By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director
“It’s not so simple following Jesus to Jerusalem. What he says is so grave and serious.” These are the opening words in a chapter titled “Take up Your Cross” in Barbed Wire and Thorns: A Christian’s Reflection on Suffering, by Swedish writer and pastor Lena Malmgren. “If any want to become my followers,” she continues with Jesus’ words, “let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
In this time of Lenten reflection, we need to ask ourselves what Jesus means by this. How can we take up our cross and follow him? Perhaps Luke in his Gospel can shed a bit more light on this statement from Jesus: “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it” (9:23–24 NLT).
As I write in Solitude & Contemplation (a Bible study on spiritual practices for everyday life):
Jesus wants us to turn from our “selfish ways,” which means that we first need to identify what these may be. This is one of the hardest and yet most beautiful aspects of the contemplative life—turning away from ourselves and seeking only the kingdom of God. He also calls us to take up our “cross daily.” This means we need to seek after the ways of the Lord—Monday through Friday, Saturday and Sunday—dying daily to our old ways, ever moving forward to authentic life. When we do these things, we can then “follow” him and be his disciples, worthy to be called “his.”
“When Everything Else Is Taken from Us”
In Redeeming Ruth, a brand-new book from Hendrickson (due for release in May 2017), author Meadow Merrill writes:
As I’ve often told my children, there is nothing of value that may be lost here that will not be given back in heaven. Everything life takes, love restores. Everything. Broken bodies. Broken hearts. Broken dreams. No matter how painful. No matter how devastating, God can transform our greatest sorrow into something good. We simply have to keep beating our wings, keep trusting to discover what it will be. In the meantime, he gives us the hope to keep living.
Or as Thomas Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation, “True faith must be able to go on when everything else is taken from us.”
As we go through this Lenten season, we anticipate Passion Week (or Holy Week) and the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But since we know the conclusion of the story, we know that his death on the Roman cross does not end in his defeat—it ends in the defeat of Satan and Death and Sin. As Paul writes in Colossians 2:13–15,
[God] canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.
“His victory over them on the cross.” What a strange and unforeseen turn of events. The Jews looked to the Messiah to free them from Roman oppression, but Jesus delivered us all from the greatest oppressor. No one thought that any good could come from the cruel cross of torture and death. Again from Solitude & Contemplation:
What was meant to humiliate the victim became a way of shaming the victimizer. But in this, we don’t mean the Roman Empire against a typical insurrectionist. This was victory on a cosmic scale as Jesus disarmed Satan—the original Rebel—and humiliated him at the cross.
If we look at the cross in this way, then perhaps we can see that it is the way of victory, the way of life. Knowing that we have been set free, we still live in this in-between time of the “already” and the “not yet.” Every day remains a struggle. We live in a world, as Meadow put it, in which we have broken bodies, broken hearts, broken dreams. But “no matter how painful” or “how devastating, God can transform our greatest sorrow into something good.” We get up each morning and go through each day with that hope.
Three Types of Avoidable Suffering—If We So Choose
In Barbed Wire and Thorns, Lena Malmgren writes that while there is suffering that can’t be avoided (just from the mere fact of being human, which means we are vulnerable to illness, death, and catastrophe), there are three kinds of suffering that are actually avoidable—if we so choose:
- “The suffering that comes of our own stupidity.”
This refers to when we do something we shouldn’t that has negative consequences (like drinking and driving or destroying the environment). This is a type of unnecessary suffering we should all strive to avoid.
- “The suffering that comes of taking a position on some issue, of being a free, authentic human being who makes choices.”
If you don’t make a stand for something or voice your opinion, you don’t need to worry about the backlash—you can just go along with the status quo. You will never influence the world around you for good, but neither will you bring harm to yourself. If you mind your own business and keep your head down, you’ll be fine. (Charles Dickens wrote a famous little story about a miserable businessman who sought to avoid suffering through involvement with others, not realizing that “mankind was his business.”)
- “The kind [of suffering] that comes of confessing Christ in word or deed, when doing so is risky or downright dangerous. It is this suffering that Jesus has in mind when he tells his followers to take up their crosses.”
Those who want to avoid this kind of suffering can go about their lives without having to rock any boats (which also brings us back to #2 above). Don’t make a stand for the kingdom and for what is just and good, and the world will love you. Many years ago, my father asked me if the world was treating me well. My immediate response was that it if was, then I was doing something wrong. Perhaps that was a bit of youthful arrogance on my part, but I think my heart was in the right place. In this world we will have many tribulations, Jesus told his disciples. If we want to live godly lives, then sometimes we will ruffle some feathers or least raise some curious eyebrows. To turn the other cheek and do good to our enemies grates against our natural instinct for survival. In Micah 6:8 (which reflects the entire Law of Moses), God tells his children to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him. In the New Testament, Jesus reminds us that the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love others as we love ourselves.
If we choose not to suffer because of our confession of Christ in word or deed when it’s risky or dangerous, then we can also avoid the suffering that comes from taking a position on something or voicing our opinion (again #2). Corrie Ten Boom and her family could have easily avoided the Nazi concentration camp if they had chosen to turn a blind eye to what was happening to their Jewish brothers and sisters. Likewise, we don’t need to speak up for those around us who may need our intervention. Why should we get involved and cause ourselves any trouble?
“In Spite of the Suffering It May Bring Me”
If we take this stance, however, then we do not realize what it means to truly be human—or a child of God. When Jesus was born physically into this world, walked among the people of Judea, teaching and healing them, and then went willingly to his crucifixion after washing his disciples’ feet, he showed us what it means to be truly human, to pick up our cross, and to follow after him.
As Lena Malmgren says so beautifully,
This is what it means to bear one’s cross: it means not saying, “It’s my life, entirely at my disposal; I can do with it whatever I want; I have a right to take for myself whatever I can get.” Instead it means to say, “My life is in God’s hands. My life is hidden with Christ in God. I am called to be as much like Christ as I can be, right here in the midst of evil and in spite of the suffering it may bring me.”
May God give us the grace to give our lives completely over to him, to trust him with each step and with each new day, until Jesus comes again. Amen.
Patricia Anders is editorial director at Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine, teaches Aesthetic Aspects in Literature at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).
For more information about Barbed Wire & Thorns, check out our website.