My hypothesis up until now is that following Christ, because such a path is congruent with the way life should be lived, is the most satisfying lifestyle possible, from every perspective, including the psychological. In other words, Christ-followers ought to be well-adjusted, peace-filled, and happy. I have not found this to be the case. In fact, I have struggled with exactly the opposite. The Spiritual Exercises have helped me to understand why.
Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Since Jesus was referring to the Roman instrument of capital punishment, death of the disciple is clearly implied. Few people view death as a particularly worthwhile pursuit, yet that is what Christ is urging his disciples to undertake. Lest we think that Christ is being mean-spirited, we need to remember that this is the same Christ whose love was so great that it would drive him to give his all for the sins of all people. He is not offering death as a punishment but, because he loves us, he offers death as a benefit. This brings a whole new meaning to the notion of “death benefit”.
Jesus knows better than anyone that death is ugly and undesirable; indeed, the Spirit designates death as the last enemy. Jesus, along with the rest of us, knows that death is inevitable. What he knows that we don’t is that death is a critical component of our lives, referring to current life not end of life. Since Jesus’ words arguably were not intended to suggest that his disciples ought to commit suicide on a cross, “take up his cross” is a metaphor for sacrifice, suffering, and death-to-self. If I take the metaphor one step further, and observe that the cross is also the way to resurrection and life with God, I stand a chance of simultaneously minimizing the crucial point: a life of following Jesus involves sacrifice and suffering, to the point of death.
Through the metaphor of the cross, Jesus is warning us that, if we want to follow him, life will be hard, and at times, very, very hard. Why? because repentance, or “rethinking my life,” means that I will have to stop living for myself. That is easy to say, but excruciating to live out. Take an alcoholic as an example. Quitting alcohol is extremely difficult. It involves constant, uninterrupted, maximal effort. The risk of “falling off the wagon” is ever present. The psychological torment of purposefully not-drinking is inestimable and not understood by acquaintances of the alcoholic, sober or not.
Many are inclined to think that if an alcoholic wants to stop drinking, then he should “just quit.” Likewise, many believe that following the imperative, “Be holy as I am holy,” is also easy: “Just do it.” It doesn’t work like that. For an alcoholic, quitting alcohol is an excruciating experience and, for a sinner, so is quitting “self.” Both goals involve suffering and sacrifice on a level that is not understood except by others who are currently endeavoring to follow the same path.
Sinners undertaking the Spiritual Exercises are like alcoholics joining Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in that serious life issues are identified and dealt with in permanently life changing ways. The process of the Exercises bears other characteristics in common with AA. Importantly, alcoholics learn that the sacrifice and suffering associated with recovery will last for the rest of their lives because whether they drink again or not, they will always be alcoholics. Similarly, those who do the Exercises will find the path difficult, the obstacles formidable, the progress slow, and that intense effort will be required for the rest of life. Both the alcoholic and the sinner must come to terms with the fact that their will is weak and that progress, if any occurs, comes through great sacrifice and suffering. They will be supremely disappointed to find that no matter how much progress is made, they will never be anything but what they are: an alcoholic or a sinner. In fact, over time they will discover that their condition is actually worse than they ever thought, which only compounds the suffering. The greatest paradox, though, is that alcoholics who join AA can anticipate that sacrifice and suffering results from having chosen to do the right thing. Likewise, sinners engaged in the Exercises will be astounded to find that suffering, rather than being diminished, actually intensifies, not so much as a direct consequence of sin, but as a result of having chosen to do the right thing: take up your cross, and follow the Savior.
Prior to taking up the Exercises, I anticipated that choosing to do the right thing by following Christ would lead naturally toward victory over sin, advancement in holiness, satisfaction in life, and a sense of accomplishment and spiritual progress. Instead, I feel more like the alcoholic who starts attending AA meetings only to find out that, rather than getting better, he’s getting worse, at least initially, even if he manages to quit drinking. He discovers that recovery is painful, depressing, and excruciatingly slow. He knows that there is a high probability for setbacks and even recidivism. Doubts about whether or not to continue arise, often. Fear of failure looms. A seemingly unconquerable desire for alcohol crops up out of nowhere and at the worst possible times. Even without drinking a single drop, every day will be dominated by alcohol. Much of the time, recovery will seem like death.
Quitting self is no different.