“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)
Are you grateful for your cross? Do you take it up with joy and gratitude? Do you appreciate it as a gift from God in your life?
Maybe these seem like unusual, even unreasonable, questions. Imagine, then, this question in light of the thief on the cross. He was a rebel living his life his own way. He was a vile rebel at that. The message of Jesus hadn’t moved him one inch. In fact, one Gospel writer tells us that he was well aware of the claims of Christ and even mocked him for them initially (Matt. 27:44). This thief was so antagonistic to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and the King of Israel that in the midst of his own pain he could muster the energy to revile Christ for that “absurd” claim.
But as he suffered there beside the Holy One of God, watching His unswerving integrity, watching His undiminished reliance on his Heavenly Father, listening to His words of selfless love to His few followers that were left…his heart was subdued by grace.
And God used this agonizing time of suffering to show him the reality of what Christ was doing for him on that cross. He came to realize that he was seeing the love of God in a form that he never could have imagined. How ironic that here, at the lowest point of his own misery, God had opened his eyes to the heights of mercy. Humanly speaking, his own crucifixion had become his pathway to Christ. He never understood or embraced the mesage of Christ until he had been exposed to it in this way. This crimminal could be thankful that his crucifixion was not postponed even a day, because it was through the means of his unspeakable suffering that he came face to face with the God of his salvation. Truly the thief on the cross could say “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your ways.” (Ps. 119:71).
The cross involves suffering. Good suffering. I know that sounds crazy. It sounded crazy to the mockers around the cross as well. But Jesus was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). There is a way in which what Jesus did on the cross was utterly unlike what we must do. He died for us. And yet, there is a way in which what Jesus did on the cross was very similar to what we must do. We must die with him. What was good for Jesus is also good for us. And this is part of what Christians must keep in mind when we daily take up our cross and follow Christ. We also, as sons and daughters of God, can say with the Psalmist: “It was good for me that I was afflicted that I might learn your ways.”