What does it mean to “take up our cross?” Some take it to mean a burden such as a physical challenge or a relationship that is difficult. People would describe something in their life and they will tell you that it is “their cross to bear.” But does that have any bearing on Jesus’ call for us to take up our cross and follow him?
There are several accounts in the gospels where at various times Jesus told his followers that if they wanted to be a disciple of his, they must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Perhaps the strongest call comes in Luke’s Gospel. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26–27 (NIV). We can safely assert that Jesus did not literally say that we must hate our family or even ourselves, but by comparison to how much we love Jesus the contrast is striking.
A disciple who takes up his cross is one who does not hold on to everything that he is entitled to have. Personal success, blessing, favor or prosperity are not the prime motivation, but instead the disciple is only affected by doing those things which please God. It was Paul who said, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12 (NIV). The disciples view does not change with circumstances because they have laid their personal desires on their cross and they carry it with gladness.
Joseph was born an heir and a son of promise. He was his father’s favorite, but his brothers grew jealous and sold him into slavery and he seemingly lost everything. Although God blessed him and everything that he did in Egypt, he recognized that it was only so that he could be in a position to rescue and serve his family. Moses on the other hand was raised in Pharaoh’s household and enjoyed all of the privileges and riches the position afforded, but he turned his back on all of that, choosing instead to suffer ill-treatment along with God’s people. Both Joseph and Moses recognized that the most important thing was not their own self-interest, but instead to be an instrument in the hand of God. Each of them was willing to sacrifice every privilege and advantage to serve God and his people.
Paul said to the Galatians: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20 (NLT). The disciple who takes up his cross identifies with Christ and does not seek his own will but rather seeks to do the will of the one who gave himself as a ransom for us. In essence then, when we take up our cross we are not carrying our burdens or someone else who may seem like a burden, but we are laying our privileges, our blessings and even our favor aside so that we can be useful in fulfilling God’s plans and purposes for us and to as many others as possible. As counter-intuitive as it may seem to some, it is the good things that we attach to our cross and not our problems and sorrows.