I have a question concerning one of Christ's teachings. What exactly does Christ mean when He says, "Carry your cross" or bear your cross?
The answer to your question lies in Luke 9:22-26. Notice first verse 22: "The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed [crucified on a cross], and be raised the third day." So, first, there is a connection between the cross which Christ urges His disciples to carry (as they follow Him) and the cross on which He was destined to die for the sins of His people. But the crosses are not the same.
That's what is wrong with the chorus of the old gospel song, "The Old Rugged Cross." In the verses, particularly the first, the subject is Christ's cross. Then the chorus goes, "So I'll cherish that old rugged cross till my trophies at last I lay down; I will cling to that old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown." The chorus refers to the Christian's cross; but they are not the same:
1. Christ's cross is an atoning sacrifice. We could die a thousand deaths and yet not atone for a single sin. We are sinners and therefore can do nothing perfectly. Jesus was the perfectly pure and holy Son of God; therefore His blood did atone for all our sins.
2. Christ's cross called literally for His death. The Christian's cross must be carried faithfully till he dies. But that doesn't necessarily call for the Christian's death.
What connects the two? Our cross is the symbol of our total commitment to be true to Christ, even to death, but we are not commanded to die for Jesus, only to be faithful. For most of us, although we may experience some persecution or mocking because of our confession of trust in Christ, we are not ordinarily called to actual physical martyrdom. In certain situations, however, it could be that bearing our cross might call for us to be martyrs for Jesus. While following Jesus, I could be confronted with a situation where I would be put to death because of my faith in Him. It could be that the only way I could save my life would be to deny Christ and curse His name, but refusing to do so, I would be put to death.
That is what took place in the shooting that took place in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, some years ago. The assassin pointed his gun at a high school girl and asked if she still believed in Jesus. She said yes. Immediately he pulled the trigger. She was faithful unto death! She didn't plan the situation in which she suddenly found herself. The assassins did plan it, but the Bible says "And we know that God works all things together for good to those who love Him, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28). So, according to this Scripture (and Eph. 1:11), God's providence brought this girl into a situation in which she had no choice as a follower of Christ but to confess Him and die, or deny Him and live! It is not for us to desire martyrdom; that's in God's hand. It's for us to be faithful unto death.
Now, look at Luke 9:26: "For whoever is ashamed of Me and my words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels." Here we see the most clearly, the relation between Jesus' death on His cross and our bearing our cross for Him. Jesus died all but naked on the cross. Further, "He was despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him" (Is. 53:3). At His cross, to say anything good about the divine sufferer brought shame and reproach. So I believe we can say that our cross equals our willingness to take the shame and reproach from His enemies as a badge of our union with Him as our Savior and Lord.
I suffer from arthritis. It is a burden to me, but not a cross. It has nothing to do with my being a follower (disciple) of Jesus.
Take another example. There are a few real followers of Christ in the US Congress. Now they should stand up and oppose abortion whenever they get the opportunity. If their opponents ask them why they so vigorously oppose abortion, they are temped to find non-religious reasons, when in reality their reasons are that God made mankind in His own image, and to wantonly take human life is murder because the Commandment says "You shall not murder"! Now if he were running for re-election and his opponent charged him with "dragging religion into the woman's 'right' to choose," he might lose a lot of votes. Better to find secular reasons for opposing abortion. But, wouldn't he be less faithful to his Lord by "hiding his light under a bushel"? The girl in Columbine High School didn't have to think before she answered!
Let's now look at Luke: 9:23: "If anyone desires to come after Me [to be my disciple], let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me." Two things stand out: (1) To deny myself means to refuse to let MY will be the controlling pattern of my life. If Christ is now my Lord, then His will is my command! (2) We are to do this daily. As you must know, our lives are a continuing fabric of decisions. God does not make decisions for us; we must make our own decisions. So to take up the cross of the reproach of Christ daily means that, no matter what people think of us, we must make it our day-to-day habit of conforming our choices to Christ's will as we know it from His word. Self denial, as explained above, should be the constant of our lives.
Finally, verses 24 & 25: "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gain the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?" Matthew 16:26 (in his parallel account of these verses) adds: "Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" Really, cross-bearing for a Christian is not always reproachful, but it is always sacrificial. That is, we need to sacrifice our sinful desires in favor of doing what Jesus our Lord would have us to do.
One more thing: None of us will do this perfectly. God knows this, and so should we. At times we will slip and give way to our own sinful nature. That's why daily repentance is called for. But what God requires in us is an undivided heart. The overall desire of our hearts, and the burden of our prayers, must always be, "Not my will, but Thine be done!
In summary, the Christian's cross is one of doing the will of God no matter what. Living to please our Lord must be uppermost in our minds, just as being obedient to the Father and going to Calvary was uppermost in our Lord's mind. Christ's suffering was redemptive, while ours is not (we are sinners, while he was and is the sinless Son of God), but it should not be surprising that, as we deny ourselves and follow the One who suffered such abuse from the world, we ourselves experience some suffering because of our association with Him.
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