We are tempted to believe that just by being good Christians we can make suffering go away. We imagine that God’s promise of blessing means that he will spare us all pain. But it doesn’t work that way. Jesus made suffering a normal part of the Christian life. He promised his disciples multiple blessings, but tacked onto the end of the good things he said they could expect was a promise of suffering: “There is no one who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children or land for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times as much, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and land—and persecutions too—now in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30). So suffering is not an option for Christians. It’s a guarantee.
At root, the word suffering means enduring pain or distress, sustaining loss or damage, being subject to disability or sickness, and ultimately submitting to death. It comes in all shapes. Daily nuisances frustrate us. Repeated failures discourage us. Bills we cannot pay pressure us. A disintegrating relationship racks us. Depression defeats us. Violence wounds us or harms a loved one. Illness ravages us or overtakes a family member. Suffering afflicts everybody.
Jesus not only promised suffering; he also made bearing personal crosses a daily requirement for all of his followers (see Luke 9:23, NIV). Making the sign of the cross proclaims our yes to this condition of discipleship. When we sign ourselves we are taking up our cross and accepting whatever suffering comes our way. With that ancient gesture we are saying that we welcome suffering on God’s terms. And we are subordinating our will—that would rather not endure pain—to God, just as Jesus subordinated his will to his Father when he gave himself to the cross. So tracing Christ’s cross over our body has serious consequences.
Safety in the Shadow of His Wings
Christians attempt to comfort sufferers by touting the benefits of suffering. “Suffering builds character,” we say. “I don’t want character,” says the sufferer. “I want relief.” Then come the inevitable questions: “Why does God let bad things happen?” and “Where is God when it hurts?”
The care that parents give their children suggests answers to both questions. For example, suppose a seven-year-old girl is taking her first ride on a bicycle. Her father, running alongside her, sees that she is about to hit a rough spot on the road but restrains his impulse to reach out and steady the bike. The dad wants his little girl to learn how to ride with confidence, so he does not prevent her fall. When the bike bounces off the bump, the girl panics, tumbles to the pavement, and scrapes her elbow and knee. The dad scoops her up into his arms and comforts her. Then he carries her into the house, cleans and dresses her scratches, holds her on his lap, and tells her a favorite story.
God is like that dad. He lets us navigate our way, but he stays alongside us. He does not prevent bad things from happening because he wants us to learn to deal confidently with hardship. But when we suffer, God scoops us up and stays with us. He shares our pain, sustains us, and consoles us.
That’s the message of the cross, and signing ourselves opens us to hearing it. God’s only Son became a man in Christ. In his human nature, God himself suffered rejection, humiliation, ridicule, abandonment, buffetings, scourging, crucifixion, and death. He embraced suffering as a man so that he could comfort us in our suffering.
When we make the sign of the cross we invite the Lord to join us in our suffering. We touch our forehead and move down to our breast, telling the Lord with this gesture that we want him to bend down to us. Then we cross our shoulders in a movement that asks him to support us—to shoulder us—in our suffering. In many psalms, David sings of taking refuge beneath the Lord’s wings, which the Church Fathers understood as a prophecy of our finding safety in the shadow of his crucified arms (see Psalms 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7). The Lord’s outstretched arms pledge that he understands our suffering and shares it with us.
Just as the psalms anticipate the grace of Christ’s crucifixion, the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy provided another foreshadowing of the cross as a place of refuge. It reported Moses’ farewell address, in which he seemed to describe the silhouette of the cross in the far distance. He assured Israel that the arms of the Lord would uphold them through all their troubles: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV).
Today we see the cross clearly as a sign of God’s mercy and consolation. I take advantage of the grace and support the Lord offers me with his outstretched arms. When trouble strikes, I sign myself often, saying, “Lord, scoop me up in your everlasting arms, carry me through this trial, and comfort me.” Strengthened by his response to that simple gesture and prayer, I find the hardship endurable.