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I have been a Christian for more than 40 years now. The things that impressed me as a younger Christian still impress me, but now other things impress me even more. When I was a brand-new believer, I was very impressed by a powerful preacher or someone with a great musical gift who used it for God’s glory. I am still impressed by those things, but there are other things that impress me now.
What impresses me now is a man who stays faithful to his wife and a wife who stays faithful to her husband for their entire marriage. That is impressive. I am impressed by a Christian who weathers the storms of life and doesn’t become angry at God, but instead comes closer to God. I am impressed by a believer who lives out his or her faith despite setbacks and hardships – and in some cases, severe setbacks and hardships.
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in “Beyond Good and Evil,” “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . there should be long obedience in the same direction.” Being a disciple and being a follower of Jesus is long obedience in the same direction. It is staying with it.
Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” These words were not merely addressed to disciples in the first century. They are addressed to disciples in every century.
Sometimes people will describe whatever difficulty they have in life as their cross to bear. You will hear a mother say, “My children, they are really trouble. That is my cross to bear in life.” And then the mother’s children will no doubt say, “Our mother, she is our cross to bear.” You might have a difficulty you are facing, so you say, “Well, we all have our cross to bear, and I guess this is mine.” We may have our challenges and difficulties in life, but this is not what Jesus meant when he said to take up the cross.
The cross doesn’t mean the same thing to us in the 21st century as it meant in the first century. When we see a cross on the top of a building, we identify it with a church. We think of the cross as a symbol of the Christian faith. To some, it is a symbol of Christ. For others, it is a fashion accessory. The cross means many things to many people. But it certainly doesn’t mean what it meant originally.
In the first century, to even use the word “cross” was offensive and bothersome, because the cross represented dying a painful death. While the Romans did not invent the cross, they took crucifixion to another level. The cross was designed to torture, to cause pain. There were more efficient ways to execute someone, but the worst criminals were nailed to crosses, resulting in a slow death. Crucifixion served as a warning to anyone who would dare revolt against the power of Rome. It was not uncommon to see crosses lining the roads outside Roman cities.
So in Jesus’ day, if you saw someone walking through the city and carrying a cross, it meant one thing: That person was going to die. Therefore, when Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me,” his words were revolutionary.
Taking up the cross means we are to deny ourselves. The word “deny” means to say no. And it really means to put God’s will and desires above our own. It means putting God first and ourselves second. Selfish people will find it outrageous, even offensive. Narcissists need not apply.
In day-to-day living, taking up the cross is living life as it was meant to be lived when you put Christ first. Jesus said, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
We live in a time now when marriages, even Christian marriages, will break apart for so many lame reasons. And one of them is so-called irreconcilable differences. Every marriage has irreconcilable differences. I have had irreconcilable differences with my wife for our entire marriage. She is neat; I am messy … the list goes on. These things are irreconcilable. But we love each other. And we are committed to each other.
Sometimes people will say the reason they leave a marriage is because they are trying to find themselves. If you want to find yourself, then lose yourself. Put God first. When you take up the cross, it means putting God first and determining to get through that rough patch in the marriage. You made vows to each other. Do you remember them? The way some people break up their marriages, you would think the vows they made on their wedding day went something like this: “To love and to cherish, until I don’t like you anymore, or if the cooking isn’t so good, or if someone more attractive comes along …” These are things people will dissolve a marriage over.
If you try to be a happy person, you never will be. Philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “The search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness.” You will find that people who chase after happiness are the least happy people around. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. I think everyone wants to be happy. But if you live to be happy, you never will be.
Are we really carrying our cross today? Are we really dying to ourselves? This is what Jesus is calling us to do every day. You may think, That kind of sounds miserable to me. But it actually is the opposite. Here is what it comes down to: If you want to be happy, seek to be holy and to live wholly, and happiness will come as a byproduct. Seek to be like Christ, and live wholly for Christ. As you do, you will be a happy person as a result.
If you will lose your life, Jesus says that you will find it. But if you live for your own selfish ambitions and feel that you are the center of the universe, that everything has to revolve around you and that everything has to be about you, then you will be miserable. And the people around you will be miserable, too. But if you put God first and put others first, happiness will come as a byproduct.