Mark 8:31-38 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Maybe this is the very hardest of Jesus’ teachings. Not because it is difficult to understand what he’s saying, but because it’s impossible to understand why he’s saying it.
“Taking up the cross” means taking on suffering. But why? Who on earth would want to do that?
Well, certainly not Peter. He surely doesn’t want Jesus to do it. “Come on, Lord. You’re upsetting the crowds. Nobody wants to join up with a rabbi who’s going to suffer and die. They want peace. They are looking for happiness, security. They are looking for God, for heaven’s sake. Not suffering. And certainly not death.”
Jesus tells Peter to stop it. Not only is he saying something theologically wrong, it is Satanic—tempting. Because nobody, not even Jesus, wants to suffer. It’s against every ounce of self-preservation we have.
And so Jesus calls together the whole crowd and here’s what he says: if you want to follow me, you have to suffer.
WHATTTT???? Seriously? He did not say that.
I think I’m on Peter’s side with this one. Sorry, Jesus, but nobody, nobody, wants suffering to be part of the spirituality package.
But, here’s the thing: suffering just, well, it just is. We can’t avoid it. It comes to all of us, in different forms. It is simply part of life, so don’t go around preaching some weak gospel that says we can—by our faith—get rid of it. That’s not divine. It’s a Satanic gospel. Because it sounds like good news, but it isn’t.
Suffering just is. If we try to deny its existence for us or to someone else, if we say “it’s not that bad,” or “you’ll get over it soon,” or “just have faith,” we are not honoring the depth of painful experience, we’re not paying attention to our own inner selves but are covering up something very important. We are closing ourselves off to God, rather than allowing ourselves and others to cry out to God from the depth of experience.
If we think we are beyond the fear of death, then what do we have to share with God’s world? We will have tried to save our lives, but will have lost our souls in the process. Only a soulless religion thinks nothing bad will happen. A soulful religion has arms big enough to encompass suffering.
Our lives are significant. They are significant not because we have succeeded in avoiding suffering, or have told ourselves that pain doesn’t matter.
Our lives are significant partly because suffering matters so very much.
Jesus believed it matters. He stands with the suffering in the most significant of ways. Not to make them feel better. To make them not feel alone.
And we stand with each other. We are better at this once our own hearts have been broken. Not that we have the answer after that, but we tread a little differently afterwards. We see a little differently. Our own hurt, if we let it, eventually can allow us to open our hearts to the hurts of others.
So, yes, the crosses that we bear weigh us down. But Jesus invites us to follow him in his cross-bearing. Toward the future. Away from denial. Into the path where cross-bearing is acknowledged, maybe even welcomed, and the pain is lessened by all the company we have around us.
We raise our questions and our pain to God, where they hang in the air. God holds them gently, and weeps. As hard as it is to look at suffering, God refuses to turn away.
This is the true gospel.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2015