We can ascribe several meanings to Jesus’ words, “Pick up your cross and follow me.”
Some people take the words literally and walk through city streets carrying a wooden cross—usually at Easter—to replicate how much Christ suffered for us. It’s a nice gesture, but a little too theatrical for me.
For others, the words sound like a price too high to pay to enter the Christ-club. If the initiation dues are imitating the suffering and messy death of Jesus, I’ll pass, they say. Maybe I’ll join a different club like the its-all-about-me-and-my-pleasure country club.
Perhaps a third way to look at Jesus’ words is to view them as pointing to several universal truths we’re invited to understand and integrate into our lives.
The first is that suffering is a part of life. Picking up our cross allows us to persevere through our human messiness. Life has ups and downs, pleasure and pain. And we’re invited to accept the good times and the tough times as part of our human experience. Maybe Jesus is pointing to the universal truth that suffering is a necessary part of our earthly lives. It’s how we gain wisdom and grow. It’s how we learn to love unconditionally.
The second truth is there’s a pathway out of suffering. Jesus invites us to follow him by noticing how he endured human suffering.
He embraced it. He didn’t run from it or blame others. He didn’t play the victim card.
Instead, Jesus hit suffering head on, even telling his Dad in the Garden of Gethsemane, “I don’t want to do this.” To embrace suffering in his life, Jesus sat in his Father’s presence daily. When his life got rough, he lamented—not whined—with his Dad about the pain he was experiencing.
He didn’t stay stuck in his pain. After resting in his Father’s Divine arms each day, he let God comfort him and provide him with the inner strength to go out into the world and practice unconditional love.
The third truth about picking up our cross is that unconditional love is the way out of suffering. It’s the key that unlocks cold hearts. Jesus summed it up in one short sentence—love yourself, love God, love others.
Several years ago, our bedroom telephone rang at 3 a.m. startling my wife and I out of a deep sleep. It was our son on the phone. He and some friends were leaving a party when three men jumped them and robbed them at gunpoint.
As the gunman held a pistol to our son’s forehead, our son memorized the license plate number of the perpetrator’s car. After taking his wallet, the gunman freed our son and his friends. They quickly called 911, and within the hour, the police had arrested the suspects.
At the arraignment, the gunman stood in shackles in the courtroom. He was angry and mouthed off to the judge as he pleaded not guilty.
My heart raged within me. My faced tightened with a cold harsh sneer as I came to grips with the reality that our son’s life could have ended at this man’s hands.
The next morning during my meditation time, I brought my lament to God. I first thanked him for sparing my son’s life.
But, I then buried my head in tears as I told God how much it hurt to experience such a deep bitterness toward the man who almost took our son’s life. God I despised that man. I wanted revenge—justice for robbing our son of his innocence, and keeping him up at night with frequent nightmares.
As I cried, I felt the Creator hold me. Tears washed away some of my anger, and I heard a Divine whisper, “I love all of you—-your son, the gunman, and you. I know how you feel to have almost lost your son. I lost mine on the cross.”
Love. Forgiveness. Compassion and empathy—those are the pathways out of suffering, I realized. Gradually, I opened my heart to forgive the gunman as God continues to teach me how to love my enemies. The Creator’s Wisdom reminds me time and time again that suffering is a necessary part of being human because it teaches us how to love unconditionally in the midst of our pain.
Is Jesus kidding when he invites us to pick up our cross and follow him? I don’t think so. I think he’s serious because he showed us how to do it. He taught us by example that by loving God, loving ourselves, and loving others, we pick up our cross and follow him each day.
Regardless of whether we allow God into our lives, we will have suffering and difficulties. God does not cause that suffering or those difficulties. They’re part of the human experience. But, if we allow God into our lives, he helps us make it through all the craziness this world throws at us. We have someone we can rely on to help us along the way.
And when we stumble as we carry our cross like Jesus did, God’s right there to pick us up and get us back onto the pathway of unconditional love.
—brian j plachta