Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, 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.
You can’t be a follower of Jesus for long without making your peace with paradox, for Jesus often says things that don’t seem to make sense, but are in fact true.
In church this Sunday you’ll hear Jesus speak perhaps the greatest paradox of faith. He and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, which is where his disciples imagine Jesus will claim his power as the Messiah. Instead, Jesus tries to prepare them for the fact that he will undergo great suffering and be killed. When they try to convince him otherwise, he tells them that if they want to follow him, they, too, must pick up their cross of suffering. Understandably Jesus’ words don’t make sense to them. How can greatness be revealed in suffering? How does death lead to life?
What’s striking is Jesus’ matter-of-fact acceptance that suffering is not only a part of life, but an essential part of the spiritual path. He assumes that everyone has a cross to bear. The only question is whether we will rail against it or choose to carry our cross with some modicum of grace, accepting it as our own and finding the life it brings.
To be sure, there is nothing to be gained by needless, senseless suffering, or what psychiatrists call false suffering, which is the pain we experience as a by-product of avoiding something else. How, then, can we distinguish between our sufferings, in order to lay down the crosses that do not belong to us and pick up the ones that do?
One distinction might be in the fruits of suffering. Is our suffering helping us to grow, or only confirming our fears and keeping us small? The kind of suffering Jesus endured and that he encourages us to embrace always has redemption of some kind on the other side. In contrast, false suffering causes pain that leads nowhere. “Choose your pain,” a wise person said to me. “Whichever path you choose will involve pain. Which pain carries the promise of life?”
The truest test of whether a cross is ours to bear is when we don’t have the option to lay it down. The only choice we have is how we will carry it. Benedictine nun Joan Chittister once described the will of God as what remains of a situation after we try without stint and pray without ceasing to change it. Then Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane becomes our own: “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But thy will, not mine, be done.”
Our crosses require us to let go of something we love or had hoped for, because life demands it, even though we had wished for something else. And it hurts as much as cutting off a limb or tearing out our heart.
The paradox–the mystery of faith–is this: when we bear the cross that has come to us, God gives us more of ourselves in return. Our selves become grounded in the love of Christ, for us and through us. I don’t know how this works. I only know that it does.
The key is to accept the cross for what it is–the hardest possible thing asked of us–and to embrace it as our destiny, even if we would run far from it if we could. In that acceptance, we join our will to God’s, moving from being victims of fate or circumstance to active agents of our own transformation. We make room for Christ within ourselves that he occupies with love, helping us to become even more of the self we were created to be, even as we’re being stripped away of parts of ourselves that we hate to lose. Through what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “unmerited, redemptive suffering” we play a small part in Jesus’ transformation of the world.
In the Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, of all places, we find this prayer:
Most gracious God, we give you thanks for your tender love
in sending Jesus Christ to come among us, to be born of a human mother,
and to make the way of the cross to be the way of life.
The way of the cross as the way of life is the great paradox at the heart of Christian faith. It doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s true.
Lent is a particularly fruitful time to consider the particular cross that is yours to accept. You needn’t pretend that it doesn’t hurt. It’s enough to name it and do your best to carry it. Remember that Jesus is there to help you shoulder it. Dare to trust that God’s grace will not only sustain you, but honor your suffering and help transform the loss you experience into a way of life. Rest assured that others will know something of grace and love because of the cross you accept and carry.