Jesus' rebuke was very strong. "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things (Matthew 16:21-23).
Then Jesus went on to add : "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24). But why on earth would Jesus recommend such a fate for us?
To answer that we need to distinguish three different senses in which ordinary people take up a cross, and endure the pain voluntarily, and even with joy. There is THE CROSS OF CHALLENGE, THE CROSS OF LOVING, and THE CROSS OF A GREAT CAUSE. Let's try to unpack those one by one.
THE CROSS OF CHALLENGE - I can't identify with the joy of people who choose the cross of climbing a mountain dangling from a rope over a deep precipice in freezing rain. Once you begin the climb up Mount Everest, you are nailed to that cross unless you want to be humiliated. I like sailing a small boat on a lake, but the cross and pain of sailing alone in fifty foot waves across the Atlantic has no appeal. But the plain fact is that some people enjoy the cross of very great challenges.
The cross of challenge has to be voluntary. If you choose the cross of a three week canoe trip, you don't moan and groan about how tough it is. You would certainly complain if it was a job you were forced to do, even if you were paid to do it.
THE CROSS OF LOVE - What makes a mother endure the cross of nine months of pregnancy, labor, wakeful nights, changing diapers, and all the worries of caring for a baby? If that cross is viewed as forced on her against her will, she hates it. But if she loves having a child, the cost of child rearing becomes a joy. Those who love also face the cost of being hurt. Children hurt their parents, parents hurt their children, friends and lovers hurt each other, and we can be badly hurt if we are involved in a church congregation. If we prefer we can pull back and avoid the cross of loving. Or we absorb the hurt, and keep loving, whatever the costs.
THE CROSS OF A GREAT CAUSE - Many have died for their country to gain freedom for their brothers and sisters. Often people have been willing to take up the cross of a bad cause. But as Christians our cause is the Kingdom of Heaven. It is supremely worth our sacrifice. As Paul said "I have been crucified with the Messiah, and it is no longer I who live, but it is the Messiah who lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:19-20).
Once we begin to see cross bearing in the light of what Jesus did, and what we voluntarily want to do for him, the horror of crucifixion turns to joy. We decide that it is OK to be crucified in our loving and serving. And the cross is never the end of the story. If our cause is the Kingdom of God, and we voluntarily accept the cost of loving, and we look to the King who suffered for us, cross bearing is always followed by resurrection.
And Jesus added. "Those who want to save their life will lose it, and
those who lose their life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25).
Cross bearing then becomes an exciting CHALLENGE, the joy of GOD'S
KIND OF LOVE, and proud involvement in a VERY GREAT CAUSE.