The Way of the Cross
By Audrey Stallsmith
Years ago I had a short story called “Dark Windows” published in the now defunct Moody Magazine. The viewpoint in that story bounced rapidly from one character’s mind to another, a technique to which editors usually object. But this time there was a purpose behind it. All of those characters thought they could read what the other characters were thinking—and all of them were wrong.
My premise was that, if eyes are windows of the soul, they are only dark windows which reflect our own assumptions and insecurities back to us. If I remember correctly, the story was on the optimistic side, because most of the characters were actually thinking less critical thoughts than the other characters assumed. Or sometimes weren’t actually thinking about those other characters at all!
I recently read a more depressing story by Daphne Du Maurier, called “The Way of the Cross,” in which several visitors to Jerusalem all experienced incidents devastating to their pride in one way or another. In some cases, they discovered that people whom they assumed to have good opinions of them didn’t after all.
Du Maurier’s point in staging her story in Jerusalem was, I suspect, to imply that each person had experienced a sort of crucifixion. The question was whether they would all be able to rise again.
A sense of humor helps with that. Our pride, after all, is often based on the number of people to whom we can feel superior. We usually find out eventually that our so-called superiority is only in our own heads.
One of the advantages of growing up is the realization that many of the people you once pitied may well have been pitying you in return. We poor country bumpkins, for example, were probably pitied by some of our town-dwelling relatives. We, in return, felt sorry for them because they had to live in town.
One of the things we Christians have to kill, as Sherwood Eliot Wirt points out in The Inner Life of the Believer, is the necessity to feel we are somehow a cut above other people. Because, Wirt points out quite bluntly, we aren’t. Not in God’s eyes anyway. He doesn’t love us due to any worth on our part, but simply because He is Love. He loves cretins and criminals just as much.
Although that realization may be a little deflating, it actually takes off a lot of pressure. We all know how much frustration is felt by people who have never been able to live up to the expectations of their earthly fathers. Some of us experience similar frustration because we still think we need to prove ourselves to our heavenly Father too. What he wants from us, however, is not any pumping up of our own importance. On the contrary, he wants us to kill that self-aggrandizing spirit, so he can replace it with His own Spirit of love.
This is all my tricky way of circling around to the idea, long repeated by almost all Christian writers, that believers must sooner or later experience a kind of crucifixion of their own. Not an actual physical crucifixion, of course, but a spiritual one that is too real to be described as just metaphor.
It’s an idea that scares me so much that I have to approach it obliquely. As one of those shy children who got picked on it school, after all, one of my biggest consolations was the idea that “Someday I’ll show them!” Although I doubt most of those bullies are still around to be shown, I can’t seem to shake the idea that I still have something to prove. Must I give that up?
Yes, because—as C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity—all our attempts to serve both God and our own desires simply lead to deadlock. “The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self—all your wishes and precautions—to Christ. But it is far easier than what we are all trying to do instead. For what we are trying to do is to remain what we call ‘ourselves,’ to keep personal happiness as our great aim in life, and yet at the same time be ‘good’. We are all trying to let our mind and heart go their own way—centered on money or pleasure or ambition—and hoping, in spite of this to behave honestly and chastely and humbly. And that is exactly what Christ warned us you could not do.”
Instead, Lewis holds, only the “Christ-life inside” will allow us “to repeat (in some degree) the kind of voluntary death which Christ himself carried out.” The key word here is, of course, “voluntary.” We have to be willing to let our old self go.
Jesus made this requirement very plain. In fact, he seemed to imply that such crucifixion might not be a one-time thing but something that has to be repeated constantly. “Anyone who wants to follow me must put aside his own desires and conveniences and carry his cross with him every day and keep close to me! Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it, but whoever insists on keeping his life will lose it.” (Luke 9:23-24 TLB)
As Fulton Sheen asserts, even the Beatitudes aren’t as “harmless” as some people seem to think they are. “What he [Christ] taught was self-crucifixion: to love those who hate us; to pluck out eyes and cut off arms in order to prevent sinning; to be clean on the inside when the passions clamor for satisfaction on the outside; to forgive those who would put us to death; to overcome evil with good; to bless those who curse us; to stop mouthing freedom until we have justice, truth and love of God in our hearts as the condition of freedom; to live in the world and still keep oneself unpolluted from it; to deny ourselves sometimes legitimate pleasures in order the better to crucify our egotism—all this is to sentence the old man in us to death.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it more succinctly in his appropriately titled The Cost of Discipleship. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” We, however, are too much like the rich young ruler who went away sadly because he had many possessions he wasn’t willing to relinquish. For some of us poorer types, those possessions aren’t so much material goods as ambitions or attitudes we can’t seem to give up. And, of course, the idea of any kind of death scares us mortal creatures to death!
Even Jesus struggled with it in Gethsemane when he asked whether there was any other way. Death would seem to be a destruction of who He was too—the immortal Son of God. Fortunately, for God’s children there is always a resurrection, where the new creature will appear similar too but also very different from the old.
As Robert Farrer Capon puts it, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.” In a creature who was born with a bent to sin, only a spiritual death and rebirth works.
We can see a good example of a man who died to self in the life of St. Francis who gave up all his wealth and worldly ambition to follow Christ. Francis traveled to Jerusalem during one of the crusades, but quickly became disillusioned with the crusaders, many of whom were obviously more concerned with their own glory than with Christ’s. According to The Book of Missionary Heroes by Basil Matthews, “They had the cross on their armor; but few of them had in their hearts the spirit of Jesus who was nailed to the cross.” Since Francis did have that Spirit, he preferred to try to convert the Moslems rather than kill them, so he and another friar decided to go alone to meet the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil.
The Sultan was so impressed that the friars would take such a foolhardy risk to save his soul that he listened to them and allowed them to leave unharmed. Perhaps if modern Moslems could see Christ’s spirit in us, they might listen to us as well.
Although we might consider Francis’s life of poverty sacrificial, he probably wouldn’t have seen it that way. As Bob Goff points out in Love Does, “Jesus isn’t requesting a sacrifice at all. He’s asking us to play Bigger and Better, where we give up ourselves and end up with Him.”
Of course, the first idea that pops into my head is, “If I give up the need for recognition, maybe God will reward me by giving me that recognition anyway.” Wirt admits that the ego is tricky and very good at playing possum, pretending to be dead when it isn’t. In fact he warns that, once we become humble, there is always the danger we will recognize that and become proud of our humility.
So, if the old self isn’t really killed the first time, we may have to keep repeating the process. Jesus died quickly and completely, because he was entirely surrendered to the will of God. Although that decease cast him briefly into Sheol (the region of the dead), he was able to rise from it triumphant, bringing the rest of the righteous dead with him. However, his new resurrected body seems to have made him temporarily unrecognizable to many of his old acquaintances.
Our dying to self will also be painful and frightening. But, if it is successful, perhaps our acquaintances will find our spirits to be drastically changed!