What does it mean to “take up your cross”?

Last night in small group, we were talking about Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23-26, where he says:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.

What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves? 

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

And the question that followed was:

What does it actually mean to “take up your cross”?

On Sunday at our East Side parish, Matthew made the really good point that “taking up one’s cross” has, in many cases, particularly in the West, become stripped of its impact and significance. People tend to use a phrase like “That’s just my cross to bear” for any inconvenience, irritation, hardship, or suffering, when that’s not what Jesus means. As Matthew said (and you can listen to the whole sermon here: “Jesus: A Disciple’s Identity”):

Jesus’ cross was a sign of resistance to established authority and an instrument of shame as one hung naked and pitiful for all to see. And the temptation is for all of us to say that any area of challenge in our lives, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear,” and in so doing … we actually cheapen the cross. … Being stuck in traffic is not a cross. A hard business statistics class is not a cross. A difficult roommate, even, is not a cross to bear. Our crosses are those places where following Jesus actually costs us something quite precious.

This reference here in Luke 9 is actually the first time that Jesus mentions the cross, the first time he mentions that he’s going to die. Here, for the disciples, there’s no notion of triumph through death; there’s only death. That’s what Jesus is saying: “If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to have to deny your own desires and take up the means by which you yourselves will die.”

And he says that they are to do it daily. So he isn’t talking about a literal, physical death — though many of the disciples would see their faithfulness to the gospel and to their Master end that way. As one of the guys in my group said last night, “He’s talking about love. Love is the way of denying yourself and seeking the good of the other. That’s the reality that Jesus was talking about and living out.”

Every moment and every day, Jesus was denying himself so that he might obey the will of the Father and seek the good of everyone he encountered. That challenges my notions of daily quiet time. Instead of my usual fallback, “Thank you, God, for this day. Please be with me. Amen”, maybe I should be acknowledging:

God, my life is not my own; my time is not my own; my body is not my own. All of them are yours. Please help me deny myself so that your kingdom might come and your will might be done in my life and through my life on earth as it is in heaven.

Jesus gives us the answer in the first part of his sentence: to take up my cross is to deny myself, to deny my own selfish desires, to seek to love and put others first at home and at work, in my friendships and in my marriage, in conversations I have and in my thought patterns. Every. Single. Day.

To take up my cross is to bite my tongue when I want to prove myself right or to justify myself, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to give of my time and my energy and my money — even and especially when I don’t feel like it — when someone is in need, because that is love.

To take up my cross is to train myself in the ways of love and self-sacrifice, to practice the characteristics of love that Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians 13: being patient and kind; not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude; not insisting on my own way; not being irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing but rejoicing rather in the truth; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, and enduring all things.

That’s what I think it means to deny myself and to take up my cross every day.

Eugene Peterson paraphrases Psalm 5:3 this way:

Every morning

I lay out the pieces of my life

on your altar

and watch for fire to descend.

I think that’s my new daily prayer.

Lent

In case you weren’t aware (or aren’t liturgically-inclined), the season of Lent begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday (which means today is Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday). While Lent has become, in pop culture, a time for simply giving up unhealthy habits, the tradition is to take this time to humbly and thoughtfully prepare our hearts and lives to commemorate Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday and culminates with Easter Sunday; it’s supposed to be a focused time of self-denial, just like Christmas is a focused time of celebrating the birth of Christ–not that we don’t do these things every day, but that we take seasons during the year to elevate and examine particular aspects of our faith.

I didn’t grow up in a church that was particularly liturgical, and so didn’t really mark Lent at all (beyond gorging myself on pre-Lenten pancakes) until I moved to the UK. And in recent years, I’ve begun not only giving something up, but taking something on. Not simply for the purpose of ditching unhealthy habits and collecting healthy ones, but because these are beneficial for me–mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. The journey that we are all on as Christians is to be more like Christ, more of who God made us to be, both in our own lives (bodies, relationships, habits, practices) and in the ways that we relate to God and others. (I talked about some of this in a Lenten post from two years ago, too.)

So my plan this Lent is twofold:

  1. To give up my time first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve already begun implementing the practice of spending time with God before I start my day (even before checking email!) and before I go to bed, but I want to double down on this.
  2. To pick up working out every day. Since last summer, when I got injured playing soccer, I’ve been recuperating. And then recuperating turned into relaxing. And relaxing turned into indolence. And that’s just not a good feeling for someone who’s naturally inclined toward activity! So this in itself serves the dual purpose of being a physical manifestation of what I’m hoping is going on spiritually (training!) and getting me ready for the next season of soccer as well!

And as we think about what it means to deny ourselves, I hope this word from John Stott is as challenging and encouraging to you as it was for me this morning:

We need to rescue this vocabulary [of self-denial] from being debased. We should not suppose that self-denial is giving up luxuries during Lent or that “my cross” is some personal and painful trial. We are always in danger of trivializing Christian discipleship, as if it were no more than adding a thin veneer of piety to an otherwise secular life. Then prick the veneer, and there is the same old pagan underneath. No, becoming and being a Christian involves a change so radical that no imagery can do it justice except death and resurrection—dying to the old life of self-centeredness and rising to a new life of holiness and love.

(Through the Bible Through the Year, 210)

P.S. If you’re in the DC area, please join The District Church, Church of the Advent, and National Baptist Memorial Church as we hold a joint Ash Wednesday service tomorrow evening at 7pm at NBMC (on the corner of 15th St and Columbia).