If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me (Matthew 16:24 NKJV).
Have you ever wondered just what Jesus meant by taking up our cross? I’ve heard some people talk about their personal hardships as being “the cross I have to bear,” but does bearing up under tribulation qualify as cross-bearing?
We’re certainly encouraged to endure suffering with grace and faith throughout Scripture, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind here. Self-denial and the act of picking something up implies a voluntary action. Trials come to us more like the weather—they fill up our atmosphere and dump on us whether we like it or not. We can chose how to endure them, but I don’t think Jesus is suggesting we go out looking for trouble so we can pick up and count it as a cross.
What if we give something up in honor of the Lord, laying aside some habit or give up a particular distraction? Does that constitute carrying a cross? Self denial may help in developing spiritual discipline, but I don’t think it compares to what Jesus was doing at the cross.
What about Jesus’s sacrifice can we actually emulate, then? Let’s consider some of the aspects of His cross bearing.
The crucifixion didn’t “happen” to Jesus, He walked purposely and willingly toward it. He wasn’t the victim of circumstance or of another person’s cruelty (though He was certainly treated cruelly). He had the power to refuse the cross but didn’t hesitate to pick it up.
He didn’t do it to prove how much hardship He could endure or to develop spiritual character. He wasn’t demonstrating His dedication to the Father (though His act spoke volumes about His devotion). He offered His life in exchange for someone else’s life, His future for someone else’s now. He laid aside any benefit He might have gained by avoiding death, to rescue those who were powerless to escape it.
We cannot offer our lives as atonement for anyone else’s sin as Jesus did (only a spotless Lamb would qualify to accomplish that), so how do we follow His example of cross bearing?
I think we consider whether the price of our self-denial results in transferring our benefits to someone else. If I donate this moment to help someone else, if I use money which could have put food in my mouth to fill someone else’s mouth, if I step aside from an opportunity and yield it to another, all for the sake of love, I follow Jesus’s example and carry my cross.
Isaiah 58:6–7 says it beautifully.
Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then your light shall break forth like the morning,
Your healing shall spring forth speedily,
And your righteousness shall go before you;
The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
What about you? How have you carried your cross lately?