The cross-shaped life

Many of us have known excruciating pain, even if only for a moment. I’ve broken my ankle playing flag football (yes, flag, not tackle), and sprained that same ankle playing basketball. And I’ve had a chiropractor break an adhesion in my right rotator cuff without warning. He put one hand on my shoulder and with the other took me by the wrist, gently rotating my arm to test the range of motion. Then POP! He snatched my arm back while pressing on my shoulder.

I didn’t see it coming.

What I did see was stars, while I stood there trying to catch my breath.

Excruciating. Look at the word closely. It shares the same root as crucify: crux, the Latin for cross.

Jesus tells his disciples that following him means a life of self-denial, which he characterizes as “taking up their cross.” It’s a phrase that gets bandied about in the church; unfortunately, it can be used to legitimate abusive power structures. The message is: What are you complaining about? It’s not as if you’ve sacrificed as much for Jesus as he did for you… But truth be told, Jesus’ words are intimidating. Most of us have probably heard at least a sermon or two on the humiliation and, yes, excruciating pain of the cross. How far does self-denial go?

Consider, for example, the words of Paul to the Philippians:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3:10-11, NRSVUE)

These words follow his declaration that nothing in his impressive religious résumé can begin to compare with the value of a personal relationship with Jesus. He talks trash (literally) about the kind of legalistic righteousness he used to pursue, embracing instead the righteousness that comes by God’s grace through faith in Jesus.

Where Saul the Pharisee might have said, “I want to hunt Christians,” Paul the apostle says, “I want to know Christ.” He isn’t talking about mere head knowledge about Jesus but an intimate friendship with him. He wants to know Jesus, imitate Jesus, live like Jesus.

But is he also saying that he wants to suffer like Jesus? Die like Jesus?

As always, it’s important not to take verses like this out of context. Paul is writing to a church that is already suffering somehow for the faith; as we’ve seen, they’re probably being pressured or persecuted for not engaging in emperor worship as expected of Roman citizens. And he does tell the story of Jesus’ humility, obedience, crucifixion, and exaltation as an example for them to follow (2:5-11).

His point in telling the story, however, is not to insist that they must submit to persecution up to the bitter end, sharing Jesus’ fate by dying on a cross. He is trying to encourage a far more mundane kind of self-denial: instead of only caring about their own selfish goals, they need to learn to care about the needs of others too, and so embody the humility of Jesus (2:1-4).

Neither Paul nor Jesus is teaching that every believer must be a martyr for the faith. Taking up our cross doesn’t have to mean dying on one. But the Christian life is — as theologians like to say — cruciform, cross-shaped. The cross was the ultimate sign of Jesus’ humble obedience, and his humility is in turn the pattern for our own lives.

How much time, energy, money, or other resources any believer should give to a particular ministry is a matter for prayer and wise conversation. But it is both sad and deeply ironic to see the idea of self-denial be misused to guilt believers into sacrificing more, more, more. In such cases, what often gets overlooked (or in some cases, is seen but can’t be said aloud) is the way leaders push the self-denial of others to support their own “selfish ambition” (Phil 2:3).

Paul, I think, would have a thing or two to say about that.

We don’t have to expect to die for the faith. But setting aside our selfish ambition is hard enough. Taking the needs of others into consideration takes practice. Striving to be of one mind requires the kind of compassion and patient listening that is far from natural for us.

It’s a good thing we don’t have to do it on our own power. More on that in the next post.