Reading Time: 6 mins

We Do Not Choose Our Crosses

Reading Time: 6 mins

We do not choose our struggles, but there is One who has chosen to always be with us.

I rushed my son Thomas into the public library as fast as his little legs could go. It was almost time for preschool story time to begin. For nearly two months, we had waited for this magical service to be offered again: a time to rejoice in music, movement, and books. Not only was story time fun, but it was part of our strategy for developing Thomas’ language and social skills. With the start of a new year, he was graduating to the next class. Such a big boy!

We made it just in time, but I noticed something odd. Instead of the caregivers sitting in a circle with their children, the activity center was hidden behind a movable barrier, with the adults sitting outside. I had not realized preschool story time was an independent venture where the children would enter without their caregivers. It would not have been a problem, except that Thomas is unlike many children his age: he needs extra help. As the librarian stood ushering the children inside, I attempted to explain the situation. 

“My son has a developmental delay,” I said, feeling extremely awkward. “He needs me with him.”

Then several things happened quickly. The librarian explained, in a matter-of-fact way, that the children were to learn independently, even as Thomas slipped past her into the activity center. I do not remember what else the librarian said, but I recall my son looking back at me and crying, “Nonny! Nonny!” That’s his name for me. Within a few seconds, Thomas and I were both standing back with the adults. He would not be allowed to participate in story time. 

As I stood there attempting to calm my son, I noticed a few of the caregivers staring at us. Then I looked helplessly at the other children sitting quietly and attentively: something my son was incapable of doing and would likely struggle with for years to come. I felt the sting of grief within my chest, and for a moment in time, I wondered why the Lord had chosen this fate for Thomas. 

For I would sooner have accepted some difficulty for myself than for him. I would never have chosen to walk through what we have experienced this year, bouncing from doctor to doctor, desperate for answers. I have never felt less in control, unable to bring about the change I seek. This is what it means to bear a cross.

The Example of Peter

Jesus Christ once told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Many of us know this verse by heart, but do we remember the original context in which it appeared? 

Peter had just made his great declaration, “You are the Christ.” (v. 29) But when Jesus immediately followed this up by predicting that he “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again,” (v. 31) Peter rebuked him, unwilling to accept the idea that this one he called Christ would suffer such a cruel and ignominious end. Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (v. 33)

I have never felt less in control, unable to bring about the change I seek. This is what it means to bear a cross.

While we do not know exactly how much time elapsed between this exchange and Christ’s statement that his followers must deny themselves and take up crosses, they occur in consecutive verses in the Gospel of Mark, and not without good reason. For in predicting the manner of his death, Christ was revealing the way of life for his disciples, and it would not be a path of immediate victory. They would be forced to suffer, even as he would. 

When the time of Christ’s great suffering came, Peter failed the test, denying his Lord three times. In the critical hour, he was unwilling to take up a cross and follow Jesus. For three long days, Peter lived with that guilt, until he saw the risen Lord and grasped the truth that was there all along: yes, Christ would submit to death on a cross, but in doing so, he would become the death of death.

A few weeks later, Peter and some fellow disciples met Jesus at a beach on the Sea of Galilee. In a reversal of the earlier denials, Jesus asked Peter three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Each time, Peter replied in the affirmative, only for Jesus to command some variation of, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

Peter had fled from the cross at Golgotha, but now it was revealed what his cross would truly be: for the rest of his life, day after day, he would lay down his life for the Lord’s flock. He would endure persecution and mockery, illness and poverty, struggling to pass on the faith he had received. Then, when he had come at last to old age, he would be dragged up another hill, and the metaphor would become literal.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:18-19)

Yes, Peter would die upon a cross, and it would not be one of his choosing, for they would carry him where he did not wish to go. But Peter would endure it for love’s sake. Never would he bear that cross alone. 

We can be reasonably certain that Peter was crucified during the reign of Emperor Nero. It is attested by many early witnesses, including Eusebius: “It is recorded that in his [Nero’s] reign Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified…” [1] If a legend is true, the only choice Peter had in the matter was to be crucified upside down. He endured the same wretched death as his Savior, but long before that, he loved God’s sheep to the end.

When this was prophesied to Peter on the beach, he looked at the Apostle John, a younger disciple who seemed destined for great things. “Lord, what about this man?” Peter asked (John 21:21).

It was a natural question—perhaps one we would all have asked. I felt the same question in my heart as I stood in that library, the eyes of strangers upon me, clutching my son. “Why me? Why us? Why do they sit in comfort, while we stand here suffering?”

But Jesus provided no answer to Peter any more than he provided one to Job. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” the Lord inquired. “You follow Me!” (v. 22)

The Way of the Cross is the Way of Life

This is one of the hardest truths of Christianity. It is not for us to choose our cross, for we would select a trial we imagine we could handle, or one by which we assumed we could justify ourselves. The cross our Savior asks us to bear is one we can only endure by his power and grace. We need not seek out difficulties, for they will surely come. Our only task is to rely on the power of God and allow his love to flow through us. For Paul wrote, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:3) 

When we attempt to choose our  own crosses and seek righteousness through our endurance, we are what Martin Luther rightly names as theologians of glory rather than theologians of the cross. There is no point in “self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body” (Col. 2:23). Most likely, our crosses will not be some feat of glory, but it may very well involve caring for the ones God has placed in our charge. In making our peace with the providence of God and surrendering ourselves to the work of his hands, “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Cor. 4:7)

Taking up a cross is not about proving yourself to God, but finding God proved true. It is not about making yourself righteous but being united with the righteous one. Flesh with flesh, spirit with spirit, we die and rise with him (Rom. 6:4, Gal. 2:20, Col. 2:11-14). The cross is salvation to us not because we overcome, but because he has overcome for us. Only with eyes of faith do we understand that even our cross is grace: not that we produce some work of ourselves, but that works were prepared for us beforehand that we might walk in them (Eph. 2:8-10).

Taking up a cross is not about proving yourself to God, but finding God proved true.

When Christ gives you a cross, he gives you himself. It was the great desire of Paul’s heart “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10-11). To take up my cross and follow him is for my pride to be put to death and to believe by faith that the suffering I will endure, evil as it is, will turn out for my good (Rom. 8:28-30). 

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” [2] But only that cross to which Christ calls us can become for us a source of life. Let us speak not of redemptive suffering, but the redeemed suffering we share with Jesus Christ, who has defeated death and the devil, allowing us to share in his resurrection. For the inevitable sufferings we experience in this life are producing for us a weight of glory as we become sharers in the life of God himself through the mediation of the Son and ministry of the Spirit (2 Cor. 4:17). Upon the cross of Jesus Christ, the evils and sufferings of this life are transfigured into a beauty beyond compare, for that is the power of God’s water and Word, body and blood: they birth us anew, making us what we were not. Thus, we pray with the saints of old that “walking in the way of the cross, [we] may find it none other than the way of life and peace.” [3]

[1] Eusebius of Caesarea, The History of the Church, trans. G.A. Williamson, Penguin Classics edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1989), 62.

[2] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 89.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer.