Psychological Barriers to the Way of the Cross
V.Rev.Fr. George Morelli, Ph.D.
If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
This verse is from the gospel Orthodox Christians read the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross (and on the third Sunday of Great Lent). This counsel from our Lord is essential in for our salvation. It is what will enable Christ to be in us and thus we achieve deification.
Consider making the 'cross' meaningful in our lives in practical ways. As an aid to this let us follow the sequence of events that lead to our Lord's crucifixion from the time after the Last Supper. Jesus left the Supper and went into the Garden. He knew the grueling ordeal He would have to endure. In His human nature He sweat blood and cried out: "Father if possible let this cup pass from me but not my will but thine be done."
How often do we anticipate some really bad things--crosses that may happen in our lives? It is the real "crosses" in our lives that we have to carry. Unfortunately the human propensity to think irrationally (Ellis, 1962) and have distorted cognitions (Beck, 1976) make carrying our crosses that much more difficult than it would be in reality.
Irrationality and distorted cognitions serve as psychological barriers to our sanctification. Errors in thinking lead humans to create scenarios that may never be. Often these scenarios are linked in a downward cascade or spiral of scenes leading to anticipated events (with no realistic foundation) which by another thinking error is "over-evaluated" as something more that 100% bad, awful, terrible and catastrophic.
Needless anxiety and depression rooted in irrationality, as well as distorted thinking processes, are frequently the consequences. Instead of carrying the real crosses Our Lord allows us to face in our lives, we end up carrying fictitious crosses we ourselves create by our own 'faulty thinking.' This impedes our deification when we allow these emotional reactions to erode our love of God, dependency on Him and hope for our salvation.
Before taking up the real crosses in our lives, followers of Christ should do a mental inventory of the reality base of what are thought of as crosses. Unreal crosses are arrived at by our own faulty thinking. We may be given partial ambiguous information about something and we draw a conclusion (unreal scenario) based on this.
A clinical example will illustrate this process. A parent receives a note from his/her child's teacher stating the child is having behavior problems in school. (Note how general and abstract description is: in my own clinical experience I have found teachers and parents frequently communicate in general terms which provides no real information.) This is fertile ground for the parent to create scenarios. A parent may think: my child is hanging out with a drug crowd (or) my child is taking drugs (or) my child will fail in school (or) my child's whole life will be useless (or) this is terrible and awful (or) God how could you allow this, I cannot pray to you anymore, and so on.
Any time scenarios are created by us in any area of life (family, school, relationships, health, employment, etc.) we should do a "reality check cognitive evaluation." Three questions are helpful: Where is the evidence? Is there any other way of looking at it? Is it as bad as it seems? Actually getting these answers frequently entails getting real information about problems we encounter in life.
There are real crosses in life. Let us make sure we pick up the real not fictitious ones. We can then apply our psychological strengths and spiritual efforts on the crosses which are real.
Our inclination will always be (for fictitious or real crosses) "let this cup pass from me." Our weak human nature wants us to complain, groan moan, show anger, despair or depression. How many of us go the step further and say: "But Father not my will but thine be done. It will be difficult but I am ready to accept what you are going to give me. Give me the strength to do this and to accept your will."
Jesus was arrested and condemned to death. Now is the time for us to accept our condemnation. The apostles and disciples in the Gospels, where the gazing upon the Crucified Lord, learned how to love God above all creation and give their lives for others. We can learn in our own life as Our Lord showed us from His Cross: good and conquer evil, forgiveness can cancel retribution; and our hearts can be opened to all mankind, soothing and comforting the infirm, physically when we can but always spiritually.
Despite human fear Jesus accepted His cross, He even out of human weakness fell. But He got up again. He looked up to the Father, told the woman of Jerusalem not to weep for themselves but for their children. He allowed Simon the Cyrene to help him. A great lesson here is that we, in the name of Christ and out of love, can aid each other in carrying our crosses to achieve sanctification. Most of all, it is important to remember that despite the falls, Jesus kept going.
If our cross were our actual physical murder (or murder of a loved one), could any of us call for the forgiveness of our killer, while falling and nailed to this cross? This is what Jesus did. "Father forgive them for they know not what they do. Clinically and pastorally many times someone has told me about some "slight" he or she received but cannot forgive. Yet in utter misery the Savior of the world, Almighty God Himself was able to reach out and ask forgiveness for this tormentors and killers.
Think of the worst sin you have ever committed. Jesus took his cross for that sin. Think of the worst sin you could think of that would be possible for someone to commit on this earth. Multiply this sin to almost infinity. Jesus took up His cross to forgive that sin. He took up His cross to forgive every sin we have ever committed and will ever commit.
"Is any servant greater than his master?" Not only are we to willingly carry the crosses God allows in our lives we are to at the same time continue to love Him, be dependent on Him and love and serve others and forgive them. Triumphing over sin He conquered death. By our cross, if we carry it as Jesus did , we conquer death.
There is one more key point here. Jesus is both God and man. We are only creatures. We have to do what the penitent thief did: repent. We have to acknowledge our sinfulness. "Truly we deserve our punishment...but this man did nothing." We have the Holy Mystery of Confession. Every time we miss it we act as the arrogant thief who hung next to Christ on the cross and condemned himself. Instead we must confess our sins like the "good" theif. Then we will hear our priest echo the Lord's words to the theif on the cross: "I an unworthy priest forgive and absolve you for all your sins and transgressions...today you will be with me in paradise."
Beck, A., (1976). Cognitive Therapy and the emotional disorders. NY: International Universities Press.
Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. Seacaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.
V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counse...) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
Article link: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliCross.php