“But God wills our good, and our good is to love Him…and to love Him we must know Him: and if we know Him, we shall in fact fall on our faces…Yet the call is not only to prostration and awe; it is to a reflection of the Divine life, a creaturely participation in the Divine attributes which is far beyond our present desires. We are bidden to “put on Christ,” to become like God. That is, whether we like it or not, God intends to give us what we need, not what we now think we want. Once more, we are embarrassed by the intolerable compliment, by too much love, not too little.” –C.S. Lewis
How would you respond if someone told you, “God commands people to do what they are unable to do”? Would you consider it blasphemy? I might. Depending on the person’s tone of voice, I might also receive it as an expression of bitterness and unbelief. The statement sounds unscriptural. But is it?
We are told about God that “his commands are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). Jesus told us, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). On the other hand, the same Jesus declares, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24)? Self-denial is rarely easy, and, figurative or otherwise, the command to take up the cross communicates a painful and harrowing ordeal.
The Roman practice of crucifixion customarily involved forcing the condemned prisoner to carry the upper portion of the cross (the crosspiece) to the site of execution outside the city, which was usually a long distance. The crosspiece is believed to have ordinarily weighed anywhere from 50 to 125 pounds. The crosspiece had to be carried across the convict’s shoulders, which normally were already torn open from the flogging that was a standard opener to the crucifixion. Surely the reader doesn’t need a full description of the horror of Roman crucifixion to see what is being invoked by a reference to the cross. In his article entitled, “Crucifixion in the Ancient World,” Dr. Richard P. Bucher paraphrases Roman jurist Paulus, who reckoned crucifixion “the worst of all capital punishments, listing it ahead of death by burning, death by beheading, or death by the wild beasts.” What array of hardships could account for the fact that Jesus deemed this unimaginable grotesquerie a fitting metaphor in describing the rigors of serving and following him? To be clear: nothing we experience can compare with what Christ endured. Jesus went through suffering that would have snapped the soul of any one of us. And yet, right there in Scripture, Christ calls the trials of the Christian walk a person’s “cross.”
Martin Luther assured us that we are saved by faith alone, and he had Scriptures to back him up. But where does obedience fit into all this? As frivolous as some of us are in approaching Christ, the ones who have heard the call to faith know that obeying God is part of the deal. Jesus told us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). However, Paul insists that “God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (Rom. 11:32). The same book is telling us that we must, but can’t, obey. And there are more dilemmas where that came from. Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). But Paul comes around again quoting Psalms to remind us that we are all hopeless:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
There is no one who does good,
not even one.
Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.
The poison of vipers is on their lips.
Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
ruin and misery mark their ways,
and the way of peace they do not know.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Rom. 3:10-18)
How can a God who is wonderful enough to create elephants and giraffes and penguins place people in such a situation as this? What is the relevance of the cross when the crucial hurdles of the Christian life are things I am unable to do? Repentance, obedience, single-minded pursuit of Christ, all-out surrender to God—can it be done? I remember the first time I saw with horrible clarity how far these requirements were from the realm of my ability. When I expressed my dismay to my Christian leaders, they told me, “Look to the cross, brother! That’s why Jesus came and died for us.”
Okay, fantastic, but we all have to deal with sin. What happens when the dead-serious Christian can’t get over the mountains of habitual sin, unbelief, a heart that keeps pulling away from the only One who can redeem it? What about the heroin addict, the chronic alcoholic, the serial killer and the pedophile? What if they can’t find the handle? Paul spoke unequivocally: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
Go to the cross, brother! But transformation by Christ’s power requires self-denial, faith, trust, sacrifice—and obedience. Now we’ve come full circle, and many of those who have accepted Christ are still in the gutter. They’ve fought their addictions, wept, prayed, fasted, devoured Scripture and lived at church only to find that they are still tormented by what ails them. The fledgling believer is left wondering about the state of his salvation. The promises of Scripture sound like mockery. His birthright of healing and transformation is a no-show.
Could it be that for such people, the answer is simply to refuse to give up? To just keep dragging themselves up out of the dirt? Could these be the “fiery trials” Peter was talking about (1 Peter 4:12)? In facing my own spiritual gauntlet, I’ve been beset by many things, not the least of which was an awful fear that God would let me slip away if I strayed once too often. At the same time, the way I understood Scripture, my apparent inability to trust in the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement was itself a disqualification. I was trapped. I knew that only God could perform the work I needed done in my heart, and I was angry with him for not doing it. Did I need to cut open my flesh to show him I was serious about wanting a new heart? No. I needed to stay the course, even when it looked like everything was lost.
“With man this is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Through the trials of the Christian journey, as life and sanity and even our very salvation appears to hang by a thread, God is forcing us off the precarious footing of our own strength and virtue and onto the foundation of his grace. The only course is for the Christian to have the audacity to apply for clemency again and again, to trust that Jesus meant it when he said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Through the battle of the flesh, the believer is shown the wickedness of his own heart. Sin’s ugliness and anguish must turn the regenerated soul to God in utter desperation. We come to the crossroads in perpetuity until our resistance is stamped out of us. If we will refuse to turn back, we will find in our depravity how great and inextinguishable God’s love is, how nearly unilateral is his act of redemption in Christ Jesus. Not even the worst sinner can outlast God’s patience. The pivot is the choice that falls on the sinner: despair or surrender. God himself writes the prescription: “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all of your heart” (Jer. 29:13). If only the hard-case sinner could see that through all his miserable, selfish conduct, The Holy Spirit is by his side, cheering him on!
In his book Bone of His Bone, author F. J. Huegel makes a profound statement: “Christianity is not an imitation of Christ, but a participation in Him.” The former flows out of the latter. God signs the adoption papers before he initiates the training, and he doesn’t cast out the ones who have learning disabilities. The sons and daughters have to understand that they are loved and accepted as permanent members of the family before they can mature. I once heard a Christian educator say that throughout the historic pantheon of great Christians—missionaries, preachers and teachers—there can be found in the biographies and writings a common experience of near-despair when each of them had to face the reality that they couldn’t walk the walk. Somehow, getting flattened by the impossible burden of living for Christ brought them around to experience the truth: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).