifice? There is only one answer: It is the love of Christ. That is what moves a person to become a Christian in the first place –– not the promise of rewards, though there are rewards, nor an escape from hell, though following after Christ does mean deliverance from hell’s terrors. What moves one to be a Christian is the love of Jesus, for the sake of which He endured the cross. Those who have been won by that love will follow Christ, and they will never allow anything to keep them from that calling.