This morning, I woke up as I do somewhat often, with a heaping sense of self-consciousness and a burden that gnaws at my mind, even as I attempt to drown it out with my podcasts. This struggle, my unrelenting friend that visits me so often without my permission, gets me into a rut of complete self-focus (as if it were meant to benefit myself), and yet it only brings harm.
It distracts me from the most loving interactions with my wife and kids as I head out of the house to jump into my work. It suffocates me when I step outside and, instead of feeling the fresh air on my face, I feel as though I’m breathing in this hot, foul air that’s so heavy in my chest – like I’m breathing through a straw. Often times, when I’m with community where I’m meant to receive life and encouragement, I feel like my mind is trapped in a vortex where I’m reaching skyward to get a handhold on something like stability but I can’t resist this pull of negative thinking and fear.
To those who have never experienced this before, it may sound crazy or dramatic, but to those who experience this, you don’t just understand the words I’ve written – you feel it. It’s been a crushing weight to you. And there are many of us.
But there’s hope, and not just for those who have experienced what I’ve written, but who experience all forms of struggle. Where do we find it? It’s found throughout the Scriptures, but today I see it in Luke 9:23 (and the following verses) where Jesus tells His disciples “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
Do you see hope there? Yea – it might seem a little bleak, but let me explain where my hope comes from.
First, my hope comes from knowing that my status in relationship to God is not based on whether I have ‘high’ days or ‘low’ days. I’m not a Christian because I can put on a false smiling face and pretend that I have all the answers or that I am beyond imperfection. I am a Christian and I have had my sins washed clean because I simply trust that Jesus is my Savior and He died on a cross to free me from bondage to all that kept me separated from Him. That is hope-inducing freedom, even on my more difficult days. But that’s not all. There’s also my own cross to carry.
When you see Jesus Christ in your mind, laboring under the weight of that massive cross, do you see rest or do you see debilitating suffering? Why would the idea of carrying my own cross relieve me of other burdens that I carry? Well, to be sure, they are not necessarily mutually-exclusive, meaning that becoming Jesus’s disciple does not mean that we will not experience troubles, see pain, or feel exhaustion. But leaning into the cross becomes a balm for our burdens…
If we step back in time, we find that the cross was a symbol of shame, guilt, suffering, and rejection to those in and around the Roman empire. The crucifixion became, to the Romans, a carefully and brilliantly composed device of torture (which has me feeling a little awkward as I see the cross on my necklace). With this being the case, what are we taking on to actively and productively follow Jesus?
Are you ready for a very difficult biblical truth? It’s one that I don’t model well and one that I don’t often see modelled incredibly well or consistently in the church in our American way of comfort and ease. The truth is that we are to deny ourselves in order to follow Him as He walked, replacing our own desires for those of “surrender, suffering, and sacrifice” according to Warren Wiersbe.
Though I and others have spoken of this so many times, how often do we seek to actually live this truth? This truth is what so beautifully purchased our souls at His expense, but we so often find ourselves, in our brokenness, being ashamed of the life that it brings in our day-to-day. This life in this context is not eternal life, but the abundance of life and flourishing that is offered to us as His disciples. This life is the answer I need when my self-focus and struggles begin to drown out the beauty that I find in walking lock-step with Jesus – the flourishing and the shalom that He desires for us as we follow Him.
And it’s so hard, isn’t it? Dallas Willard wrote that “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it, or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.” For so much of my life as a disciple of Christ’s, I have said that I believe the Gospel brings freedom to the struggles I go through. Of course, it brings me salvation, but as I grow spiritually, it also relieves me of burdens in my life, big and small. I have even believed that I’ve believed this about life with Jesus. But I haven’t acted like this flourishing is available to me in the midst of my most difficult days. When I’m frustrated with someone, I don’t often surrender my own desires before God in order to love them more humbly. When I see needs around me, I don’t often ‘suffer’ by giving of the resources I have in ways that I even notice the cost. When vitriolic politics comes up, I don’t often sacrifice my own emotion to draw people’s gaze to Jesus. Instead of pointing their attention to the One who teaches me that all the Law and prophets hang on the command to love God and love others, I get sidetracked by the Law and think about how people aren’t living as I’d like them to. That tends to be my default setting where I’m at, unfortunately.
Skye Jethani wrote that many of us “want Jesus but we don’t want his cross. For many, Jesus represents victory, strength, power, abundance, and joy. These are all qualities affirmed by our culture and sought by followers of every faith, and even by those with no faith at all. Jesus’ cross, on the other hand, is a symbol of defeat, weakness, pain, shame, and sorrow. The cross confronts our desires and the world’s definition of success and turns them upside down. For this reason, we often ignore the role of the cross in our faith, or we narrowly define the cross as a mere symbol of Jesus’ crucifixion—a necessary and terrible event that occurred 2,000 years ago, but one we can thankfully put behind us. The cross, we comfortably assume, was Jesus’ calling but it is not ours.”
But, as disciples, we know that the cross is our calling. We find freedom when we deny ourselves, put away our selfishness and self-focus, and expend ourselves in glorifying God. When we act as if these biblical truths are, in fact, true, we find that the Spirit brings about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). And when our lives are characterized by these things, we have no option but to sense genuine flourishing.
For all you who are tired, know that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God, as Augustine said. For those who experience many of the struggles I mentioned above, seek shalom, which is the peace that comes in “a relationship of love and loyalty with God and one another” (Lexham Bible Dictionary). For those who sense that they’re not ‘acting like what they believe is true’, who sense in their daily lives that the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is not their default setting, they can feel His freedom. How? By leaning into the cross and knowing that when we live as Jesus lived, it’s a far better profit than had we gained the whole world.
Love you all,
Young Adult Minister – Evan McNeff
“Jesus, by your wounded feet,
Direct our path aright:
Jesus, by your nailed hands,
Move ours to deeds of love:
Jesus, by your pierced side,
Cleanse our desires:
Jesus, by your crown of thorns,
Annihilate our pride:
Jesus, by your silence,
Shame our complaints:
Jesus, by your parched lips,
Curb our cruel speech:
Jesus, by your closed eyes,
Look on our sin no more:
Jesus, by your broken heart,
Knit ours to you.
And by this sweet and saving sign of the cross,
Lord, draw us to our peace with you.
Richard Crashaw (1613–1649)