“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Right away we have a problem with this Gospel. It’s a pretty obvious problem. To be blunt: We can’t carry our cross. Each of us could stand before the Lord and say: Master, in the first place, I’m not always sure what my cross is. I know what causes me pain, I know the things I dread, but is that the same thing? Is that a cross? And then, secondly, even if I can see a cross as a cross, as soon as I try to carry it I fall down. Then I’m back where I started. I’ve tried fasting and being generous with my resources and with prayer, but I never seem to hit the mark.
When we’re finished “explaining” things to the Lord, He will answer us: My child, my friend, you are not far from the kingdom of God. You have understood the Gospel. For my Apostle says: “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” The Gospel is for the powerlessness of man. The Gospel is not man showing what he can do with a little help from on High; it is God showing what He can do with sinners and in sinners—in people who are often rebellious, slow to pray, slow to be generous, in people who struggle to love God above all things and our brothers for His sake. For those who are tempted to gain the whole world, or to covet a piece of that world; for those who fail to see the value of their own soul and those of others; in short: In people who make a face or recoil when they meet with their cross, the Gospel is for them.
So if the Gospel is the power of God for us, then what is that power? What power enables us to do what Jesus is asking of us? It is the grace of attraction. It is the grace of seeing Christ bearing the cross as supremely beautiful. We need God to kindle within us a desire to imitate the suffering Christ. The cross in itself is not appealing; suffering in itself is not appealing. But when a perfectly beautiful, perfectly selfless Person suffers and is crucified, then I want that for myself. I must carry my cross—not only to be associated with Christ, but to become Christ myself.
I suppose the question of self-denial amounts to this: Are you drawn to other things besides Christ? Or is something getting in the way of your friendship with Jesus? Then a choice must be made.
It is just as Moses told the people in very simple words: You have a choice to make. Make the right one. Are we willing to lose everything in order to follow Christ? Or are we going to do things in half measures? Are we going to hold on to a few gods, modest and respectable gods, and try to make them fit on the same altar as Jesus? We’re not talking necessarily about bags of money or having power over others or otherwise getting what we want. It can be anything about which we say: God and this—anything I won’t get rid of for the pearl of great price.
Several years after Moses, Joshua had put a similar choice before the people: Choose today whom you will serve. And after presenting the options, the people rise up and shout: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD, to serve other gods…. We will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” But Joshua came right back at them: You cannot serve the Lord your God, for He is a jealous God. He won’t share you with anyone. But you, in your heart, are not jealous for Him. You share your heart and soul all the time with other gods. No wonder you can’t carry the cross: You’re carrying too many other things.
It’s similar to when a man approached the Lord and said, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But the Lord made him think twice: I have nowhere to lay my head. You cannot follow me unless you can follow me without anything to call your own.
So think about it, says Moses, Joshua, and the Lord Himself. Think about what you’re saying. Instead of giving the “right” answer, give the honest one: I cannot serve the Lord unless He gives me strength, unless He keeps me under the shadow of His wings. “Draw me, and we will run.” “No one can come to me unless the Father draws him.”
What are you jealous about? What are you carrying in place of or in addition to the cross? Is it material things? Is it your time? Your privacy? Your freedom? Your comfort? What is the idol that stands on the altar of God alongside Host and Chalice? Whatever it is, and however hard it might be, that is the thing we have to give up. We have to be honest with the Lord and with ourselves. We try to serve Him, we fail, then we drift. That’s the pattern, isn’t it? Good intentions, failed execution. How about: Lord, that I may see! Lord that I may love! Lord that I may run after you! Lord, if you will attract me, no power will stop me. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”