Jesus said, ”If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Teachings on taking up your cross or carrying your cross often center on the daily trials of life, and how Christians should face these difficulties by relying on Jesus and the power of God. A deeper truth is that we need to take up and carry the largest cross that every human being has, a cross that every disciple of Jesus is required to carry. This is the cross of ‘self’.
The Crosses of Life
We have good and bad days. Physically, emotionally, spiritually . . . we may be suffering in any of these areas, faced with a cross, a temporary instance of toil, turmoil, or trauma. The types of crosses are endless. We may be overworked and physically tired. We may have had a disagreement with someone and, even though we tried to reconcile, the relationship is just not the same. We may have gotten into a car accident, or received a call from our doctor’s office, indicating a questionable test result.
When we encounter trials in life, we do our best to fix the problem and remain at peace until the trial passes. As Christians, when a trial remains, we acknowledge that God has not yet removed it, accept it, and bear the trial (cross) in trust. We take up that cross and follow Jesus, trusting that our higher good is being served by it (Romans 8:28). Like Jesus took up His cross on the road to Calvary, we take up our crosses and follow Him.
The Cross of ‘Self’
These crosses pale in comparison to a cross that each person will struggle with while in this physical body: the cross of ‘self’. If Jesus’ words are encouraging in the daily battles in life, then they are critical in this battle with ‘self’. This ‘self’ is a person’s sense of himself or herself as a separate, autonomous, self-directed being. On the surface, it seems natural and part of who we are, but it is actually a counterfeit being. It is what keeps us separated from God, preventing us from becoming what He created us to be.
Jesus died and then rose to new life. In the same way a born again Christian dies to self and rises to new life in Christ (Romans 6:4). Now dead to self, a disciple no longer lives for himself or herself, but for God (2 Corinthians 5:15). The core identifier of self is the will, so a Christian must give up his or her will to God.
If we don’t give our will to God, our will constantly struggles against God’s will, and we never really die to self. However, when we give up our will to God, we give up our right to live our life on our terms, and we begin to truly live life, living as God wills. This is why we were created: to live one with God and to do His will (John 14:23, Matthew 7:21). If we have died to self, our attitude is the same as Jesus’: ”Father…not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Jesus explained this to Peter in John 21:18-23. In this scripture, Jesus told Peter what kind of death he would face. (Peter felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Jesus, so he was crucified with his head down, as he requested.) However, Jesus is also telling Peter that his life was no longer his own (John 21:18). Peter was to follow Jesus without concern for what others were doing (John 21:20-22). Peter would have enough crosses of his own to carry without trying to figure out other people’s crosses.
Compare Peter’s attitude here near the end of the gospel with how he acted before, when he was completely full of ‘self’, self-assured, and putting his will over the Father’s will (Luke 22:33-34, Matthew 16:21-23). After all that had happened, Peter was now broken, his sense of ‘self’ shattered. Peter had died to self, and now he only wanted Jesus and His will. Now he is ready to take up his cross daily and follow Jesus.
Call to Action
Taking up your cross and following Jesus is not a ‘nice to have’ on Jesus’ list, it is a requirement to be His disciple. Jesus said, ”…anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and ”…anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Luke 14:27, Matthew 10:38).
This is a daily battle because the ‘self’ never stops trying to reassert itself as the one in control (Luke 9:23). We grow weary in this battle with no end in sight, but in His mercy God promises a better way, a way filled with rest and refreshment as we carry this cross:
”Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and
humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my
yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)
Jesus promises that you do not have to carry the cross of ‘self’ alone. He promises to be right there beside you if you take both His sufferings and His resurrection life to live as your own (Philippians 3:10). Jesus promises rest if you humble yourself, learn His ways, and embrace the Father’s will, like He did.
Living life as God wills is easy and light compared to constantly trying to assert your own will and carrying the burdensome cross of ‘self’ all alone. You cannot do it. Let Jesus show you how to carry it. Learn and embrace His way so that He can help you carry it. You only need to give up your right to yourself and follow Him.