Good Friday: the cross is an intersection

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet?
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, Isaac Watts

The shape of the cross is the universal symbol of the Christian faith. Geometrically, a cross is two perpendicular lines intersecting. One vertical, the other horizontal.

When Jesus Christ died on his cross nearly two thousand years ago on a hill outside Jerusalem, paradoxes were proclaimed and unlike realities intersected with each other in a way that they never had before or will again.

God + humanity
The Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is the God-man, fully human and fully divine, yet one person with one nature. Simple enough to say, impossible to comprehend. Yet what that means is that when Christ died on his cross, the world of heaven – the vertical beam, if you will – cut into the world of earth – the horizontal beam. Jesus hung there, suspended between the two worlds, bridging the impasse between them. You could say that the cross was the ladder down which God climbed to make peace with humanity, to reach us. Therefore, to reach God, all a person needs is to come to the cross.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. Colossians 1:20

wrath + grace
Sin provokes the Holy One to ferocious, irrepressible anger. God’s own love provokes him pardon sinners. At the cross, these two elemental aspects of God’s character met and embraced. The wrath of God against human sin inflicted itself on Jesus’ shoulders, back, neck, hands, feet, body, soul, mind and spirit; totally, comprehensively, exhaustively. He took every ounce, for my sin and yours. He absorbed the blow, stepping in as the scapegoat, the sacrifice, the substitute. All that is left over for us, the ones standing in Jesus’ shadow, are the grace, the mercy, the forgiveness, the love.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:4-6

decimation of our pride + affirmation of our worth
The cross gives us a revolutionized way to look at ourselves, one that is painful and profoundly sweet at the same time. I’m using the strong word “decimation” here to mean “totally cancel and destroy.” The cross certainly decimates our pride, or our self-esteem, depending on your vocabulary. It asserts without apology that our self-imposed predicament of sin, death, hell, and alienation from God is so severe that nothing less than the Son of God’s torture and death could hope to address it. An extreme problem – the human condition – called for an extreme solution. No one but Jesus will cut down your pride and self-justification so thoroughly, because no one but Jesus loves you so deeply.

While decimating our attempts at self-worth, the cross affirms with abandon our value to God. It asserts, likewise without apology, that the depths of God’s grace towards us are so unfathomable that he found it worthwhile sacrifice the Son for the rabble outside, in order to turn the rabble into sons! Therefore, you count. You are not a waste. You are worthy. God says so.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. Galatians 6:14

suffering + glory
The Bible is chock full of paradoxes, as we should expect from a book claiming to contain divine truth. One of the most essential paradoxes in Christian thought – in my mind, it’s the key to the whole thing – is the one that Jesus expressed a few hours before his arrest:

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.” John 13:31-32

Now is the Son of Man glorified. Now, as he is arrested, falsely accused, beaten, scourged, stripped, mocked, crucified, murdered. On the cross, glory intersected with suffering. Honor with shame, life with death. I do not understand it, but the brutally disfigured, naked body of Jesus on the cross brought glory to God. It blazed through and through with the glory of God. The Son of Man’s suffering screamed glory! glory! hallelujah!

That is the Christian paradigm. In our lives, that means that suffering and glory are intertwined, and death always comes before a resurrection.

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:30

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1-2

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

It Would Be Nice, It Would Be Nothing

Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them; and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body. Hebrews 13:3 (KJV)
It would be nice to live as if you don’t exist.
My brain dislikes your constant presence
– watching, waiting, staring with your big eyes –
I have never been alone since the first time I met you
and you stared at me, unembarrassed, while I
shifted my weight and flitted my gaze
between you and the wall behind you.

It would be nice to live as if pain could not be felt.
All human creatures could sleep the night
without waking up, short-breathed, palms imprinted
from fingernails pressing harder, harder.
My palms dislike your presence in my dreams.
I could dream of weddings and beaches all night
without your eyes arriving to spoil my fun.

It would be nice to live as if death is a joke.
“Grandpa played a trick on you! He’s only gone to
France. Silly, did you think it all was real?”
I could forget the dead-line of my life
and yours and his and hers and just unwind
and say, “We’ve got all kinds of time.”
But I’m a Friday and my Monday’s coming soon.

It would be nice to live without this Spirit in me.
Just me, myself, and I: we could be happy
with nothing but our status quo. Yet,
I’m told I’ve died with violence to the world
– to it I am a corpse that’s five years gone.
I am alive to Someone I have yet to meet
named “Suffering Slave” and “Lamb That’s Been Slain.”

It would be nice to live as if this were not so,
as if these were not His names.
Perhaps then I could forget your big eyes, too.
I could be alone for once, for once,
without Him at my shoulder and you at my feet:
all alone, with nothing but niceness to think of.
It would be nice. It would be nothing.

the greatest struggle

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Hebrews 12:4
What is your greatest struggle? To put it another away: against what do you exert the greatest part of your efforts and emotions trying to beat down and jettison out of your life?
To most of us most of the time the answer is: unhappiness. The thing we struggle against with the greatest part of our energy is our own unhappiness. The flip side of this is that happiness is the thing we struggle most to attain. Christians often express this by saying we are prone to “worship” happiness.

You may not see anything wrong with this. We want to be happy and we try to avoid being unhappy – what is unnatural or wrong about that? In fact, you may wonder, what could be more natural?

And yet Christ calls us to something different. In the Gospels, Jesus often told his followers to practice lifestyles of self-denial and self-sacrifice, naming servant-hood and martyrdom as his highest ideals. He called them to give up themselves for his sake. To put it bluntly, he demanded that they give up happiness for holiness.

Holiness is an unwelcome word to many people. It tends to conjure up images of obnoxiously religious people who think they deserve life’s gold medal because of their self-discipline; or, worse, infuriating hypocrites who harshly demand certain behaviors from others while failing to live up to their own sermonizing. Holiness means neither of these things, and Jesus hated these imitations of holiness even more than we do.

Holiness, simply defined, means to be consecrated and set apart for God. Lived out, it means submitting one’s will to the will of God: learning to love what God loves, hate what God hates, and measure all things in this world by his Word. It looks like purity of heart, mind, soul, and body; humility and the reverential fear of God; mercy, patience, and love toward all people; perpetual prayer and communion with God. Holiness is Jesus’ upward call for the people who love him.

“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

With holiness as the greatest goal of our lives, offenses against it are the greatest calamities – rather than offenses against our happiness. The sin in my own heart is my new archenemy, not the inconveniences, or even the evils, of this world that disturb my life.  Evil from without is an enemy, and it can be a terrible one, indeed; but evil from within is a greater enemy still.

Jesus shines a new light on our suffering. With holiness as the chief goal and sin as the chief enemy, a person begins to understand – albeit just barely – what the apostles meant when they wrote of rejoicing at the chance to suffer more for Christ.

Then [after being beaten and threatened] [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. Acts 5:41

Now I [Paul] rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… Colossians 1:24

Now, we are not slaves to the insatiable demands of God’s law, his perfect standard of moral and spiritual conduct. “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Nor are we slaves to condemning consciences. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). We are – really, truly, more than the world can ever understand – free.

We must understand, though, that the great part of our spiritual liberation, received only from God, is that utter self-absorption is no longer our only option. We are wonderfully free to no longer think about ourselves 24-7, and perpetually obsess about our own happiness. Holiness comes from turning out and looking up:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18

There is a dirty little secret the world neglects to tell us. If your greatest struggle is against unhappiness – if happiness is your highest goal – you will lose. You cannot get happiness by aiming at it.

You can, however, get joy by aiming at God. And when sin is your enemy, when your greatest struggle is against the unholiness inside you, you can triumph o’er your foe with “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The battle is brutal. The watch is long. The struggle continues. But the victory is glorious.

true religion

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
The word “religion” appears only a handful of times in the New Testament, almost always in reference to Judaism, and often with the negative connotation of being composed of merely man-made rules (e.g. Colossians 2:23, Acts 26:5). In no other verse besides this one from James is the word used to describe the Christian faith.
James 1:27, in a unique way, asks and answers the question: what is true religion? James answers this question as every biblical author answers it, though in every other case without the actual word “religion”: true religion is attending to the afflicted, helping the helpless, defending the weak.

Because the heart of Christian belief is the person and work of Jesus Christ – who he is and what he has done – the heart of Christian practice is the imitation of Jesus and the living out of the Bible’s teachings. Therefore, any person convinced of the power and grace of Jesus is compelled to ask: how did Jesus live and what did he value? How does the Bible depict love for him in action? What is true religion for a follower of Jesus?

The Bible’s resounding answer from start to finish is summed up in something Jesus said when he quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). “Sacrifice” here refers to the ritual slaughter of animals at the Jerusalem temple for the atonement of sin and thanksgiving to God, a practice constantly being perverted by legalistic Jews who tried to use it to earn God’s grace (which is a contradiction in terms) and to impress fellow religious people, all at the cost of the kind of “sacrifice” God wanted most from his people: mercy to the needy.

Perhaps Jesus had Isaiah chapter 58 in the back of his mind when he quoted this verse from Hosea. Isaiah 58 is another passage of the Bible which highlights the difference between showy religion and true service to God. It is a lyrical and powerful chapter, and I encourage you to read the entire thing.

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Isaiah 58:6-7
What good is fasting if it just a day for “a man to bow his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him” (Isaiah 58:5) – and nothing else?
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. 58:3-4
Impure, defiled religion fasts occasionally, says “why don’t you notice everything I do for you, God?” (58:3), then goes on to do what it wants and maintain the status quo. Perverted religion obsesses itself with religion’s trappings and never asks, “Is this what you really want from me, God?”
Pure, beautiful, Christ-like “religion” overflows with compassion. It cares less and less about its own possessions and rights, and more and more about easing the suffering of others. Pure religion values mercy above “sacrifice,” serving God above “looking Christian,” helping others above satisfying its own desires.
You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24
We ought to consider our lives, and our churches, soberly. Are our lives typical, affluent, American lives and our churches typical, affluent, American churches? In our churches’ budgets, what gets more attention: the air conditioning and pastors’ salaries, or the addicts, victims, and homeless of the community? What do our own budgets show about our hearts? Where is our true treasure (Matthew 6:21)?
True religion means not only giving money, but giving time, and entering the dark corners of our world, and the dark corners of people’s lives, with hands-on love. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.
Jesus said that whatever is done for suffering people in his name is done for him. This was his mission statement:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me, to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2

lessons from the psalms

Of any single book of the Bible, the book of Psalms is perhaps the most quoted, most sung, most prayed, and most memorized. This would be no surprise to its authors. The psalter (the book of “praises” in Hebrew) was the hymnal and book of common prayer for ancient Israel. From Moses straight through to the closing of the Old Testament canon, Israelite believers of all kinds cried out to God through the writing of the psalms.

The psalms contain the full range of the spiritual life of ancient Israel, from overwhelming joy to impassioned sorrow, bristling confidence to crippling insecurity, abandoned worship to withdrawn confusion. No one would call this people Stoic, unemotional, or detached – neither should it ever be said of Christians. The psalmists never thought of the God they worshiped as a distant, irrelevant old man in the sky: he was the center of their universe.

The honesty of the psalms is breathtaking. Sometimes I don’t understand the Bible. Sometimes I get disillusioned with church. Sometimes I feel afraid of God. Sometimes I wonder if everything I believe is just a myth, if I really am the self-deluded hypocrite my culture says I am. The psalms, thank God, give me the freedom and the precedent to present these very fears and doubts to God, and to do so with full disclosure. The psalmists’ heartbroken cries of “how long?” and “where are you?” surface again and again. God does not demand that I clean myself up before I come to him. I am poor and needy for mercy and he knows this. The blood of Jesus alone presents me as acceptable to God. As one redeemed and purchased by this blood, I can, I must, be honest and vulnerable before him. He beckons me to come as I am, simply entrusting myself to his grace – amazing.

The psalms do not deny the deep “valleys” of the believer’s life. Rather, they validate these valleys, these times when life feels dark and dangerous, these “dark nights of the soul.” Are you familiar with the “regions dark and deep,” whether spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise, of which the psalmist speaks in Psalm 88:6? Be comforted. God is familiar with your suffering; he chose to give it a voice in his book some three thousand years ago. He gives it a dignity which no other system of thought quite manages to do.

As amazing and satisfying as the honesty of the psalms is, however, there is something even more. What is truly incredible, and unusual, about these ancient prayers is that there is suffering – with hope. Doubt, with trust. A desperate feeling of abandonment with a resolute confidence in the promise of God’s presence. Over and over the psalmists say: “God, I do not understand what is happening. It looks as if you have abandoned us. I feel lonely, angry, hated, afraid – and yet I know who you are. I know the promises you have made to us. I know you have redeemed my life and I know you are good. Therefore I will praise you still.” That is what living faith looks like. Faith does not deny what it sees and feels or stifle its thoughts and emotions. It does just the opposite. Faith confronts what it sees with what it knows to be true, and decides to find rest in the promises of God.

When the fear and doubt come, which they surely do and surely will, I must also remind myself of the truth I know. I know how Jesus Christ changed my life. I know the testimonies of others. I know that his word alone speaks the words of life and the message of redemption. I remember what God has done for me and I remember what I know of him – and that is enough. I do not need all the answers, as much as I may want them. All I need is to cling to my God, my refuge and my strength. As many times as the cry of “how long” can be heard echoing through its chapters, the true chorus of the psalms is “hallelujah” – praise Yahweh.

If you are not familiar with the book of Psalms, dive in. Read them, pray them, mull them over. Some are not easy to understand, but all of them are wonderfully real. Come to God with empty hands, a broken heart, a guilty conscience; lay these before him and find rest.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. Psalm 73:25-26

Why are you downcast, O my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God. Psalm 43:5

Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the LORD has been good to you. Psalm 116:7