The notion of ‘take up your cross’ needs a thorough exploration because we’ve misused the notion fairly thoroughly in modern life. We’ve tacked the notion of ‘cross’ onto just about every kind of discomfort and suffering humans face and (often quite blithely) admonished people to ‘take up their cross.’ This is both silly and dangerous.
This is because there are many kinds of suffering and amid all the different agonies there are only a few paths that give life. In the same way, there were lots of crosses in the Roman world, but of the three on Golgotha that day, only one held Jesus. Further, the cross was often used to put down revolts with leaders crucified as mile markers along main roads. Those crosses did not give life, they were put up as a Dire Warning.
In the same way, of the many sufferings, the multitude of crosses, which we face in the world, a lot of them do not bring life. They are painful because the situation is painful and we are actually supposed to avoid it. Like those cute shoes that pinch our feet into agony, and the creepy person who makes us really uncomfortable, pain is often a deeply unsubtle hint to “stop doing this dummy! Run away.”
Slamming our hands in doors, burning ourselves on the stove, and getting splinters are so common that they’re practically a rite of passage. They hurt because we’re not supposed to do them and our body strongly objects if we persist. Calling this sort of thing ‘my cross to bear’ and trying to take up agony for the sake of agony is considered supremely silly and something for which one ought to seek professional care.
It’s fairly obvious that this sort of ‘suffering for the sake of suffering’ is deeply unhealthy and we work hard to help each other avoid it. Unfortunately, we then turn around and proclaim to the abused spouse or child that their abuse is somehow ‘a cross to bear’ as if suffering is, in itself redemptive.
Certainly there are times when suffering cannot be avoided. Our family is a prime group of people whom we cannot throw away without significant self-injury. Even unhealthy relationships can be hard to end because the other person does touch us on a positive and deep level.
Addicts aren’t addicts because they like being horrible human beings, people with eating disorders don’t take them up on a lark. On some deep level, even the most self-destructive behavior touches some tender spot in our heart. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t do it. But no matter how much these behaviors may touch our hurt places, they do not heal us and dwelling in them slowly destroys us.
If all suffering were truly redemptive, as we are so often told, then addicts in their addiction would be the most redeemed of all. The abuse victim cowering through life as a shallow reflection of their deepest potential would actually be the strongest, healthiest, most lively person of us all. But they are not because suffering for the sake of suffering simply brings on suffering. It’s an endless loop, a treadmill to nowhere.
Ultimately, it’s part of the fallacy of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.” This is bogus. What does not kill us fails to kill and that is all it does. It is what we do with our survival that CAN make us stronger. If we learn lessons of strength, it can be a defeat with a ‘seed of victory in it.’ If we learn lessons of weakness it can be the fractured hip that stays with us all our shortened life. If we learn no lesson at all, whatever failed to kill us last time is going to get another crack at us and probably won’t miss this go ’round.
So much then for the whole notion that our cross is our suffering and that any suffering will do. There were two convicts up there on crosses with Jesus, one turned toward him and found in death a door to life. The other turned away.
So suffering crosses exist all around us, they abound even, filling up our field of view and taunting us with the impossibility of escape. And truly, as Lois Bujold put it “pain, like time will come on regardless.” Our redemption however comes in the next part of that quote “the question is, what beauty will you win in the midst of that pain.”
A suffering cross is essentially inevitable and we rightly distrust the happy clappy, “too blessed to be depressed” people because more often than not, they’re being less than truthful. Like the person who is always “fine” no matter when you ask, they’re at the very least lying to your face, they may even be lying to their soul.
If suffering crosses are inevitable, are we then doomed to distress and lonely death?
Would you be surprised if I said “no?”
If crosses can’t be avoided, if we will, as one wise man explained it die in a ditch anyway, our power is in choosing the ditch. There are many crosses in this world so our power is to take up the life giving cross of Christ instead of some other, life stealing cross. We take up the suffering with a seed of victory in it, the grief where we learn that there is a rock to cling to in the darkness.
We learn that our feet sink into the mire only so far and then we hit the strong, lifting hand of God. We weep and weep and weep until we learn that there is a peace beyond our fear and hope beyond our sorrow. We discover that “I do are the two most famous last words, the beginning of the end. But to lose our life for another I’ve heard, is a good place to begin.”
What we learn, in all the ways we learn it, is that when our cross is connected to Christ, when the cross we bear is itself the Cross of Christ, we find life. We find the table in the wilderness where the blind can see and the poor possess. We find that, at the end of ourselves, at the end of our strength, there is so much more. There is, fundamentally, a suffering that is a gateway into life, something that seems a defeat and yet is full victory’s beginning.