“My hair has always been unruly. I can’t keep it under control for anything. I guess that’s my cross to bear…
“My complexion is terrible. I still break out like I’m a teenager! It’s the cross I have to bear…”
“I’d love to be able to have a deep, meaningful conversation with my husband, but he’s so private I can barely get a word out of him. Must be my cross to bear…”
Have you heard statements like these? I have. I’m sure I’ve even made such frivolous statements before. In our society, “bearing one’s cross” has come to mean putting up with something that’s irritating or annoying, as in the examples above. But what does it really mean?
This week’s Gospel reading from Matthew 16 has Jesus predicting His own death, followed by Peter’s adamant denial that such a thing should occur. After Jesus rebukes him, He turns to the rest of the disciples and tells them that “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” I may be off base here, but I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t talking about unruly hair or a bad complexion or a spouse who stonewalls you. No, this is far more serious than those examples. The parallel account in Luke 9 adds one key word—“daily.” Jesus’ disciples are to take up their cross “daily” and follow Him. Hmm. So Jesus is referring to an ongoing process in a believer’s life.
Arthur A. Just, Jr’s commentary on Luke says the following in relation to the phrase in question: “To take up the cross daily is to submit oneself in humility to the kingdom that now comes in the preaching and the miracles of the new era of salvation. To follow Jesus means to open oneself to the contempt of the world… This cruciform life places one at odds with the world so that he must lose ‘the world’ and his life in it so as to receive his place in the kingdom, which is now/not yet. But this will also allow the disciple to see the kingdom of God when it comes as Jesus takes up his cross” (Concordia Commentary, Luke 1:1-9:50, pp 396-397).
To “bear the cross” is to live in that tension of the now and not yet. We have the assurance of eternal life with Jesus, but we aren’t there yet. In the meantime, we are on this sinful earth being constantly bombarded by ridicule and contempt from the world. Think of the Christians who even today are being persecuted for their faith. That is indeed their cross to bear, sometimes in a very literal sense. But for those of us who don’t face physical persecution, our cross is a different nature. We live in a society where pretty much anything is tolerated. We see homosexual “marriage” being accepted and even applauded, and we are intolerant and closed-minded if we dare to voice opinions otherwise. Abortion is not seen as “murder” in our society, but as an issue of “women’s health,” and we are boorish and old-fashioned if we oppose a woman’s “rights.” We are hopelessly naïve to believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven, and we are accused of brainwashing our kids if we dare to teach them such an outlandish notion. There’s no doubt about it, Christians who stand on the Word of God are indeed opening themselves up to scorn and contempt from the world.
Luther saw yet another facet of “bearing the cross.” In his introduction to the Third Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Large Catechism, Luther says this: “The devil will spare no effort to make us fall away from God’s kingdom. We Christians bear a holy cross: temptations, dangers, and intense struggle throughout our life. It is foolish for us to think that a Christian’s life is easy. Therefore, we ask God to work His gracious will for us and to provide us with the strength we need.” Honestly, I’d never really thought of it that way before. On top of the ridicule of the world, we have our own sinful nature to struggle against. We are constantly tempted and far too often give in to that temptation, making us acutely aware of our own failings and shortcomings. Again I am reminded of Paul’s words in Romans 7, where he laments that instead of doing the good he wants to do, he finds himself doing the evil he does not wish to do. Such is the constant struggle of the life of a Christian.
No, our “cross” isn’t something petty like bad skin. To bear our cross is to daily face temptations within and contempt from the world without. But we aren’t in this alone. Jesus has already borne His cross for our gain. He faced temptations and ridicule and withstood them all. Yes, He even faced physical death on that cross. But it didn’t defeat Him. And because of His victory, neither can your cross defeat you. It won’t be easy, and you’ll be tempted to put down that cross again and again in favor of an easier earthly life. But take heart. Jesus promises that “whoever loses their life for me will find it.” So take up that cross, dear Christian. Trust Him. It’s worth it.