Definitions matter, especially in theology and spiritual formation.
A common example of an incorrect definition and misuse of a term is in the phrase, “Well, that’s just my cross to bear.” When most people speak of “a cross to bear,” they are referring to suffering or a trial they have to endure: like an illness, or caring for a difficult relative, or putting up with a challenging supervisor at work.
This phrase is based on Jesus’ words in Luke 9:23, “Then [Jesus] said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”
A thoughtful examination of this passage reveals that the cross is not merely an affliction to be tolerated or endured. The cross is Jesus’ place of mission, the place of his ultimate purpose, the place of judgement and redemptive sacrifice. Read the passage again, this time with verse 24 “Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.’”
The cross is about losing your life– to save it. As Jesus’ followers, the cross is our place of mission where we open wide our arms as part of Jesus’ life-spending, life-giving mission in this world. The focus of the cross is always on others.
So what about suffering? What about that particular problem that nags you, wears on you and challenges your “cope”? The biblical image that best fits that situation is the “thorn.”
Paul spoke of his thorn in 2 Corinthians 12. After experiencing a vision of the third heaven and paradise, Paul wrote, “…. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Paul never specifically defined his thorn. Some scholars think it was a significant eye problem (based on Galatians 4:13-16), but the most important lesson is God’s message to Paul about the thorn.
But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Spiritually speaking, a thorn is an affliction, weakness, struggle that drives us to depend on the Lord. (Don’t focus on the ‘messenger from Satan’ right now! That’s material for another time.) Paul spoke of the thorn in the context of weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and other difficulties. A thorn humbles us, in the best sense of the word. It exposes our humanity so that our need for God becomes clearly inescapable and undeniable. We come to the end of our resources and make a new beginning with God’s strength.
Both the cross and the thorn express important, valid, yet different dimension of our calling in Christ.
Bear your cross as part of Jesus’ continuing mission in this world.
Take your thorn to the Lord and discover his strength in your weakness.
And remember, Jesus both bore the cross and endured the (crown of) thorns.