THE BURDEN OF THE CROSS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
Florence Chadwick was the first woman ever to swim the difficult and cold 21 mile stretch of water between Catalina Island and the California coast. She failed on her first attempt because of poor vision. After 15 hours and 55 minutes of numbing cold she asked to be taken out of the water. A heavy fog blanketed the area and obscured her vision of the land only one mile away. She said, "If I could have seen the shore, I could have made it." She was defeated because she lost sight of her goal. The fog did not hinder her physically, but psychologically it sapped her of her strength and courage to go on by robbing her of the vision of her goal.
Jesus, the creator of the mind, is naturally the master psychologist. He knows how important vision is to strength, courage, and happiness. He knew that the fog of persecution that would settle down around His disciples would lead to doubt, confusion, and discouragement. He knew that these things blind Christians and rob them of the vision of their goal, and can defeat them, and cause them to lose the happiness of all the other beatitudes. Therefore, in this last beatitude Jesus provides His disciples with a defensive weapon to penetrate the fog of persecution. He promises great reward in heaven to those who will press on in the dark, knowing the light is still shining beyond.
Joseph Conrad in Typhoon has the captain shout to Jakes the mate as great waves pound the ship, "Don't you be put out by anything! Keep her facing it! Facing it, always facing it-that's the way to get through-face it! That's enough for any man. Keep a cool head and face it." This is what Jesus is saying to His disciples. The storm of persecution is coming. If they try and turn back to escape it, they lose all. Their victory and happiness depends on their keeping a cool head and facing it. It is hard to keep cool in the fires of affliction, however. How many of us could face the cruelty of Nero, who put Christian men and women in sacks, covered them with oil, and set them up on poles in his garden; then lit them as living torches to light up his garden at night. Yet this is what Jesus calls His disciples to face. This is the burden of the cross.
Lowell wrote, "By the light of burning heretics Christ's bleeding feet I track. Toiling up new Calvary's ever, with the cross that turns not back." Happiness is pressing on whatever the cost with your eyes upon Him who bore the cross for you. Jesus says, happy are those who take following me seriously enough to bear the burden of the cross. Take up the cross and follow me Jesus said, and His demand is still the same today, and the promise is still the same, that those who suffer with Christ shall also reign with Him.
This beatitude must have been shocking to those who first heard it. They were expecting honor and Jesus offers them hostility. You would naturally think that the person who developed all the qualities of character in these beatitudes would be loved by all. He would be so pleasant and helpful in society that his friendship and presence would be treasured, you would think. One of the unfortunate paradoxes of life, however, is the fact that the best people are often the most despised. Jesus, who alone embodied all of these beatitudes perfectly, was crucified. Excessive goodness provokes opposition because it makes the conscience of evil men burn with shame and guilt. Too much light clashes with darkness, and holiness clashes with evil, and so the Christian is under constant pressure to conform to the world so as not to rock the boat, and stir up opposition. There is a tendency to abuse the former beatitude and be a peacemaker at any price, even the price of compromise and silence. Everyone one of these beatitudes can be perverted.
Some of the other beatitudes have been difficult to grasp, but this last one is the crowning paradox of them all. It is equivalent to Jesus saying His burden is light. How can a burden be light? If it is light it is not a burden is it? Yet Jesus calls us to take up the burden of the cross which is a very costly act, yet one which leads to much joy and happiness. What could be more paradoxical-a crushing burden that lifts you to the skies. Being exceedingly glad when you are hated and despised. Jesus knew this was a hard statement to believe and understand. That is why He states it twice. It is so incredible. All other beatitudes are in one verse each, but this one takes three verses to state. It is both the hardest to grasp, and the one offering the fullest reward for time and eternity.
It is hard to grasp because it contradicts our feelings and thinking. We feel that as Christians in America we are more blessed than any Christians ever, because we live in a tolerant society where we are free to worship as we please without penalty or interference. We feel so sorry for those Christians in Russia and China who have to suffer so severely for their faith, and we pray for them to be able to have the blessings we have. Yet, this beatitude would lead to us to believe they are the blessed ones. They are the gloriously happy Christians, and it is we who have the crumbs of blessedness. This is very hard to believe, and certainly there must be some mistake we feel.
Yet if we look at the other side of the coin that Luke gives us, it points to the same conclusion. In Luke 6:26 Jesus says, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets." If everyone like us and praises us as such wonderful people, it may be because we never disturbed them, but only tickle their ears and make them feel comfortable in their sins, like the false prophets. But if we are attacked and slandered, we show ourselves loyal to Christ. Yet, Paul says we are to live peaceably with all men as much as lies within us.
Let's be honest and admit that this is confusing. Sometimes I think we feel we would be better off if Jesus had never explained to us how to be happy. We feel like the students who teacher said she was going to give them an epitome of the life of Paul. She said, "You may not know what an epitome is. It is in its signification synonymous with synopsis." The explanation is harder to grasp than the original difficulty. So happiness is hard to understand, and how to gain it is a problem, but after Jesus explains how to do it, it seems harder to grasp than ever. This is because some truths are not a matter of logic, but of life. You cannot analyze this beatitude and demonstrate the truth of it on paper. It can only be proven in life and experience. It calls for the courage to step out and take a risk for Christ. As long as we play it safe and sit in silence so we don't rock the boat, we can never know the joy of bearing the burden of the cross. We must speak out against the sin and injustice in our society. We need to renounce sin in ourselves, and denounce it in others, and take the consequences.
A football referee was once asked about a certain player in the game he had refereed. "I can only say this, I never have to pull him out from the bottom of a scrimmage. I often have found him on top of a pile of players, where he had jumped after the man with the ball had been stopped by another player. He never was the first to make the tackle." So many of us are like this in the game of life. We jump on the band wagon if someone else takes a stand and bears the burden of the impact, but we are never the first to make the tackle. The result is we miss much of the joy, excitement, and adventure of bearing the cross. Lest we jump to the false conclusion that we are to find happiness in going out and starting trouble, let us look at two important points of this beatitude. First-
I. THE REQUIREMENT.
In both verse 9 and 10 Jesus qualifies His statement by saying that persecution must be for righteousness sake, and for His sake, and the evil slander must be false. In other words, any suffering that you must endure because you are a trouble maker, or because you rub people the wrong way by your obnoxious attitude and actions, does not increase your happiness. The people of God through the centuries suffered much opposition and persecution, not because of their righteousness, but because of their lack of it. Sometimes persecution is the judgment of God on His people for their sin and indifference.
It is false to assume that persecution is a blessing in itself, or proof of one's righteousness. Many of the false cults faced the same persecution in Rome, as did the Christians. Jesus is saying that only those who meet the requirement can reap the benefits of this beatitude. The suffering must be because the persecutor hates the righteousness of the persecuted, and is opposed to Jesus Christ. The accusation must be false. For example, in the early church Christians were charged with cannibalism because of the words said at communion about eating of the body and drinking the blood of Christ. They were charged with immorality because they called their meal together a love feast. This was interpreted to mean a sex orgy, and Christians were linked with the immoral cults. Their practice of giving a kiss of peace did not help clarify things at all, and so all manner of evil was spoken against them, but falsely in ignorance, or malicious hatred, and, therefore, they were blessed.
Peter warns Christians not to suffer as busybodies or thieves etc. The Christian has to be very narrow in what he calls persecution for the sake of Christ. So much of the opposition Christians face is because of their zeal for some non-essential idea, or man made system of theology. They often have to endure much pain and abuse from other Christians, as well as from the world. The tragedy of it is that it is all in vain, and does not qualify them for the reward that Jesus speaks of here. One is not suffering for Christ because he stands for a position which many others in the body of Christ oppose. Much suffering and persecution is for the sake of self and pride, not for the sake of Christ. Someone said,
He who crowns himself is not the more
Royal, or he who mars himself with stripes
The more partaker of the cross of Christ.
The blessedness that comes to the persecuted is a very specialized suffering. We need to examine ourselves if we do suffer, and make sure it is because of righteousness; that is-because we are Christlike. Because the requirement is so narrow, there are few who reach the heights of happiness connected with this beatitude. Narrow is the way and few there be who find it. Next we see-
II. THE RESPONSE.
Jesus does not say if you are persecuted, reviled, and slandered, you should grin and bear it. That is what we call common sense, but Jesus does not give us any of the common sense, but he gives us the very uncommon advice to rejoice and be glad. Certainly Jesus did not expect Christians to respond to persecution like mad men. But then, who but a mad man can rejoice and be glad when he is hated and opposed.
This is contrary to our very nature. We love to be loved, approved, and accepted. Nothing hurts worse than to be falsely slandered, and to be rejected for our very goodness. Yet Jesus says this is to be our response. Is it possible? We don't have to speculate. History is full of testimonies concerning the joy of bearing the burden of the cross.
In Acts 5:41 we read that after Peter and John were beaten: "Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name." Paul and Silas sang songs at midnight while in prison. Thousands of Christians have gone to their death singing praises to God. The records are full of men and women experiencing the paradox of joy in suffering. John Chrysostom, the great preacher in the early church, said, "Were any to ask whether he should place me on high with the angels, or with St. Paul in his bonds? I would choose the prison....I count not St. Paul so happy because he was caught up into paradise, as because he was cast into the dungeon."
Listen to the testimony of a 20th century Paul of India-Sadhu Sundar Singh. He was a man who suffered constantly for Christ, and yet had the happiest life conceivable. He lived in a miracle world, because the Christ of miracles was ever present with him in power. He writes of his going into forbidden territory to preach. "I often remember that day when, for preaching the Gospel in Tibet, I was thrown into a deep well. For three days I was in that well, without food or water. The door was locked and it was quite dark. There was nothing but dead bodies and bones in that well. It was like hell. There I was tempted, 'Is your Christ going to save you, now you have been put in this prison?' But I remember a wonderful peace and joy came to me in those hours of persecution, when my arm was broken, and there was such a bad smell. That hell seemed heaven. I felt the presence of the Living Christ." He goes on to say his arm was healed by a touch, and the door was opened and he escaped. He spent his life bearing the cross and said, "I can say this much from my personal experience, that the cross lifts those who lift it."
To grasp the happiness that can be ours in bearing the cross, we must see Jesus as a double Savior. He saved us from our sins on the cross, but He will also save us from the consequences of sin in the future, and often in the present as well. We need to look back to the cross and His salvation there to gain the courage we need to bear the cross, but we need to look ahead to the victory and reward of the future to sustain us when the going gets tough. There have been some great cases of double salvation in history. Let me share with you one of the most amazing.
A wealthy family in England went for a holiday in the country, and went for a swim in a pool. One of the boys stayed behind when the others left. He got into serious trouble and began to drown. Fortunately the son of the gardener heard the cries for help and came to the rescue. He jumped in and pulled the boy to safety. The parents were so grateful they asked the gardener what they could do for the youthful hero. He explained that his son wanted to go to college to become a doctor. The wealthy family gladly paid his way, and that boy went on to become the famous Dr. Fleming who developed penicillin. When Winston Churchill was stricken with pneumonia, Dr. Fleming was called to treat him, and by means of penicillin was able to save his life again. What do I mean by again? Churchill was the boy that Fleming pulled from the water. He saved him as a boy, and he saved him again as a man.
Jesus is also a dual-Savior. The salvation He purchased for us on the cross does not save us from life's trials and persecution. Often Christians must suffer just because they trust in the cross and the Christ of the cross. This is the burden of the cross, but Jesus will save us from this also, and the reward will be so great for those who are faithful under the burden of the cross. Happiness in not found in what you have, but in what you hope for. It is the expectation of receiving God's best that gives life meaning when circumstances are far from happy. Being loyal to Christ when it does not pay is the real test. Many of us have never yet been put to this test. We need to ask ourselves honestly: Is Christ so precious to me I would stand loyal against an opposing society?
Samuel Shoemaker, touring Westminister Abbey years ago, heard another tourist say to the guide, "This place thrills me." The old guard said, "Yes madam, but you can't thrill for 30 years." We can sympathize with the guard, for we know it is true that the thrill of life's wonders do wear thin. However, Dr. Shoemaker met another guide on his trip in one of the great Cathedrals. He stood in awe at the splendor of the sun's rays coming through the marvelous stained glass windows, and he knew it was possible to keep the thrills of life alive. You must keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, and your mind filled with the promise of his reward, however, to do so. Take your eyes off Him, and, like Peter, you begin to sink in the stormy seas of life's troubles. If you expect to stay on top and be happy you must keep your eye on Him in all circumstances.
William H. Sheldon said, "Happiness is essentially a state of going somewhere, wholeheartedly, one-directionally, without regret or reservation." How many times have you said, "I'll be happy if only I had more of this, or lived there, or had that job, or better health, etc." All of us can think of changes for the better that would make us happy, but who would ever think of saying, "I would be happier if I could suffer this, be hated for that, reviled and despised for my faith." Anyone talking that way would be quickly labeled sick, and they would be shunned rather that persecuted. Obviously Jesus is not picturing the ideal life here. He is simply facing the reality He knows will be a part of history, and He is offering His followers a special bonus if they will bear the burden of the cross, no matter how heavy it gets. We are not to look for persecution, or promote it, but rather, avoid it, but if it comes we are to be ready to pay the price.
We can't look at the many testimonies of others, but the ones we have looked at are sufficient to show that this paradoxical beatitude can be realized in life, and the cross can be borne in joy. It is a burden that is light, as Jesus said. As we remember again the cross Jesus bore for our sin, let us renew our commitment to Him, and pray for the courage to stand and speak out for Him whatever the cost. Let us pray for the courage to take up the burden of the cross.