I have sometimes heard well-meaning Christians counsel those going through difficult circumstances that “this is your cross to bear” or “Jesus told us we would suffer” or “you’ve got to deny yourself.” Some cite Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:39 as a proper response to the people in our lives who have hurt us. Sometimes these well-meaning people tell us to stick around in unhealthy relationships because isn’t that what Christ would do? He was crucified, after all, and aren’t we supposed to follow in his steps?
But does turning the other cheek and denying ourselves really mean we should endure unhealthy relationships and circumstances, no matter what? Should we stick around in relationships we sense are damaging us because we need to “deny ourselves”?
Here are four observations that might help as we consider such questions.
1. There is a difference between laying your life down and someone taking it.
Scripture instructs us to “lay down our lives” for Christ’s sake and to take up our cross (1 John 3:16; Matt. 16:24). But notice the active agent in that sentence: you. There is a difference between voluntarily laying down your life and someone taking your life from you. Jesus said he laid down his life so that he “may take it up again.” He went on: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18).
There were many times Jesus could have allowed his life to be taken, but he escaped because “his time had not come yet” (John 7:30, 44; 10:39). We need not pity Jesus for his death—he was accomplishing his mission, on his terms. And we need not pity ourselves, out of a false martyrdom complex, when we allow dangerous or unhealthy people to dictate our lives. We must be certain that we, like Jesus, are laying our lives down on our own accord and not having them taken from us by life-sucking individuals.
2. We are to pick up our cross, but not every cross.
When Jesus teaches us to daily pick up our cross, he uses the possessive: it’s our cross to bear (Luke 9:23). What is this cross? It will likely be different for everyone, but you’ll know when it’s yours. We cannot carry every cross and burden we see in our sights. As Paul tells the Galatians, “For each will have to bear his own load” (Gal. 6:5). But wait, doesn’t Paul also say in that same passage to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2)? Which is it? Should we bear our own burdens or others’ burdens? Yes. Both.
We are called to discernment—to wisely assess if such burdens are ours to carry. Can we handle it? Is this our battle to fight? Am I getting involved to show love or to prove a point? Am I getting involved to serve another or to serve myself?
3. Jesus set limits and boundaries on his ministry.
There were so many people Jesus disappointed; so many in the back of crowds who never got close enough to touch the hem of his garment. One interaction stands out: a young man asks Jesus to settle a legal dispute between him and his brother. Jesus responds: “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14). It’s a good question. Jesus understood when he was being asked to do things outside of the focus of his ministry. He knew his calling, he knew his ministry, and he protected these things while remaining remarkably compassionate.
4. You are just one part of the body.
In certain kinds of churches, two or three people shoulder all the burdens. It’s common for one pastor to do most of the weddings, funerals, and hospital visits. But I do not see any evidence in the New Testament to support this kind of organizational structure. Paul speaks of the “body of Christ,” of which all of us are differing “members.” When someone carries a backpack or lifts something up, the weight is distributed to many different places on the body. While one area will bear the most (you can hear your dad saying, “Lift with your legs, son!”), your whole body feels the pressure. Likewise, you should entrust your burdens to the body of your church. You’re not the only one who can visit a hospital, offer relational counsel, or pray for the hurting.
Entrust the bearing of burdens to the body of your church. You’re not the only one who can visit a hospital, offer relational counsel, or pray for those hurting.
Again, Jesus set limits on his ministry. We forget all the people he passed by, all the sick who left unhealed simply because he couldn’t get to them. We forget how he evaded crowds and escaped the masses. We forget that while many stones were thrown at him, he dodged them all so that he might pick up his cross.
Jesus was not walked all over, and no one took his life. If you are to imitate him and become like him, no one should take yours.
Disciples of Jesus would be wise to follow him specifically in this area by setting boundaries. You don’t have to text that person back right away. You can answer your emails during an allotted time. The tasks ahead will always be infinite, but you are finite. Especially for those of us in full-time ministry, we must learn the art of wise dismissal, of letting people down, and saying “no” so that we might say “yes” to the fullness of life in Christ Jesus.