Take Up Your Cross

“Ubi dubium ibi libertas.”

I begin with this Latin proverb because quoting things in Latin always makes you appear smart.

Just kidding! Actually, I begin with this phrase because it expresses a sentiment that I think is healthy in many situations. In case your Latin is a little rusty (and by rusty I mean non-existent), I’ll give you the translation – “Where there is doubt, there is freedom.”

I must admit that I’d like to modify the proverb just a bit to say “Where there is doubt, there is discovery” but I don’t know how to say that in Latin.

There are many good applications of that principle and here is just one of them: I think it is healthy to doubt that we’ve ever exhausted the meaning of even a single passage in the Bible. And this doubt may be the most healthy when it comes to the passages that are the most familiar. The most familiar passages may contain the biggest surprises. By doubting that we fully understand them, we can discover new insights.

For example, a small group I’m part of was interacting with a famous passage recently – the one in Matthew 16 (verses 13-28) where Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah. There are parallel passages in Mark 8 and Luke 9. The story is oft quoted and it is a pivotal moment in the plot of the gospels.

In my small group, we were engaging this passage using an approach that involves paying attention to anything that “stands out” or “rises to the surface” or otherwise grabs your attention. That word or phrase then becomes the basis of a conversation with God.

The portion of the passage that bubbled to the surface for me that morning was the very famous phrase about “taking up your cross”. Well, actually, it didn’t bubble to the surface – it smacked me in the face because it said something completely different than what I’ve always thought it said.

Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

Hmmm. I always thought that Jesus said, “Look – if you want to follow me, you must deny yourself and take up my cross

But that is not what he said. He tells me that a disciple needs to take up his own cross – meaning that disciple’s own cross rather than the cross that Jesus was about to take up.

Okay.  That is still similar to what I’ve thought about this passage before. A person might talk about a tragic event or a flaw in her life as being “her cross to bear”. Paul talks about his “thorn in the flesh” and people say that this was “his cross to bear”. The focus in all those interpretations is on suffering. We assume Jesus is telling us that following him will involve suffering.

As I noticed the shift in the personal pronouns — as I noticed that Jesus was telling me to take up my cross instead of his cross  — I began to doubt that I had really understood this passage properly in the past. I asked Jesus if there was any significance to all this and he said something to me that came totally out of left field. He said, “The cross was my mission.”

Whoa! That gives the passage a totally different meaning. It took me in a surprisingly different direction.

If the cross was Jesus mission and if he tells us to take up our own crosses, then he is telling us to find our mission. He is implying that we too have a reason that we have come into this world. In this understanding, the cross is a metaphor for mission and calling rather than a metaphor for suffering.

I read back through the passage and found that this interpretation fits the context very well. See if you agree.

The scene opens with Jesus asking the disciples who they think he is. Initially, they don’t answer the question – they deflect it by telling Jesus what other people think about him. But with some additional prodding, Peter finally makes his famous declaration that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God.”

Good answer. Jesus likes it. God has revealed this to Peter. It is consistent with what Gabriel, the archangel, had announced about Jesus before he was born (Matthew 1, Luke 1). It was what John the Baptist had told everyone about Jesus (John 1). It is what Jesus claimed for himself when he launched his public ministry and quoted from Isaiah 61 (Luke 4). Jesus was sent on a mission to redeem the world.

But Jesus then proceeds to tell the disciples what it means to be the Messiah. He is going to be tortured and crucified by the authorities and then rise from the dead.

Now this does not fit all that well with the disciples’ conception of what the Messiah would do. They were looking for a Messiah who was going to “split some wigs” as Will Smith wants to do to the aliens in the Men in Black movies. The Messiah was going to be a conquering king like David not some loser that winds up on a cross.

The divinely inspired Peter now quickly turns into the demonically influenced Peter. He objects to what Jesus is saying. Jesus takes him to task and tells him that he is a stumbling block to him. Peter is getting in the way of Jesus’ god-given mission.

The context here has nothing to do with suffering per se. The truth that following Jesus can lead to suffering may well be taught in other places in Scripture. But the context here is not about suffering – it is about being faithful to a calling. Jesus was going to take up a cross because this is what he came into the world to do. He was on a mission to redeem the world and this is what his mission required.

Said differently, Noah’s mission was to build a boat. Abraham’s mission was to be the father of many nations. Moses’ mission was to lead the Jews out of slavery in Egypt. Each of them heard from God and walked with God on an adventure that they were invited into by him. By doing so, each was “taking up his cross” in the sense in which Jesus meant that phrase – each was following God on a mission given to him by God.

So what? What difference does this make?

Well, there is a pattern in Scripture that has stood out to me in the last few years. Almost every character in the Bible hears from God about some special calling. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David along with John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and Paul all hear from God and are called to a divinely ordained mission.

These people don’t just say to themselves, “I think I’ll leave my homeland and go to another country and start a new nation.” They don’t say “I think I’ll pursue becoming King” and then come up with a five year plan to do so.  They don’t say, “The Gentiles need evangelizing. I think I’ll focus on that.” Rather, they are called to these things supernaturally by God. They hear the voice of God and respond acccordingly.

This is in contrast to what seems to happen most often in Christian communities I’ve known. In those communities, people get involved in good causes but perhaps without any specific direction from God to do so. They pursue good things but it is done more out of principle than out of relationship.

I don’t want to be dogmatic and call this bad or wrong. I don’t want to overstate the case. I hate it when people do that! Scripture is complex and what it says on any given matter is always multi-faceted.

I’m not saying that Christians that take up a good cause with no specific word from God to do so are wrong. Much good has been done by people seeing injustice and moving to correct it.

Jesus even commends this. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the sheep seem to be doing things that please God without even knowing it. They visit prisoners and attend to the sick with no sense that they serve or honor God by these actions. They do not seem to be doing these things at God’s specific direction.

Yet, as I said, the Bible is always complex and multi-faceted. In another place, Jesus talks about people who do all kinds of apparently good things explicitly in God’s name (prophesy, exorcism, miracles) but he says to these people that he doesn’t even know them. He even calls them “evildoers” (ala George Bush) and commands them to depart from him!

Boy – it makes your head spin, doesn’t it? It seems that: (1) It is possible that we are doing much that pleases God without even knowing about it and (2) Some of what we are doing very explicitly “in his name” may be divorced from any kind of relationship with him and therefore something that he is not all that wild about even though those things themselves might be “good”.

But if we stop and think about it for a moment, I think we can see how something “good” can be wrong in  a certain context. Suppose you have decided to surprise your spouse with a special dinner out on a Friday night. You get home and spring the good news. But your spouse says, “Boy, I’ve had an exhausting week. I’d really like to order in some Chinese food and stay home and watch a movie with you.”

Now there is nothing wrong with taking your spouse out for a special dinner. But it would be wrong to force the issue at that moment – to insist that he or she get dressed and get in the car. In the context of the relationship and with the expressed need of the moment, a good spouse would get on the phone to the carryout window of P. F. Chang’s and make a quick trip to the closest Red Box.

Why would a relationship with God look any different? Wouldn’t it make sense that we’d have the same kind of conversational connection and respond to the needs of the moment? Isn’t this really what we see in Scripture — people taking on both large and small tasks at God’s specific direction? It might be as grand as “Free my people, Moses.” or as seemingly small as “Ananias, go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and lay hands on a guy named Saul.” But the unifying theme is that all these things arise out of an intimate, conversational relationship with God.

As a modern day example, we might hear about the injustice of trafficking in sex slaves and get energized and throw ourselves into the cause. But, as with any relationship, we might be doing something for God that he does not want from us at that moment. If we asked him, he might say, “I’ve got that covered. I’ve got people I’m raising up with connections that you don’t have that will be more effective in that cause. But I’d really love for you to tutor your neighbor’s daughter in math. They could really use your help right now.”

God longs for a relationship with us more than he longs for our efforts on his behalf. After all, to the people doing the apparently good deeds of casting out demons and performing miracles, Jesus says that the problem with them is that “I never knew you!” The relationship was missing.

And maybe that desire for relationship is why there is this pattern in Scripture that is almost universal: People hear the voice of God and are invited by him into epic partnerships: Build a boat. Leave your country. Go talk to Pharaoh. Make that guy king. Die on a cross to save the world. It is all very contrary to the 21st century Western model: Cast a vision. Write a mission statement. Define objectives. Set goals. Get’er done.

I don’t ever want to put out something on this blog that is disheartening and discouraging. There is just way too much of that sort of thing that goes on in Christian communities. A strange mixture of spiritual pride, shame and guilt seems to characterize much that goes on in the name of Christ – spiritual pride by those who are with “the program” (whatever that program happens to be) combined with shame and guilt experienced by those who aren’t drinking the Kool-Aide and buying into the paradigm.

So if any of this feels disheartening or discouraging, it is having the wrong effect. And don’t stop doing the things you are doing for God right now just because you did not hear the voice of God calling you to it originally.

But might it be life-giving and healthy to start asking God if he is inviting us into some particular cause or campaign? Is there some specific thing that he is inviting you to do — both large life goals and small things for today? After all, there are a thousand and one urgent needs crying out for attention. In which one does God have a role for me? Is there a “cross” — a mission — that he wants me to take up?

Jesus took up a cross because that was integral to his mission. God does not call us to suffering per se. He calls us to walk with him in a relationship and to do amazing and daring things together as he leads and directs … and that is something that we should not doubt!