Long ago, our Lord and Master Jesus Christ told us, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). And for centuries, His followers have been inspired and humbled by these words as we seek to obey.
But for a small subset of Christianity–those who struggle with an anxiety disorder like OCD–these truth-filled words can become a catalyst for fanatical and imbalanced living. What does it really mean to take up your cross and follow Him? Does it mean we must be in a constant state of self-deprivation and misery, humbling ourselves to the point of humiliation and groveling, in order to be acceptable in His sight?
In this brief article, I’d like to discuss the meaning of taking up our crosses and following Christ in a way that truly honors Him.
Please note: the slant of this article is for believers afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder. If you are reading this as a non-OCD and non-anxious person, the following may not apply to you. But if you are someone who struggles with OCD, I would appeal to you to read this article slowly and contemplatively, and ask God to help you have insight to know if you might possibly be carrying burdens that He did not lay upon your back.
What Does It Mean to Take Up Your Cross?
If you ask a believer with obsessive-compulsive disorder what it means to take up their cross, you will get a variety of answers. Those who are truly honest might tell you they feel like taking up their cross is to deny themselves of any and all pleasure, even innocent and biblically-approved pleasure. It is to give up anything they enjoy, lest it become an idol. And certainly, taking up their cross means they must respond instantly to any passing thoughts (which might be the voice of God!) telling them to do humiliating and completely unnecessary things to prove their loyalty to Christ.
But I disagree with these interpretations.
This is not what Jesus was talking about when He told us to take up our cross and follow Him! Let me share a few thoughts from Scripture that might help us find a more balanced interpretation.
The Pharisees were experts at crafting unnecessary crosses for people’s backs. They seem almost sadistic in their desire for restrictive, misery-inducing rules. Jesus warned the people about the Pharisees, saying,
The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do. For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men.Matthew 23:2-5
Jesus viewed the scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites. They manufactured “heavy burdens, hard to bear,” and compelled people to carry them. But these burdensome requirements were just a prop for them to be “seen by men.” Interestingly, people with religious OCD often have a type of reverse-pharisaical, burden-generating propensity. Whereas the Pharisees created burdens for others but would not touch them with even their little finger, people with OCD tend to create burdens for themselves that are so miserable that they would never dare to suggest anyone else ought to follow the same instructions.
(Unless, of course, you fall into that category of scrupulous people with moralistic policing tendencies, in which case you may feel resentful that everyone else isn’t as fastidious about the speed limit as you are.)
Like the Pharisees, Jesus also lays a burden upon us. But His burden is a very different kind. He said,
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.Matthew 11:28-30
You can recognize that there is a “burden” of sorts in this passage–there is a “yoke” which is laid upon our shoulders–but it is of such a delightful quality that Jesus’ burden gives us rest in our souls. It is easy and light, something that brings us joy to carry, not misery and confusion.
So perhaps we can begin asking ourselves some analytical questions to see if our burden is a pharisaical burden or if it is the light and easy yoke of Christ:
- Do I make harsh or spiritually intensive requirements of myself that I would never suggest others to follow? Am I somehow an “exception” in God’s eyes, needing to prove myself with my difficult burdens?
- When I deny myself and carry my “cross,” is it something that leads to joy and spiritual rest, or do I only find myself confused, resentful, and unhappy?
The True Yoke of Christ
It is true that Jesus asks us to deny ourselves and take up our cross. He lays His yoke upon our shoulders. But if He said that His yoke is easy and light, we must incorporate this understanding into our interpretation of what this “cross” really is.
Paradoxically, this “cross” must be something that breaks and kills a part of us, but it must also be something that is light, life-giving, and freeing. Otherwise, Jesus is contradicting Himself. Truly, the cross we must take up is paradoxical, two-sided, complex. We must understand this if we wish to avoid spiritual fanaticism.
On the one hand, we will be “broken” when we follow Christ, for the Bible says
And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.Matthew 21:44
But out of this spiritual breaking will flow something beautiful and abundant, something that recreates us in wholeness. It is not merely a future hope of heaven, but a present sense of goodness and blessing in our lives.
He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.John 7:38
The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.John 10:10
The words of Jesus, when taken as a whole, present a great mystery of love: burden and blessing side by side, joy and sacrifice mingled together. That which crucifies us also exalts us, and that which breaks us draws forth a hallelujah.
Pseudo-crosses–the fake crosses OCD manufactures for our backs–cannot do this.
The “false humility” spoken about in Colossians 2 is something which is said to be of “no value.” Self-fabricated crosses can never bring about the joyful essence of the true cross of Christ.
Taking up Your Cross
We can see that self-denial of the biblical kind is meant to be a positive thing. But what does it really mean to take up your cross? Let us first remember that the cross of Christ and my cross are related, and they overlap, but they are still two separate things.
Let us look at one of the most classic passages about our daily death on the cross. In this passage, you can see a clear overlap between my cross and the cross of Christ:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.Galatians 2:20
According to the Apostle Paul, taking up our cross and dying upon it is a symbol representing a profound truth. It is a decision we make daily (for Paul also said, “I die daily” in 1 Corinthians 15:31). This daily commitment is born out of our conversion experience when we were first “crucified,” leaving behind our “old man” and choosing to walk with Christ in newness of life. This experience is made possible through Christ’s death on the cross.
The cross of Christ moves us with love and persuades us that nothing in this world can outshine the goodness displayed on Golgotha. It gives us courage to cast aside worldly loyalties. It empowers us to do the impossible: to stand, girt about with truth, against the wiles of the devil. All this makes us less like the world and more like pilgrims on our way to the Celestial City.
Daily, we are dying to the world. Our identity has changed and is changing. The image of God becomes ever more clearly portrayed in us. These truths about the cross of Christ are not mere theological ideas–His cross gives power, real divine power.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.1 Corinthians 1:18
As we said earlier, there is a difference between the cross of Christ and my cross. His cross inspires me, empowers me, saves me. My cross does not save me, but it is a toolbox, a whole labyrinth of trials and sufferings on this earth, which God uses to shape me into His image. Each time I take up my own cross, I may lift my eyes to the cross of Christ and draw power and comfort to bravely endure.
I go where He has already gone. His feet have already crushed the thorns that lay before me. His blood stains the path I trod, and I know–He will never lead me anywhere His presence has not already sanctified.
Yes, carrying my cross in daily commitment to Christ may have its sorrowful moments. But all this is made joyful by thinking of the greater purpose and treasures that are mine as a beloved child walking in His steps.
The Problem with Cheap Grace
One of the things I dislike about the “cheap grace” movement is the way it seeks to remove crosses from our lives. Cheap grace is the teaching that all you must do is make a one-time profession of faith and then you may live however you like.
However, if God’s grace nullified His law and judgment and His desire for me to be like Him, then there would be no point in having crosses to carry. It would be nonsense for Scripture to speak about “holiness,” “sanctification,” or “maturity.”
Certainly, God knows we cannot achieve holiness through human means. (So, while you read this, please don’t get scared and double down on your efforts to squeeze out a little bit more perfection.) Holiness comes through supernatural, superhuman methods, not natural, human methods.
This is why carrying our cross is not supposed to be a morbid, self-powered experience.
Too many of us swing so far away from cheap grace that we end up in the legalism camp. Carrying our cross then becomes a human-powered method of proving our sincerity, flagellating the soul, and torturing ourselves into submission to God. From there, it’s only one small step to rejecting all of God’s blessings and pleasures. And one more small step into spiritually-induced self-harm and fanaticism.
But let’s back up and remember that the cross of Christ is both a symbol of sacrifice and victory.
Ours should be, too.
Listen to the words of victory in the following passage, which describes the experience of sinners being crucified with Christ, changing from the inside out, and walking in victory:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Crosses are not torture devices, they are cocoons of metamorphosis!
Finding Balance as We Take up Our Cross
The cross of Christ involved torture, sacrifice, and pain on Friday. On Saturday, the universe held its breath in suspense. Then on Sunday, the cross shattered into a million pieces as He broke the bands of death. The story of Calvary ends with tearful joy and wonder.
Likewise, our story will have its ups and downs. There will be moments of intense surrender and sacrifice. We may be asked to lay down our beloved Isaac on an altar. We may be asked to go to some terrifying place like Nineveh. We may be led through a bleak and lonely wilderness.
But if we reject and sabotage the glorious moments God wants to give us, we are breaking the flow of the story.
The Bible gives specific examples of how God gives us both types of experiences in life.
In the day of prosperity be joyful, But in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as the other, So that man can find out nothing that will come after him.Ecclesiastes 7:14
People with scrupulosity are often much better at leaning into the “day of adversity.” But when God wishes to give us the “day of prosperity,” we turn our backs, looking earnestly for more adversity. We manufacture adversity for ourselves. We crave it, for it is the only place where we feel comfortable.
But clearly, God has appointed both.
The passage says, “so that man can find out nothing that will come after him.” That is, God wants to keep us on our toes. He doesn’t want us to get complacent, thinking we know what’s coming next. If there’s always a bit of unpredictability in life, it keeps us looking heavenward, trusting in our all-powerful Father who knows the future.
This is why we cannot settle down and think that life will always be perfect or that it will always be horrible. Life is a divine seesaw, where God carefully measures the right moment to tip us back and forth. Each time we teeter from adversity to prosperity and back again, we learn a little bit more about how to trust God.
In Job’s story, it seems that he spent too long in days of prosperity. When adversity hit, it took him a long time to process that. But notice what he said to his wife when she urged him to reject the cross that God had given him:
Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God and die!”Job 2:9-10
Job’s statement implies that we must learn how to accept both goodness and adversity from God.
Everyone is at a different place in their spiritual journey. Some people, like Job, know how to accept good, but they struggle to accept the adversity. Others feel right at home with suffering, but aren’t sure how to bask in the pleasures and blessings of heaven.
Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Do you know how to accept God’s blessings? Or are you more comfortable with those little urges telling you to give things up, reject blessings, and roll in the thorn bushes?
For most people with scrupulosity, bearing a cross on our shoulder is not the hardest part. The hardest part is learning how to let go of our morbid interest in suffering, which is what we think makes us acceptable to God.
This is where the difference between the cross of Christ and your cross becomes most important.
Your cross is not what makes you acceptable to God. Christ on the cross, two thousand years ago, already did that. His suffering accomplished everything for you. His blood poured out, fulfilling the demands of the law and washing away your sins. His suffering defeated Satan. His suffering bought your salvation.
Your suffering on your own cross doesn’t endear you to heaven. You are already endeared through Christ’s cross.
Your suffering is nothing more than a tool in God’s hand to chisel away at your rough exterior.
You may be wondering, how are we to find this balance? How can we know the difference between a self-fabricated cross versus a genuine cross Christ is calling us to bear? How can we know the difference between the “days of prosperity” God wants to give us versus our own selfish indulgence?
My first suggestion is to learn the tricks that OCD has up its sleeve. OCD will try to crucify you on false crosses through three main tactics:
- The insidious OCD “god voice” (which isn’t really from God)
- Creepy, crawly feelings of false guilt
- Verses or sermons taken out of context and over-applied to your situation
Beware of OCD’s tactics. When God leads us, He leads us like a gentle shepherd, not like a slavedriver. When He gives us a cross to bear, it is the paradoxical cross that both breaks us and is an easy yoke of rest. When He speaks, it is to give clarity, not confusion.
Everyone who follows Jesus will have crosses to bear. But most people with scrupulosity also have pseudo-crosses which must be laid aside and ignored. It will generally feel very uncomfortable to ignore a pseudo-cross. Ignoring it may feel like rebellion against God. But the more we ignore the false representations, the better we are able to shine the true light of God’s love in a balanced way.
To make this even more practical, let me give you a case study from a client I worked with in one-on-one coaching sessions. She became a very endeared friend of mine and although her story involves one specific trigger, I think you’ll easily be able to see how the same pattern might apply to you.
Vanessa* was a young, single woman, both beautiful and dedicated to the Lord. One day, she briefly met a young man named Peter who was working at a church school in a neighboring state. He was a nice guy, but he wasn’t her type at all. Strangely, Vanessa began to get the “god voice” (i.e. OCD’s intrusive thoughts masquerading as God) telling her that she had to move to that state and marry Peter. She recoiled from the thought and felt very disturbed. But the “voice” persisted, sending her into a spiral of anxiety.
Vanessa thought this might be the cross God had for her to carry, so she reached out shyly to Peter. He wasn’t really interested in her. At first, she thought God was letting her off the hook, but soon the impressions came back stronger, urging her to go through with it and sacrifice all for God. She contacted him again, making even plainer her suggestion that God might want them together. Peter seemed flattered, which spun Vanessa into a spiral of fear that he might actually take the bait.
Her panic became all-consuming: soon she found herself in a dark pit of depression, unable to live and work normally. She could not hear the name “Peter” or even see Peter’s state on a sign or a license plate without feeling horrible that she wasn’t yet bearing her cross by becoming his wife. It was the strangest thing she had ever experienced. Her friends and family told her that this made no sense, and Peter did nothing at all to indicate interest in her. But Vanessa kept feeling the need to bring herself to a point of surrender, hoping it would give her peace.
It never did.
Instead, the more she tried to lean into these strange impressions, the worse she got. She began to have horrible intrusive thoughts about God harming her. Her once-loving relationship with God became shadowed by new fears she had never before experienced. What was God doing to her? How could she ever escape this pit of despair?
Thankfully, Peter never developed any interest in her, despite the fact that it must have been terribly flattering for such a sweet, beautiful young woman to throw herself at his doorstep. Nothing ended up happening.
Nothing at all.
Strange outcome, if this “cross” was genuinely from God, don’t you think?
Vanessa eventually learned that she had religious OCD and began a gradual journey of overcoming her fears. As we met together, we learned how to differentiate between the true voice of God and OCD. She learned that she needed to ignore the thoughts and feelings that were urging her to do outlandish things, because they weren’t actually supported by the Word of God. As she continued to immerse herself in God’s Word and ignore the “crosses” and sacrifices that seemed to be steeped in confusion, peace and clarity started to emerge.
It wasn’t an easy journey for Vanessa. Like for anyone else, ignoring false impressions was hard for her. But she pressed through, asking God to help and guide her to a place of healing.
Today, Vanessa is thriving in her walk with God (I just met up with her last week and was so blessed to see her joy in Christ). She still carries her crosses, but now she knows how to shut out the false condemnation that is born from her anxiety. And like Vanessa could do it, I know you can, too.
Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Dear friend, if you’ve read this far, I am guessing you are the type of person who is denying yourself and taking up your cross. But maybe you’re also fabricating false crosses that have no basis in heaven’s plans for you.
If so, this is my tender appeal to you: let those crosses go.
It might seem like it’s better to be safe than sorry. Maybe you prefer to just carry every cross–both the true and the false–but this isn’t the insurance policy you might have assumed. Living a life full of false humility and senseless suffering, as Paul said, is of “no value.” But furthermore, carrying false crosses has a real danger: it can make you resentful and angry with God. It can distort your picture of Him, leading to a sense of brokenness in your relationship.
Maybe this is how the devil tempts highly conscientious people.
He knows he can’t get you to fall into the major sins that society rejects. He probably can’t even get you to do the minor sins that hardly bring a glance from the old ladies at church. Highly conscientious people are professional perfectionists. We’ve been practicing since birth how to “be good.” And maybe we’re a little too good at it–but we can talk about the pride/legalism trap another day.
The question is, how can the devil tempt someone who naturally recoils from wrongdoing?
Perhaps he tries to drag us down by pushing us too far in the direction of right-doing. I heard a saying once that “if the devil can’t freeze you in the ice of indifference, he’ll burn you in the fires of fanaticism.”
Are your crosses truth-filled or fanatical? Are they reflections of God’s will for you, or are they productions of your own anxious mind? Do they uplift Christ or make you resent Him?
If you struggle with taking up your cross in a balanced way, please make it a priority to lay aside your false crosses. It is only in this way that you will begin seeing a truer, kinder, and more balanced picture of God begin to emerge.
And when you do, I guarantee that that yoke will be easy, and that burden will be light.
Today, may you find rest for your soul,