Jesus spoke of much trouble that we would experience in this life, and said that if we were to be with Him, we would have to “take up our cross” (Luke 9:23). But He also said that His burden was easy (Matthew 11:28-30). How are both statements true?
Crucifixion was the common method of legal execution at the time of Jesus’ death. If the events of His death and resurrection occurred in our day, I wonder what the method would be. It would probably depend on where it occurred. If it happened in America, it might be electrocution or lethal injection. If it happened in the Middle East, it might be decapitation. So if we were to substitute one of these methods into Jesus’ statements, we might have, “if you want to follow me, shoot up a lethal dose of potassium daily.” Or, “to be with me, you have to cut your head off everyday.” I don’t need to point out the absurdity of this, especially if we followed one of those statements with “my burden is easy.”
So what’s really going on?
The purpose of following Christ is oneness with God that results in liberating love (1 John 4:19, Galatians 5:1). However, because many a preacher has echoed Christ’s call to the cross, and many depictions of Jesus focus on His death, the Christian ethos is perceived as one of suffering. Even apart from things “church,” the world doubles down with ideas like “it ain’t love if it don’t hurt.” On the flip side, where does the retort “get off your cross!” come from? When we perceive that someone is rubbing their suffering in our face to guilt us for their pain, while claiming they love us, we roll our eyes in recognition of false self-martyrdom.
Suffering is experienced in the journey with Christ, and is in fact unavoidable. However, pain and loss are unavoidable for everyone who lives on this earth, regardless of background or beliefs. There are varying degrees of suffering. Some endure more than others. But no one lives this life without being wounded on some level. The question of why is not my aim.
It might appear that the Bible supports and even promotes the notion that suffering is God’s primary aim for “spirituality.” Or that suffering is the point, an end in itself. Certain non-Christian philosophies do in fact promote this idea. The liberating truth, however, is quite different. The Bible states that it is possible to subject oneself to severe suffering, even on someone else’s behalf, yet still not love (1 Corinthians 13).
We must peer deeper into motivation. And this is hairy when we stop and consider what 1 Corinthians 13:3 says. The New American Standard translation puts it like this: “…if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” There is profit involved in real love? Yes, but not of the monetary variety. The profit is the joy that the giver experiences in the receiver’s joy. The profit is the connection. This seems obvious when stated directly. However, so much of our everyday sense of purpose and our piety at religious gatherings is tainted with the notion that sacrificial love cannot involve a sense of pleasure. This is not a Christian idea. It is more in line with asceticism, Kantianism, and Stoicism. In fact, the entire letter of Colossians in the Bible is a critique of asceticism.
It is difficult to be united with a human being in whom you take no joy, let alone with an unseen God. “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). How can one take joy in God whom they cannot see, when they do not understand that to love someone they do see requires joy, not mere duty? We must take pleasure in God in order to understand what He asks for (Revelation 2:2-5).
Am I saying that love is looking out for what brings me pleasure? No. I am saying that I should find pleasure in pleasing someone else. Otherwise, who does it really benefit? The receiver? Well, when people give to me begrudgingly, I do not feel good about myself. So why would I give to someone else begrudgingly in the name of love? And as far as my own gain, if I give resentfully, then by definition I do not believe I should be doing it at all. So it is no good for either the giver or the receiver. Is God pleased with that type of giving? I doubt it. He says false righteousness reeks like a stinky shirt (Isaiah 64:6). If I were to go on referring to all the Scriptures that highlight the nature of authentic love, this blog would be nothing but hyperlinks. So I will let you do your own exploring.
Another way of saying it is like this. When you do something out of obligation, the thought is, “I have to do this.” It’s about you. But if you do something to enjoy the other person’s joy, it is about them, even though paradoxically you get something out of it. This is the miracle of love. And God is Love (1 John 4:8).
How can I find pleasure in giving to someone who hurts me, abuses me, or humiliates me? Didn’t Jesus say to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:43-48)? He did not say we must be in union with people who hurt us, but yes, He did say to love our enemies. I realize that many fall prey to manipulators and abusers as a result of misunderstanding Jesus’ words, and that someone with malevolence could take what I write and twist it to someone else’s loss. However, bear in mind that Jesus’ commands are universal to all. So the one who commits abuse is in true violation, not the person who fears they would be in violation if they escaped it or protected themselves. By the definitions I underscore, an abuser does not take pleasure in someone else’s pleasure, but rather in their suffering. So if I were suffering by an abuser’s hand, I would not be loving my enemy, because I am not taking pleasure in their pleasure, but am suffering…and suffering indeed if I believe that I love them by accepting it.
To accept abuse would be to lie to the abuser regarding the implications of their actions. So this cannot be loving my enemy, because “love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects…” (1 Corinthians 13:6-7).
Regarding motivation, notice the question Jesus asks in the Matthew verses about loving our enemies. “What reward will you get?” This might start to sound like it is now about me and not them, but as we will see, both benefit. Again, this is not a question of accepting abuse. We are talking about how we respond to an enemy once we are free of their abuses. And while true love is about giving out of pleasure, to love an enemy, we do not necessarily need to find some form of pleasure in them. But we must have profit…
So we go back to Jesus…
In the case of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice, being murdered on a wooden cross, what did He do it for? Not to suffer as an end in itself. He did it to share in the pleasure of those He would liberate. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). Notice that it says he scorned the shame. He did not embrace it. That would have been a job for Kant or Zeno the Stoic. What could give Christ so much joy that He would suffer torture and a bloody, suffocating death? Think of how you felt the last time you gave someone something that touched them so strongly they cried. The deeper the fulfillment of the receiver, the deeper the connection and joy of the giver. To know Christ’s joy, we must understand the depth of renewal that He takes pleasure in sharing.
Galatians 6:14 says, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” As the author John Eldredge has pointed out, the Greek word for “world” that the writer of that verse uses is all-encompassing. It includes people’s claims on us, their claims against us, their words, their abuses, their accusations, their failings, their deceptions, their cycles, their bondage…in short, all the dirt and muck in this life. Carrying the cross is a relief. That is how Jesus can say that His burden is easy and we will find rest for our souls in lugging His “weight,” which is a weight of liberating impact against this world, not a ball-and-chain. The cross is a portal to newness of life. It is about the outcome, not the suffering.
Authentic self-sacrifice is not a false-humility complex. Jesus is not passive-aggressive. He did not and does not say, “I will do this for you, but I want you to know how much it hurts me.” It is in truth for the joy set before him. This is the key element of love. Again, 1 Corinthians 13:3 says that I can set myself on fire for a good cause, but go up in smoke with no love in my heart. On the contrary, we take up the cross so that we can be free to enjoy the joy of others, in other words, to love. This is really no death at all, because Christ is the one who physically died. For us, it is a resurrection.
In doing good toward an enemy, there is joy in not being owned by their assault, their abuse, their mockery. And when I bless those who curse me (Romans 12:14), I do so rejoicing that I do not belong to them, but to God. Because I belong to God, my true Father, who adopted me into a home of unending wealth (see the “Prodigal Son” story), I do not fear that my enemy can really take anything from me. So when I through some action bless an enemy, they benefit, but I already have. And…having loved my enemy, I will receive even more from my Father…hence that reward Jesus spoke of.
When we know what real love is, and the miracle of the cross, there is joy that is deeper and more enduring than happiness. According to one online source, the word “happy” originally meant “lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous.” The root “hap” in “happy” is the same as that in “happen” and “happenstance.” In other words, happiness is a result of the shifting sands of circumstance. True joy, on the other hand, is eternal because it results from receiving the work of Christ, which does not change. In a sense though, joy includes happiness, in that it results from the happenstance of Christ’s death and resurrection. These acts of kindness, however, were not random. They were very planned, very targeted, very intentional, and far more consequential.
“Happy is a yuppie word. Nothing in the world can fail me now.” –Switchfoot
Acknowledgments to John Piper for his work in Desiring God and John Eldredge for his work in Moving Mountains and Desire.