“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34). Self-denial can never be defined as some profusion – be it ever so great – of individual acts of self-torment or of asceticism. It is not suicide, since there, too, a person’s self-will can yet assert itself. Self-denial means knowing only Christ, and no longer oneself. It means seeing only Christ, who goes ahead of us, and no longer the path that is too difficult for us. Again, self-denial is saying only: He goes ahead of us; hold fast to him…
The first suffering we must experience is the call sundering our ties to this world. This is the death of the old human being in the encounter with Jesus Christ. Whoever enters discipleship enters Jesus’ death, and puts his or her own life into death; this has been so from the beginning. The cross is not the horrible end of a pious, happy life, but stands rather at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Every call of Christ leads to death. Whether with the first disciples we leave home and occupation in order to follow him, or whether with Luther we leave the monastery to enter a secular profession, in either case, the one death awaits us, namely, death in Jesus Christ, the dying away of our old form of being human in Jesus’ call.
But there is yet another suffering and yet another disgrace that no Christian escapes. Only Christ’s own suffering is the suffering of reconciliation. Yet because Christ did suffer for the sake of the world’s sins, because the entire burden of sin fell upon him, and because Jesus Christ bequeaths to the disciples the fruit of his suffering – because of all this, temptation and sin also fall upon the disciples. It covers them with pure shame, and expels them from the gates of the city like the scapegoat. Thus does the Christian come to bear sin and guilt for others.
Individual Christians would collapse under the weight of this, were they not themselves borne by him who bore all sins. In this way, however, they can, in the power of Christ’s own suffering, overcome all the sins that fall upon them by forgiving them. Thus do Christians become the bearers of burdens: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Just as Christ bears our burdens, so also are we to bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters. The law of Christ which must be fulfilled is the bearing of the cross. The burden of my brother or sister that I am to bear is not only that person’s external fate, that person’s character and personality, but is in a very real sense that person’s sin. I cannot bear it except by forgiving it, in the power of the cross of Christ in which I, too, have a portion.
Those who are not prepared to take up the cross, those who are not prepared to give their life to suffering and rejection by others, lose community with Christ, and are not disciples. Discipleship is commitment to the suffering Christ.
Whether we really have found God’s peace will be shown by how we deal with the sufferings that will come upon us. There are many Christians who do, indeed, kneel before the cross of Jesus Christ, and yet reject and struggle against every tribulation in their own lives. They believe they love the cross of Christ, and yet they hate that cross in their own lives. And so in truth they hate the cross of Jesus Christ as well, and in truth despise that cross and try by any means possible to escape it.
Those who acknowledge that they view suffering and tribulation in their own lives only as something hostile and evil can see from this very fact that they have not at all found peace with God. They have basically merely sought peace with the world, believing possibly that by means of the cross of Jesus Christ they might best come to terms with themselves and with all their questions, and thus find inner peace of the soul. They have used the cross, but not loved it. They have sought peace for their own sake. But when tribulation comes, that peace quickly flees them. It was not peace with God, for they hated the tribulation God sends.
Thus those who merely hate tribulation, renunciation, distress, defamation, imprisonment in their own lives, no matter how grandiosely they may otherwise speak about the cross, these people in reality hate the cross of Jesus and have not found peace with God. But those who love the cross of Jesus Christ, those who have genuinely found peace in it, now begin to love even the tribulations in their lives, and ultimately will be able to say with scripture, “We also boast in our sufferings.”
See also Was Bonhoeffer Willing to Kill? a book review by Charles E. Moore.
Excerpted from Bread and Wine.