What does it mean to "carry your cross"?

I wasn’t planning on doing a post today, but Sta from Unexpectedly Expecting asked such a great question in the comments to my last post that I just had to take a stab at answering it:

I am going to play the dummy card here. But the phrase “Carrying your cross” always makes me pause. What does it mean exactly?…that phrase is one of those Christianese phrases that trips me up sometimes.

I love questions like this! The idea of “carrying your cross” is just one of many phrases that used to completely baffle me — given my completely nonreligious background, I’ve had many struggles translating Christian-speak to English (I talked about my confusion about the concept of “turning it over to God” a while back). I think I’m starting to understand it now, so here’s my stab at answering the question:

My own loose definition of “carrying my cross” would be to take the suffering and inconveniences that are in front of me right here, right now, and use them to generate love. How we you use suffering to generate love? By turning to God in trust, believing that he can make good come out of this situation, not letting the physical or mental pain act as a barrier between ourselves and the Source of all love, etc. Let me offer a concrete example that will better explain my understanding.


The Situation: Let’s say that I get another DVT, which causes me agonizing pain and leaves me unable to walk or complete even the simplest daily tasks. There are two ways I could handle this. One would involve “carrying” this “cross” of the blood clot and the inconvenience and pain it caused; the other way would involve running screaming from my cross instead of carrying it (I have a lot of familiarity with this latter way).

An example of carrying my cross: Make the conscious choice to trust that God not only can but will use this situation for good, even if the ways he will do that are not immediately apparent to me. Use my helplessness as a chance to become other-focused: reach out to friends and family and let them know how much they are loved and needed, tell my doctors how much their expertise is appreciated, think of new ways to serve my family even if I can’t walk very well, etc. Constantly look for ways in which this situation might ultimately lead me and others closer to God. Finally, in terms of the physical pain, unite it with Christ’s sufferings on the Cross, i.e. remind myself that God knows what it is to suffer, and embrace the fact that the suffering I’m experiencing can be offered as a sacrifice to God.

An example of not carrying my cross: Complain constantly. Make sure everyone knows about how much pain I’m in, even if there’s nothing they can do about it. Focus on others only to envy how much better everyone else has it than I do. Adopt a mentality that the world owes me something because I perceive that I have it so much worse than everyone else. Continue to try to control every single aspect of my life, get frustrated when I can’t because of my condition, and resort to wallowing in worry. Let my pain cause me to become almost entirely focused on myself and the concerns of this world. Forget that God knows what it is to suffer, and begin to think of him as a cold, distant deity. In my completely self-focused state, refuse to consider that anything good could possibly come of this, and think that it wouldn’t be worth it even if it did.

Interestingly, in the former situation, there is more love in the world than there was before the suffering occurred. In that latter, there is less.

So that’s my understanding of what it means to “carry your cross.” As with everything else I write, take it with a grain of salt — I’m a relatively new convert and still have a lot to learn. I’d love it if some older (in faith years, anyway) and wiser Christians wanted to take a stab at answering this one as well.

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Enter the Conversation...

42 Responses to “What does it mean to "carry your cross"?”
  1. Anonymous says:

    beautiful.
    absolutly right!

    Mrs Nehemiah

  2. Abigail says:

    Such a thought post! Thank you Jennifer!

    I’d also add that “carrying your cross” means remembering that God used the cross to accomplish the divine mystery of redemption. It’s hard to have faith in the midst of intense suffering. What helps me most is a strong belief that the present crisis “isn’t the rest of the story.”

  3. Marian says:

    THAT was an excellent explanation!

    How natural it is to just flow into option #2.

  4. Nicole says:

    Jen, I think you hit the nail on the head. As a lifelong Catholic I’ve never had to put this idea into words, but I’ve always known what it means. I think this is pretty much how I’d summarize it as well. Thanks!

  5. Sara says:

    It’s a bit more than that . . . the cross was an instrument of execution, and the one who was carrying it was going to be killed on it . . .

    Jesus: 23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23,24 ESV)

    To carry my cross is the recognition–daily–that to follow Jesus is to give up the right and expectation that I am the one in control of my life. It is not MY life anymore–I am dead and Christ lives in me . . . and all my priorities, time, talents, wealth, relationships, etc. EVERYTHING All that is the old me is to be crucified–and I am not to expect anything else. Fair trade. In return I get life that will actually last . . . but that life not mine to own. It’s Jesus’s. He bought it with his blood. And carrying our cross is just a recognition of that.

    Is that enought Christianese for you? :)

  6. SuburbanCorrespondent says:

    Pretty good explanation, if you ask me…it reminds me of Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, saying to Rick, “We all have a choice…for good or for evil…” Well, sort of, anyway…

  7. Sue says:

    Wow. Wonderful. I love how you have teased out that what it means to carry your cross includes just as much of what it doesn’t mean, of what we have to lay down to pick up our crosses :)

    Great post.

  8. Laura says:

    You are right on target with this one. It amazes me how much catholic wisdom and insight you have for being such a new convert. It has taken me years to understand the carrying my cross thing, and I still don’t do a very good job at it. It seems that God has quite a plan for you! God Bless!

  9. Tertium Quid says:

    Self-pity is usually my first choice!

  10. Wonders for Oyarsa says:

    Jen, I think you’ve done a fantastic job of explaining what that expression means in a practical sense. Really, it’s the heart of the Christian faith, isn’t it? What is following Christ, if not taking up your cross?

  11. kathryn says:

    That was a beautiful answer to such a poignant question that we all ask ourselves when confronted with it. I’d like to add that we all have a cross inside us that we are called to carry every day. Everyone’s is different but just as heavy and just as important as everyone else’s. It’s our daily cross that provides the means to “practice” the carrying, so that when the bigger crosses come, we know how better to handle them. When we are baptized, we are crucified with Christ as we are laid down in the water. As we emerge from the water we are raised up with him in a new life. It’s the grace from this sacrament that allows us to take up our crosses every day and follow him. We don’t carry our crosses FOR Christ, we carry them WITH his grace and help. Thank you for such a beautifully inspired post.

  12. Sta says:

    Oh wow! That was shocking when I turned to your site today to see my name and question up there! But I’m definitely thankful for your post answering it. I’ve learned since joining a small group three years ago that I’m very good at asking stupid questions that lead to interesting debates and conversations. Glad I could help here, too!

    And I think I get it now. This makes perfect sense. Now I just have to work on application.

  13. november says:

    Great post, big sis Jen! I’m going through trials now in my life and I can tell you shamefully, I’ve done more whining and complaining than carrying. But, thanks be to God, He’s growing me in my faith and patiently getting me a place of true submission.

    Your post also reminded me of a notion that was completely foreign to my Protestant worldview (well, at least to the nondenominational evangelical Protestant variety to which I formerly adhered) when I started re-examining the Catholic Church two years ago–that is, of offering up your sufferings. Although I’ve read what some Catholic writers had to say about it, I’m still wrestling with the idea and what it means in practice quite a bit.

    Another broad Christian notion that for some reason I find difficult to internalize is the idea of keeping your eyes focused on God and not your problems in seasons of difficulty. Again, I find myself wondering what it means practically to do this in day-to-day living and how “successful” am I in doing it.

    Anyway, I’ll keep walking, listening and learning. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  14. Katie says:

    I love your insights, Jennifer!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog :P)

  15. Kelly @ Love Well says:

    Great answer, Jennifer.

    (And may I say kudos to Sta for having the courage to ask it in the first place.)

    One thing I would add to your already full explanation: The concept of cross carrying is frightening and heavy to many people. And certainly, it’s not an easy task. But there is amazing freedom in following God down this path. To quote Jesus, His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

    The faith-filled people who carry their crosses best are those who have the most joy, the most peace, the most love and the most freedom in their circumstances.

  16. november says:

    The faith-filled people who carry their crosses best are those who have the most joy, the most peace, the most love and the most freedom in their circumstances.

    kelly@lovewell, i think this gets at my question about how one knows if one has been “successful” in submitting to God and his will. The degree to which you experience love, joy and peace while carrying your cross, offering up your suffering and focusing on him during difficult times relates to how well you actually have done/are doing them.

    Whew, God has certainly been working to mature me to get to that place of complete abandon!

  17. Lisa says:

    Your comment about your using your “helplessness as a chance to become other-focused” is right on the money. For six years I have moderated an online support group for Catholics who suffer from mental illness. I started the group to pass the word about redemptive suffering, but I am still learning about it. Will we ever stop learning? No! Providentially, I have recently come to learn what you have shared about becoming focused on others. Coming to this realization, it’s like I haven’t been able to see the forest because the trees have been in my way. Thanks for spreading the news.

  18. Martha says:

    One thing I think you did not mention but is helpful — when we have crosses that seem too heavy for us, when try as we might, we keep thinking, “whatever good comes from this, it’s not worth it!”, we know that Jesus helps us carry that cross. We know that hard as it is (and let’s face it, sometimes, it is really, really hard), Jesus has told us he will not abandon us, he will carry the cross with us, like Simon carried it with him.

  19. Cecelia says:

    Jen you have managed again to put something that I know on an intellectual level into wording that fits so well with my current situation. Thank you.

  20. Shannon says:

    NPR’s “Weekend Edition” had a great essay from a young man in their “This I Believe” section. He spoke of his work with two developmentally disabled men and of the gift of vulnerability. It’s worth tracking down–because it fits right in here.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Hi Jen,
    I don’t disagree that sometimes it’s possible to carry your cross AND make lemons out of lemonade similar to the examples you gave. However, sometimes, I believe that the LORD intends for us simply to humbly accept whatever cross. Not to like it, not to do anything with it. The bearing and offering IS LOVE!

    Thanks for your writing and sharing.

    Beth

  22. Aliocha says:

    I am a person who tends to pick up more crosses than I can cope with (and sometimes taking crosses I shouldn’t really take, while ditching the ones I should take).

    It helped me a lot this sentence from “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”:

    “Do not follow yourself with the Cross of the Saviour, but follow the Saviour with your cross…. This is finally the secret of the just way”
    Ciprian Norwid, polish poet, quoted by John Paul II

  23. Melanie B says:

    Great answer, jen.

    Reminds me of a story my dad tells about a priest who used to come into the Catholic bookstore my parents used to own who would buy little metal crucifixes by the hundreds. One day he came in and had a hole in his pocket from carrying them all. Finally, my dad asked him what he did with all those crosses. Turns out he was a chaplain in a local hospital and whenever he visited a patient, he’d give them a little crucifix and tell them to hold on to it. A very concrete way of helping those who were suffering see that they aren’t carrying their crosses alone.

  24. Carrien says:

    I think “carrying your cross” is one of the most commonly misunderstood phrases in the Christian tradition. What you have described is quite a common understanding. And while you have described the effects of responding to suffering with the help of God’s grace, or with out, which is an important part of the Christian life I don’t really think that is “carrying a cross” at all.

    For starters, the cross is something that Jesus said to take up, by choice, to carry. Something that you are afflicted with, however trying, or purifying by grace, is not something you chose, and therefore can’t be something you voluntarily take on, pick up, in order to follow Christ.

    No, sara had more of the right idea when she pointed out the relationship to death. You see Jesus was talking to a very specific group of people, in a very specific time and place. His comment to them would have been extremely offensive. Just as Peter didn’t understand when he said that the son of man must suffer and be killed, they would not have immediately understood this comment either. IN the Jewish tradition anyone who hangs upon a tree is cursed, the cross a way of death brought on by a gentile oppressor to keep people in line was the ultimate humiliation.
    To pick up your cross and follow was to willingly submit yourself to ridicule, torture, and execution.

    TO pick up your cross and follow is to give up your life as you know it, and live the life of Christ in it’s place.

    Some of the fruit of that choice would be scenarios that play out as the former description in your post but that is just and external symptom of an ongoing internal surrender.

    In my opinion it is faulty theology to think of suffering, or illness, or any other essentially evil thing as a cross that God has given to us. God doesn’t give suffering, he gives us grace to carry through it, He redeems even the worst things that Satan can throw at us if we work with Him instead of against Him as HE redeems it.

    Choosing to respond with grace and love to tough situations is very important and part of the outworking of the Holy Spirit in us.

    Choosing to give up our lives moment by moment to be used by God, even if the best use of it is to have it ended in ways that we would not choose, choosing to be obedient even to the point of death just as Christ was, this is taking up your cross and following Him. It is not necessarily tied to suffering, nor sacrifice. But sometimes it is. Thus the confusion.

    I would call your moments with the neighborhood girls that you’ve written recently, or the fact that you now have three children as a direct result of being obedient to what you believe God is telling you to do and the daily commitment and ways that your life has changed as a result much more “cross like” than patiently enduring suffering because they are things that you have chosen and willingly stepped into in obedience.

    AM I making any sense? or is this comment a sign that I should have gone to bed and hour ago instead of try to think about theology at this hour of the morning?

  25. RealMirror says:

    Quite simply, carrying the cross is the act of going against the establishment and doing what you know in your heart is right. You will be ridiculed, humiliated, persecuted, possibly imprisoned or killed. Look at those people who came after Jesus and see how they carried their own crosses. Ghandi, MLK, Mandela….imprisoned, beaten, killed. But you can’t kill love. To me Jesus gave a clear blueprint of how to live a fulfilling life…to go beyond life. It seems so clear in these times that going against the current establishment is the right thing to do, and so many have crosses to carry.

  26. Anonymous says:

    “Do not follow yourself with the Cross of the Saviour, but follow the Saviour with your cross…. This is finally the secret of the just way”

    What act of love must you carry with you as you try to follow Jesus?
    The one you know that you are the one carry, in your heart. The one that requires sacrifice of what the world tells you need; the one you take up and carry even when someone says, “But what about you?”
    Not the one you would choose or that makes you feel best, but the one you carry when the world tells you to put it down.
    To complete that act of love in the
    Way of Jesus.
    That little quote posted by one of your readers is spot on.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Something I’ve been working through is trying to see this through our Savior’s eyes. So far, I feel God has led my heart to:

    Deny yourself – give up your own plans for your life
    Daily pick up your cross – the cross was Jesus’ task set for Him. Our cross is the task God has set for us
    Follow Him – we should go about our task and life following Jesus’ example and by being obedient to His word

    I’m still praying to our Father on this so please only take this thought as coming from who is still searching.

    Your brother in Christ,
    Steve

  28. Stone says:

    Sara and Carrien in my opinion have come to the best conclusion of this famous but misunderstood phrase found numerous times throughout the NT. And Steve I think your on the right track there mate.

    Considering the historical context of the cross, as mentioned earlier by sara and carrien. It represents death and suffering (the torment, ridicule etc kind of suffering we get for following Christ). In the literary contexts you will notice that the take up your cross or carry your cross statements come along with the you do not have the things of God in mind, but the things of men/deny yourself satements (eg Matt 16) and the God is most important, should rule our life (the hyperbole/contrast/exagerration of Jesus command to hate our faily/loved ones infers this. Luke 14).

    In each case the flow of the sentence/paragraph makes sense only with this understanding. In each case the flow of the whole idea supports this, and interpreting the cross as a sickness or annoying relationships, whatever it may be, just does not make sense. It would be totally random, and not in line with the point Jesus is making that it costs to follow Him.

    We need to follow him wholeheartedly, willing to surrender all our life to him, allow him to direct every action, thought and decision we make. That is how we are his disciple, that is how we follow him and carry our cross.

  29. B Chini says:

    Very nice post. Good explanation of not carrying your cross. It's nice nice though when some people help you carry your cross. Check out my post.

  30. Anonymous says:

    The words "any who does not pick up his cross and carry it is not fit to be my diciple." As Lent began I asked myself, like you did, a question. What is MY cross that I have to carry? I understood the 'gist' carrying the cross in this life on earth. We suffer – in conjunction with HIS suffering because of the sins of humanity in general. Which was as you stated.
    But what is MY cross I asked myself? (keep in mind that GOD never hands us a cross, GOD created trees, which shelter
    us in the heat of summer, give us
    beauty in autumn, provides fruit
    to eat. GOD gave humanity trees;
    it is 'man' (humanity) that cut
    the tree down and made 'the cross'
    Crosses are 'man made.'

    Ash Wednesday, I had to asked in prayer 'what is my cross?'
    I am a quiet person (some call me
    shy, some timid) The work place can
    eat such persons alive – if some
    perceive our quietness as an easy
    way to uplift themselves. Without details, there was such one
    who was bullying me in my job.
    I endured her by day and was hurt
    and angry in privacy of my room at
    night.

    My cross revealed to me is my
    'naivete' that all are of the same
    spirit. Raised by good parents, I
    believed being a Catholic Christian
    meant life would be good if I was good to all, and if there was one
    who was 'bad' – bad would be
    reprimanded and taught and told of
    their wrong and all would be well. Not so-but that doesn't mean
    I have to endure and carry this
    cross without Truth (God)

    As you stated: I had to 'act in truth' (not deny the reality of this one's way believing naively
    if I just endured and let her go
    on she'd change, I had to not
    cling to protecting what was given to me as a good BY GOD (I liked my job and I did it well and by staying silent I was carrying the cross of this one's way towards quiet naive me alone 'for my own good' and "ANY WHO SAVE THEIR LIFE [could risk] LOSING THIER LIFE [eternal life] So…as best I could, I finally spoke to another exec (in tears which were frustration of the myriad words and way of a co-worker and then with this exec to a supervisor)

    …I SPOKE THE TRUTH which did bring this all to light. That's
    good. I was basically told some
    things can't change and we have to
    just accept. I was termed but told
    I was a good worker. (they were sorry to let me go)

    I 'won' the bully did not. The
    bully is now (though I won't know it) brought to light and GOD GOOD
    can begin to happen. Not 'my good'
    of getting another to reprimand
    this bully and 'protect me alone'
    Not the BULLY'S good of remaining
    as is because I remain 'as is'.
    GOD GOOD can happen when I trust
    in GOD to help with this cross of
    my naive niceness that a person less than spirited does by it. TRUSTING GOD…I speak…
    I may lose a job I love; but in TRUST He will never leave me wanting, the bully – with prayers for this one, will start to change by GOD's 'hand' not mine, and
    a company truly good company but
    not able to 'see all' will begin to see and implement policy that
    prevents others from 'bully types'

    GOD GOOD comes when we don't deny
    a situation; to protect 'our little
    good' (a job, a paycheck in the moment) DISCERNMENT is essential.
    All situations are different. Sometimes God says 'stay and endure' but rely on me to stay silent and smile back (this if the
    employee bullied must support a large family and can't lose a job)

    But NEVER Carry the Cross alone;
    GOD will hold us up.

  31. arnzterz says:

    nice site so far. well i could also say that carrying ur cross is our basic primary concern. as christian as we are/.. we must consider this responsibility. for CHRISTIANITY isn not just Beauty But its HUMILITY..

  32. Nicole Lynn Patti says:

    A cross back in the day was for those that broke the law to carry through the street to their stake. Jesus is saying to “break the law” (carry your cross) by following ONLY GOD’S LAW which is GOD’S WILL what HE tells you to do in every situation in every moment :) good stuff and easy to do when one with God. “no thing and no one else” is what it means to carry your cross because the only thing and only one is GOD xoxoxothanksoxoxox

  33. I have found your explanation of carrying our cross very easy to understand, and thank God for the light he has given you which will defently inspire many to give praise to God for his wisdom and LOVE through JESUS CHRIST

  34. Robin says:

    Thank you God for leading me to Jennifer’s post this morning. I am in AWE of how You work!
    Thank you Jennifer (and everyone else who posted) for being a light that leads us to Him. Let your light shine on!

  35. Moti Lalwani says:

    Love it. Simply superb.

  36. Benjamin says:

    Adding to this Carrying the Cross will be endurance of our suffering, cause in the end we will be crowned with the crown of righteousness…

  37. Matthew Martin says:

    The cross represents (Death)….jesus was trying to tell us to kill are flesh daily …..as long as we let are flesh control us we are not killing are flesh on the cross …..so pick up your cross and kill your flesh !!!!

  38. TJ says:

    To carry our cross has many meanings. Some have been mentioned here already. One time in prayer I asked Jesus what He meant by picking up our crosses and following Him. Clearly He was not speaking of a physical cross, like the one He carried. His reply was one I hadn’t thought of before. He said the cross was His destiny, His calling. His journey since birth was to the cross. The cross was the finish line of His earthly race. He wants us to take hold of (or pick up) our calling and run the good race with our eyes fixed on the finish line and the prize that awaits us. The cross is not all about burdens and struggles in life. It’s about dying to our own will and saying, “not my will, but thin be done” when we are asked to fulfill the plans that were made for each of us. The Word tells us that everyone has a purpose for which they were created. We just need to walk in it.

    • TJ says:

      Sorry, thine not thin.

      • TJ says:

        This translation says to give up the control of our lives for the sake of a better cause.

        Mattityahu 16:24-26

        Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB)

        24 Then Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach said to his talmidim, If anyone wishes to come after me, let him turn in hinnazrut (self-denial), and take up his etz shel hakarav atzmo (tree of self-sacrifice), and follow me.

        25 For whoever wishes to save his nefesh shall lose it; but whoever loses his nefesh on account of me [Moshiach] shall find it.

        26 For what will a man be benefited if he acquires the whole world and forfeits his neshamah, or what will a man give in exchange for his neshamah?

  39. Mary Faithfull says:

    I was wondering if the vs “What is easier to say ..your sins are forgiven OR take up your bed & walk are connected to take up your cross & follow me”?…If we KNOW all our sins are forgiven…then that’s where we receive the STRENGTH to carry OUR cross
    ..without the need for self defence or the blame that we may silently harbour….So to remember that if we dnt foregive OTHERS their sin then neither will OURS b forgiven will help us to be alert to carrying our cross….