If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Mark 8:34
These well known words by Christ are true for every Christian in every generation. Those who suffer for God take up their cross and follow Him. In the New Testament we are endlessly reminded that there is no way to the Kingdom of Heaven without suffering. To live the Christian life is to give up our ideas of comfort, security, and self-will in order to accept hardships, tribulations, and a cross.
The desert father, St. Barsanuphius, puts it so succinctly:
Pass over from the world, and henceforth mount the Cross, be lifted from the earth.
To be lifted from the earth is to ascend spiritually to heaven, even while still in the flesh. How do we accomplish such a lofty ambition? We must first mount the Cross which involves suffering to some degree. To ascend the cross is to be lifted from earthly passions, sorrows, cares, and eternal death. It is the exclusive passage from earth to heaven, there is no other way.
Should we desire something greater than the hollow treasures of this world, we must go meet God. And the only place we can do that is upon the Cross. It is the meeting place of earth and heaven. Therefore, we preach Christ crucified (1 Cor. 1:23).
There is a tendency in our culture to water down the gospel into something more pleasing that fits with our American way of life, but this is a false gospel, an antichrist (“anti” in Greek means “in place of”). St. Paul exhorts the brethren, we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
St. Peter echoes him, For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:21)
I think there are two sources of suffering in our lives: that which we bring upon ourselves due to our own sinful decisions and that which God allows us. While we rarely perceive it, I believe the former is the more common of the two. The former we should suffer knowing that we fully deserve it. The latter comes about to complete the work of our own salvation. These may be health problems, persecution, false accusations, and many other hardships.
Regardless of the source, our response should be the same: patient endurance. This endurance, I believe, will eventually mature into gratitude so that we may give thanks in all things, for this is the will of God (1 Thess. 5:18). We should not feel pity for ourselves, “Woe is me, I have this cross to bear,” but know that God gives us these hardships because he loves us and desires to see us healed. Nor should we pat ourselves on the back saying, “You’re such a good martyr.” Such thoughts stem from self-pity and egotism.
If we wish to be lifted up into glory, then we must follow the example of Christ, who was lifted up from the earth upon the Cross. Our own suffering, if endured with patient love, lifts us above the earth and into the bosom of the Father. We must humble ourselves and allow our circumstances to humble us as well.
As Christ said, whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Matthew 23:12).
In this final week of Great Lent, let us remember that our difficulties are our opportunities for salvation. While we may not be able to embrace them with joy as the apostles and saints have done, we can at the very least try to not grumble or complain (I’m still at this beginning stage myself). Let us ask the Lord to reveal to us his hand working in everything, and to have simple trust (faith) when we cannot see that.