“Ne’er-do-well” was the term for it at the time. Thomas Lyte was lazy and irresponsible. Taken with fishing and hunting, and derelict at home, he sent his son Henry off to boarding school. The headmaster saw young Henry’s giftings, shouldered his fees, and drew him into his own family at holidays, as a kind of adopted son.
Meanwhile, Henry’s own father, reticent to claim him, signed his letters as “Uncle” rather than “Father.” And yet for Henry Francis Lyte (1793–1847), the gospel of Christ redeemed what it meant to have a true Father, anticipate his warm smile, call him “Abba,” and long to see him face to face.
His Loss Was Gain
Such steadying gladness found in Christ inspired Lyte, a natural-born poet, to pen lyrics we might say were “above his head” — like the lead quatrain from the climactic fourth stanza of his “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken”:
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure.
Come disaster, scorn, and pain.
In Thy service, pain is pleasure.
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
An aware worshiper today may hesitate over such a plea. Do I really mean these words? Does my soul truly welcome disaster, scorn, and pain? The opening line of Lyte’s second stanza raises similar questions: “Let the world despise and leave me.” Tender consciences may be reticent to sing along, not because the hymn is any more radical than the words of Jesus, but precisely because the lyrics are so steeped in the call of Christ and the bracingly stark realities of the Scriptures.
Indelible Grace, the Nashville group that recovers historic lyrics through new music (and first breathed new life into Lyte’s hymn), describes it as “singing in two minds.” Part of us believes and deeply wants the kind of radical life the lyrics portray, while part of us knows we’re not yet there. As we sing, we plead, “Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). Jesus, make me more like this!
Sing Above Your Head
To “sing above our heads” is the regular invitation implicit in the Bible’s longest book. Psalm after psalm leads us not only to profess what we have already obtained, but to press on, to strain forward to grasp what lies ahead (Philippians 3:12–13). Lyrics above us help us grow and stretch. They press us and extend us and shape us into what we should be — into what we are not yet but want to be with the help of God’s grace. In worship we express both what we already believe and feel and live, and also what we aspire to, what we pray for. Worship forms us.
“In worship we express both what we already believe and feel and live, and also what we aspire to.”
In particular, “Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken” models for us how a mature Christian anticipates and appropriates suffering in this age. The hymn takes us on a journey from Jesus’s initial call, to the hard yet joyful road of the Christian life, to a taste of the blissful repose awaiting us just over the horizon. These lines put the sweet ups and painful downs of life in this age in the context of God’s overarching story, precious promises, and ever-present help.
The hymn begins with Jesus’s radical call to follow him (Matthew 4:19; 8:22; 9:9). Jesus is not an accessory. He is a treasure worth selling all to gain (Matthew 13:44). Coming to him marks a clearing of the table of our lives and rebuilding all around him.
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Lyte takes his cues from the two main emphases in the New Testament texts on following Jesus. The first is leaving all to follow Christ, the call his first disciples answered. “They left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Matthew 19:27; Mark 10:28; Luke 18:28). This is a call that is costly in the short term but abundantly rewarding in the end (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30). It is the call the rich, young man would not answer (Mark 10:21–22).
The second, then, is even more daunting: taking up the cross. “Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38). “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In the throes of rebellion against our Maker, unregenerate hearts hate the real Jesus. They take deadly aim at him, and our following him puts us in their sights. It’s only a matter of time till we’re under fire.
“As we sing, we plead, ‘Jesus, make me more like this!’”
Following Jesus does not guarantee actual crucifixion, but it does require taking up the cross, a readiness to choose him over life without him, come what may. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). If sinners staked the Son of God to history’s most horrible instrument of torture, what might they do to us if we stay faithful?
Yet again the embrace of near-term loss comes with Jesus’s great promise of gain. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). In taking up the cross, and exposing ourselves to new dangers in this life, we are securing “that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19).
Abandoned and Deceived
This mingling of loss and gain, of real danger and deeper delight, makes these lyrics so powerful as worship and as formation. I am “destitute, despised, forsaken,” but Christ is “my all,” and God is “my own.” In Christ, our heavenly condition is rich, even as we are struck with successive waves of earthly injury.
In such joy, the second stanza braces us for the inevitable:
Let the world despise and leave me.
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me.
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
We endure the deceptions of human hearts and looks by seeing the smile of Jesus. His pleasure readies us, and steadies us, for opposition from afar and (most painfully) near:
Oh, while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me.
Show Thy face, and all is bright.
So also in stanza three, fellow man will “trouble and distress me.” Hear the refrain of Psalm 107 (verses 6, 13, 19, and 28): “they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”
As life in this age presses us with trials, we not only endure with the Spirit’s help, but in the process we sweeten the rest to come. Not only will “the sufferings of this present time” not compare to the glory that will be revealed to us (Romans 8:18), but the trials themselves will contribute to making our future all the better. “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Not only do the obstacles of this age pose no final threat to heaven’s bliss, but the obstacles go to work for our increased joy now. Afflictions, endured in faith, produce for us a greater eternity. God’s designs in the griefs he lovingly filters into our lives are not for our harm but eternal good.
Pain as Pleasure, Loss as Gain
Stanza four is the climactic declaration. We have reckoned with inevitable earthly losses. Now we welcome them, with the couplet that is the key line, and very heart, of the whole hymn:
In Thy service, pain is pleasure.
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
This climactic verse then takes its rest, from these most radical declarations yet, into the deepest realities of divine comfort from Romans 8: God’s sovereign and fatherly goodness (Romans 8:15, 28).
I have called Thee Abba Father.
I have stayed my heart on Thee.
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.
Armed by Faith, Winged by Prayer
With God as both Father and Sovereign, we enjoy a settled peace, even as our boat continues to be battered. Stanza five speaks of “joy to find in every station,” and the assurance of coming to know our “full salvation,” and “ris[ing] over sin and fear and care.” We have been invited into a life of Trinitarian remembrance.
“Yes, we lose. But how much more we gain.”
“Think” (three times) of having the Spirit in us, the Father’s smile on us, and the Son’s death for us. The sufferings of this life, towering as they may feel, cannot hold a candle to the eternal blessedness of the Godhead that is being shared with us, and produced in us, by Christ through his Spirit. What again is our grounds for complaint?
This finally gives way, in the sixth and final stanza, to basking in what lies ahead. Not only do heaven’s eternal ages lie before us, but “God’s own hand shall guide us there.” And it will be “soon” (two times) that our hope is transformed into “glad fruition,” when we see him face to face.
Lyte in the Darkness
When we join Lyte and the psalmists, and sing like this above our heads, we reconsecrate our lives for the various assaults of this age. We prepare our souls for the rhythms of pain and pleasure, loss and gain, grief and joy, in the overlap of the ages. We ready ourselves to suffer with Christ, upheld by Christ. We embrace afresh the essence of the Christian life, for now, as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). It’s a pattern the apostle Paul knew well:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:8–9)
We share not only in Christ’s sufferings but also in comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5). This hymn is not a disgruntled manifesto of complaint but a declaration of joy, of exquisite delights the unregenerate soul never tastes. Yes, we lose. But how much more we gain. We gain heaven, all things, Christ’s own comfort, and God himself.
I find it encouraging to know that when a man so earnest as Lyte came to die, his final recorded words were “Peace! Joy!”