“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” – Matthew 16:24 ESV
The pilgrimage that most imagine when they think about the journey of the spiritual life is the steep and glorious trek up the mountain. We often picture our soul beginning in a kind of valley of darkness and isolation from God, obstructed by sin and moral confusion. But then, after God removes the scales from our eyes, we embark on a long ascent up the mountainside that is filled with holy encounters and sanctifying lessons. Finally, we dream of the day when we reach the peak and our spiritual vision becomes clear and we come to total peace.
There is some warrant for this particular image of the spiritual pilgrimage. There are metaphors and images in scripture that lend us to believe that any spiritual journey moves upward towards the mountaintop. For example, Isaiah 2:2 says, “In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it.” More than this, God Himself meets with individuals on hills and mountains throughout Scripture. From God meeting Moses on Mt. Sinai to Elijah climbing Mt. Carmel to hear God’s whisper in the Old Testament and from Peter, James, and John witnessing the glory of the transfiguration on a mountainside to Jesus Himself retreating to the Mount of Olives to commune with his Father in prayer in the New Testament , a clear pattern of God encountering his people in high places emerges.
This image of the spiritual life also makes sense on an intuitive level. As we mature in our faith, we move from slavery to freedom, from blindness to sight, from certain death to abundant life. There seems to be movement from the lesser to the greater, the lower to the higher.
But what of our experience? Does this image of a spiritual climb to the mountaintop hold up when the Christian life is lived out?
It seems to me that in the daily rounds of life the journey of the spirit is not one of ascent, but descent. The Christian journey is fundamentally constituted by a kind of “downward mobility” into a life of service and sacrifice. Freedom in the spiritual life is not found in doing all we can to climb to the top, but in crawling through the trenches of humility. Scripture teaches us this principle, too. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out what the Christian life ought to look like; the lowly traits of meekness, humility, persecution, and hunger are all markers of those who have reached spiritual heights, which is why Jesus calls them “blessed” (Matthew 5:1-11). So does this mean to go up one must go down? Should we live our lives in the valley in order to reach the peaks?
We have an apparent contradiction at the crossroads of our spiritual pilgrimage; namely that to be truly “blessed,” to reach the heights where Christ reigns and offers life and love, we must descend into the depths of self-forgetfulness and denial. How is this the case? How can we find ourselves by forgetting ourselves? How is it better that we move from being free to follow our every desire to becoming a “slave to Christ?” How can burden be a means toward freedom? The answer to this riddle is the cross.
The cross of Christ is the sweetest burden that I ever bore; it is such a burden as wings are to a bird, or sails to a ship, to carry me forward to my harbor.”
The cross of Jesus Christ is both the sure foundation and the animating force of the Christian life. The cross represents the real, historical, and cosmic event where the way of death now becomes the way of life. In this way, the Cross is a model for us, a kind of ultimate signpost that shows us the way towards the divine life. This signpost does not point us in the direction that we might think, but it always leads us the right destination.
I want to be clear here: The path through the valley does not end in the valley. We as followers of Christ should not seek out meekness for the sake of meekness, trials for the sake of trials, lowliness for the sake of lowliness. If we view these things as ends in and of themselves we end up with a kind of self-serving asceticism where our actions, however sacrificial, are built on our pride masquerading as humility. Instead, however, we are called to follow Christ and the path that he walked was one marked by pure self-sacrificial love for God and others. Paul says in Romans 8:17 that “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (ESV). In other words, if our proper spiritual destination is Christ Himself, if we are truly “heirs with Christ,” then our own self-sacrifice can only lead us to Jesus if it participates in Jesus.
C.S. Lewis, in his famous sermon The Weight of Glory, says that “the cross comes before the crown…a cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside.” Discipleship must take on the shape of the Cross, it must have a “cruciform” character, because this is the way Christ leads us by His example as Calvary. Fortunately, it does not end at the Cross; instead, just like the tomb opened up and Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, so we too are promised ascent towards glory and freedom at the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, ascent towards the One who called us down the path in the first place.
But there is another strange thing that happens when we descend into the valley. Not only is it the way towards freedom, but we actually begin to experience freedom while we are there. Why in a place marked by sacrifice, denial, and humility do we actually feel more alive and more like who we were created to be? The answer again can be found in the cross of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 ESV), he isn’t saying that no yoke or burden exists. No, not at all. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The yoke and burden of Christ seems that it would be impossible to bear: betrayed by those closest to him, the victim of an unjust sentencing, brutally tortured and spit on by those he came to save, and nailed naked to a cross in front of friends, family, and strangers — this hardly sounds like an “easy” yoke or a “light” burden. So what is Jesus saying? He is claiming that in him and his power, all suffering has been transformed into new life. This is what Paul had in mind when he writes “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55 ESV). It’s not that death no longer exists–it does. It’s that death takes on a completely new meaning when it is found in the Son of God and Man, the only one able to give meaning where there is suffering, to provide life where there is none.
So the valley not only leads towards freedom and glory but it also provides it. When we pick up the “yoke” of Christ and place it around our necks, it isn’t easy because it is without trials and demands; no, it is easy because Christ Himself, through the power of his Holy Spirit, gives us the vision, the strength, the will, and the joy to carry it forward.
In my own spiritual journey, I have always struggled with ambition. Ambition, pride, and recognition are some of the obstacles that keep me from trekking down through the valley, which I know is the way towards Christ. I want to reach the mountain peaks, but not without others recognizing my climb.
Then God gave me a son. About a week before Eli was born, I wrote on a whiteboard next to my bathroom mirror: “Do you desire the humility of the cross more than the glory of man?” I wanted to desire the humility of the cross more, but I was afraid I couldn’t act on this desire on my own. When Eli came, I realized his presence in my life helped me to solve this dilemma. I have no choice but to change his dirty diapers every two hours, comfort him when he cries, heat up meals for my tired, nursing wife, and make late night pharmacy runs for medicine. Ambition is not a temptation with a newborn child. I feel no need to be impressive around him, just present. I don’t need him to recognize my talent, just my love.
God giving me Eli is a means of grace. God is nudging me along the path; I am being led down into the valley where my Guide is teaching me that life emerges from forgetting myself and serving others. For me, Eli’s presence in my life helps me to forget myself. How can I think about my future calling when I know that right now I’m called to be a father? Of course, Eli is more than a “means of grace” in my life. He is first and foremost a precious child made in God’s image who will, God willing, embark on his own spiritual pilgrimage one day.
This season of life reminded me that God is more invested in our spiritual journeys than we are. He will give you roles and responsibilities, He will place people in your life, He will allow you to walk through difficult seasons in order to give you opportunities to be Christ-like. He wants us to carry His burden and take on His yoke because when we do, He is there in a special way with us. It is impossible to be like Christ when we always have ourselves first in our minds and in our hearts. In thinking that we can achieve the glory of Christ without the Cross of Christ, we complicate our pilgrimage and risk losing our way altogether. So God, in His deep desire for us to reach the end of our spiritual pilgrimage, gifts us with steps along the path; steps of humility, self-denial, and sacrifice.
Our spiritual journeys must always take on a cruciform character. We must “take up our cross” and carry them into the depths of the valley of humble service because it is in this valley where God strips us of all that weighs us down and we emerge unburdened, ready to climb the peaks. In the valley, we are given responsibilities, roles, and opportunities to serve that must be fulfilled in faithfulness now, not later. This gives us the freedom and cultivates the character necessary to move us towards Christ because it is Christ’s character that we are becoming.
For me, at this moment in my life, this was my son. For others, it could be something that at first seems like a set-back. Maybe a neighbor moves in across the street that needs to feel welcomed. Or maybe there is an opportunity to volunteer at a local shelter. Or maybe your spouse needs you to spend more time helping around the house. Or maybe a difficult co-worker needs a friend to make them less lonely. Whatever it is, Christ is there. He is calling us down this path because he has already walked it and knows that it is the way towards his love, freedom, and glory. That is the promise of the Cross.
Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor