In Christian spirituality much has been made of self-denial based in passages from the Bible like Luke 9:23 (NRSV), “Then [Jesus} said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’” In a culture like ours in the U.S. where individual rights are heralded as supremely healthy these words could seem foreign or simply crazy. They have certainly been misunderstood often. Some people come to my therapy offices struggling with too much emphasis on their rights and how others violate them and others suffer with too little understanding of themselves as free agents within God’s grace. The latter have been unconsciously focused on choosing to follow what others (not necessarily God) want/demand them to do while thinking they are ‘taking up their cross.’ This becomes a kind of self-annihilation that often results in depression. This is far from Jesus’ intended application of his message. There is an inherent choice that must be consciously embraced in Jesus’ command to follow. Both sorts of people I describe here have missed this crucial step.
In C.S. Lewis’ classic exploration of Christian misunderstandings, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis has his protagonist, a devil named Screwtape, training a new devil in how to tempt a new Christian:
Men are not angered by mere misfortune but by misfortune conceived as injury. And the sense of injury depends on the feeling that a legitimate claim has been denied. The more claims on life, therefore, that your patient [new Christian] can be induced to make, the more often he will feel injured and, as a result, ill-tempered. Now you will have noticed that nothing throws him into a passion so easily as to find a tract of time which he reckoned on having at his own disposal unexpectedly taken from him. It is the unexpected visitor (when he looked forward to a quiet evening), or the friend’s talkative wife (turning up when he looked forward to a tête-à-tête with the friend), that throw him out of gear. Now he is not yet so uncharitable or slothful that these small demands on his courtesy are in themselves too much for it. They anger him because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’.
Lewis puts his finger on the dilemma we face as 21st Century Christians. What rights do I have to ‘my time’ if I am practicing taking up my cross? We’ll explore this question for the next few weeks. I hope you’ll join in.
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