Life Becomes a Dark Saying

I don’t know what it means to say that Christ “died for my sins”…but I do understand — or intuit, rather — the notion of God not above or beyond or immune to human suffering, but in the very midst of it, intimately with us in our sorrow, our sense of abandonment, our hellish astonishment at finding ourselves utterly alone, utterly helpless. —Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

It is a curious thing to be a human being. There is in us a drive to be more than we are and also a drive to be that which we are not. These are not the same, and it’s worth our time to make the distinction. But what we find most difficult is to be what we are. If we could truly know what we are, both in the aggregate and as individuals, we might not be so anxious to be something else. Even more to the point, we might not be so anxious.

“Be all that you can be,” says the Army’s recruiting slogan, with the implication that whatever you are right now is not enough compared to what you could become with the proper training and motivation. It’s a clever slogan, and it works for a lot of people, because most of us do not really know what we are but we’re pretty sure we’d rather be other than what we are. Whatever that is.

So here is one way we’re given to understand what we are. The basic message is: you’re no good. The thing is that while a lot of advertising uses this technique, so do some iterations of Christianity.

The advertising arm of this approach is relatively benign. It says — sometimes loudly, sometimes softly — but always incessantly: you are deeply lacking in some crucial areas of life. But don’t worry, there are people here who can help you, who want the best for you, and who know what’s best for you. Toothpaste, cars, clothes, men’s shaving razors (Harry’s, I’m looking at you), lifestyles, attitudes, beliefs — anything can be commoditized and sold. It’s a service we’re proud to provide.

The Christian versions also begin with the claim that we are absolutely corrupted and there is nothing good in us. The more sadistic brands then justify beating the hell out of children and making sure the adults know what complete failures they are. The milder, but more acquisitive forms counsel surrender to Christ in order to reap the rewards of victory. Having put our hand to the plow we never look back; the furrow we cut through the world is straight and true because we have made it so. Victory is ours.

We are quick to say that all the glory goes to God. He is the one who has blessed us. As we warm to the subject, we rejoice in the fact that since everything belongs to God, and since He wants us to be happy, He can give us whatever our hearts desire. He does not want his children to be seen as poor. It brings shame upon the family name. God knows our needs and wants. Once we were blind, but now we see that God is our great investment banker: if we put ten dollars in the collection plate, He will multiply that and increase our goods ten-fold, a hundred-fold, beyond our wildest dreams. All things are ours if we are willing to believe that God will reward our faith.

It is a seductive message the prosperity gospel puts out. There is truth to it, but not in the ways the seduced would want to own. The first truth is that on our best days we’re running a low-grade fever of illusion that we can scrub out all our imperfections if we just put our minds to it. The second truth is that on our bad days we’re blaming everybody else for our failures. These things are so true that they whipsaw us back and forth until we demand a product that will put an end to the pain.

For some, the analgesic comes in the form of all that advertising sells. For others, the pain is dulled by a Jesus who promises a carefree life. The proviso is that our faith must keep that balloon aloft. The moment we stop huffing and puffing is the moment we plummet. Still others of us will attempt perfection because we think that is what Christ demands. We will fail. Christ’s lawyers will tell us that we fell short, that we were out of compliance. Our weakness is our fault.

But here is another kind of truth:

“And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:34-37, Authorized Version)

This has long been for me one of the most significant texts in the New Testament. It is paradoxical, upside-down thinking, literally about matters of life and death. Without blinking or turning away, Jesus calls us to one of the most barbaric forms of death in human history. Our eyes bounce and swoop over the words now, because for many the cross has become mere jewelry. Jesus’ death on the cross is far, far back in history, the stuff of theological councils, a done deal. But this story, this ragged, gut-wrenching cry — this is a forewarning of what is to come.

Needless to say, this invitation will not draw the masses to the revolution. It isn’t even a message that Jesus reserves for those most familiar with his rhetorical themes — his disciples. He might have drawn them quietly aside, cleared his throat, and said: “By the way, you’ll want to be preparing for your eventual death on a cross. Do that and you’ll live forever.” Instead, He turns and speaks openly to the jostling people who are following him around, the ones just hoping to be healed or touched or listened to or in some real way seen for the first time in their lives. Did they hear him? Could they hear him? Is he trying to thin the crowd, to cut it down to the hard-core cell of those who would go to death for him and the cause?

He says all this, knowing somehow that all of them will abandon him to his wild dreams as he breathes his last on the cross to the laughter of the soldiers who nailed him there. But he is serious, and we must take him seriously. We owe him that much.

(In time from now we will realize how utterly clueless that was, to think our debt to him could so easily be paid up by deigning to listen, politely leaning forward, our brow wrinkled in concentration, a half-smile on our lips that we hope will be taken as agreement, but that barely hides the clanging of our hearts and the hot, racing pulse that suddenly is pounding so loudly in our ears that we cannot clearly hear what he is saying. And yet Jesus will not call us out on that. We will find it in our own time, consciousness dawning belatedly, gratitude welling up and dissolving our barriers to his gentle forgiveness.)

***

We have a soul and we can lose it, and we have a life, and we can lose that too. Actually, the way Jesus puts it here, we are ensouled; that’s what we are as humans. To have life is to be a soul; to be a soul is to have life. There are lots of ways we can lose our ensouled life, but apparently only one way we can save it, and that is by taking up our cross and following Jesus. Each of us has a cross and our cross is as individual and unique as we are. Our job is to recognize it and to take it up, not just once, but every day.

Denying ourselves, we give up our panicked glances for the exits, and our half-remembered survival tips, and we trust that when it comes to it, when our last means of escape has been closed off, that we will know as we are known, and that that will more than suffice.

For an immigrant mother, struggling in poverty to provide for her children, her cross might be the loneliness of fear and the grind of daily life, to bear it through the grace and strength of God. For another, his cross may be the wear and tear on his faith as he copes with the treatment of his cancer. A pastor, struggling with opioid addiction, who must dull his pain while caring for others.

We don’t choose our crosses, but we do find them in the course of our lives. For some of us it will be that which we cannot shake off, which haunts us at the edges of our peripheral vision. Some might call it the Shadow, the deep part of ourselves we do not want to recognize and which is capable of much mayhem within our souls.

I suspect that many of us will find a brother in the man who cried out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” His first response is what he thinks Jesus wants to hear. His second response is his heart-cry, the desperate honesty of one who has no more options, but cannot let go of his fleeting hope. In like manner, our faith will wax and wane, yet can be sustained by the One who says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”

“Life becomes a dark saying,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard. Yet, “it perhaps happened that your mind became more gentle and took to heart the words that had been planted in you and that were able to give a blessing to your soul — namely, the saying that every good and perfect gift comes down from above.”

We are curious creatures, we human beings. Early in life we think we know so much. Later in life, we find we know so little. Earlier in life we are making ourselves, but later in life we discover ourselves. Earlier in life, we are taught to forgive other people. Later in life, we learn to forgive ourselves.

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communications for 28 years at Columbia Union College, now Washington Adventist University, and business communication at Stevenson University for 7 years. He continues as adjunct professor in ethics and philosophy at Trinity Washington University, D.C. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods.

Photo by Nout Gons on Unsplash

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9217
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Years and years ago, a faculty member from Andrews Seminary gave the Week of Prayer at LLU. His Theme was a portion of the text above—Lord Help My Unbelief! As. Faculty member I attend most if not all of his devotionals. I could make little of his postulates. several months later he left Andrews and join a non Adventist Seminary. That was before Glacier View. it was then I understood his dilemma. WO is only the tip of a Titanic sized Iceburg. Yet the Gospel is so clear that a plowman can understand it.Or fishermen.

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Yea! Bro. Thomas. Now will you tell me just what the “Gospel is that is so clear that a plowman can understand it. Or a fisherman”. I haven’t heard anything like the Gospel in years.

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The Gospel is the Good News. The thief on the Cross hear it. “ I say unto you this day, thou shalt be with Me in paradise. “ Justification is hearing and accepting that invitation. We are adopted, now behave as children of the King of Kings. No, if we fall He does not disown us. We acknowledge our failure as sons and daughters and are reenstated. Once saved always savable. We can leave. he never does. .

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Hallelujah ! Somebody has it right. Now where do all these man made “doctrines” (28 fundamental beliefs) come into play? Are any necessary for our salvation?

The above view of ‘taking up our cross’ is the one generally accepted, that we each will have trials in life to overcome laid out by God, that following Jesus won’t be easy or pleasant at times. I think there is truth in this explanation.
But enduring these challenges will not save our life. (Please don’t confuse the process of sanctification with what saves us, justification, which is ours by faith in the divine plan of salvation, which includes believing what transpired on the cross.)

To every day take up one’s cross sounds daunting and difficult. Yet, Christ also said that we are to come to Him and ‘all who are weary and heavy-laden’ will find rest and His yoke is easy and His burden light. How can both be?
What if to ‘take up your cross’ daily simply means to live in a place of remembrance that Christ’s cross was also yours?

In Mark 8 we learn that Jesus has told His disciples that He would go to Jerusalem, suffer and be killed. Peter rebuked Him and Christ replied that Satan was influencing Peter and causing him to reason as a man would in concluding that having these things happen would be terrible and must be avoided. The Bible says that Peter was not comprehending ‘the things that are of God’. Jesus went on to say, ‘If anyone will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.’ The Greek word here translated as deny does not primarily mean to do without something or to sacrifice for a purpose but rather ‘to forget oneself and one’s own interests’ or ‘to affirm that one has no acquaintance with or connection with someone’. I suggest that ‘someone’ is the person we were born, the person alienated from God, the person with the nature inherited from Adam and irretrievably bent to selfishness and sin (the ‘himself’ we know). It is a fine thing for a man to deny himself certain things or experiences which God has shown him are evil or harmful, to try to tame the flesh, to undergo the process of sanctification; it is quite another for a man to simply deny himself, who he reckons he is and who he still appears to be.

What if Christ meant that His cross was our cross; that we were in Christ as He died on His cross and so the fallen, sinful human race was legally executed? If so, our understanding of what happened to us on the cross can enable us to deny the person we were. The legal death in God’s eyes of this child of flesh and sin opens the way for us to become the new creation, spiritual child of God.

The Bible tells the story of two Adams. One meaning of the word ‘adam’ is mankind. God put us in each and their story is ours. We were created in the first and we died and were created anew in the last. We fell away from God in the first and God was with us in the last reconciling us to Himself (2Cor 5:19). The actions of the first resulted in sin and death to all of us. The law calls for the death penalty for each of us. God made a way for us to pay it in the last. Paul has told us that we were crucified with Christ, that the old ‘we’ no longer live, that Christ now lives in us. Romans 7 tells us the story of Paul’s coming to grips with his change of identity - from the legally dead, outer, old, Adamic, man of the flesh (whose sinful nature could not be changed) to the new creation man, the inner man, the new divine seed begotten by God, the man of the Spirit (who is holy by nature). The one being formed within and to be born as a child of God when we are glorified. ‘…if we have been united with Him in the likeness of His death, so also shall we be united with Him in the likeness of His resurrection.’(Rom 6:5)

So, I believe ‘take up your cross’ means to understand that Christ’s cross was also yours and is your way through death, a necessary step toward your new creation, immortal life.

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Dave, you make a good point. Thanks for the clarity. And I would just add, to riff on your last sentence . . . perhaps we could say that our cross is Christ’s also, another way of making your point.

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The difficulty in understanding a lot of what Jesus said is rooted in our different cultures.

For us in a “Judeo-Christian world”, it is something of a badge of honour to say we are Christian, we believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, the Christ. In Jesus’ day, that was disastrous. “… for the Jews had agreed already that if anyone confessed that He was Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue.” John 9:22. Also, we are not privy to the administration of death sentences; but in Jesus’ day, the shame of excommunication was public and being handed over to Rome for execution was excruciatingly brutal.

The closest we can get to the dilemma facing anyone in those days is for a Muslim being convicted to preach Christ in the heart of Saudi Arabia today. To lose all your goods and belongings was a terrible price to pay for a simple confession, as Jesus pointed out to the rich young ruler, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” Mark 10:21. In other words, gladly bare the shame of association with Jesus of Nazareth. I say “Nazareth” because of Nathanael’s words, “Can anything good come out of [that place]”? John 1:46

Crucifixion: there is nothing to equal the pain, the shame and that while lifted up for the whole world to see; all because you chose to follow your conscience. It’s hard. But if in the Son of God alone, there is eternal life, then …

Luke 9:24-26

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They are only necessary for the salvation of people’s jobs. The more FBs the more “kompliance inspectors” will now be necessary… :wink:

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Now THAT is a true saying. God has made every human being a free moral agent and accountable to Him. “… we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: As I live, says the Lord, Every knee shall bow to Me and every tongue shall confess to God.” Rom. 14:10-11

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We in the West have it pretty easy. We are not harassed or imprisoned for our beliefs. Even today, in some places people are killed because they won’t disavow their faith.

Each religion and each variation within each religion can also be looked upon as having a culture. In Christianity, the members of each denomination share a similar viewpoint and base their faith on their interpretation of Scripture which in turn is partly a product of their suppositions.
Each maintain that their view is the truth, that their doctrines are correct. Each ‘have their verses’.

Essentially the second part of that statement (the part beginning with ‘As I live…’) is made three times in Scripture - Is 45:23, Rom 14:11, and Phil 2:10.
I think anything that God has had put in His Book three times must be important. I don’t think most people understand the gravity of the phrase ‘As I live’. It is a vow of God. It is unconditional. He is swearing to us that He will make this happen. The equivalent statement in Isaiah reads, ‘The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back…’

Also, we have Rev 5:13 which says, ‘And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever.”’
And Psalm 22:27 tells us, ‘All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will worship before You.’

The Isaiah verse ends with ‘every tongue will swear allegiance’; the Philippians verse ends with ‘every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

I wish each Christian would ponder their view of the destiny of most of humanity and whether or not what they have been taught will truly bring glory to God.

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Beautiful, Barry. Your best among many beauties, I would say. Thank you.

Watchman Nee, in Song of Songs, points out that the Shulamite Maiden at first says, “My Beloved is mine, and I am his.”

Further maturing enables the Maiden to say, “I am my Beloved’s, and he is mine.”

In this pursuit to know God, one comes across various types of relationships with his Maker -- that of a sovereign, judge, master, father, mother, brother and spouse.

The best and the most desirable of all these relationships is that of a spouse.

While all the other bonds provide a partial cognizance of the Supreme Being, the relationship of that of the bride and bridegroom – nayaki nayaka bhava – offers a fuller understanding and a better intimacy.

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