Galatians 2:16-20; Mark 8:34-9:1
As we continue to celebrate the Elevation of the Holy Cross, we must remember that taking up our own crosses requires a choice on our part each day of our lives. We certainly cannot control whether we encounter difficulties and challenges, but we always have the choice whether to make them opportunities to deny ourselves and follow our Lord. Doing so requires us to continue to pursue the difficult struggle of offering ourselves freely to Christ. We will share more fully in His great victory through the Cross only when we use our freedom as persons to die to the corrupting power of sin in our lives, which is how we will gain the strength to rise up with the Savior into a new life of holiness. Doing so is not a onetime event, but our constant vocation as those who dare to identify ourselves with the crucified and risen Lord.
In our epistle reading from Galatians, Saint Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself up for me.” Of the many struggles and difficulties of his ministry, Paul wrote that “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church.” (Col. 1:24) There is nothing lacking in the Lord’s great Self-Offering on the Cross for the salvation of the world. All that is lacking is our constant obedience to His calling to deny ourselves and follow Him. Because of our own passions and the brokenness of our world of corruption, the struggle for faithfulness inevitably requires suffering. The Church is our Lord’s body of which we are unworthy members, and we must constantly take up our own crosses in order to find healing for our souls and strengthen the Church in faithfulness. Our suffering is not somehow pleasing to God in and of itself, but results from the inevitable tension we experience in the struggle to die to all that would separate us from Christ. Truly taking up our crosses means embracing the difficult battle each day to reject the distortions of soul that have become second nature to us.
Christ prayed the night before His crucifixion, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He ascended the Cross in free obedience, and no one forces us to take up our crosses either. Many problems and pains come upon us without our asking for them in this life, even to the point of death, and it is so easy to refuse to suffer in a spiritually healthy way. As Job’s wife suggested, we can “Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9) in response to losses, obstacles, and disappointments. We can refuse to offer our struggles to Christ and instead allow them to fuel our passions, destroy our faith, and corrupt our relationships with others. No one can keep us from doing so, for freedom is an intrinsic dimension of being in God’s image as human persons.
Only we can unite ourselves to Christ in His Great Self-Offering for the salvation of the world. Regardless of the circumstances, we may always use our freedom to take up our crosses and refuse to fall into despair, for any instance of struggle, pain, disappointment, or suffering provides an opportunity to deny ourselves and follow our Lord. Difficulties by their nature present challenges to which we may respond in a Christlike way or according to our passions. He offered up Himself fully upon the Cross and refused to respond in kind to those who hated and rejected Him. Likewise, we may unite ourselves to Him in every dimension and circumstance of our lives, including those in which we are sorely tempted not to respond as He did. Illness, broken relationships with others, worries about the future, regrets about the past, crushed hopes, and even the worst losses imaginable present opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Saint Paul wrote that “those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:22-24)
Our self-centered and distorted desires usually rear their ugly heads quickly when we face trying circumstances. It often does not take much at all to set us off such that we become like Jonah when the vine that provided him shade was eaten by a worm. That was a very small thing, but Jonah became so angry that he wished he would die. (Jonah 4:5-11) Other times we face circumstances so grave that they call us into question from the depths of our souls and strongly tempt us to fall into despair about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Whether in matters small or great, there is no lack of opportunities to take up our crosses as we struggle to find healing for our inflamed passions.
Doing so usually is not a matter of doing anything particularly dramatic or extraordinary. It is normally a matter of refocusing ourselves on the basic practices of the Christian life, such as refusing to accept sinful thoughts into our hearts, forgiving those who have wronged us, and trusting that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:39) The more that we open our souls to the Lord’s healing strength through prayer, repentance, and serving our neighbors, the less time and energy we will have for stirring up and embracing the impassioned thoughts that lead to sinful actions. The constant struggle to undertake this way of life is at the very heart of taking up our crosses, denying ourselves, and following Christ.
We must also remain on guard against the various forms of idolatry that tempt us to gain the world at the expense of our souls. The Lord rejected the temptation to repudiate the Cross for the sake of gaining earthly power and establishing a political kingdom for the Jews. We must likewise refuse to allow loyalty to any worldly agenda or group to obscure the demands of faithfulness to the way of Christ. That is true in matters seemingly large and small, ranging from our opinions about international affairs to how we treat our friends, neighbors, and family members. We cannot serve two masters in any dimension of our lives. Those who try to do so will risk losing their own souls in a vain effort to gain the world. The message of the Cross remains foolishness to those who make any scheme for success in this world their false god, no matter what it may be. If we become so enamored with anything that we refuse to place faithfulness to Christ first in our lives, we will show by our actions that we are ashamed of our Lord and His Cross.
In order to take up our crosses, we must choose to embrace the struggle of doing that which requires us to die to our illusions about ourselves and our world. Even when we stumble and fall flat our faces time and time again, we must press forward in faithfulness. Our hope is not in spiritual or moral perfection acquired merely by our own willpower, but in the gracious mercy of the One Who offered up Himself for our salvation purely out of love. Through the Cross, He has brought life in the midst of death, light in the midst of darkness, and joy in the midst of despair.
We will receive His healing as we offer ourselves to Him as best we can in humble faith, no matter what challenges and pains life brings us. That is how we will die to the corrupting power of sin in our lives and enter into the blessedness of His Kingdom, which remains not of this world. Let us elevate the Holy Cross by denying ourselves and taking up our own crosses as we follow the Savior each day of our lives.
“We cannot serve two masters in any dimension of our lives. ” This statement always speaks to me. I think many of us miss it because we don’t always recognize when we are serving other masters rather than God. How does one determine if we are or are not serving things like ‘money’ or ‘worldly things’. Where is that line of simply living in the world rather than letting it be our master?
Thanks for your message and good question. The line cannot be known abstractly because it roots in our hearts. We must struggle ascetically for the healing of our passions in a way that is appropriate to our spiritual health and the circumstances of our lives. When we encounter difficult struggles in doing this, we will learn where our hearts have become captive to worldly things. That will show us what to focus on. Of course, reading the Scriptures and the lives of the Saints will also help us discern what it means for us to seek first our Lord’s Kingdom.
This is a great struggle for us all!
Yours in Christ,