God doesn’t send anyone a cross to bear.
How many times have you heard the pious pablum that He does? It’s not just insipid; it actively harms people’s faith in God when they are in pain and they hear this message. So let’s do better than just not saying it ourselves. We need to get clear about what “bear a cross” refers to, so we can refute its misuse and comfort those who have been damaged by it.
Friends, despite what certain preachers may have told you, this is plainly laid out in the New Testament: “the Cross” is all about INJUSTICE. Not God’s Divine justice, but man’s INjustice. Jesus was executed on the Cross by the religious and political authorities even though he had never done any wrong. It was the most extreme case of injustice in the history of the world. Along the way, the soldiers also forced Simon the Cyrene to carry it for a while—also an injustice imposed by men, though a lesser one. God was not the executioner of justice in Jesus’s Passion, but the recipient of human injustice.
The “message of the Cross” is that the powerful legal authorities of this world are often WRONG. Cf. I Cor. 1: 17-31, Gal. 6:12-13, Col. 2:13-15, etc. The only way to strip them of their power is to demonstrate how wrong they are. Since “might makes right” is itself a lie, the only way to expose them to the truth is through nonviolent resistance, by making a statement of contradiction without shrinking from the violent reaction this is apt to provoke.
“Taking up the cross” is a conscious and courageous choice to bear the brunt of injustice in order to expose it, thereby stripping it of its power over the minds of onlookers. It is tugging on the arc of history to bend it toward justice, knowing that it will hurt and that you probably will not live to see justice’s ultimate triumph.
Jesus tells his listeners that they should take up the cross by their own choice, just as He did, if they are to be true disciples. But He doesn’t condemn those who aren’t up for such heroics. Even the ones who merely give a cup of water to another in Jesus’s name have a place in God’s family.
Natural phenomenon like disease, accidents, and death are NOT crosses. These are the labor pains of creation, common to the condition of all creatures, not particular “punishments” of God. Even when St. Paul says that God deliberately gave him some kind of pain in order to keep him humble, he calls this a “thorn in the flesh” rather than a “cross.” When we encounter natural pain, whether our own or someone else’s, we should try to relieve it. God isn’t awarding points for people enduring suffering for its own sake. If it can’t be relieved, sit in solidarity and grow in compassion with it.
Regardless of the source, God DOES use the fact of our suffering and breaking and dying in order to re-form us into something new, more powerful and beautiful, in resurrections in this life and the next. But the fact that God works everything to our good in some way does not necessarily mean He is the proximate cause of our breaking. God never works injustice, but humans certainly do.
What about victims of injustice who did NOT make a conscious choice to be in that position? This is where using the “cross” terminology for their suffering can be particularly insidious. “God gave you this cross so bear it without complaint, nor seek to put it down” is the slaveowner’s religious conceit. The cross is the consequence of nonviolent resistance to injustice, not acquiescence to injustice. It is not a moral imperative or even a virtue to acquiesce to injustice. It may be necessary for the victim’s self-preservation at times, and morally legitimate for that reason. But injustice involuntarily imposed upon someone is a chain, not a cross. It is a cry to those who are not in chains to take up the cross to win the enslaved person’s freedom. Chains are never something to romanticize by associating obedience with heroism.
So please, no more fatalistic comments about “crosses to bear.” No more blaming God for human cruelty. Resist and expose injustice. Seek to relieve pain. Consider the cost of taking up the cross to win the crown of glory. If you cannot bear it, make peace with doing basic justice. Whatever you do, don’t be a collaborator with injustice by telling the sick and oppressed that God wants them to accept their fate.