Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
A cross is not a piece of jewelry or a slogan, but an invitation to death. Jesus knew that agony awaited the person who wanted to know God.
Why would that be so?
God is love, God is good, and God created us. Why would God make our change so painful?
One reason, I think, is that our broken souls are so very damaged and the pollution in our moral environment keeps making them work. Take any injustice you choose such as racism in the United States. The more we try to plumb the depths of the hatred, the sin, the corruption, the pride, the deeper the problem goes. The cures of the 1960’s and early 1970’s turned out to have racism twisting the good they intended in areas such as housing. There is no way forward for any American on the subject of race that will not produce a degree of shame, guilt, and a need for forgiveness.
Even our steps forward, such as abolition in the Civil War, were broken.
The rot runs so deeply that if God were magically to transform us, I am not sure that there would be any “me” left. Instead, one purpose of this life is to slowly transform damage to wholeness. Just as a ship that is repaired one piece at a time can remain constantly “the same ship” so I can, over time, remain authentically me as I was created to be.
As a result, no Christian should ever tell any human being that the pathway to God will be easier than ignoring God. In this life, it will surely begin with a cross and lead to pain. No man or woman who would see God and live, a God who is All Good, All Truth, All Beauty, can avoid waking up every morning and laying down certain desires, wills, and powers.
What others seemingly can do with impunity, we cannot do.
There is a lie from Hell that if, in this life, I give up my twisted will, I will always get something better in a way that corresponds to what I have lost. The woman called to celibacy for ministry may face a romantic loneliness her entire life without any particular ease in that pain. Piety cannot manipulate our healing process to produce freedom from pain. This is just another form of the false prosperity gospel. We may never get what we want (and go on wanting), because our very wants are being used to transform other parts of our soul.
The man who denies himself wealth may receive other types of wealth and he may even live long enough to see victory in himself. He may or he may not. It might be that his poverty, sent from God, will temper him and continue to rankle, but produce great joy in some other area of his life. His anger, which in the eyes of God might be more serious than his physical comfort, might be tamed.
And yet we must take great care with this teaching. No person should crucify another person: only self. No spiritual guru can ever be totally trusted to tell us what God bids to die. This is an open invitation to abuse, if one substitutes the will of a person for the will of God. Instead, God has given His Church over time a Divine Revelation that teaches us virtue. The Blessed Paul lists for us the fruits of wickedness and the fruit of the Spirit. Spiritual authority stems from this sacred Revelation and any demand for more is another evil.
Gurus of the left will always remove one true cross, but then leave us with another of their own making. Gurus of the right will point to the real crosses we must bear, but then add weights to the burdens we bear. God calls us to bear one another’s burdens, to be as blessed Simon of Cyrene was to the Lord Jesus, not to push down on the cross of another person.
None of this is simple. It is easy for me (all too easy!) to see the cross that the other man should find for himself. Oddly, my vision is often right, since it is easier to see the faults of others than the faults of self! If I must (and sometimes loves says I must) with fear and trepidation speak into the life of another soul, then I must do all I can to stay in the mainstream of Christian history which is always pressing for greater purity, greater holiness, greater “otherness.” And as I speak, I must recognize that the best I can say will still be tainted, the motives mixed. I will always, even when reading aloud from Scripture, be able to say: “This is true, but I am broken.”
This pain is not for the sake of pain, we would avoid it (as Jesus would have in the Garden) if we could. We crucify desires because we wish for the greater joys of Paradise. Even the few dim tastes we get of that pleasure, often years apart, are worth the toys of this age. The great culture war is the war of my own soul to avoid the cross. The great victory is when I die to self and live to Christ. This is Christian adulthood and I will be striving to share what it means this summer here. Join us in the journey through pain to glory!