“When Christ calls a man,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “he bids him come and die.” Jesus carried his own cross to Golgotha (with some help from Simon of Cyrene, of course) and part of Christian discipleship means that you, too, should carry your own cross as you follow Jesus. But what does this mean?
When first introduced to Christianity in my youth, I often heard youth group leaders say, “Follow Jesus.” I thought, “Great. Where is Jesus? I’ll go find Jesus and follow behind him as he walks. Is Jesus in St. Louis, New York, Canada, Germany? Where he is? I’ll go find him and walk behind him, and everyone else who wants to follow Jesus will do the same. I guess we’re just going to be walking in one big line.”
Then I realized “follow Jesus” is a metaphor.
When Jesus recruited his original 12 disciples to follow him, he did literally mean for them to drop everything and follow him. But now as Jesus rules and reigns from heaven, we don’t literally ascend to heaven and follow him. Instead, “follow Jesus” is a metaphor. It means to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and live in such a way that accords with his Word. It means becoming a Christian and growing in godliness.
This metaphorical language is the same thing that Jesus has in mind when he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) This doesn’t mean we purchase a big piece of wood from the local hardware store and put it on our back as we walk around our cities. “Take up his cross” is a metaphor. Before we discuss what this means, we should briefly examine what it doesn’t mean.
What Take Up Your Cross Doesn’t Mean
Carrying your cross doesn’t mean you can’t practice self-care. You have to take care of yourself if you’re going to be useful to anybody else. It also doesn’t mean, furthermore, that you let others trample all over you. You shouldn’t say “yes” to all requests, nor do you have to reply to all information sent your way. You should be respectful and kind, but those who malign or abuse others need to be both reported and rebuked. When Jesus tells his listeners to take up their cross and follow him, he’s not minimizing the importance of defending yourself when the need arises.
What Take Up Your Cross Means
In John Stott’s daily prayer for himself, he addresses each member of the Trinity, and when he gets to Jesus, Stott says, “Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.” So ingrained was this prayer in Stott’s life that those who knew him best said he was the godliest person they had ever met. We need to not only take up our cross but ask God for help as we do.
Now let’s get more concrete. When Jesus said to take up your cross, he uses metaphorical language to teach the following.
First, take up your cross means self-denial. This we know because right before Jesus says “take up his cross,” he says “let him deny himself” (Luke 9:23). Deny yourself doesn’t mean denying non-sinful desires and longings and dreams. Deny yourself, rather, means you don’t willfully engage in sin. It means you don’t just act on your fleshy desire just because you have an urge or an impulse. Disciples of Jesus must practice godly self-control. Further, to deny yourself means, as the footnote on Luke 9:23 in the ESV Study Bible says, denying yourself means to deny “personal control of one’s life.” It means no longer seeing yourself as the head of your life, but turning all your dreams, ambitions, and desires to Christ. It means to die to self-will and embrace the God-ordained circumstances in your life with faithfulness, even if that means suffering (I was helped by the footnote from the ESV Study Bible on Matthew 10:38 for this observation)
Second, take up your cross means self-sacrifice. It means a willingness to make sacrifices with your time, money, and spiritual gifts to continue the mission that Jesus started. Taking up your cross means examining your time, talent, and treasures all as gifts from God to be stewarded for his glory, often in a sacrificial way.
Third, take up your cross means selflessness. New married couples often say, “I didn’t realize how selfish I was until I got married.” The human heart is bent toward self-worship. For the Christian, our charge is to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3-4). Carrying your cross means putting the interests and needs of others before yours, and all of this must be anchored in the desire to glorify God and genuinely love others, not out of the need to be needed. God, others, then self.
Fourth, take up your cross means faithfulness to God regardless of the cost. To carry your cross means staying true to God’s Word even when culture is going in the wrong direction. It means to continue to obey God even when obedience is costly. It sounds like a paradox, but self-denial and carrying your cross is the way to true happiness.
The path of Christian discipleship is difficult, but Christ went before us both as our example and Savior. When we remember that Christ carried his own cross, and when we consider the sacrifices he made to guarantee salvation for the people of God, we are strengthened to obey him.