Luke 9:23 – And Jesus said to all, If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.
An item placed front and center on a church altar.
A 3D bumper decal.
Stamped on a graphic tee.
Clasped in praying hands with fistfuls of beads.
On the delicate silver chain around a girl’s neck.
Dangling from a woman’s earlobe.
Captured in a gorgeous oil painting, stark onyx against the pastel lines of dawn, like Georgia O’Keeffe’s pictured “Black Cross of New Mexico”.
In today’s culture, the cross is beloved, hailed and promoted as symbolic and claimed as the icon for several different reasons and movements, even by those ignorant of its true meaning.
But it wasn’t always.
In college, I was forced to read a long, detailed article on the methods of Roman crucifixion. At the end of the article, I wanted to wrap my angry hands around the warped minds that contrived this worst-possible-way to die and choke them. Words fail to detail the pain of the crucifixion.
Yet, God created those minds that warped themselves toward the study of painful deaths. He created the mouth of the one who kissed Him in betrayal. He created the hands that nailed Him to the cross, and the hands that attempted to wash themselves of His blood. He created the people who committed the sins that killed Him, including me.
Because He loves us and hates sin and wants to make all things new.
God is occupied with the redemption of the world. Yes, He’s redeemed His people, but He’s also in the business of redeeming and remaking music, business, fashion, symbols, and more. He loves to take not just ugly, dead people that others despise and transform them, but He also loves to take ugly, dead things that others despise and transform them.
1 Corinthians 1:27-29 says that God loves to dumbfound people by choosing the weak, the humble, the low, the hated, even the non-existent in order to showcase His power and His message.
When I spent a summer in Mexico, I had the privilege of meeting many amazing, strong, and wonderfully transformed Christians. Because of their interest in me and their emotional openness to me, I was gifted with their stories, told by them in their own words. One amazing man possessed a story in some ways similar to mine – only he was bold enough to share it where I faltered in silence. He told me about his parent’s rough relationship and divorce, about the poverty his broken family faced, about his loneliness, about the time he spent in an orphanage.
“But, Anna,” he told me in Spanish as I barely managed a stumbling “lo siento mucho…que horrible” at the conclusion of his story, “if none of that had happened, I wouldn’t have met God at the orphanage, or learned to play guitar, or lived in this city, or met you.”
I couldn’t say anything – not in Spanish, not in English. I can still hardly say anything about the genuine glimmer in his eyes, like he honestly believed the “all things happen for good” verse in the Bible.
Up until that point (I’d only been a Christian for 2 years), I’d held to a futuristic view of Romans 8:28, a “well, in heaven when we’re with God in the very end of the world, of course all things will be good” idea.
But this man had a very present, intimate view of a God right now, right there in his life, working divorces and orphaned children and poverty out for good in his world. I feel immensely blessed to have learned a little of that present, intimate God view from him. The time he spent in my life, although brief, was ripe with spiritual growth. For that, I am forever grateful.
What he had, that I did not at the time, was a big picture view of the past. Not just the past of the world, but his own past.
My past and I have never been on good terms, partially because I remember things vividly and partially because the majority of my past was without God (yeah for the day that I’m old enough to reverse that statistic!). But I do love big pictures!
I’ve stood in the halls of museums, mesmerized by huge, intricate paintings, beckoning me to look at all the elements in all locations on the canvas. The lovely thing about those paintings is that each aspect is so detailed and planned, I hardly know where to look first. All the brush strokes and figures correspond aesthetically or uniquely within the setting, complementing the other elements. I’ve sat in gorgeous cathedrals giving myself whiplash from craning my neck to see how all the details of the painted, sculpted ceiling and walls fit together.
God loves big pictures. Since He isn’t limited by time and space, He creates some pretty long-term (to us), gorgeous, huge pictures.
Like the cross.
Many years after the crucifixion, the majority of the known world still despised the cross as ugly. In 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, Paul talks about how the cross was ridiculous and shameful to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Crucifixions were still taking place. One of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, was crucified upside down years after Jesus was, refusing to be crucified upright because he believed himself unworthy of suffering the same death Jesus had suffered. The cross remained ugly throughout the ancient world for hundreds of years.
But God is fine with waiting to develop long-term, lovely transformations. After all, He makes everything beautiful in His time, not in ours.
The cross was the ugliest, cruelest thing possible in the ancient world. Yet the cross happened to Jesus and God made it beautiful. He transformed a horrible death into a memorable, supernatural paradox that I get to see daily.
Picking up my own cross becomes something like that paradox; seeing the ugliest, cruelest thing possible that has happened to me to-date and beautifying it – yes, even publically displaying it – maybe when I have to stare at its hurtful effects daily, maybe when I have to shoulder its painful consequences daily, maybe when I still can’t even bring myself to look at it daily…
And God gives more grace.
In helping us to transform our own cross experiences, God’s strength is perfected in the midst of my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I can’t look at my cross without God’s help, I can’t bear my cross without God’s help, and I definitely can’t beautify and display my cross for God’s glory without His help. My cross becomes simultaneously my lowest, ugliest, most painful moment, and a daily reminder of God’s transforming power and grace. Like looking at an orphanage and a divorce and seeing salvation, music, and precious new acquaintances. That’s beautiful. God is so beautiful.
I get to see His beauty on the golden chain around my neck, in the gruesome article about an ancient death, in a Spanish conversation with an amazing Christian, in the hall paintings in a museum, and in my sometimes ugly, painful memories – my personal cross that He promised I won’t have to bear alone.
I am with you always… Matthew 28:20