Suffering and the Way of the Cross*
Why are there so many who fear to take up the cross, which leads to the heavenly kingdom? For those in Christ who hear the word of the Cross and follow it, there is health, life, protection from enemies, heavenly sweetness, strength of mind, joy of spirit, the height of virtue, and perfection of holiness. In fact, there is no health of one's soul, no hope of eternal life, accept in the Cross of Christ. So, why not deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus? He gave everything for us. He went before us, bearing His cross, and died for us upon the cross, that we might also bear our cross and willingly be crucified with Him upon it. For if we are dead with Him, we shall also live with Him. If we partake of His suffering in this world, we shall also partake of His eternal glory in heaven.
Everything depends upon the cross and dying to ourselves. There's no other way to life and true inward peace, except daily dying to ourselves and taking up our cross. We can go where we want, seek whatever we want, and we shall find no higher way above, nor safer way below, than the way of the Cross. If we order our lives according to our own will and judgment, we shall always find suffering, either willingly or unwillingly. So shall we always find our cross, feeling either the pain of body or the tribulation of spirit within our soul.
Sometimes we will feel forsaken by God. Sometimes we will be tried by our neighbor. Sometimes we will even be wearisome to ourselves. Still we can't be delivered or eased by any remedy of consolation, but must bear it as long as God wills. For God will have us learn to suffer without consolation and submit ourselves fully to our suffering, so we'll be made more humble. No one understands completely the passion of Christ and His suffering on the way to the Cross. But as we bear our cross, we can begin to know in our hearts something of His suffering for us. The cross is always ready and waits everywhere for us. We cannot flee from it. Wherever we hurry to get away and wherever we end up, we always take ourselves with us. Whether we turn above, turn below, turn without or turn within, we shall find the cross. Our need is for patience in every situation, if we will have inward peace and finally gain the everlasting crown.
If we willingly bear our cross, it will bear us and will bring us to the end of this life's suffering with Jesus. If we bear it unwillingly, we make a burden for ourselves and greatly increase the load, yet we must bear it still. If we cast away our cross, we shall find another and maybe a heavier one. Do we think we can escape what no one has ever been able to avoid? Which of the saints of God in this world lived without the cross and much tribulation? Not even Jesus, our Lord, lived one hour on this earth without the anguish of His Passion before Him. It behooved Him, He said, to suffer and die on the Cross, rise from the dead, and so enter into His glory. (Luke 24:46) So, why do we seek another way than this royal way, the way of the Holy Cross?
All of Jesus' life was a cross and martyrdom. And yet do we seek rest and joy for ourselves? We are wrong, very wrong, if we seek anything but to suffer tribulations. For this earthly life is full of miseries and crosses everywhere. The more we advance in our spiritual lives, the heavier will be our crosses. For as our love of God increases, so our sorrows increase. Yet we're not without consolation. We find abundant fruit growing within us by bearing our cross. When we willingly submit to it, every burden of tribulation is turned into an assurance of divine comfort. The more our bodies are wasting away by afflictions, the more our spirits are strengthened by inward grace. This is not by our virtues, but only by the grace of God. It is Jesus only who gives us great power and energy through conforming our lives to the Cross of Christ.
It's not in our nature to bear the cross, to love the cross, to keep our bodies in subjection, to flee many honors, to bear reproaches meekly, to despise self and desire to be despised, to bear all adversities and losses, and to desire no prosperity in this world. If we only look to ourselves, we will not be able to do any of these things. But if we trust wholly in the Lord, heavenly endurance shall be given us. The world and the flesh shall be subject to our command. Yes, we shall not even fear the devil, if we are armed with faith and signed with the Cross of Christ.
We must set ourselves, then, like good and faithful servants of Christ, to bravely bear the cross of our Lord, who out of love was crucified for us. Let's prepare ourselves for the bearing of many adversities and troubles in this wretched life, for there is no means of escaping from tribulation and sorrow, except to patiently bear the cross. If we desire to follow Jesus as His disciples, then we must obediently and lovingly drink our Lord's cup of suffering. Leave consolations to God. He will do whatever seems best to Him. For the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory which shall be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)
When we've come to accept our tribulations as pleasant for Christ's sake, it will be well with our souls. For we will have found paradise on earth. So long as it's hard for us to accept our sufferings, so long as we tend only to escape them, it will not be well with us and tribulations will follow us everywhere. But if we become willing to suffer and die for Christ, it will go better with us and we shall find peace. Even if we should be caught up with Paul into the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2), we will not be on that account safe from suffering evil. Jesus said of Paul, "I will show him what great things he must suffer for My Name's sake. (Acts 9:16) It remains, therefore, for us to suffer, if we love Jesus and continually serve Him.
In summary, we ought to lead a life of dying to ourselves. The more we die to ourselves, the more we live towards God. We cannot understand heavenly things without submitting ourselves to bearing our adversities for Christ. There is nothing more acceptable to God, nor more healthful for us in this world, than to willingly suffering for Christ. Our worthiness as servants of Christ, and our growth in God's grace, aren't found in delights and consolations, but rather in bearing many troubles and adversities.
If, indeed, there had been anything better and more profitable to our overall health than to suffer, Christ would surely have shown it by His word and example. For the disciples who followed Him during His earthly life, and all who desire to follow Him now, He plainly exhorts to deny themselves and bear their cross, saying, "If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow Me. (Luke 9:23)
Now that we've thought about these things, this is the conclusion of the whole matter: We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
*My comments are a summary of Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, "Of the Royal Way of the Holy Cross" (Book 2, Number 12)