Those who want to follow Jesus should expect persecution. It comes with the territory. As Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matt 10:24-25)!
“Beelzebul” isn’t a very nice name. It literally means “lord of the flies!” If someone would say this about Jesus, then we should expect no different. Truly following Jesus brings many rewards, but freedom from suffering isn’t one of them.
Even so, Jesus makes it clear that we are to proclaim the gospel openly. “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops,” He tells us (Matt 10:27), going on to say, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matt 10:38).
This last line is very well-known; but it’s often misunderstood. Lots of people talk about “bearing their cross,” but they usually don’t really know what this means.
To put it plainly, the cross is NOT a debilitating illness. It’s not having to deal with a cranky co-worker or family member. It’s not about overcoming bad personal habits like smoking or lust. It’s not about random misfortune. And it’s not about making ourselves miserable now so we can be rewarded later.
All of these things are part of the human experience, and all of them are difficult. They may even be unavoidable sometimes. But none of this has anything to do with “bearing the cross!”
“Taking up the cross” has a clear meaning in Scripture: it means to voluntarily suffer for the sake of this world’s healing. When Jesus’ first disciples saw Him crucified, they saw with absolute clarity where this path would lead them – and yet they kept following Him, even to death.
We too are called to this path. If we want the rewards that come with knowing Jesus, we must be prepared to follow Him even to death!
For some, this death will be literal: they will be killed as martyrs. For others, it will involve a sort of daily “death” that comes whenever we struggle against the dominant power systems of this world. Either way, if we never experience any persecution or trials, it’s doubtful that we are really “following” Jesus.
But death isn’t something we should fear. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, “Jesus tells us, “rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell” (Matt 10:28).
We may wonder why Jesus mentions hell just after to telling us not to be afraid. How in the world is that going to ease our fears?
But perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way. I have come to understand, through prayer, study, and experience that WE are the ones that destroy body and soul in hell – not God or the devil, but us!
We do this in many ways. Some people do it through drug or alcohol abuse. Some do it through smoking. Some do it through overeating. Some do it through pornography. Some do it through war. Some do it through abusing themselves, abusing others, or abusing the earth. Indeed, there’s a lot of ways people create hell right here on this earth, whether or not there’s a hell after death!
In any case, the God I have come to know is not a God of vengeance. God isn’t looking to punish anyone; but we punish ourselves when we reject God’s love or fail to show this love to others.
We have all probably met people who appear to be “dead inside”; and if this soul problem isn’t fixed, it can lead to both physical and spiritual death. But for those who have a strong spirit, nourished by God’s love, death is nothing to fear.
“Not one of the sparrows will fall to the ground apart from your Father,” Jesus tells us (Matt 10:29). In other words, our spiritual life isn’t affected by physical death. If we can come to see that even our death can be used as a part of God’s plan, we will be far less likely to fear it.
“Even the hairs of your head are counted,” Jesus says (Matt 10:30). We are absolutely safe in God’s hands. Nothing, not even death, can change the eternal plans God has for us!
Indeed, true love survives even death. I have come to know from experience that this is true.
My awakening began in September of 2015, when I was visited by the spirit of my deceased girlfriend Christina (who passed on in November of 2014). Her presence was so vivid that it actually felt like she was holding me in her arms.
Christina told me many interesting things about what life is like “on the other side.” She told me that the saints in heaven often find our earthly struggles amusing. She told me that like God, these saints are omnipresent, seeing everything in the universe at once. Most importantly, she told me that she still loves me, and always will.
Ever since that night, I have been contacted by many other spirits (most of them are benevolent ones); and I have talked to four other people who have felt Christina’s presence since she passed. I now know, as much as I can, that this isn’t just something I dreamed up.
Experiences like this have convinced me of two things: there’s life beyond death, and God loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Having come to know this love, I no longer fear death.
Jesus closes this passage by telling us, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39).
Death, it turns out, is the gateway to new life. In order to truly live, we must first die.
There’s at least two senses in which this true. In a literal sense, some creatures must die in order for others to live. The earth can’t sustain an unlimited amount of life – a lesson that we’re learning all too clearly.
But there’s also a spiritual sense in which this is true. Some parts of us must die in order for us to experience the fuller, more joyful life Jesus tells us about.
We must continually die to find new life. When we cling too tightly to any aspect of our lives, we begin to atrophy.
The truth is that those whose lives are wrapped up in perishable things will get bitter when these things are taken away. But if we can let go, willing to lose everything, we will see that nothing good is ever really lost.
If we’re open to it, we can experience a love so deep, so unconditional, so powerful and freeing, that we really can be joyful in all circumstances! We don’t have to wait for heaven, in other words. Heaven is here all around us – if we have the eyes to see it.