The Significance of the Cross
Suffering has been endemic to the human race since time beyond counting. Job reminds us that “we are born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards.” The Scriptures are not naïve about that reality. They are never tempted for a moment to say that our suffering is incidental or simply a bad dream. The Old and New Testaments describe the long legacy of human suffering that stretches from the death of Abel to the last martyr of the Book of the Revelation. The suffering is so universal that the good, the bad and the ugly all face this terrifying reality.
No one is immune. Read the Old Testament through. No ancient patriarch, prince, prophet, priest, or peasant could escape the difficult reality that in the middle of life we are in death. Read the New Testament through. Suffering is written on almost every page of it. It too speaks of the suffering and death of the Saviour and of his saints.
It is also true that suffering is not an ancient problem we have outgrown. To this very hour suffering permeates our life. It is graphically displayed these days in the victims of inter-national strife. But suffering does not take place only at the national level. In the microcosms of our own communities, our own congregations, our own families, and our own personal lives, pain is often inscribed indelibly into the very fabric of our souls.
If hope springs eternal, so do our pain-filled questions. “Where is God at a time like this?” There are two responses that have dominated the discussion. God is either aloof from the human condition, or He is the cause of our difficulties. He is either uncaring in his non-intervention, or He is punishing us for something done or not done. He either could not care less, or He is cruel beyond comprehension since His punishment appears worse than all our crimes.
God’s Answer To Our Hurt
Throughout the millennia humanity has put God in the dock, and demanded that He answer the dual charge of carelessness or cruelty. We want to know what answer He has to offer in defense. Some of us think we know what answer He would give. We think we hear God yelling back at us, “You deserve it! All of you! This is justice at work. You are simply receiving your just desserts.” But such an answer only adds insult to our injury and piles guilt on top of our accumulated grief. That answer only serves to increase our distrust of God who seems not to understand that so much of our wickedness flows out of our deep woundedness and our inherent weakness.
Perhaps we need to ask the question again. What answer would God give if we put Him on trial? Perhaps He has already given us his answer and we were not listening. For the Church, the definitive answer is found in a cross, planted on Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified on a long ago Friday. The cross is God’s response to the accusation that God either does not care, or that He is the cause of our pain.
The cross is such a graphic symbol of suffering. The cross was created as an instrument of torture that would lead to the death of its victims. It was, to say the least, an horrific invention. There is, however, a wonderful irony in Jesus being crucified on this cross-shaped instrument of human suffering.
The cross is a construction that points in four directions. In the ancient world the four directions of the compass were seen as encompassing the whole world. When the cross was laid on the ground it was as though this symbol of suffering reached out to touch all persons throughout the four corners of the world. But when Jesus was laid on the cross and his arms were spread-eagled for the nailing, the arms of sacrificial love pointed in the same direction, reaching out to those who had suffered, offering them an answer to the terrible damage they had experienced.
When the cross was dropped into its pre-dug hole, the cross took on a deeper significance. The cross now has two horizontal arms that reached out, pointing to the extremities not only of human geography but also the extremities of human history. Those arms point to the distant past and to the distant future. It is almost as if Jesus stands in the middle of time between those who have suffered and those who will suffer, and offers the best answer to what has appeared to be meaningless suffering.
Part of the answer lies in the vertical shaft of the cross. One end of that cross points upwards to the heavens, and the other end has been plunged deep into the earth. It is as though the cross connected the heavens and the earth to each other, and bridged the gap between life as it was and life as it could be. If the cross pointed to the depths of human despair, at the very same time it pointed us to hope in God.
Anyone standing at the foot of that cross on the brow of that hill, looking up at the crucified Son of God, would have seen Him superimposed upon the sky of the distant horizon. He would have looked almost as though He were suspended in air, caught half way between heaven and earth. It could have appeared that He belonged to this world and at the same time He belonged to the heavens. This vertical post serves as the exclamation mark of God in answer to the great question mark at the heart of humanity.
Where is God at a time like this? Where is God when we need Him most? The answer is, He is in the midst of our suffering. He participates in it. He takes it upon himself. He takes injustice, betrayal, denial, suffering, and death upon himself. But He does not take away our suffering by His suffering. Instead He adds something to our suffering. He adds his own presence to our pain, so that the very worst things that can occur to us are transposed into sacraments of his comfort. God is the great recycler who takes our hurt into his wounded hands and brings something of eternal value into our living and into our dying. Thanks be to God!
Think it Through…
We have long known that the death of Christ brought redemption to us. The tendency has been to think of that in judicial terms. “Saved from judgment.” (Romans 5:1-11) But the cross also reminds us that Jesus redeems everything, including the most painful parts of human existence. That is part of the “wise-foolishness” of God. In his death, is our life.
Have you tried the experiment of going down memory lane to one of the most painful moments in your past, and then explored how God actually recycled parts of that event to bring good to you or to someone else? I highly recommend it!
For the Small Group Leader…
The teachings of Peter and Paul may be instructive for group discussion on the “redemption of our suffering.” These two books were designed to help Christians in difficult days.
- I Peter 2:18-25, 3:16-19, 4:12-19, and 5:8-11.
- Philippians 1:12-14, 29-30, 2:7-11, 3:8-11, 4:12
Published in Light and Life, January-February, 2003.