More than loss of life is implied in Christ’s statement that a follower must “deny himself and take up his cross,” just as more than death is implied in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous statement that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Indeed, there are many “deaths” involved in following Christ, however obscured they may be in today’s cushy forms of Christianity. The following are five likely losses that come with truly embracing the cross of Christ.
1. The Loss of Being Your Own Boss
There is nothing more American than being your own boss: working up the ladder, taking charge of your life and property. It’s one of the reasons why rags-to-riches gurus like Oprah or unapologetically brash titans of industry like Donald Trump prove so captivating. We are a DIY nation, self-made, unregulated, FREEDOM fries! Our mantras are “be who you want to be,” “follow your dreams,” and “find yourself.” We embrace what sociologist Robert Bellah termed “expressive individualism,” a no-constraints individualism bound only by the frontiers of feeling and imagination. If you can dream it you can be it.
But these values rub up against the gospel on the point of self-sovereignty. For as much as we want to have complete control over our lives, following Jesus requires a surrender of will. Jesus is Lord and I am not. Adam and Eve couldn’t accept God’s law as final or binding. And thus sin was born on earth.
Following Jesus means putting aside our own desire to be God and allowing him to reign supreme in us and for us. As John Stott says, “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for Man.” Jesus paid it all on the cross. All we have to do is repent and relinquish our autonomy, accepting that union with Christ is our only hope.
Yet this is uncomfortable in our self-reliant culture. We don’t want grace that requires us to relinquish our sovereignty. We’re more comfortable with what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace”:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Cheap grace is grace we accept insofar as it doesn’t challenge our autonomy. It is grace we withdraw on our own terms, at our own convenience. But the cross kills the me-centric bent of iChristianity, which bends the Bible to support one’s views and treats God as little more than a cosmic Siri to bless and comfort on demand. We need to resist the idolatry of autonomy and the folly of personal-preference Christianity.
2. The Loss of Consumer Religion
Christianity is not about “your best life now.” It’s not about self-promotion or ambitions to greatness. It’s about following Christ’s example, who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Christianity is about sacrifice rather than personal gain and service rather than power. This has been a bitter pill to swallow for disciples of Christ since the earliest days, when James and John were ambitious for status and power (“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they asked Jesus in Mark 10:37). The Zebedee sons were doubtless crushed to learn that the ethos of Christ’s kingdom was not glory and prestige, but washing one another’s feet (John 13:14). For “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43–44).
These words are countercultural and desperately needed in today’s church, where many approach Christianity with a “what can I get out of it” consumer posture. Maybe it’s the family friendly community a church offers for the parents of small children. Maybe it’s the single twentysomething seeking an eligible churchgoing spouse, the aspiring musician seeking audience applause, or a pastor seeking fame and fortune in the Christian book market and conference circuit. A willingness to give up these wish list items for the sake of Christ is part of the cost of discipleship. This means dropping our dream church demands and simply committing to a congregational family, even if it doesn’t suit us perfectly.
The perfect-fit-for-me impulse of consumerism almost always fails us. When we marry someone on the basis of how well they match up with our list of desired qualities, what happens when they (or we) inevitably change? There is neither a perfect-for-me person nor a perfect-for-me church. In relationships and in faith, it’s about commitment rather than consumerism; finding ways to serve rather than desiring to be served; filling a need rather than finding a niche. This is an uncomfortable but crucial cost of following Christ.
3. The Loss of Pride
One of the most offensive things about the cross of Christ has always been its leveling aspect, giving “insider” access to prostitutes, tax collectors, and the pariahs of society just as much as to religious and cultural elites; Gentiles just as much as to Jews. The wretched thief on the cross didn’t and couldn’t do anything “good” to save himself, but Jesus still welcomed him into his kingdom.
This is offensive. There’s a gut-wrenching scene in the Korean film Secret Sunshine that captures the scandal of grace better than any lm I’ve ever seen. The scene takes place in a prison, as protagonist Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) goes to visit her son’s murderer in prison. Shin-ae, a new convert to Christianity, wants to forgive him. Her friends tell her she doesn’t have to see him face-to-face in order to forgive him. But she insists. She wants to see him in person and (truth be told) wants to witness the look on his face when she offers him the gift of forgiveness.
And yet when she sits down to confront the prisoner on the other side of the glass from her, Shin-ae nds him unexpectedly happy, peaceful, even joyful. “You look better than I expected,” she tells him before explaining that the peace, love, and “new life” she’d found in God had prompted her to forgive him. She’s “so happy to feel God’s love and grace” that she wanted to spread his love by coming to visit him. But then the shocker: the prisoner, the killer of her son, has also come to faith in Christ.
“Since I came here, I have accepted God in my heart. The Lord has reached out to this sinner,” he says.
“Is that so?” replies Shin-ae, crestfallen and shaken. “It’s good you have found God,” she says, very tentatively.
The convicted murderer continues: “Yes, I am so grateful. God reached out to a sinner like me. He made me kneel to repent my sins. And God has absolved me of them.”
And this is where Shin-ae begins to wilt.
“God . . . has forgiven your sins?” she mutters in disbelief. “Yes,” he replies. “And I have found inner peace. . . . My repentance and absolution have brought me peace. Now I start and end each day with prayer. I always pray for you, Ms. Lee. I’ll pray for you until I die.”
This hits Shin-ae hard. When she leaves the prison she collapses, overcome by the horror of an idea she had not considered: that God could beat her to the punch in forgiving her son’s killer, offering him the only real absolving he needed. Unfortunately, Shin-ae can’t accept this seeming injustice. How can a law-abiding, good citizen like her and a convicted child-killer be on the same level in terms of God’s grace? She can’t take that, and abandons God because of it.
The sufficiency and availability of God’s grace to all people is scandalous, and for many, a pill too hard to swallow. We’re prideful creatures. We want to believe that “right” living warrants us better standing in God’s eyes than, say, terrorists and rapists and pedophiles. We want God to reward us for being good and punish others for being bad. Our pride makes it hard for us to stomach the notion that earning or deserving are not words that exist in God’s vocabulary of grace.
The Jewish religious establishment in Jesus’s day was utterly offended by this idea, as are many today who trip on the “grace alone” gospel because they want to believe their efforts at righteousness count for their salvation. This is why Paul describes the cross as a “stumbling block” (1 Cor. 1:23) and an “offense” (Gal. 5:11). No rule keeping, no good deeds, no circumcision or baptism or any other -ism can save us. Only Christ can.
4. The Loss of Power, Coolness, and Cultural Respectability
Closely related to the loss of pride but deserving of its own mention is the loss of power, coolness, and cultural respectability that comes with true discipleship of Christ. For all the reasons already mentioned in this chapter and for many more to come in this book, Christianity calls people to ways of living that are decidedly uncool, politically incorrect, and just plain weird. Unfortunately many pastors and Christian leaders find this hard to accept; they want to be culturally respectable and perfectly at home in the hallways of power and celebrity. They will compromise convictions in order to keep those White House invitations coming. They want to be relevant players in the Zeitgeist, widely admired and well-liked, front row at fashion week right next to Kanye and Kim. Don’t we all!
But faithfulness to the true gospel calls us to value weakness over power and reverence over relevance. “Cool” and “Christianity” are diametrically opposed on all sorts of fronts. Cool is about self-promotion and narcissism while Christianity is about selflessness and altruism. Cool is transient and obsessed with the “now”; Christianity is transcendent, mindful of eternity. Cool is elitist while Christianity is humble. Cool is cynical while Christianity is hopeful. Cool is about being the first to discover a new trend; Christianity says the last shall be first (Matt. 20:16).
Whether we like it or not, Christianity is very strange and, in the eyes of polite society, only getting stranger. As Russell Moore has pointed out, the growing marginalization of true Christianity will likely force the church to more clearly grasp and articulate the otherness of the gospel: “The church has an opportunity now to reclaim our witness, as those who confess that we are ‘strangers and exiles on earth’ (Heb. 11:13). That strangeness starts in what is the most important thing that differentiates us from the rest of the world: the gospel.”
Indeed, the most important and ultimately most offensive aspect of Christianity will continue to be the gospel of the old rugged cross. As long as it is front and center in pulpits, Christians will always be uncool. John Stott puts it bluntly in The Cross of Christ:
Either we preach that human beings are rebels against God, under his just judgment and (if left to themselves) lost, and that Christ crucified who bore their sin and curse is the only available Savior. Or we emphasize human potential and human ability, with Christ brought in only to boost them, and with no necessity for the cross except to exhibit God’s love and so inspire us to greater endeavor. The former is the way to be faithful, the latter the way to be popular. It is not possible to be faithful and popular simultaneously.
5. The Loss of Health, Wealth, and Comfort
In addition to being a blow to our autonomy, individualism, pride, and cultural respectability, following after Jesus Christ often pulls us into material discomfort.
The cost of following Jesus requires an open-handedness with money and earthly possessions, for example (Matt. 6:19–21; Luke 12:33–34), a point that proves especially challenging to the wealthy (Mark 10:17–31). Discipleship might also pull us away from any sense of home or comfortable places to lay our heads at night (Luke 9:57–58). Jesus also makes it clear to his disciples that they may have to put him above family. Indeed, some of the things Jesus says about family are quite uncomfortable (e.g., Matt. 10:34–39; Luke 8:19–21; 11:27–28), especially for cultures, like ancient Judaism, where family is everything. N. T. Wright observes in Jesus and the Victory of God:
Family and property, then, were not for the ancient Jew simply what they are to the modern western world. Both carried religious and cultural significance far beyond personal, let alone ‘individual,’ identity and security. Both functioned symbolically within the total Jewish worldview. To both, Jesus leveled a direct challenge: those who followed him, who were loyal to his kingdom-agenda, would have to be prepared to renounce them, god-given though they were.
As if the loss of wealth, property, and family are not enough, the loss of health and life itself are also possible costs of discipleship. Physical suffering, persecution, and martyrdom have been and continue to be fixtures of the Christian experience. From Paul’s flogging in Philippi (among many other sufferings: 2 Cor. 11:16–33) to Stephen’s stoning, Polycarp’s burning at the stake to Jim Elliot’s death by spear in Ecuador, the crucified Christians in Syria, and the beheaded believers in Libya, the list of Christian martyrs is long and bloody. As one contemporary writer has put it:
There is no getting around the fact that a Christian community is one that suffers. The pioneer of our faith suffered, the main symbol of our tradition is one of agony and death, and it’s no use trying to remove the cruciform marks from the hands and feet of the church. The mark of the gospel is not health and wealth, but nails and blood.
But the crazy thing about Christianity is that suffering and persecution are framed not in terms of fear but ourishing. For in suffering “we directly experience the gospel, because the gospel is about suffering giving way to death and beyond death to the victory of resurrection.” Suffering is perhaps the most literally “uncomfortable” thing about following Jesus that nevertheless grows us, strengthening our bonds as people that suffer together, deepening our devotion to and identification with Christ. The suffering of Jesus on the cross is something we can understand, something we can return to in our own moments of pain and hopelessness. For poet Christian Wiman, the suffering of the cross is a key to his faith:
I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? . . . The point is that he felt human destitution to its absolute degree; the point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.
To be a Christian is to count the cost and accept all loss in exchange for the gain of new life in Christ. As Paul wrote from prison in his letter to the Philippians:
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Phil. 3:7–9)
Every taking-up-our-cross loss that we endure is worth it. For Christ and for us in him, weakness, suffering, and loss are not the end of the story. They lead to victory, resurrection, and eternal gain. The beautiful hymn of Philippians 2:5–11 captures it well. The first half is a descent: Christ leaves his heavenly home, forgoing his “equality with God,” emptying himself and reducing himself to the form of a servant by becoming human. Then further down: he is obedient to the point of death. And further down still: “even death on a cross” (v. 8). At this lowest point the passage pivots to ascent: God exalts Christ and gives him the name above all names. Then further up: every knee worships him in heaven and earth. Further up still: “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (v. 11).
This is the trajectory of the Christian life. Like Christ, we descend to ascend. We humble ourselves, shunning our status, accepting the depths of our depravity. And then we are exalted with Christ. After suffering, glory. After the cross, resurrection. Every loss is worth the gain of Christ. As C. S. Lewis famously writes at the conclusion of Mere Christianity:
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it . . . Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.
Far from a symbol of shame, the cross is a symbol of victory for those who believe. We are victorious in Jesus (1 Cor. 15:57), more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37), led by Christ in triumphal procession (2 Cor. 2:14). The cross is victory over sin and deliverance from darkness (Col. 1:13); it destroys “the one who has the power of death” (Heb. 2:14); it triumphs over and shames the rulers and authorities of this world (Col. 2:15); it sets men free from the law of sin and death (Rom. 8:2).
On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished,” and it was. Uncomfortable, ugly, bloody, rugged, and shameful the cross may be. But it is sufficient. It is everything.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book, Uncomfortable: The Awkward and Essential Challenge of Christian Community (Crossway, September 2017).