Such self-denial brings us to mind climactic verses from Mark's gospel—a baseline for Kierkegaardian faith. Jesus asks, "Who do you say that I am?" Your answer invites a commitment but to commit demands that you do something about it. "It is so hard to believe," Kierkegaard said, "because it is so hard to obey."

In Mark 8, the ever-impulsive apostle Simon Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, which in Matthew's gospel made the crowd go wild. Delighted, Jesus renamed Simon "the Rock" and gave him the keys to heaven. But here in Mark, Jesus tells Peter to keep quiet, concerned, on the one hand, that people's Messianic ideals would derail the necessary realities of his mission. On the other hand, tradition holds that Mark was Peter's right hand man. Maybe Peter insisted that Mark leave out Jesus' congratulatory remarks given how bad Peter's own idealizations were going to mess things up in the next few verses.

Peter finally realizes Jesus as Christ the King, only to have Jesus specify how being king meant being crowned with thorns and strung up to die. Such news did not sit well. It would be like a franchise quarterback announcing that he let the opposing team run up the score. Or like the candidate you supported pushing the opposing party's legislation instead. Or like the acclaimed war hero giving up without a fight. How can Israel be saved if its Savior surrenders? Peter pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. He tells him to knock off the death talk. He's scaring the other disciples—this despite Jesus saying that he would "rise again in three days." Not that it mattered. Real messiahs don't rise from the dead—real messiahs don't die in the first place.

Jesus covers his ears and tells Peter to get out of his face. Worse, he calls Peter Satan! Satan? Here you were thinking yourself to be Jesus' BFF. Just trying to help. And this is how Jesus thanks you? But for Jesus, Peter's words swept him back to the desert where the devil first tried to divert him from the cross and onto the path of power, celebrity, and fame. "Isn't this how any normal superstar Messiah would do it? C'mon, you can control the weather, walk on water and make dinner appear out of thin air! The armies of heaven are at your beckon call! Why limit your power, especially with all that's wrong in the world?" Satan had a point and Jesus was tempted by it—and he was tempted by Peter here. Speaking as much to himself as to Peter, Jesus says, "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."

Bad enough that Jesus would have to take up a cross to save the world. Worse, he says that to follow him means you have to take up a cross too. "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." Devoted to making the Christian life easier, many will interpret "bearing a cross" as putting up with life's troubles: not yelling at obnoxious drivers in traffic, being polite to rude relatives, or ignoring others' annoying habits. But if these are the crosses I have to bear, none of them seem to be so much about denying myself as about fixing other people, which has nothing to do with crosses.

"The matter is quite simple," Kierkegaard wrote. "The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church's prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament."