What is the cross? Put simply, it is a means of extinguishing life. You do not wear it; it kills you. It is not there to charm you, persuade you, reason with you or instruct you. It is there to finish you.
At this, it is brutally efficient. There is no romance here. We have sometimes sung ‘I will cling to the old rugged cross’. The sentiment is admirable – recognition of, and respect for, the central place which the cross holds in the Christian gospel. But you do not cling to the cross; it clings to you. You are fastened to it and from it – however much you struggle – you cannot escape until it is all over.
Why do we fear the cross? Because we want to live, more than we want to be godly. But if we would ever experience the rich, continuing fullness of living in Christ, with Christ and for Christ, then we must squeeze down into it by this narrow door for there is no other way in.
We can tell a lot about ourselves by the way we view the cross. Of course we are not meant to be in love with its pain. There is no place in true Christianity for an obsession with being wounded and hurt. Only the ill or the despairing contemplate self-extinction. But if we could rightly understand it, we would see the cross comes to us as friend, not foe. It is an enemy only to that which threatens my life, my hope, my joy and my future. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Or at least, my ally. The cross is not a signpost. It is not supposed to point me to heaven; it is supposed to takes me there. By which I mean take us to the character and expression of that life and love and relationship which so powerfully lives there.
It is possible to visit the cross. Any real contact – even momentarily – with the Holy Spirit and his power to transform, will achieve some good. But for this holy instrument to work as God intends it to work, it must not let me go until it is all over. We may never be free of the need of the cross. But we can be free of the fear of it. For this to happen we need to see that the cross is not the end of us. It does not come to stifle all life; only the carnal, self-willed life. We are therefore not meant to enjoy the process, or merely to suffer its trauma. We are meant to hunger for what lies on the other side.
The apostle Paul put the question forcefully,
“…don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?”
And what was God’s intention in bringing such a cataclysmic event about?
“We were therefore buried with him… in order that, just as Christ was raised… we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:3-4 NIV).
Jesus – who is always our example – did not go to the cross as a spiritual exercise; as a demonstration of maturity or excellence of character. Though from the beginning, he knew that the steps of his life must take him to Calvary, the cross was not the end he had in view. Simply the means to the end. And that end is revealed clearly in the letter to the Hebrews, where we are instructed to,
“…fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endure the cross, scorning its shame, and set down on the right hand of the throne of God.” Heb. 12:2 NIV).
It was because of the joy he knew would be his afterwards, that Jesus stooped to the public humiliation, brutality and degradation of this death. Nowhere does the Bible suggest that he enjoyed the cross; rather he ‘endured’ it. He did not revel in its public disgrace, but he ‘scorned its shame’. And for what reason? Because of the joy that would follow! And what was this joy that in anticipation of its delight he would choose the cross when twelve thousand angels waited to secure his escape? Why, it was you and I! A blood-bought church, a ransomed bride and a relationship made whole. Redemption stood or fell by the cross. Without it, nothing was possible. With it, everything was possible. So he endured.
We who are called to follow him, find our path takes us inevitably to the cross. It is the threshold of our salvation and our gateway into the life of God. Because God is good, because grace is strong, you may have a little of God without it. But you will never have much of God except through it. It stands between the old life and the new: the self-willed and the submissive; the rebellious and the obedient. And we will lose our fear of the cross in direct proportion to how desperately we want to be free of the one and to enjoy the other.
Because the cross is not for those who want to die. It is for those who want to live! And if we were to see but a fraction of the joy which lives on the other side – the life made whole, the enemy within defeated, the relationship so close, so intimate: at once so gentle and so powerful – we would run to the cross, not from it. We would hold out our hands to it and say “Take me – I want to live!”