How do we take up our cross and suffer?

Ted Grimsrud—Gospel Herald—October 27, 1992

One of the things we Christians can offer the world is a profound perspective on human suffering. But to do so, we have to come to some understanding ourselves about this difficult dimension of our lives.

Christians generally have three different ideas about suffering. One is that suffering is good, something to be expected for the follower of Christ. This is a romantic view of suffering, one that makes it intrinsically good and positive. Proof of our following Jesus is our suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it this way: “When Christ bids one to follow him, he bids that person to come and die.”

A second way to look at suffering takes the opposite extreme. In this view, suffering is bad and should be avoided. This is the view that pervades much of our culture, including many of us in the church. We see suffering as totally bad, something to be avoided at all costs. We desperately seek freedom from all suffering.

Most of the addictions so common in our society—alcohol, drugs, sex—are in some way tied to relieving suffering and pain. They are tied to people trying to avoid this part of their lives. Religion for some can also serve the same function. We seek a spiritual high to help us escape. Our attention to the hereafter helps us find refuge from what hurts so much in the here and now.

But there’s a third view on suffering, one that I believe is more realistic, hopeful, and helpful. This is to see suffering simply as a fact of life. We endure it, do not romanticize it, nor run away from it. We come to understand that suffering can help us grow.

This view closely reflects Jesus’ point of view. Jesus clearly connected suffering with following him, with what we call discipleship. “If people would come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their crosses daily and follow me. For those who would save their lives will lose them; and those who lose their lives for my sake, they will save them” (Lk 9:23-24).

For many years I accepted this intellectually as a crucial text for “radical” Christians—which I considered myself to be. To follow Jesus, to take up one’s cross, means to choose consciously to act in ways which might cause one to suffer. Following Jesus, I believed, meant putting one’s life on the line for one’s beliefs. Maybe discipleship meant getting arrested for protesting nuclear weapons. Maybe it meant quitting one’s job in the armaments industry. Maybe it meant getting one’s head bashed in at a civil rights demonstration.

However, I honestly do not know how much I, at least, ever genuinely suffered as a radical Christian. Nor am I sure how much suffering I ever saw other radical Christians choosing to accept. The activists I have known still usually live pretty comfortably.

Today I am rethinking my notions about discipleship and suffering. I am less inclined to connect following Jesus with activism and causes and stepping out to put our lives on the line. I am less inclined to see Jesus-like suffering being that which we consciously choose and experience directly as a result of acting on Jesus’ behalf.

That’s what I had been taught that taking up the cross was: something we must do by an act of our will, because we wanted to follow Jesus. We stepped out of our workaday lives and consciously did something, some act of discipleship. Other kinds of suffering which happened to us—arthritis, the loss of a loved one—such traumas certainly deserved sympathy. But that kind of suffering was not “taking up our cross.”

Today, I am no longer quite so sure. Maybe emphasizing our choice so much was a way of continuing to exert control over life. Realistically, not that many people choose actually to suffer very often. I am concluding that taking up our cross might have more to do with finding ways to live creatively with non-chosen, ongoing suffering. It might have more to do with this than with our actions which might cause us to suffer for Jesus’ sake.

Recently I spent some time with an old friend, call him Greg, who I hadn’t seen for several years. He and his wife were visiting me because they were thinking of moving to Oregon because of Greg’s severe rheumatoid arthritis. Greg did some research and discovered that Oregon supposedly has an arthritis-friendly climate.

Greg has had arthritis since he was twenty or so. He’s in his late thirties now. At this point, he has no real hope that he’ll ever get over it. He aches all the time. He can’t sit still for very long without getting quite stiff. He can’t hold down a full-time job. Arthritis dominates his whole life.

Greg has done some thinking about suffering. He doesn’t value it much. He says he wishing more than anything that he didn’t have to suffer the constant pain he does. His suffering shapes many if not most of his decisions. However, he also knows that life goes on. His suffering won’t leave him. His main job is to find a way to live meaningfully with the restrictions he faces—because they aren’t going to go away.

The kind of suffering my friend Greg experiences no one would choose. It is constant. It disrupts life. Greg has no control over it. In recent years, I too have learned something of this kind of suffering. You want it to end; you try to find distractions to soothe the ongoing ache. However, when the tumult of activity and projects and good works and fun and games dies, the aches is still there.

That’s how it must have been with Jesus. “When the days drew near for Jesus to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Here Luke is setting the stage for Jesus’ death. Jesus makes his fatal choice. He sets “his face to go to Jerusalem.”

So what is Jesus’ choice? It is not connected to any specific act. Rather, it is a choice to accept that life includes suffering. Jesus’ choice is one to continue to live in love, no matter what might befall him. To live in love means to be realistic about life as it is. Living in love means not trying to avoid suffering, not trying to escape pain and sorrow.

In the midst of pain and sorrow, even evil, Jesus still chose to find a way to love. He chose to find a way to be creative. He chose to refuse to allow suffering (and the fear of suffering) to transform him from a loving person into a fearful, bitter person.

Perhaps my friend Greg is fortunate. He knows that if he is going to live at all, he has to live with his suffering. He cannot continually resent it, fight against it, seek with all his energy to avoid it. He does not have to like it; he can hope it will lessen. But if his life is to have meaning, if it is to be creative and loving, it must be creative and loving, it must be creative and loving in its present context.

Greg is pulling this off pretty well. He is creative and loving. He certainly indulges in his share of coping mechanisms. However, at bottom, he is putting together a life of genuine faithfulness. He is a disciple, a follower of Jesus.

I see discipleship now not as quite the dramatic, radical, activist-like commitment I used to believe it to be. At least one major part of discipleship is following Jesus’ way of facing the brokenness and the violence. It is following Jesus’ way of facing one’s own suffering—and while doing so, also trusting God for creativity, for hopefulness, for love.

Is it possible that some of our talk which pictures discipleship as something we do, something outside of ourselves, might be a way of avoiding our own pain? Maybe we talk about suffering for someone else because of our inability to suffer for ourselves. We look for causes “out there” because it hurts too much to face the “in here.”

Discipleship is not so much taking on someone else’s pain or extending ourselves to suffer for someone else. It has more to do with identifying and honestly facing and expressing our own pain. Discipleship includes living creatively with the kind of suffering which is not voluntary. This is suffering which we can walk away from when our three-year term is up.

When we find ways to live creatively with our own pain, then ways of caring for others will follow naturally. Several years ago, one of my close friends faced a major crisis in his life. I tried to help him, to share in his pain, but that went only so far. I could walk away from it. Then, I faced the same type of trauma. My friend then became my support. His support came not so much because he wanted to help me but because we could suffer together. We cried together and in that found some healing.

Since then, other friends have suffered in similar ways. I certainly can’t solve their problems. However, as I learned myself, simply having someone with the same pain helps more than anything else. We all have to be open enough with ourselves and with each other to connect. That openness is a big part of being creative, of being a disciple.

Discipleship has to do with choosing to find meaning and empowerment in the face of our own suffering. This includes suffering which is not chosen and will not go away. Discipleship has to do with choosing to trust that God’s love can be and God’s love will be, no matter how much life hurts us. That love offers us the power to have even these darkest moments transformed, at least a bit, into occasions for creativity. Maybe, sometimes, they may be be transformed into joy.

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