Feature

The Cross

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We have no scarcity of crosses in America. We have the cross of church architecture, the jewelry store cross of fine gold, the cross of sentimental hymn writers and the cross of pop culture hung on golden chains about the necks of rock stars and athletes. But what we need more of is the cross of Christian experience—24/7.

Jesus said to His disciples: “‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). The cross represents sacrificial living, and death to self must find lodging in our lives if we are to be authentic followers of Christ. Yet everything in us shuns the cross, wishing to avoid its humiliation, disgrace and finality. We love to sing about it and wear it—but not to bear its imprint in our lives.

Strikingly, in the New Testament there is no morbid fascination with the cross and no sentimental attachment to it. There are only a handful of references in all, most about the wooden cross the Savior bore, not the effect of the cross in our lives. The key verse for us is 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” [italics added].

How can the cross be thought foolish? The way of the cross is the very antithesis of the way of the world, which believes that you earn what you get and that acquisition and display lead to power. Paul, however, says it is the cross that is the very power of God! The cross changes lives! The cross marks the place where sins are rolled away, where love becomes real and where enemies are reconciled and true belonging begins.

If the cross is the power of God, why do we seek to avoid it? If it is the way to peace, forgiveness and harmony, why not embrace it? So many ugly controversies could be avoided by way of the cross, so many power struggles bypassed and personal rivalries ended. So why not embrace it?

In a word, the cross hurts! The cross puts our private plans on hold. It runs roughshod over self-interest and puts our pride to death. It is true that we can insist on following our personal plans, exercising our rights and protecting our preferences, but that comes at a price. To omit the cross in our Christian experience—or to sidestep it—is to “empty the cross of its power,” to use Paul’s penetrating phrase (1 Cor. 1:17).

A cross-less Christianity cuts the Church off from the almighty power of God. It reduces the gospel to little more than good advice. Historian Andrew Walls was asked about the repeated historical pattern of waning influence just when the Church seems to be victorious. His answer was that “there is a certain vulnerability, a fragility, at the heart of Christianity. You might say that this is the vulnerability of the cross.”

The “vulnerability of the cross” is that it is subject to our individual decision. The cross does not force its way into our lives. When it is present, it is powerful to end destructive habits, develop morals, rearrange and refine our lives. But we must accept the cross voluntarily. It is always a choice. People, churches and movements can thrive through the power of God OR , by refusing the cross in personal experience, become inert.

And it is a daily choice, as Jesus said. It is not a one-time event that can be memorialized or put in a museum. The cross most often shows up in little ways: obedience in minor things, slight temptations, small decisions and annoying interruptions. The way we embrace the cross or reject it either gives our lives power or dresses us with a mere symbol. When the cross is just a story and not a stake in our own hearts, it is emptied of its strength.

Every volunteer who exchanges irreplaceable time to care for others knows the weight of the cross in personal experience. Every person who gives tithes and offerings experiences the cross. Every Christian leader who isn’t playing the game of personal power feels the sharp point of the cross as it puts to death some cherished ambition. International workers must know the cross in personal experience—not only to go overseas but also to stay where God has called them to serve. Christians who refuse to criticize or complain or insist on their own way are learning to bear the cross.

And there are more crosses than we believe possible. Every juncture in life, nearly every day, has one way marked the “Avenue of Self-Interest” and another, the “Highway of the Cross.” By our daily choices we determine the way we go. Jesus said, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow.”

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