Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
These now famous words from Jesus appear in all three of the synoptic Gospels (Mark 8:34; Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23). They have two different interpretations. One interpretation focuses on suffering as a “witness” to the Lord. The other interpretation focuses on the suffering that we face as we “die to ourselves.” In this article, we want to focus on the first interpretation, asking what it means to carry the crosses that come to us in this life. In the next article, we’ll take a look at the power of the cross to help us die to sin and self-centered ways of thinking and acting.
We All Have Crosses. When we look at the call to take up our cross, we tend to think of the way God asks us to accept and embrace the sufferings and hardships that come from living in this fallen world. While we have a difficult time understanding why a good God allows his people to suffer, we all know what suffering feels like, and we can understand how it can be linked to the cross.
This kind of suffering can be physical or spiritual or psychological. It can range from cancer to the inner wounds caused by someone who persecutes you because of your faith. It can come in the form of a stillborn baby or in the form of a healthy child who is not doing as well as he or she could do in school. It can come from our standing up for innocent life in a culture of death, or it can come from having to endure the pain of a broken relationship. Whatever its source, we all have situations in our lives that we could honestly call “crosses” that we have to bear.
It is important to see, however, that before we accept or embrace any cross we may encounter, we should feel free to ask the Lord to remove it from us. Yes, Jesus told us to carry our crosses. But at the same time he himself healed many people. He removed their crosses because of his love and compassion. Just as Jesus removed the crosses from these people, there are many instances where he wants to remove ours. He knows all about our suffering, and he is with us. He loves to heal us.
The Mystery of Suffering. Experience tells us that there are some people who receive special healings from God and others who do not. This is part of the deep mystery of suffering. Some of the most prayerful and holy people are not healed, while others who have hardly any faith are healed. Some are healed after praying for just a moment, while others pray for years and are never healed.
It appears that St. Paul carried a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7). This cross that Paul carried might have been some sort of sickness or a speech impediment. Whatever it was, Paul’s first course of action was to ask the Lord to take this cross away. In fact, he prayed for this relief on three separate occasions. Jesus, too, prayed this way in the garden of Gethsemane just before he was arrested. Yet neither Jesus nor Paul was spared.
So when a cross appears in your life, ask the Lord to remove it. Pray for healing. Use the same words Jesus used when he prayed. Or cry out like the blind beggar Bartimaeus, who would not be silenced: “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me! Heal me!” (Mark 10:46-52). God loves us and he wants to heal us. If your child were sick, would you just let him suffer? Of course not! You would want to do everything in your power to make him well again. If this is the way we who are sinful feel about our children, how much more will our heavenly Father pour out healing grace upon his children (Matthew 7:11)!
It is always good to pray—and to keep on praying. Never give up, even if you can’t grasp the mystery behind your suffering. Keep on trusting in God’s goodness and love.
Empowered to Carry a Cross. As we are praying for healing, we also face a crucial question: If I am meant to embrace this cross, will I do it out of a “noble” position of faith or through an “empowered” position of faith? There is an important distinction here: A “noble” person who accepts a cross does so with good intentions, trying his or her best not to complain or give in to self-pity. While this is the right way to embrace the cross, if it is done solely out of our own noble intentions and human strength, there will likely be some degree of discouragement, anger, or self-blame attached. After all, some crosses are downright heavy, and their burdens are just too painful to bear on our own.
This is where the “empowered” position of faith comes in. God wants to give us his own divine grace to help us embrace the crosses of life. Jesus once told St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” These words so moved Paul that he was able to write: “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong” ?(2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Embracing a cross with the help of God’s grace is quite different from nobly trying our best to accept a cross without grace. Those who embrace a cross through grace find themselves depending on God more and more each day. They find reserves of strength, trust, and surrender that they know are not their own but that come from a loving, merciful God. Rather than dwell on their own sufferings, they find themselves moved with compassion for other people, even as they themselves endure pain and difficulty. In short, they become more and more like Jesus.
This is the paradox of the cross: We accept suffering not because it is good and not because we like it but as part of our vocation as followers of Jesus Christ. These crosses can become opportunities for us to grow closer to Jesus and give him glory.
Suffering Unites Us with Jesus. Pope John Paul II gave all of us a very moving example of displaying the joy of knowing Jesus, even while suffering the pains of old age. At his last public appearance, in March of 2005, he appeared in the window of his residence in the Vatican, frail as could be, near death, and struggling to speak. No words came out, and after silently blessing the crowds gathered below, he withdrew, and the curtains were drawn. He couldn’t say a single word, yet everything in his nonverbal display showed that he wanted to encourage everyone. Watching him on that day, you could imagine him saying: “Press on. Win the race to heaven.” It was a dramatic illustration of how united he felt with all people—and how much he loved.
Throughout his life, Pope John Paul II taught that suffering unites us with Jesus. And during the last few years of his life, he lived out what he taught. In February of 1984, he issued an apostolic letter on the mystery of suffering entitled Salvific Suffering. In that letter, the Holy Father wrote in what would turn out to be a prophetic way about bearing our cross with the help of God’s grace:
"The interior maturity and spiritual greatness in suffering are certainly the result of a particular conversion and cooperation with the grace of the Crucified Redeemer. It is he himself who acts at the heart of human sufferings through . . . the consoling Spirit. It is he who transforms, in a certain sense, the very substance of the spiritual life, indicating for the person who suffers a place close to himself. It is he—as the interior Master and Guide—who reveals to the suffering brother and sister this wonderful interchange, situated at the very heart of the mystery of the Redemption. Suffering is, in itself, an experience of evil. But Christ has made suffering the firmest basis of the definitive good, namely the good of eternal salvation." (Salvifici Doloris, 26)
If you have been asked to carry a certain cross, by all means pray for healing or resolution. But if the cross remains, ask Jesus for his grace to help you embrace it. Know that he will come to your aid. As John Paul said, all suffering is evil. It will not be a part of the new Jerusalem when Jesus comes again. But God is able to bring good—even great blessings—out of this evil. He can teach us all how to embrace suffering in a way that draws us closer to Jesus.
So take a moment now to bless everyone you know who is carrying a heavy cross. Ask Jesus to send abundant grace to them, to help them and to bring them his peace.