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What Does it Mean to Take Up Our Cross?

What Does it Mean to Take Up Our Cross?

Editor's Note: This is Part Two of "On Taking Up the Cross as a Leader." Click the link for Part One.


The place of the skull.

Brutal. Public. Shameful. The sound of nails being hammered through human flesh into sturdy hard wood, of cursing, shrieking, crying, and sighing, “It is finished!”

The cross stands as a jagged disfiguring scar on the horizon of history. Amazing, beyond comprehension or imagination: the creatures crucified the Creator. And now the Creator calls the creatures to take up that same cross. 

Cicero, the ancient Roman writer wrote, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.” The Romans thought the very word cross was obscene, never to be uttered in daily conversation. Yet Jesus calls for us to take up the cross and make it our own, to bend our backs as He bent His back and take on the horrific weight of a horrible death. Why must we do this? Because taking up the cross is the only way we can deny self, the source of our distorted interests and misguided minds.

It’s the self that seeks a kingdom and a crown, striving to go its own way, demanding to lead rather than follow. The self limits leaders and deceives us into seeking death rather than life, and we don’t even know what’s happening. No one could have been more sincere than Peter, nor more certain he was right, when he resisted the cross by rebuking Jesus, yet he was radically and painfully wrong. This self is so deceptive and destructive that it leads us into death while we think we are laying hold of life. To say no to self is to resist the most powerful force in our lives apart from the cross and the Holy Spirit. We are powerless to deny the self—we can say the words but we cannot do the actions. Even if we lock ourselves in a desert cave totally cut off from any temptation of any kind, we will still do what the self solicits. Only the cross has the power to take our "No!" to the self and make it real.


Because the cross is more than a memory or a metaphor; the cross is a reality, the expression and source of God’s powerful grace poured out for all who will respond, and it remains today what it was on that awful Good Friday, the greatest demonstration ever of God’s mercy and enablement. Leaders cannot lead without a conscious dependence on the cross and what it means. This is the point Jesus made so forcefully with Peter when He called His future leader "Satan" and told him to get out of His sight. At that moment He couldn’t stand even the sight of Peter because he so reminded Him of Satan and the awful temptation that came from the most powerful created being in the universe, the temptation to do God’s will Satan’s way by becoming ruler of all without taking up the cross. What made Peter’s response so heinous to Jesus? His focus, the driving force behind his actions. True, Peter rebuked Jesus out of concern for Him, but Peter was also concerned for himself. Peter was concerned that if Jesus went to the cross, he would have to as well, and if that happened he would never get the crown he believed was his because he followed Jesus.

As leaders we have the same expectation as Peter, the expectation of a crown from Jesus because we have given up all to follow Him. But it’s possible that we haven’t given up all and we may not even be following Jesus; we may actually be pursuing our will in Jesus’ name. We have not given up our crown because we, like Peter, have set our minds on man’s interests, not God’s. And we do this in Jesus’ name; we do this while saying we have given up all, while striving to give up all, while seeking in every way to give up all, while sincerely believing we have given up all. Yet, sooner or later, like Peter, we discover that we have set our minds on man’s interests and not God’s. Sooner or later we hear the echo of Jesus’ analysis of Peter coming down across the ages to us, and then we hear His call to deny self, take up the cross, and follow Him.

What does it mean to take up our cross? To take up the cross is to make a total radical commitment to God’s will for you, to be dependent upon God’s power for you, not just God’s will for your life or God’s will for your career or God’s will for your ethics or God’s will for the kind of house you buy or the kind of car you drive or what you do for your retirement or how you manage your money or what or how you do anything, as important as these things are. To take up the cross is not only about external behaviors; it is about far more than that. It is about God’s will for you—about the kind of man or woman you are becoming, not only about such deeper things as how you love your mate or how you nurture your children or how you honor your parents. No, it is even more deeply about you as a person, about your interests and your expectations and all that is in your heart. Taking up the cross is a total and radical commitment to God’s will for your heart and God’s power to overcome its interests, expectations, and demands.

But how do we take up our cross? By following Jesus, not as a life-style, but as a death-style, as a dying to self that comes when you empty yourself, humble yourself, and sacrifice yourself. Elsewhere, when Jesus asks His disciples if they have hardened hearts (Mark 8:17), He is talking about the 'self' in them. Thus, if you wish to follow Jesus and become His kind of leader, you must empty yourself, humble yourself, and sacrifice yourself by and so take up your cross in accordance with Philippians 2:5-8.

Empty yourself

A hardened heart is a heart that looks without seeing, listens without hearing, and acts without impacting. It does so because it is full of self. Self so fills the eyes, the ears, and the hands that they are rendered useless, unable to see or hear God, and incapable of serving Him effectively. This is why we must consciously empty ourselves, even as Jesus emptied Himself. He gave up all His prerogatives, all His rights, all His unveiled glory, all the independent power that He rightfully possessed. He was God, but He emptied Himself of all that His deity gave Him, though not His deity itself. He did this consciously, freely, and fully. When He came to earth, He came totally as a man subjected to His Father’s will and dependent on the Spirit’s power to take up His cross.

We must do the same. We must give up all our rights, all our privileges, all our independence, and subject ourselves to the Father’s will through dependence on the Spirit’s power. By doing this, we take up our cross.

This does not mean as leaders that we divest ourselves of our responsibility or our authority any more than Jesus did. To the contrary, we gain our true authority and fulfill our total responsibility when we empty ourselves. When Jesus emptied Himself, He did it so He could fulfill the Father’s will, which resulted in His having "all authority in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus exercised authority over the Pharisees and the Sadducees, over demons and the devil, even over the Romans when He yielded Himself to them for crucifixion. Jesus demonstrated an authority He could never have exercised had He not emptied Himself of all but the Father’s will. So also do we when we turn from our rights and the independent exercise of our wills to what God wants us to do even though it costs us the cross. Like Jesus, we could never become who the Father wants us to be apart from the cross, and we can never take up the cross unless we empty ourselves of the deepest desires and expectations of our hearts. So we consciously and prayerfully empty ourselves, measuring ourselves by God’s word and God’s will, seeking daily to move progressively toward our emptiness so we can grow progressively into Christ’s fullness. This demands that we humble ourselves.

Humble yourself

For years I read Peter’s words, “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God..." (1 Peter 5:6), and asked myself how can a proud man humble himself? That statement, addressed to proud men, seemed contradictory to me. Proud men can only be humbled; a proud man cannot humble himself. Then I paid attention to a passage I had read and even taught countless times: "He humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8)." This is how Jesus took up the cross: He humbled himself by entering into God’s will for Him, even while He prayed that He might not have to drink the crucifixion cup. We humble ourselves when we obey God no matter what it costs us, especially when it costs us the cross with its shame and brokenness and denial of self. He humbled himself by saying yes when He wanted to say no, by doing what God wanted Him to do even though He sweat drops of blood at the thought of what was before Him.

So humble yourself: stay where you are, say yes when you want to say no, do what God wants, listen to the criticism, endure the injustice, embrace the unfairness, take up the cross, suffer the shame—and enter into resurrection. This alone is what will make you the leader God created you to be.

Sacrifice yourself

God’s will took Jesus to the cross and cost Him His life, and God’s will takes us to the cross and costs us our lives as we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to our Father. Our hearts now become "altared" hearts—hearts that are placed on the altar of God in order to sacrifice our interests so we can focus on His interests. This is how we love our enemies; this is how we bless those who curse us; this is how we forgive the unfaithful; this is how we heap burning coals of fire on the heads of those who harm us. This is how we see our weakness transformed into Christ’s power and glory. As leaders we all long for the power to accomplish our purpose, prove our worth, and gain our glory, and we strive constantly to achieve this. What we frequently don’t understand is that our way is not God’s way, that power does not come from self-assertion but from self-denial, that God’s way makes no sense to us, but it’s the only way to power and glory.

When we take up our cross we experience the pain of death—and this pain is real, a cup we don’t want to drink. Criticism, attack, rejection, false accusations, confusion, misunderstanding—all of this and more come to us as leaders. Yet something else comes with the cross: glory, the glory of Christ’s resurrection power, the glory of His presence and His enablement, of His approval and His blessing, glory we can give to Him, glory we have always been seeking, but we’ve looked for in all the wrong places.

To be the leader you long to be, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. Do what Jesus did: empty yourself, humble yourself, and sacrifice yourself. Do that and you will finally become yourself. Could you ever become anything more glorious? Could you ever give more glory to God?

Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International (LFI) as well as Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. 
Bill began LFI in 2002 to minister to leaders around the world who are impacting the nations for Christ. Having watched God form his own life as a leader-mentor over thirty-seven years in ministry (including twelve years as a founding pastor, twelve years as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership, and over twenty-three years as a seminary faculty member), Bill helps other leaders recognize the reality that their success as a leader depends upon God's formative work in their heart. Bill has been privileged to personally serve leaders in Asia, Central Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. He has also produced a six-part video/workbook series,
 Forming Davids for the 21st Century, which is a perfect resource to help groups of individual leaders engage with each other in the leader formation journey.

Publication date: July 13, 2011