Weight loss without exercising? Money without working? A college degree without studying? As the karate instructor in Napoleon Dynamite would say: “Forget about it!” Everything valuable in life usually involves suffering, and being Christ’s disciple is no exception. Jesus warned, “Whoever does not pick up his own cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27) The apostles learned this truth the hard way. Although they loved Jesus dearly, they abandoned him in the garden of Gethsemane because they were afraid to pick up their own cross and follow him to Calvary.
There is a cross that Jesus asks each of us to pick up and carry in our daily lives —the cross of moral conversion. We all have sinful habits that we have allowed to develop over time, obstacles that are keeping us from our greatest calling as disciples of Christ: to become holy as Jesus is holy! God is calling us to die to ourselves, to die to the “big fat ego” that is keeping us from becoming saints. He is inviting us to turn ourselves over to His grace, to work with Him in replacing our sinful habits with virtuous habits. This transformation will bring us great joy, but before we can experience that joy we will have to endure the suffering of conversion.
Consider a Christian who struggles with the sin of gossip. Since he derives a lot of pleasure and self-importance from knowing and exchanging the latest dirt on others, he will have to endure a lot of suffering in order to rid himself of this vice. He will have to avoid those people and conversations where he usually gets his gossip. He will have to bite his tongue and refuse to comment on other people, even when he has a juicy bit of information to share. He will have to stand up for others when he hears them being slandered. To become virtuous, he will have to endure suffering, he will have to pick up the cross… but it is worth it!
Or consider someone who struggles with the sin of impurity. He too will have to endure great suffering to die to this sin, since he has allowed it to take such deep root within his heart. He will have to avoid everything that leads him to temptation, such as certain friends, television shows, magazines, etc. Instead of constantly indulging himself, he will have to develop self-discipline through activities such as exercise or prayerful fasting. He will have to train himself to pray for the women that he is tempted to look lustfully at, whether they are at work, in the street, or on a magazine cover —consciously reminding himself that they are not just candy for his eyes, but unique persons created in God’s image. To die to his old self and to gain the virtue of chastity, he will have to undergo a lot of suffering… but it is worth it!
Yes, the Christian life means embracing the crucifixion of our own moral conversion. But this painful cross does not last forever! It took time for us to develop our sinful habits, and it usually takes time for us to be healed of them —but if we patiently endure the suffering of our conversion, that healing does come! The gossiper slowly realizes that it has become easy for him to control his tongue; the conversations of the past have become as appealing as downing a glass of Clorox. The unchaste person slowly realizes that it has become much easier to respect the gift of sexuality; the temptations of the past are now seen for the empty promises that they truly are. God will work powerful transformations in our hearts, if only we allow Him!
As we approach these final weeks of Lent, we can ask ourselves, “What are the sinful habits that are most keeping me from reaching holiness?” It is extremely tempting to ignore these sins and to tell ourselves, “I’m not really that bad.” We often don’t want to die to our sins, for we enjoy them too much. But don’t I want to be better? Don’t I want to be more free? Don’t I want to experience with Jesus the joy of a pure heart? By embracing the cross with Jesus, we can experience that Easter joy.
(A paper of mine on a similar topic : “The Gospel of Suffering” )Suffering