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What does ‘Take up your cross, and follow after me’ mean?

In Matthew 10:34, Jesus says

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Commenting on this, Robert Barron says

“And this is just what we, his followers, must imitate. Taking up the cross means not just being willing to suffer, but being willing to suffer as he did, absorbing violence and hatred through our forgiveness and nonviolence.”

The problem with this interpretation is that Jesus doesn’t seem to be referring to being willing to suffer here. Rather, ‘taking up one’s cross’ seems to be referring to ‘dying to oneself’, as the next line after it suggests.

This line comes at a point where Jesus is preparing his disciples to go out into the world. These are the elite shock-troops who will start the new Kingdom (and they were quite successful – the seeds they planted led, within a few hundred years, to Constantine becoming the first Christian leader of the Roman Empire, and the beginning of Christianity as the official religion thereof – but this was based on a more organic growth of Jesus’ ‘Kingdom’ before that, where the population of Christians was increasing dramatically).

Here, he is preparing them for the push-back they will almost inevitably get as they start to challenge many prevailing ideas of the time.

So the idea of taking up one’s cross is part of dealing with potential persecution, but is it a call to endure suffering? This doesn’t make sense for various reasons.

Jesus didn’t say that being a Christian meant an increase in suffering. Rather, he said it meant an increase in joy and serenity. So this idea is counter to a basic message in Jesus’ teaching.

Some people interpret the taking up of one’s cross as carrying something heavy for a long time, but Jesus said the opposite – his ‘yoke is easy, and his burden is light’.

Similarly, the connotation of carrying a cross in the ancient world wasn’t of carrying something heavy for a long time, but rather of dying.

So, if we are to say that taking up one’s cross means in some sense dying, are we to understand this literally – as a call for martyrdom?

This doesn’t make sense with the text, because Jesus says ‘whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow after him isn’t worthy of Jesus’. Whoever means everyone. Understood literally, he meant everyone should be martyred, but if that’s right, then the apostle John wasn’t worthy of him, because John lived to a ripe old age and wasn’t martyred. So, that can’t be the right interpretation.

So what does it mean to ‘lose one’s life for Jesus’ sake’? I think a more reasonable interpretation is the setting aside of an ego-based life, and instead focusing on helping to create the Kingdom of which Jesus speaks, i.e., doing good things in alignment with God’s will. One must lose one’s old ego-centric life in order to gain this new way of living, and taking up one’s cross is a dramatic way of understanding this process of letting go of the ego-centric self, and instead making God (i.e., the good) the centre, which means aligning one’s will with God’s will.

Integrative prayer

By integrative prayer I mean prayer that integrates listening and doing. I.e., the practice of discernment and then action.

Many people seem to think prayer ought to consist of asking God to do things. If it is a part of prayer, this might make sense. On its own, it is probably a mistake.

Jesus was constantly exhorting his listeners to do things. Consider the Our Father, his archetypal prayer. “Thy will be done.” Done by whom? Us. When? Now. We ought to not merely pray for others, but help them, love them, forgive them, and so on. People who miss the dimension of action in their prayers are missing a large point of the spiritual life.

But doing is not enough. Action without discernment is more often than not blind and foolish. Therefore doing implies listening. Prayer centrally involves listening to God, and you can think of this as drawing on the totality of your mental resources. To listen to God is to attune yourself to the information (intuitions, wisdom, reason, empirical data, imagination) within yourself, as illuminated by an on-going, live relationship with or connection to God.

So, the arc is

  1. Discern outcome.
  2. Discern action to take.
  3. Take action. (Note that sometimes this means waiting and letting things play out.)
  4. Repeat.

One part of discernment is not only discerning what action and how to take it, but what it is we ought to be aiming at in the first place. In fact, this part of discernment is probably the most important part.

So, integrative prayer is integrating, or combining, these steps into prayer life on an on-going, everyday basis.

Trusting (‘faith’) God is important for all these steps. If you don’t trust in your relationship with God, why would you turn to Him to discern what you ought to aim for? Similarly, why turn to Him to discern the actions to take once you’ve figured out what to aim for? And if you don’t trust Him, how likely are you to be willing to take (sometimes seemingly risky) actions based on that? So trust is the thread that runs through the steps of integrative prayer.

Trust is gained, like in most relationships, by starting small in the cycle, while simultaneously building a lived, experienced sense of the presence of God in your day to day life. How to do the latter is another, important, topic.

The proper aim of ecumenism

Ecumenism in Christianity aims at unity between branches of Christianity. It’s important to distinguish, however, between unity in spirit and unity in organization.

That Christians have better dialogue, exchange of ideas, and a sense of kinship all sounds like the right approach to me. However, there is also a sense in Christianity that there needs to be unity of organization – one church, say. This to me seems an error.

First, understanding various denominations is important for 3 reasons. 1. It allows you to see what’s working in another approach, and consider how to modify it and apply it yourself. 2. It allows you to see what’s not working in another approach, avoid it, and also give constructive feedback. 3. It allows you to cooperate or coordinate on areas where there is overlap between your approaches.

Having said that, diversity of approaches can be highly useful. The basic idea is the same as in free markets. Different approaches = experimentation = success of certain approaches, iterated. This is similar to various ideas in evolutionary biology – having a certain amount of diversity of approaches is useful.

Therefore, it seems wrong-headed to me for Christians to want all Christians to move to the same church, or even to see it as primarily a competition between churches. Christianity, as a whole, probably benefits from different approaches, learning from other approaches, and being critical of approaches that seem obviously wrong. Understanding what is actually happening in other churches benefits all these points, and ecumenism properly should be about better understanding of other approaches with an approach to unity in spirit.

Christianity is a practice, not a theory

Christianity is a practice, not a theory. Therefore, any objections to it on the level of theory have to be relevant on the level of practice.

For example, I might object to the pacifist philosophy on which aikido is based, and have what I think are knock-down arguments against them. Yet, in the end my objections have to effect the practice of aikido, to be an objection to aikido.

Jesus was very light on theory, and rather all about action, and modern day practitioners of Christianity should heed that – it’s very easy for egg-heads to cause more damage than harm, often through unintended side-effects of their proposed theoretical solution.


What’s important

When trying to understand Christianity, two of the most important things are

  1. To distinguish between what is central and what is peripheral and
  2. To distinguish between practical and theoretical.

Consider 1. when applied to scripture. There are many passages in the Old Testament which portray God as a kind of tyrant. Yet, in the New Testament in the person of Jesus, God is portrayed very differently. Christians who try to hold onto both kinds of characterizations intellectually, tend to lose both, because they are incompatible.

If you get clear about what is central, then objections to Christianity based on God supposedly ordering slaughter, for example, lose their import. This is because it is very easy to hold that those characterizations are in some way wrong, even if you don’t know exactly in what way. You have to give up something (scriptural infallibility, say), but you don’t have to give up everything, and the former is a lot better from the perspective of Christianity. You can do this because you have clarity about what is central and what is not, scripturally. Christians risk losing everything if they try to make everything central – they create an intellectually and empirically very fragile worldview. If someone prioritizes aspects of Christianity, however, it is not difficult to create a robust worldview.

Consider 2. There are all sorts of theories about all sorts of things in Christianity (as in life in general). Some of these theories lead to things that cause seeming paradoxes, or perhaps seem to have absurd implications. Many theories that have been prominent in the history of Christianity are also very difficult to test. Practices, however, speak for themselves to a large extent, and tend to be much easier to test qua practices.

For example, it is very difficult to test the Catholic theology regarding the Eucharist and transubstantiation of the bread and wine. However, it is relatively easy to test what kinds of effects regular Communion has on people who do so in a particular attitude. For one to lift weights, it doesn’t really matter if some of the standard consensus about why weight lifting causing increases in muscular strength hold up. It just matters if weight lifting does cause increases in muscular strength. The latter is easy to test, and easy to make us of. It would be ridiculous to not weight lift just because you thought some of the standard theory behind why it works isn’t right.

What does ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ mean in Christianity?

What does ‘the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ mean in Christianity? The Way is fairly straightforward from the context, it means ‘the way to the Father’, i.e., to God.

The Truth is more tricky. Nowadays, people often equate truth with objects, their location in space, their momentum, and so on. Jesus here is referring to spiritual truth. It is about proper action, values, and relates to meaning or purpose. This is a more ancient notion of truth, and is related to reliable systems for guiding us in our actions. The idea here is that Jesus teaches spiritual truth, and also embodies this truth in his actions.

The Life again means spiritual life. “I have come so you may have life and have it fully.” The obvious connotation here is eternal life, but it is not just life, rather full life. Jesus is the path to full and eternal life, and also embodies it in his own life story (with the resurrection). Full and eternal life comes, at root, from a relationship with the Father, according to Christianity. Jesus is the link between us and the Father, offering us his teachings, his example, and the precedent of his own death and resurrection, which changes on a fundamental level the possibilities for other people, according to Christianity.

Why is a Christian inner sense of peace not ‘of this world’?

Why is a Christian inner sense of peace not ‘of this world’? Because this peace comes from an experience of God, and comes from trusting in God to guide one’s actions. In a phrase, it comes from cultivating a relationship with God.

This is in distinction to a sense of peace that is of this world, such as peace that comes from having a large amount of money in a bank account, having high status in one’s society, and so on.

Peterson and the sin against the Holy Ghost

That’s why the logos is the thing that’s at the top of the hierarchy. That’s how the hierarchy should be structured for everything else. You have a structure, and you think, what should the structure be subordinate to? The answer should be something like, the structure should be subordinate to the process that generates the structure, or the structure should be subordinate to the process that generates and maintains the structure. Obviously. How could it be any other way, unless the structure’s perfect? In which case you dispense with the thing that generates it and improves it, but then you’re a totalitarian. It’s like, hey, we got the answer. No. You don’t. People are still suffering, and they’re still dying. You don’t have the damn answer. Maybe you have an answer that means there isn’t quite as much suffering and dying as there could be, but there’s plenty of road to be travelled, yet. So it all makes perfect sense that all of this should be nested within this. I think of it as the highest order of moral striving. And then that also gives you a moral hierarchy. That’s the most important thing. You do that with attention and honest speech. That’s how you do that. You don’t sacrifice that to any of this, because if you do, then you’re hurting your soul.

There’s this idea in the New Testament that the sin against the Holy Ghost is the one sin that can’t be forgiven. No one knows what the hell that means. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. But I think this is what it means: because this process generates all this, if you violate that process, then there’s no hope for you, because that’s the process by which you improve yourself and everything else, too. So if you decide you’re not going to engage in that, it’s like, well, there’s no fixing that. You’ve blown apart your relationship with the thing that does the fixing. (Jordan Peterson, Biblical Series VI: The Psychology of the Flood, 2017)

Emmet Fox gives a similar answer, 80 years earlier.

What is the sin against the Holy Ghost? The sin against the Holy Ghost is any action on your part which prevents the activity of the Holy Ghost from taking place in your soul; anything which shuts you off from the ever-fresh energizing action of God that is spiritual life itself. The penalty for this mistake is spiritual stagnation and, since the only remedy in such a case consists in the direct action of the Holy Spirit, and this mistake in itself tends to prevent that very action from taking place, a condition of vicious deadlock results. Now it is obvious that this condition must necessarily remain as long as the mistake is persisted in, and so, in this sense, the sin is unforgivable. The problem cannot be solved in any way until the victim is prepared to change his attitude. The symptoms of this malady are spiritual stagnation, and all-round failure to demonstrate [(i.e., concrete results of God’s actions in one’s life)], and these are only too often accompanied by much self-righteousness and spiritual pride. (Emmet Fox, The Sermon on the Mount, 1938)

Peterson’s answer is compatible with Fox’s, but Peterson’s is more abstract. It’s too abstract, and this is a general problem with Peterson’s Biblical exegesis. He gets lots of things right, and often draws connections between Biblical stories or motifs and very interesting psychological insights, but the basic framework he seems to be working in for much of his commentary is basically secular. This is not surprising for someone who works in a public Canadian university in the humanities, where among the faculties Christianity is largely considered obviously false or even anathema, or for someone who is trying to connect with people who are secular themselves. If the latter, that is good as a starting point, but the answers need to move to things that are more specifically Christian and spiritual, such as Fox’s take in this case, which as far as I can tell is getting more at what Jesus is talking about.

God’s will be done – by whom?

Hello Daddy! We want to know you. And be close to you. Please show us how. Make everything in the world right again. And in our hearts, too. Do what is best – just like you do in heaven. And please do it down here, too. Please give us everything we need today. Forgive us for doing wrong, for hurting you. Forgive us just as we forgive other people when they hurt us. Rescue us! We need you. We don’t want to keep running away and hiding from you. Keep us safe from our enemies. You’re strong, God. You can do whatever you want. You are in charge. Now and forever and for always! We think you’re great! Amen! Yes we do!

This paraphrase of the Our Father, in The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones, inverts the meaning of a key part of the Our Father, which is “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”

The point of this line in the original Our Father isn’t that God should do His will, and our role is to encourage him enough that he actually does it. What kind of God would God be if we had to make him get off his backside and actually do the Good? It seems absurd.

Rather, the line is about us doing God’s will. God’s will be done – by whom? Us. When? Now. The line’s point is to remind us to seek to do God’s will, and this is why it makes sense to incorporate it into a prayer, as prayer is primarily about refashioning our own habitual thoughts and therefore actions.

In the background is a theological problem, namely the idea of God’s classical omnipotence (you can see this in the “You can do whatever you want.” part). Yet, the idea of classical omnipotence is hard to find in the Gospels (presumably, the correlate is ‘thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory’, but saying God has ‘power’ isn’t saying he has classical omnipotence). If God can do whatever He wants, then why does He need to wait around for us to remind him to do the Good?

Almost all forms of Christianity posit that God is limited in some radical way – typically, this is understood as involving the gift of free will to creatures. Whatever the theology, though, the point is that God is limited, and that we have to act. Jesus’ focus is almost entirely on our actions, and on the importance of us taking action to make the world a bit better. For example, love your neighbour, forgive others, help the poor, and so on.

So, this is an example of taking theology developed after the Gospels were written (by Augustine, among others) and then reading that back into the Our Father, so as to almost invert the intended meaning of the prayer! In the process, as it is a kid’s book, it is setting up children for cognitive dissonance – it is a natural and obvious question to ask ‘If God can do whatever He wants, why do I need to constantly nag him about it?’

A significant part of Christianity’s problems nowadays is a) focusing too much on theology (Jesus is almost entirely practical) and b) being unable to come up with adequate answers to obvious questions about certain theologies developed after the Gospels (which leads to the obvious question, ‘Is this bad theology?’).

Swear not at all

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all […]

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. (Matthew 5)

I didn’t know what to make of this when I originally read it. It seemed peculiar, and an outlier of what Jesus is saying in other parts of the Sermon on the Mount. I did not see the import of it. Yet, Emmet Fox reverses that. He says (The Sermon on the Mount, p. 68-70)

Swear not at all is one of the cardinal points in the teaching of Jesus. It means, briefly, that you are not to take vows. You are not to mortgage your future conduct in advance; to undertake to do or to refrain from doing something tomorrow, or next year, or thirty years hence.

This is striking, because Fox claims this is not peripheral but cardinal. Why would ‘not taking vows’ be central to Jesus’ thought? As he continues,

It is an absolutely vital part of [Jesus’] teaching that you are constantly to seek direct inspirational contact with God, constantly to keep yourself an open channel for the pouring out of the Holy Spirit into manifestation through you. Now, if you make up your mind in advance as to what you shall do or shall not do, shall believe of shall not believe, shall think or shall not think, shall be or shall not be, tomorrow, or next year, or for the rest of your life – and especially when you crystallize this determination by a solemn act of the will like a vow – you are not leaving yourself open to the action of the Paraclete; but you are, by that very act, shutting him out. If you are to receive the guidance of God, Divine Wisdom, it is absolutely essential that you have an open mind, because it so often happens that the part of wisdom is not in accord with your own personal feelings or present opinions. But if you have taken a vow or made a promise concerning your soul, for tomorrow, you are no longer uncommitted; and unless you are uncommitted, the action of the Holy Spirit cannot take place. This, in fact, is nothing less than the sin against the Holy Ghost of which the Bible speaks, which has caused so much terror to sensitive hearts, and concerning which there seems to be a very general misunderstanding.

What is the sin against the Holy Ghost? The sin against the Holy Ghost is any action on your part which prevents the activity of the Holy Ghost from taking place in your soul; anything which shuts you off from the ever-fresh energizing action of God that is spiritual life itself. The penalty for this mistake is spiritual stagnation and, since the only remedy in such a case consists in the direction action of the Holy Spirit, and this mistake in itself tends to prevent that very action from taking place, a condition of vicious deadlock results. Now it is obvious that this condition must necessarily remain as long as the mistake is persisted in, and so, in this sense, the sin is unforgivable. The problem cannot be solved in any way until the victim is prepared to change his attitude. The symptoms of this malady are spiritual stagnation, and all-round failure to demonstrate [(i.e., concrete results of God’s actions in one’s life)], and these are only too often accompanied by much self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

So Fox takes something that seems peripheral (‘don’t make vows’), and then interprets it in light of something central to Jesus’ thought (one should aim to be in constant, live contact with God). This is the right way to do Scriptural exegesis in general – to throw light on what seems incongruous or irrelevant in terms of what is known to be central. In this sense, the odd claim to not make vows can be seen as an application of a central part of Jesus’ thought (be open to God’s Wisdom, and do His will).

Furthermore, Fox then extends that to making sense of another, seemingly singular and confounding claim Jesus makes about a ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’, which is a natural implication of the point about making vows!

To conclude, Fox then draws the obvious conclusion if this is the correct interpretation – Jesus didn’t mean to not enter into everyday business contracts and so on.

Of course, Jesus does not mean that you are not to enter into ordinary business engagements, such as taking up the lease of a house, signing an agreement for certain services, entering into partnership, and so on. Nor does he mean that the ordinary oath administered in a court of law is inadmissable. These things are matters of legal convenience for the transaction of business between man and man, and they are right and necessary in an ordered society. The Sermon on the Mount, as we have seen, is a treatise on the spiritual life, for the spiritual controls all the rest. One who understands the spiritual teaching of Jesus, and practices it, will be in no danger of breaking honorable agreements. He will be an ideal tenant, a desirable business partner, and a reliable witness in court.

In other words, the superficial and tempting interpretation is almost the opposite of what is meant, just as a material interpretation of, say, the second Lukean beatitude (‘blessed are the hungry’) isn’t at all the proper sense (rather, ‘blessed are those who hunger for righteousness’, the key being given in this case from Matthew, a completely different idea).