It’s been over ten years since I was handed my cross.
Mom and Dad asked my sisters and I to come over for news from the doctor. Once we’d all gathered in the living room, Dad became solemn. “The doctor has decided there’s nothing more to do. It’s time to stop treatment,” he said as tears pooled in his eyes. He put his head in his hands and wept. I squeezed Mom’s hand tighter.
And with those words, a cross was placed on my back. A death began that day.
There are some really bizarre phrases in the Bible. There are sentences we read and question, “What does that even mean?” Sometimes it takes us years of mulling over the words, of turning it in our hand like a gem to see the light come in and sparkle from different angles, before we see the beauty in it.
Jesus said words that were easy to understand as well as some that take some mulling.
One of the phrases I have a new perspective of is found in the books Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Five different times, Jesus tells us “take up your cross.”
If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. Matt. 10:38
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. Matt. 16:24
Then, calling the crowd to join his disciples, he said, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. Mark 8:34
Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. Luke 9:23
And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:27
In high school, I equated a cross with suffering. I assumed “taking up our cross” meant we would all have to suffer in life, so we should embrace it, plan for it.
That was one perspective, and I think that IS part of what Jesus was saying.
But now I also see it means more than just suffering; it means death.
That’s what a cross is. It’s a death tool. For Jesus, a cross would usher in His physical death, and our crosses cause death as well.
For us, it means dying to ourselves – our quest for comfort, our control, our desire for money or our pride.
Before my mom died, I hadn’t had to carry a cross. Life was easy. Yes, I’d had a couple break-ups, but I recovered. I lived in a nice part of town with my dream teaching job and a new husband and puppy. Then, Death came creeping into my neatly planned life.
I am thankful it did.
My cross rustled me from my comfort. Death snapped me out of the trance of Me – my plans, my comfort, my control – and got me thinking about His plans, His comfort, His control.
Allow me to blow my own cover: I would not have chosen my cross, even though Jesus tells us it’s for our good. I would have continued creeping toward comfort and my own plans had it not been for God coming behind me, lifting me up by my shoulders, and setting me back down in a new direction (against my will).
But it didn’t take me long to see it was a grace.
I remember the week after my mom died, I was sitting in that same living room again. Over the course of her illness and death, I had experienced God in fresh, personal ways. Ways I’d always wanted to experience but never had.
Suddenly, a verse popped into my mind: “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine…” Wow, I thought. I can’t believe that even though I want her here so badly, I don’t want to trade what I’ve come to know about You, Lord. I know where she is and that I’ll see her again. Then it continues, “or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10:37-39).
And I got it! I had found life, because I’d finally seen Jesus for the first time in my life. But it took a death.
Sometimes I asked, “Why, Jesus? Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t I have You AND all the things and people I want?”
Because He also said, “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24). We think we can, but we can’t.
We can follow our own desires and plans OR we can follow His.
But notice Jesus isn’t strong-arming us into this. He says, “If…” If we want to be His followers, we have to give up our own way.
I surrendered my plans ten years ago, AND I have to continue to do it. That’s why He said, “take up your cross daily.” It’s not a one-and-done. New circumstances keep arising in my life where I have to pick up the cross and die to myself every single day.
But He also never leaves us empty-handed. Ever. What does He give us for this costly trade? He says, “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. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).
We get to experience the true meaning of LIFE which goes beyond this earthly life. And not only that, but Jesus says in the next verse that He “is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
When Jesus places a cross on our back, it’s not a punishment. It’s a resurrection tool. He wants to put to death the parts of us that do not reflect Him so that we can point the world to Him.
When I think about the most joyful and content people I know, they are the ones who’ve carried their cross and followed Jesus. They’ve lost children, endured irreversible injuries, experienced unwanted divorce, battled cancer, and are living with chronic illness.
They’ve died to themselves and Christ has raised them up with hope, joy, and a deep and life-giving knowledge of who He is. And they can’t help but radiate, because they have found LIFE. Just as He said: “If you give up your life for Me, you will find it.”
Maybe there’s nothing big in your life right now, but we die to ourselves in small ways, too. When you just want to go to bed, but she suddenly remembers she hasn’t studied for the test that is tomorrow. When someone takes the credit for your work, and you let it go. When they’re dilly-dallying in the left lane for ten minutes, and as you finally pass them, you choose not to glare.
Not all crosses are huge.
Die. To. Self.
I have a sign in my closet that is my mantra right now. It’s the lyrics from an Elevation Worship song, “O Come to the Altar.” The words of the final refrain are:
Bear your cross
As you wait for the crown
Tell the world
Of the treasure you’ve found
It reminds me of this calling to bear the cross which God has placed on me. It probably looks very different than the one He’s placed on you, but there is a personal purpose to the cross He places on each person. He says, “take up YOUR cross” (emphasis mine). Only He knows the work He is doing in each person, but we are all given the chance to die to ourselves…so that we may LIVE.
Let’s be people who bear it well, which won’t be easy. But He promises a reward for those who do. And as we wait patiently for it, let’s not miss the opportunity to radiate what God has done in us. Let’s tell the world how He has resurrected us from our former selves. Let’s tell them about the treasure He’s given us in the midst of the darkness!
He’s not being cruel. He is saving our very souls.
I’ve carried this cross for over ten years – loss of a mom, loss of a son, loss of a marriage and a home, loss of all the plans I had for myself – and yet my soul feels sure and strong. The cross is doing the work He promised.
And HE. IS. THE. TREASURE.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, 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. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?[l] Is anything worth more than your soul?” Matthew 16:24-26