One of the things that drive people crazy about religions in general, and about Christianity in particular, is this perverse need many followers have to suffer. For some reason, these fanatics have equated a letting go of the world with the need to wear barbed wire underwear. In Ireland, every year, thousands of people walk up the craggy slope of a mountain called Croke Patrick in bare feet, in order to suffer. For hundreds of years, monks and nuns, and penitent pilgrims have worn hair shirts and flagellated themselves in order to suffer agony in the idea that somehow all this pain and suffering would be pleasing to God. In India, thousands upon thousands of Ascetics go without food, living in the elements in order to find enlightenment. Let's face it, every year Roman Catholics, and other Christian churches as well, start on the 40-day journey into various types of fasting that is called Lent. It certainly turns a lot of people off to religion when they see its adherents acting like nuts.
Without a doubt, there is a lot of evidence in various scriptures and in practice that there is something in the practice of fasting combined with prayer that is very powerful and brings about great peace. The Taoist reminds us that all this world is an illusion. That it is not the reality. Science tells us that the reality we see is not the true reality. Buddhism says this as well. We are nothing but God playing hide and go seek with Him or Herself. Saint Paul reminds us that this is not the real world, that we are citizens of a heavenly kingdom. Isaiah (about whom I wrote last week) reminded the Judeans, and us, that you can't find God when you are too distracted by the material world. This is why the Hindus separate themselves from society and deny themselves. They are not trying to suffer; they are just trying to get rid of desire. Gautama, the Buddha, said that the only way to happiness lie in freeing ourselves from all desire (including the desire to be free of desire). Once we can let go of the world, we can find God, or whatever you want to call that divine power. When we fast, we can often focus on the spiritual world.
According to the Gospel According to Luke, when Jesus was with his pals teaching them before he went into Jerusalem to play the first performance of Jesus Christ Superstar, he sat down and told them all the things that were going to happen to him. He told them that he would have to suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders. He told them that he would be put to death, but that in three days he would rise again.
And none of this made sense to his followers who had just figured out that he was the messiah, the promised deliverer who would come and save the children of Israel. How could the king of the Jews allow himself to be taken and killed? More importantly, how does a dead kind save his people? According to Mark, Peter, who was quite partial to Jesus, took Jesus to one side and told him that this was all crazy talk and to knock it the hell off, but Jesus turned around and said those famous words, "Get thee behind me, Satan!" This must have been quite a slap in the face to Peter, because only a little while before, Jesus had told him he was blessed for having recognized that he was the messiah. Now Jesus was calling him Satan. Jesus reminded Peter that he was thinking as humans think, and not as God thinks. Then Jesus turned and said to all his students that, whoever wants to be his student, must deny himself (or herself) and take up his (or her) cross and follow him. He said that whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will have life everlasting.
And from this little speech, Christians for the past two thousand years have been thinking that this means we are supposed to suffer, just suffer all the time. We are supposed to suffer the same way that Jesus suffered and the more we suffer the better. In this way, we become an imitation of Christ. These Christians take from this that we are supposed to throw away our lives in order to gain another, better life. But I don't think that is what Jesus is trying to say at all.
There is always confusion when you translate one language into another, and the choice of words you use is very important because the truth is that no languages exactly translate into any other language. There are always shifts in meaning. English, in particular, has many, many words with multiple meanings. Take for example the word, "deny", which is used in Luke, Chapter 9, Verse 23. For us, the word has several meanings. It can mean to refute something. It can also mean to withhold something. Many people understand Jesus' words as meaning that we should withhold things from ourselves, that we should deny ourselves pleasure, and suffer.
But the word Jesus used in Greek (and I have no Greek alphabet, so you'll have to take my word on this) means to disown something, or to renounce something—to disregard one’s own interests. So what Jesus is saying is that true understanding comes when you finally separate your spiritual self from your bodily self, that you are more than the collection of tissue and fluids that make up your body. He is saying that the more you try to hang on to this body, this life, the farther away you get from spiritual enlightenment. In other words, what God wants is more important than what YOU want. Because in the end, what you want and what God wants is the same thing—love.
Like all other great religious teachers, like Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed, and Gandhi, Jesus is telling us that this is not the true reality. If you want to find God, you have to separate yourself from the things that tie you to this world. Remember when he said if your right eye offend you, pluck it out? That's what he was trying to say. Anything that keeps you from connecting to that divine power has to go if you want to be connected to the divine. But that doesn't mean you are supposed to suffer. In fact, if you think about it, the more you suffer, the more connected to the world you are. It's sort of hard to focus on prayer when someone is beating the shite out of you. You don't have to be disconnected from the world. You just can't be owned by it. You can be IN the world. You just can't be OF the world. That's what nailed poor Lot's wife, who was turned to a pillar of salt when she looked back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the old Bible story.
The paradox (and religion is filled with paradoxes, but then so is the universe) is that once you are willing to give up this life, you are free to live it more fully. You cannot truly love that which you need, because that love is based upon a self-serving desire to have it. Take for example, the smoker. The Indians used tobacco once in a while as part of a ritual, and they enjoyed it. White people took that tobacco and became slaves to it. How many smokers stand themselves outside in the cold and rain in order to smoke that ciggie that they long since stopped enjoying?
The Japanese Samurai and the Chinese Shaolin monks were such fierce warriors precisely because they weren't fierce. They had let go of these lives and so no longer worried about winning or losing. It just didn't matter. And any soldier can tell you that the enemy who no longer fears death is a dangerous foe. Once you realize that you are not this body, that you are more than this body, you realize that there can be no end to your energy. That is basic scientific law. You can't destroy energy. There is no end to you. And once you understand that fully, then you can let go of fear, for what is there left to fear? You can't ever really lose anyone. You can't even lose yourself. You may not be in this reality, but then this reality isn't the true reality anyway.
Jesus said that he came to bring life more fully, not to take it away. And he never called upon us to be miserable. Indeed, once you realize that everything that happens here is all part of the illusion, that it is almost a game, how can you be anything but joyful? And in this game, it's how we play that is most important. How do we treat the other players. There is nothing wrong with pleasure, but you can't be a slave to your passions. There is nothing wrong in owning possessions, but your possessions can't own you. That's why the early Christian martyrs were so willing to give up their lives, because they knew they weren't losing anything at all. George Lucas was telling us the same thing in Star Wars when he had Obi Wan Kenobi tell Darth Vader that when Darth kills him, he will grow more powerful than he could possibly imagine. So, lose this misconception of your terminal little life, and you realize that your life is everlasting power.
This theme runs throughout Chinese philosophy, both in Taoism and in Confuciousism. It is symbolized in Chinese art (and I'm sure you have seen this all the time, watch for it now) by the battle between the dragon (the spiritual) and the tiger (the body). So when you try to step away from this world in order to connect to the spiritual from time to time, you're not really setting yourself up to suffer. Because what you have to gain is so much more than whatever you are leaving behind. Let's face it, when you leave a crummy little studio apartment to live in a beautiful spacious beach house, you're not giving up anything. And somehow I doubt you'll be lying there on the beach wishing you were back in the studio apartment. But neither Jesus, nor any other religious teacher calls upon us to suffer for the sake of suffering alone. Suffering is not a good thing. Gautama, the Buddha, realized that and began to spread the message of his middle path.
So when Jesus tells us to take up our crosses and follow him, he means that we have to be prepared to let go of this life and this world if we want to find our path to the universal creative spirit. He didn't mean that you had to suffer and die in agony, he meant you had to let go, simply let go. And I think that seed of truth is within all of us. I think deep down we know that secret to happiness is just letting go, letting go of all our fears and worries, letting go of ourselves. And the paradox is that it is in letting go of yourself that you truly find yourself.
Jesus also meant that, should we want to follow his teachings, we had to be the Christ ourselves. We were to comfort one another and nurse each other, spreading love and forgiveness, just as he had. Just like the loaves and fishes, when he told the disciples that they should feed the people themselves, we should not expect Jesus to do everything. If we want the world to be better, we have to do it ourselves. Each one of us is the savior of the world. Each one of us, as part of the body of Christ, is Christ on earth. He never meant that God wants us to be miserable. So it's okay to throw out that barbed wire underwear, unless you like it.