I do not like this story, but it must be told. It is the story of turning point in the ministry of Jesus, and it has great effect on any disciple who follows him. It is a crossroads moment, and something that we all face, often more than once in a lifetime. Suffering brings us to this moment, and we must choose wisely what to do with it. Pain and suffering often mean- stop doing whatever you are doing. It is hurting you! But other times suffering comes because we are doing something hard, yet it must still be done. Almost any life change brings a measure of suffering with it. So how do we know the difference between unnecessary suffering which is best to avoid, and suffering which is a part of change and growth?
Jesus’s words about great suffering come after much success. He has confounded the wisest scribes with his teaching, he has healed sick people, caste out demons, restored a blind man to sight, fed 5000 people, all the things a good pastor should do! So now he is going to talk about the “M” word-the Messiah-the one who will restore the reign of God. Its exciting stuff, be a part of history, make some real change. But Jesus warns he will go through great suffering-not just resistance to change, or political opposition-but great suffering.
That is shocking to Peter. He does not like this path (and I am in total sympathy with him.) Peter was likely a young man, at the stage of life where he was still trying to make his place in the world. When I was young I wanted recognition, I wanted to win and achieve things-sink the winning basket, hit the home run, receive the highest award. I’ve matured since then, so here is how I like things to go now. I like slow and steady processes of change, where I improve day-by-day in my confidence and abilities. I like steady consensus building, where a coalition forms around the best ideas, and win-win situations are created where everyone feels like they had a hand in bringing about a solution from the common good. I like this kind of change because it minimizes conflict and suffering. But no change, personal or social, comes without some pain and suffering. And with great change-messiah level transformation of the world-there will likely be great suffering along the way.
You see why I don’t like this story. I would rather hear a story about progress, positive thinking, the secrets to success. Since the Enlightenment, the story of progress and optimism has been a strong narrative. Progressive change for the good is inevitable, as the power of reason and science lead us ever upward. Technology and greater knowledge will give us wealth and leisure, and all we have to do is properly educate everyone, work hard and we will reach a Golden Age. I like that story, and I value reason and science, and I claim the label of “progressive.”
But suffering will still have its way with us. Affliction may come to us because others don’t want our version of change or because people can be real jerks. Suffering can come from our own mistakes or because we take moral shortcut or our ego and pride get in the way. Ultimately being mortal leads to suffering, as our bodies fail us and our abilities decline.
We do not need to look for suffering or seek it out, it will find us. There is no virtue in causing ourselves to suffer, like medieval monks whipping their backs or depriving themselves of all pleasure. Some people glorify suffering. If we use suffering to draw attention, that is not following Jesus. If we think we will get a reward for suffering, Jesus will tell you “Good luck with that.” I’m all for removing unnecessary suffering, life is hard enough. Jesus prayed in Gethsamane, “Let this cup pass from me.”
Sometimes avoiding suffering can cause more affliction, not less. I have learned this the hard way, several times. When I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in my early 30s, my doctor outlined my lifestyle changes-eat healthy food and avoid things hard to digest, reduce stress and get enough rest, and take your medication. I vowed to do everything possible to be well. But I didn’t. I fell back into old habits, and my symptoms returned. When I felt good, I did what I wanted, and I paid for it later. It took me a long time, a decade really, and six surgeries to finally live with my disease.
Why would I do this? In part because I didn’t want to believe I had a permanent chronic illness, I did not accept the limitations it put on me, I did not want to really believe this was happening to me. It was so unfair. So I just refused to truly accept my predicament and so I refused to make the change. And I suffered more for it. I’ve done the same thing in other aspects of life. For years I avoided conflict and sought to appease people. But the conflict had its way eventually, or I exhausted myself trying to make others happy. And later I found out, they were just unhappy people.
Dealing with suffering is much like driving on ice. When you slide and feel out of control, the tendency is to turn the other way. But the right move is to turn into the skid and realign ourselves. It takes trust and courage to make that move.
When Jesus talks about picking up our cross and following him, he is talking about the kind of suffering that comes with doing the right thing, the hard thing, the inevitable suffering that comes with most life change, that arises when we chose to love, to forgive, to say we are sorry, or to bear witness to the truth or when we seek a just peace in the world. Jesus wanted us to know that his path does not escape suffering, but will sometimes call us to experience affliction and distress, in order to find greater meaning, deeper love, and our full humanity.
So here is my takeaway from Jesus’s words to pick up the cross and follow him. The call to pick up your cross applies when we are called to do something hard. The right thing can cost us, especially in the short-term.
- · Speaking truth to power,
- · embracing love again when we have been hurt,
- · listening and accompanying when I would rather give advice and move on,
- · standing up for someone else who has little power,
- · forgiving and letting go, especially when I am enjoying my self-righteous grudge,
- · letting go of cynicism to take one more risk for change.
- · Keeping my heart hopeful even as we confront injustice without any visible signs of progress.
It’s a long list of hard things, of crosses to carry. But I am willing to lean in to them, because I know Jesus will be with me, and I trust that there will be meaning, love and justice on the other side. And the way I feel Jesus with me is in Christian community. Don’t do this work alone. A major piece of our work as a church is to construct the support where we can maintain the strength and heal and share the journey together. Even Jesus wanted his disciples to be with him in his final hours. When one part of the body of Christ suffers, all suffer. If your foot hurts, the rest of your body can’t ignore it. If one of us sinks in grief, we are called to share their tears. If one school is attacked and assaulted, it is an attack on us all. Pushing it out, avoiding the news, or avoiding the people whom we know are suffering will not make it go away. But you don’t have to take it all on. You don’t have to fight every battle. If you work at building community, repairing damage and healing wherever you are, it ripples outward and effects the capacity of the whole.
What matters is you work on your part. Jesus did say carry every cross you can find, just carry your own. What is on your list? What is your hard thing, your cross? What aspect of suffering scares you? Where is Jesus asking you to follow him? I invite you to write down anything that comes to mind and work with it in your prayer life this week. Grace and peace.