Bearing the Wrong Cross

Consider four imaginary scenarios involving patience:

  • Anne gently answers the same questions over and over while caring for her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s.
  • Brian is chronically late to work because his carpool buddy, Zack, is never ready when Brian arrives to pick him up. Zack doesn’t know the meaning of the word “hurry.” He’ll spend ten minutes finishing his breakfast while Brian nervously glances at his watch. Brain wants to tell Zack that his tardiness is a problem, but the guy is a non-stop talker, which makes it hard to find an opening to bring up the subject.
  • Chris assumes extra duties while one of his coworkers is out sick. The extra work adds stress to his days and cuts into his evenings, but he’s glad to help. He’s proud to be part of a team that pulls together to get things done.
  • Diane’s boss often hands her last-minute emergency projects at the very end of the day. Diane resents the long evenings of unpaid overtime, but she wants to please the boss, so she always stays until the work is done. It’s all she can do to keep her mouth shut when she overhears the boss taking credit for the results.

Which of these people are practicing generosity and patience? Which are squandering their god-given time and energy? It’s easy to think we know the answers, but real life is seldom black and white. The boundaries can be especially blurry for Christians who have been taught to “bear one another’s burdens” and “go the extra mile.”

My grandmother had a special label for situations requiring patience. “I guess that must be her cross to bear,” she would say, when a friend was struggling with a troubled relationship. Hearing this phrase as a child, I surmised that God puts difficult people into our lives to teach us not to be selfish. After all, why should we expect to always have our own way?  “Bearing your cross” seemed to mean silent acceptance.

From an adult perspective, I now understand that acceptance is not always a virtue. Pretending not to mind mistreatment may keep the peace temporarily, but it’s a poor foundation for future interactions.

Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Jesus led the way in selfless service—not in passive surrender to abuse or manipulation.  The Bible makes it clear that Jesus chose his fate. Far from being anyone’s pawn, Jesus pursued his destiny unswervingly. He repelled all attempts to hijack his mission, whether by well-meaning friends, scheming enemies or worried family members. (See Mark 3:20-35, Mark 8:31-33,  Luke 13: 31-32.) Even while handing over his body for execution, Jesus spoke against the injustice being perpetrated upon him. (John 18:22-23)

“Bearing one’s cross” evidently does not mean silent acceptance of mistreatment, but what does it mean? The apostle Paul compared it to running a race:

…let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2, New Revised Standard Version.)

Jesus’ self-sacrifice was a quest for joy. The prize he sought was fellowship with God. He didn’t blindly submit to every abuse he encountered, but he “disregarded the shame” of abuse that must be endured for a higher purpose. We can use this standard when assessing the situations we encounter in our own daily lives. When someone makes an unreasonable demand, we shouldn’t let our egos haughtily put them in their place. But if submitting to their demand would sidetrack us from our own mission, then we must say, “no.”