(First published on September 26, 2021)
The way of the Cross means sacrifice,
As to God you yield your all
To be laid on the altar, the place of death,
Where fire will surely fall.Mary E. Maxwell
For a long time I was quite passionate about the idea that God calls us to take up the cross and sacrifice everything for Him. I believed a Christianity centered around this was the one thing badly needed in the world today, people who were willing to die to themselves to follow Jesus. You can’t possibly go wrong with this, right?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1957, p.89) wrote,
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
You abandon everything. You don’t let anything come between you and Jesus. You pursue total surrender. You reject the world, and this rejection of the world should permeate every aspect of life.
The thing is, all this is absolutely true, in a way. It is absolutely needed in many contexts. Radical Christianity is rare within a larger church culture riddled with the errors of hedonism and an obsession with prosperity, blessing, comfort and feeling-good – the world has infiltrated the church. Yet in forswearing all of the above, perhaps it is easy to latch onto something incomplete and half-baked in our understanding of discipleship, of the cross, of radicality and of suffering.
We may think we’re holier than the rest of Christendom, but the question is, are we really closer to Jesus? Are we healthy?
Imbibing the message of “dying” didn’t teach me how to live, and it made living confusing and difficult. Wanting to “obey God” in an excessive way, in every aspect of life, made it difficult to plan, difficult to make decisions, difficult to look at a whole life ahead of me and figure out what each step should be.
The holiness movement and pietism told us to sacrifice our all on the altar to God, holding nothing back. Nonviolence and Anabaptism taught us that we should be willing to follow Jesus even to the deadly end. It taught us that suffering can bring glory to Jesus. I feel a paradigm shift and a growing realization that what I had built my theology around on this issue is incomplete. It’s as if you reach the end of a corridor and you find there’s another door. I don’t fully know what it is behind that door. There’s more to learn, more to uncover.
I remember when there were Korean missionaries captured by militants in Afghanistan. They were imprisoned, tortured, and held hostage. I remember a preacher, one who professed the gospel of the cross, proudly proclaiming about them, “Other Christians are praying that they will be rescued or set free, but I am praying that they will all die so that God will be glorified.”
It smacks, even today, of a kind of contrariness that seems radical and “not of this world”, but ends up being ugly and perverse. There is plenty of this in “radical” Christendom, the glorification of something vulgar just because it seems “different”.
“Surely,” we think, “If it’s contrary and against “human nature”, it must be the more spiritual way.“
Violence is not something we should wish upon another Christian, because violence in itself is not beautiful or good. While death is certainly not the end, Jesus did come to end death, to end the curse and sorrow that entered into the world through sin. When we are obsessed with martyrdom or living a life of suffering, we become a suicidal death cult, glorifying and almost celebrating violence. I believe God holds the death of His saints as precious. I believe that God will reward those who suffer for Him (Matthew 5:12). I believe Jesus calls us to count the very real cost of following Him. But I think we get our priorities very wrong sometimes.
The cross shouldn’t primarily be defined by our willingness to die or our “deathliness” – that is, our utter detachment from our life, from family, from love, from culture, from good things. It shouldn’t be about this inner drive within us, that isn’t always from God, to pursue the hardest road, the road of most resistance with the most trials. “Surely,” we mistakenly tell ourselves, “This is the one that’s God’s will.”
“Take up our cross” is absolutely a call incumbent upon us, but we forget that it is a call to a gracious yoke under a gentle King, not a demanding sovereign who desires that we endure blow after blow, stumbling, struggling and agonizing through this thing called life. We somehow have ended up with the furthest picture from the life-giving one of the Son of God who loved us and laid down His life to redeem us. We have exchanged it for a picture of, sometimes in the extreme, a “God” who hates everything about us, who crushes our wills who brings us through fiery trials to perfect us for His glory, who wrestles away our love of everything else so that in our pain and loss we become completely dependent on Him. We thus need to affirm that God does not play mind games with us and lead us down garden-paths of torment to bring us to spiritual maturity.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t obey God. I’m saying we often create a harder, harsher, crueler picture of a dictatorial (yet benevolent) God that does Him injustice. It’s almost as if we have Christian stockholm syndrome – the more God “torments” us, the more we are religiously devoted to Him. Then we completely fail to recognize abusive behaviours in people who act like that, because we think it’s normal.
This attitude, as seen in the person who wished death upon fellow Christians, can make us harsh and unloving, blind to the hardships others’ face and blind to human causes of human suffering – things that have always made God extremely angry from the days of Noah to the days of Sodom, until now. More than one abuse victim has been told, “Let him beat you. Let him kill you, even. It will glorify God. Your suffering is for God.” No, it isn’t. Both injustice and turning a blind eye to injustice makes God furiously angry. Throughout the Old Testament we see God’s anger towards those who ignore those who suffer, who neglect the poor (Ezekiel 16:49), who stumble the littlest ones. We see a compassionate God who is afflicted in our affliction (Isaiah 63:9), who feels suffering (Exodus 3:7), who hears the cries of the unheard and sees the unseen (Genesis 16:13). God didn’t look at the children of Israel as they were tormented in Egypt and say, “Wow, the hardship and pain of my people brings me pleasure and glory.” If God is infuriated when we neglect those who are hungry, thirsty or cold, or injured and abandoned by the side of the road how much more would He be angry if we turn away from a brother or sister suffering from abuse?
I am also reminded of the stories of missionaries and their families in abject deprivation, of evangelists losing wife after wife, child after child, laying everything down – does God call us to this today? Is this redemptive, life-giving, glorious, attractive? Does callousness manifest God’s love? Why then did Paul teach that only those who cared for their household well were suitable for church leadership?
Does God’s call to sell all mean a life on the edge of poverty, wearing ragged clothes and subsisting on the plainest of food? Are we allowed enjoyment of good things, a joyful domestic and community life, or have we idealized misery and discomfort as somehow an indicator of spirituality? Self-flagellatory pietism, especially in the Holiness tradition, can help us feel more radical and spiritual but is really a poor substitute for the real thing, the real cross.
A friend recently described caring for a newborn baby as a kind of “dying to self”, and this perhaps is the best illustration of the difference between the real cross-carrying love we’re called to and a poor, unhealthy version of it. A mother will go through sacrifices for her baby, she will wake at all times of the night and do whatever it takes to make sure that the baby’s needs are met. It involves, yes, giving up something of yourself for the other, but it is something born out of love. What over-pious Christians do is akin to a mother feeling like she has to wake up in the middle of the night whether the baby cries or not, that she should be sleep-deprived even when she has time to rest, and that if she isn’t suffering enough, isn’t worried enough, isn’t exhausted and at the end of the wits perpetually, she surely isn’t a good mother and isn’t doing enough for her baby. The baby doesn’t need her to take on self-imposed hardship. He or she simply needs her love. The sacrifices are not the focus, the end goal. Maybe, sometimes, they are unnecessary and can be alleviated. In any case, joy is there and is the primary hallmark of the relationship.
It’s the same, perhaps, with God.
A sign that we’re not cutting our cheese with the correct knife is unnecessary guilt and condemnation, especially if this plagues our regular existence or times of prayer, worship and devotion. Another symptom could be a condemning attitude to those who we don’t think try hard enough or push themselves as much as we think they should. If we walk in the Spirit, there is no condemnation to us who are in Christ (Romans 8:1). Following Jesus should feel like a pursuit – being led on from before, not threatened, coerced or guilted from behind.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24)
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20).
These are two backbone verses of the “living-martyrdom” theology, but what do they really say? Jesus says that we sacrifice a kernel, a life, for even more life. For fruitfulness. Paul says, in Galatians, that he sacrifices an old life for a better, new, abundant one, one in which he is loved and cherished.
Self-hatred and God’s love for us cannot co-exist.
What helped me come to this realization is the fact that we were made by, through and for Christ (John 1:1-2; Colossians 1:15-18). When God made Creation, He said that it was good. The new creation is a return to the source of our being, away from the colonizing violence of the one who steals, kills and destroys, and back to that which is abundant and living and good.
We often think to be cruciform (in the manner of Christ’s death) is to be constantly sacrificing, to be poured out completely, to be at the end of ourselves and yet continue to give, to serve, to minister, to obey, and to be spiritual rather than carnal. It is the “opposite” of the “flesh” – but is it? Was not the flesh made by God? We fell, yes, but God did not destine us for destruction and torment, but for redemption. Redemption is taking that which is lost and fallen, and restoring it.
I believe cruciformity is returning to the beauty of Creation. There will be a part of us, the part made by God, the part of His image, that will find indescribable joy and even happiness in the wondrous abundance and goodness that is a life of following Jesus. Happy are the poor in spirit, as the beatitudes promise. This is different from the selfishness and hedonism, which does not satisfy – God promises that we shall be filled. So let us be filled, and not thrive on being empty!
If we look at the cross and see only suffering, then we have misunderstood Jesus.
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
The new creation, the Kingdom of God, is abiding in love. Radiating and manifesting this love to the world is something that is deeply satisfying in the innermost soul. Love was embodied in the cross, but pouring out love does not mean that we become empty, but that we become full in an even greater way.
The call of the cross may involve selling all we have to buy the pearl of great price, but it is not a loss. We are not empty-handed, bereft. God is not saying “I want to empty you”, but saying, “I want you to give up that which is worthless for something you will greatly treasure”.
The call of the cross is a call to live for God’s glory and the world’s redemption. Whatever is not glorious and redemptive is not of God. Oppression and abuse, for example, may seem like “suffering” and “the cross”, but it is not glorious or redemptive – if carried out, ignored or perpetuated by Christians, it is shameful and repulsive and contrary to the very heart of God.
What does it mean to obey God and surrender to Him It is not like being in subjection to a slave-master. It is a state of beautiful, transcendent wholeness that comes about when we are ordered according to Christ the Logos. We are so infused with the aroma of this that we manifest this as a witness of peace to the powers that be.
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. (1 Timothy 2:1-2)
And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour. (Ephesians 5:2)
The cross is the calling incumbent upon every Christian to lay down our arms and beat our swords into plowshares. It is a call to be a revolutionary participant in the power of the gospel. It is the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, the Kingdom of God, and the age to come. Meekness restores men and women to the (life-giving, not destructive) dominion we had in creation as the image of God (Genesis 1:27-28). It is expressed in Christlikeness, nonresistance, humility, and perfect serenity – Gelassenheit.
Leo Tolstoy said that the Kingdom of God means the “greatest possible union between all living beings—a union possible only in the truth”.
The very nature of Satan’s dominion is chaos and destruction – his power can only do evil, violence and harm. Jesus, however, represents the very power by which the world was made, a creative, redeeming power. This glory and wonder of this power is reflected in creation. Creation exists to tell us but one thing: God is good (Psalm 19:1). Creation is a manifestation of Jesus, the logos, by whom all things were made. Creation is a promise to us of our inheritance and the life we will share with Jesus evermore, that we begin to live today.
The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. (Psalms 19:1)
The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly. (John 10:10)
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