Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27)

There are two general understandings about the nature of the cross among Christians today. The first is that for Jesus the cross was the instrument and the means by which he suffered and died for our sins. The other understanding is that for us the cross is some means of suffering in our lives that we must bear without complaint.

the cross as burden

We have thus misunderstood the meaning of taking up a cross. It becomes mired in meanings attached to the phrase “bearing our cross.” To many people, this phrase refers to any number of externally induced problems in our lives. In the common definition our “crosses” may consist of an illness or disability, a distressing family problem, or some other burden thrust upon us.

But the cross is an instrument of death. It marks the end of the road. Only corpses are removed from a cross. Substitute the words guillotine, noose, gas chamber, electric chair, or lethal injection. They are all means of execution by the state. The cross was a particularly gruesome and humiliating device for brutally executing troublemakers. It was designed for people of the lower classes, people who dared to challenge authority, people who threatened the status quo. It was intended to inflict prolonged pain and punishment. And it served as a visible warning to others. Bodies were left on the cross to rot and to be eaten by scavenger birds and dogs.

the cross as cost

To Jesus, the cross was the cost of a prophetic stance against injustice. The cross was and is the inevitable result of a freely chosen stand against the values of the kingdom of Satan. It is something we choose, not some problem that is thrust upon us.

When Daniel Berrigan once lectured on nonviolence and the Sermon on the Mount, someone accused him of being naive and said, “Father Berrigan, no one can live the way you have outlined. Do you know what will happen if we try? Do you know where your advice will lead someone?” “Yes, I know where it leads,” Berrigan responded. “Before you start down this path you better make sure you look good on wood.”

The cross of Jesus leads to death. This is the real cost of discipleship. This is the ultimate cost we must count before we begin the journey of discipleship.

Yet many people still think of the cross as an internal, spiritual struggle only. One author suggested, “Every time my self tries to dominate, this [the cross] is where I’m going to put it. Every time my will crosses with the Lord’s, I will choose his.” That is certainly what denying the self is all about. But the cross is something more. It involves more than a metaphorical death. It involves the likelihood of real death.

Martin Luther King, Jr. understood what taking up the cross involves. He said, “If a man happens to be 36 years old, as I happen to be, and some great truth stands before the door of his life, some great opportunity to stand up for that which is right and that which is just, and he refuses to stand up because he wants to live a little longer and he is afraid his home will get bombed, or he is afraid that he will get shot… he may go on and live until he’s 80, and the cessation of breathing in his life is merely the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. Man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true. So we are going to stand up right here… letting the world know we are determined to be free.”

Taking up the cross is a willingness to die for what you believe to be right. It is a willingness to die in order to defeat the kingdom of Satan and help build the kingdom of God.