"If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).
When Jesus uses the word “cross” he is referring to suffering as an “instrument of salvation.” This makes sense in reference to his suffering and death but many Christians wonder, isn’t what Jesus did enough? Why do we have to carry our crosses?
Of course, what Jesus did was "enough." That is not the right question. Rather, it should be: "Exactly what was it enough for?"
It was enough to not only save us from hell - eternal death & suffering - but also to provide us with the ability (grace) to do what He did in the midst of the sufferings and hardships of this life; to love the way he did.
Jesus does not want our sorrows to be fruitless, but to become a cross - a means of elevating and sanctifying our souls and at the same time, an instrument of salvation for others. In reality, all suffering is transformed, changed into a cross as soon as we accept it from the hands of the Savior (Jesus, I trust in you), and cling to His will which transforms it for our spiritual advantage. This is key because suffering in itself does not work for the good or automatically make us holy. "If it did, all those in hell would be saved, for they endure great suffering and that pain is eternal. It is because Jesus suffered and we unite our pain to His that suffering changes and transforms us. It is because His Spirit dwells in our souls through Baptism that He suffers when we suffer" (Mother Angelica).
There are many spiritual advantages to allowing Jesus to transform our suffering and difficulties into crosses – instruments of salvation. Here are six:
1. Our crosses purify our faith, hope and love and, at the same time, heal the temporal consequences of our sins.
1 Peter 1:6-9
"In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls."
Romans 5:2-4, 10:
“We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope…. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.”
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Each difficult situation that we experience has been sent or allowed by God to purify us (to free us to love) in a specific way. Just as when you go to the gym, you use different machines to lift weights so that all of your different muscles are strengthened; God is perfecting us in love through the combination of our trials. Holiness is not achieved through one difficult event or one difficult situation. Each struggle has something in it that we need – a hidden treasure. These hidden treasures will be revealed as we persevere. We will not be the same person at the end of the trial that we were at the beginning.
Hebrews 12:7, 11
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?…No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”
2. Our crosses benefit others when we offer our sufferings up as a prayer of intercession for them.
On July 13, 1917 Our Lady of Fatima recommended to the three shepherd children:
“Sacrifice yourselves for sinners, and say many times, especially when you make some sacrifice:
O Jesus, it is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for the sins committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”
Before Our Lady appeared to the children, the Angel of Peace asked them to do this as well. On his second visit the Angel told the children:
“Offer prayers and sacrifices constantly to the Most High.”
Lucia, trying to understand how to obey the angel, asks:
“How are we to make sacrifices?”
The Angel of Peace responded:
" Make of everything you can a sacrifice, and offer it God as an act of reparation for the sins by which he is offended and in supplication for the conversion of sinners.”
What does it mean to “make of everything a sacrifice”?
Our days our filled with potential sacrifices. To start with, you can offer your daily duties according to your state in life (e.g. married, single, student, job, family, etc.), especially the ones you do not enjoy. Do them with all the love, devotion, professionalism and diligence that you are capable and offer them to God as a prayer of reparation for sinners.
After that you can add self-imposed penances like getting up early to pray, not eating sweets, or going without cream in your coffee.
This teaching is key to living a life of sacrificial readiness for God and souls. We are called to make everything we experience an offering to God, whether it is something we enjoy, a self-imposed penance or something we must endure: all these things can be transformed through love and elevated into a gift to God for the redemption of souls.
To increase the merit of the children’s offering the Angel added:
“Above all, accept and bear with submission, the suffering which the Lord will send you.”
These are the penances that can be the most difficult to offer as a gift, but, for that very reason, have the most value and merit. In offering back to God the sufferings that He sends, those things which are so contrary to our desires, things we could or would never choose for ourselves, we avoid the temptations of self-complacency, self-will or pride in doing self-imposed penance only.
Think of how many things that happen each day that are not as we would like them to be. All of these things are a gift from God, an opportunity for us to make reparation for the sins that offend God and as supplication for sinners. We can also offer them as indulgences for our loved ones who have died in reparation for the sins that they did make amends for before their death (see more about this below). Concretely, we can offer what we:
Do not like (sickness, disappointment, loneliness, difficult relationships, etc.)
Did not choose (busted pipes, traffic, SSA, gender-identity crisis, heavy workload, rejection, the death of a loved one, etc.)
Cannot change (bad weather, fatigue, lack of appreciation, grief, etc.)
As things happen throughout the day, that fall into any of these categories, we can accept them with trust in God (Divine Providence) and offer them with love. We can “offer them up.”
Our Lady told them:
"Many souls go to hell because there is no one to pray or make a sacrifice for them" (August, 1917).
3. Our crosses increase the flow of grace in the world.
"As Christians, our prayers, actions, sacrifices and sufferings offered up in union with Christ serve as conduits, in a sense, of God’s grace. And it is God’s grace that redeems fallen humanity, rolls back the forces of evil, enlightens sin-darkened hearts, restores hope to those in despair, fills us with joy, wisdom, and strength… God’s Kingdom flourishes, in individuals, families, parishes, and societies, when the flow of grace is abundant" (Fr. John Bartunek). But, not all offerings are the same or have the same effect for others. Different factors affect the value of our offering - the degree of our union with Jesus, the amount of sanctifying grace in our soul, our purity of intention and the fervor of our offering. To do our part to increase the value of our offering in these four ways is to do our part to increase the flow of God's grace in, through and around us (read more here).
4. Our crosses are used by God to release a purer and stronger love into the world; a love that was not present and active before the suffering began. "Suffering is present in this life in order to unleash love in the human person and in the world" (Pope St. John Paul II). Think of the amount of active sacrificial love, compassion and concern that is released when a natural disaster occurs. How many people stop pursuing their selfish pursuits and focus on helping the people in need in that moment? That is just one example of this. If we make it to heaven, we will see from God's perspective how much love was unleashed and grew because of our sufferings and we will bow our head and say, Amen! We will be eternally grateful that we were able to help others grow in sacrificial love and for the effect that our suffering had on the world.
5. Our crosses can be offered as indulgences for the holy souls in purgatory. This greatly increases the value of the offering!
Indulgences are a great gift of God’s mercy. They help to satisfy for the temporal punishment due to sins and can be gained for ourselves or for the souls in Purgatory. Indulgences are a wonderful way to effectively help our love ones who have died. Many of us feel a sense of guilt after the death of someone close to us, wishing that we would have done things differently. Indulgences give us a chance to remedy that by helping them now in their current state. The souls in Purgatory cannot help themselves so they need our help.
Indulgences offer us a wonderful incentive to make our entire day into a prayer – an offering of love. There are indulgences for specific prayers; for fulfilling our daily duties to the best of our ability and bearing difficulties of life in a Christian spirit. There are indulgences for acts of charity and for acts of penance. I try to offer every prayer, work, joy, sorrow and suffering; every difficultly―traffic, weather, rudeness from other people, difficult situations at work, headache, etc.―as an indulgence by bearing each one patiently, doing my best and offering each one with love to God.
But what makes an indulgence so valuable?
Indulgences are so important because they greatly increase the value of our acts of penance by drawing from the treasury of the Church. "Two elements specify the value of such acts:
The charity in our heart when we perform the act
The degree to which we perform the act itself in a more perfect way.”
“In addition to the remission of the temporal punishment received by the good act itself, with an indulgence, an equal remission is added through the intervention of the Church. It is like a matching gift program by a business: An employee gives $50 to a charity, and the company matches that with another $50 donation” (EWTN).
“This ‘distribution’ should not be understood as a sort of automatic transfer, as if we were speaking of ‘things’. It is instead the expression of the Church's full confidence of being heard by the Father when - in view of Christ's merits and, by his gift, those of Our Lady and the saints - she asks him to mitigate or cancel the painful aspect of punishment by fostering its medicinal aspect through other channels of grace.” Read more about indulgences here or here.
6. Finally, not only does handling our crosses this way bear fruit for others, this sacrifice and suffering that we bear in, with and through Christ, is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory - it is increasing our capacity to love and our growth in virtue – making us more like Christ. This increases the degree of His glory that we will participate in - in heaven. Every cross that we bear patiently and offer as an intercessory prayer for others, increases our glory from one degree to another:
“For the Spirit Himself gives testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him. The sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.”
2 Corinthians 4:17
“For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Diary of St. Faustina - #605
"O Holy Trinity, Eternal God, I thank You for allowing me to know the greatness and the various degrees of glory to which souls attain. Oh, what a great difference of depth in the knowledge of God there is between one degree and another! Oh, if people could only know this! O my God, if I were thereby able to attain one more degree, I would gladly suffer all the torments of the martyrs put together.”
Read more about this here: What the Church Teaches about Heaven
These six reasons are precisely why Jesus said that carrying our crosses was necessary:
"And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
He knows all of the benefits that can come from this and he doesn't want us to miss out on them!