By Ben Nucum
I decided to do something different this week and be very open with my own trials and sufferings with Christ and within Christ. I suffer from bipolar disorder type 2, and I often suffer from both hypomanic (elevated) moods and depressive moods, and the past couple weeks I have been suffering from a particularly potent depressive episode. I wasn’t sure if I was going to write this blog or not. However, meditating upon the lectionary readings caused me to think deeply about my own situation and I hope I can make the particulars of my situation universal to the Christian life for all people and all creation.
What particularly struck me is Jesus’ words: “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.”
I always thought that this passage meant: deny who you are, deny your current suffering, and following the suffering of Christ and the suffering of Christ will overshadow your suffering. However, my particular situation has caused me to view this from a new perspective. Instead, I now see it as: deny your ego, and become humble enough (I must decrease, and Christ must increase) to realize the suffering one endures in this life belongs too to Christ, who also endured everything of humanity and endured all temptations, including the temptation to deny his own suffering. My suffering matters to Christ, because Christ too has suffered it, and the denial that one denies is not one’s own suffering, but one’s ego that prevents our suffering from being identified with Christ’s suffering. This is what it means for me to pick up my cross: pick up the cross of my sufferings, and Christ who suffers all things suffers with me, not beyond me. Pick up the cross of my sufferings and Christ who suffers all things suffers with me completely and identifies with my suffering completely, and doesn’t ignore my sufferings for his sufferings of the cross. Our crosses are one cross. Our crosses unite. There isn’t one cross on Golgotha, but three crosses, and even the cross of the unbeliever unites with the cross of Christ.
To quote G.K. Chesterton:
“When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
We do not have to take Chesterton literally, but he does provide an insight to the particularly unique suffering of carrying one’s cross and denying oneself. Christ himself felt an incredibly deep doubt that humanity often feels about God: both in Gethsemane when he prayed “Let this cup pass from me, but not my will but thine” and on the cross itself when he uttered “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”. We often think of these words as Jesus quoting Psalm 22, but we must remember that he said them in Aramaic: an Aramaic translation of the Psalms did not exist in Jesus’ time, but only came into existence until the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Jesus said these words very personally, not quoting the Hebrew Bible, but expressing himself in his own native language. Thus, even the unbeliever, the believer, and the Christ’s crosses are united in a single cross: pick up your cross and follow me, regardless of which cross it is. Even doubt and the suffering of doubt leads to Christ. All paths intersect with Christ’s somehow, even if it’s a mystery to us.
I can only carry my own cross through faith. I look at the example of Abraham in the Genesis and Romans Passage: Paul states that Abraham inherits the world through the righteousness of faith: it is through faith that Abraham was “fully convinced” that God would keep his covenant, and make him a father of many nations even though he and Sarah by all human standards were well past child bearing age. There are a few interesting details in the Genesis passage that parallel one’s walk with Christ. God states: Walk before me. Just as Abraham walked before God, I also walk before God in the incarnation of Christ. I walk before God by carrying my cross in faith that Christ will truly fulfill his promise that my life will be saved if I lose it for him. In a sense, this is Christ’s covenant with us: walk before him, walk with him with the cross, and he will save us. He will not save us from suffering, just as Abraham was not saved from suffering when he had to endure the binding of Isaac and risk the entirety of the promise, but Christ will suffer with us, and through that suffering, we will be raised. I will be raised in salvation, not only in the life to come, but also in this life too: for the “Kingdom is within you”. The Kingdom is within me. Abraham gains the world through his faith; I lose the world (but not God’s Creation; I lose the world that is in the image of unloving, the image of the world that lacks justice and peace) but I gain my own soul: and that soul is the Kingdom, which is to say to the World of love, of peace, of justice. Through the suffering of the cross, we remake Creation through that suffering, in the image of Christ and God. Through the faith of the cross, we reconcile Creation to God, in the image of Jesus and our suffering humanity.
Ben Nucum is a poet, prophet and writer who serves on the St. Ben’s vestry.