Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not be conforming to the pattern of this world, but be transforming for the renewal of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing, and perfect will.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by the Son of God’s faith, who loved me and gave himself for me.
1 Peter 4.1:
Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin.
Our mortality is a scary thing. We are born into this world with a survival instinct, to protect ourselves from potential threats. It is programmed into our brains and bodies in such a way that our thoughts and feelings will immediately tremor at a potential threat. So powerful is this instinctive impulse that even as our minds recognize there is no immediate threat, we can not just silence this lingering fear. It stays in our bodies, bidding us to give in to fear and anxiety, even as our minds perceive that there is no real immediate threat. For those of us who have experienced threats and traumas, it can often lead to periods where our feelings almost cripple us.
So pervasive is this fear and so dreadful is the feeling that we do everything we can to try to allay these fears and prevent them from arising in the first place. We want to go beyond simply being able to protect ourselves from an immediate threat, but we do everything we can to prevent the possibility of threats. People are motivated to have a career to provide money, which is rooted in the desire to have resources to provide and protect oneself. We develop systems of morality that are intended to prevent anything that might seem remotely dangerous from entering our space. We are often encouraged to build our social networks based upon selecting people who we deem to be safe.
Certainly, there is something good about this to some degree. Resources to provide for basic needs, a sense of righteousness that promotes mutual well-being, and close and safe social relationships are good things. We feel a sense of happiness when these things come to us because we find pleasure in peace, we find joy in presence of security.
Yet, each of these things can also become a source of evil. Greed exploits. Self-righteousness condemns. Exclusivity marginalizes. In each of these cases, the emotional signals of happiness that come from the feelings of allaying insecurity and vulnerability become a source of pain and harm to others. Yet, the greedy, self-righteous, and exclusivity all feel a sense of rightness about this. This sense of one’s happiness and those things that we think are ‘necessary’ for ourselves can lead people to cause harm to others. All this may very well get manifest in the characteristic of pride, whether such pride comes from one’s sense of wealth, righteousness, or social status.
Now, it is customary to throw the blame for these evil traits on the pursuit of pleasure and personal fulfillment, especially in Christian circles. Yet, if we recognize that this sense of happiness is most often connected to our vulnerability and fears of our mortality, then perhaps we can see that the real problem isn’t with the pursuit of happiness or fulfillment itself, but the way that our happiness and fulfillment are driven by a lurking fear of mortality. Perhaps it is truly fear, not pleasure, that stands at the root of evil in this world.
The Preacher of Hebrews takes this route when coming to understand Jesus’s Incarnation in Hebrews 2.14-15:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear to death.
As the Preacher expresses a theology where the sacrifice of Jesus Christ sanctifies and perfects believers, this statement about death and enslavement to fear of death can be taken to undergird his understanding of the atonement. The devil can have power over us when we are scared of death so that through the sacrifice of Jesus we can overcome this fear that gives the devil control. In Hebrews 12, the Preacher exhorts them to look to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of faith so that they can themselves find comfort and hope as they endure their own trials. Following Jesus leads people on a pathway to look to what happened to Jesus, so as to overcome sin in their life.
Fear lurks, often hidden, seeking to enslave us, but when we look to Jesus as the demonstration of God’s love for us, our growing trust in the One who raises from the dead begins to break the shackles of enslaved fear. Yet, this overcoming of fear is not by the avoidance of the fear, but the courage to face the trials based upon trust in God.
This is at the heart of dying to oneself and facing suffering. It is the one part of the Bible that is perhaps the least well understood. Sometimes people avoid the theme of suffering altogether due to their fear of mortality. Sometimes people use this theme of suffering to justify harm and abuse. Yet, within the Biblical vision of suffering and dying to oneself is the willingness to follow the crucified-and-resurrected Christ to face those people, situations, and circumstances, including even that which exists primarily within the realm of one’s own heart, in order to face and overcome our fears of mortality as we trust in the provision, care, and support our Heavenly Father.
In overcoming our fears though, our sense of rightness and goodness become transformed. When we are enslaved to the fear of death, our sense of what is good and right is radically controlled by our mortality. We struggle to see something as good because the remotest possibility of something bad being associated with something makes us think it is bad, evil, etc. But when we become progressively free from this slavery by continuously seeking to offer ourselves as living sacrifices, our sense of what is right and good becomes dramatically altered. A hyper-reactive fear doesn’t control our sense of what is bad and evil, although we can still recognize evil that is truly worthy of being called such. In that place, we are freed to find see and find the goodness of God that fills the earth. The cross of Jesus Christ frees us to discover the good, life-giving purposes God has for us to live in love, to experience joy, to find shalom, as we grow in patience, demonstrate kindness, experience goodness, live in faith, and find self-control.
Unfortunately, however, the devil has obscured this vision of goodness from us in Christian life. A subtle but pervasive heresy has been allowed to dominate those who espouse a reputedly Biblical Christianity, leading many others who seek are Christian to leave the Bible behind because of the way this heresy has caused them to read the Bible. It is the heresy of God’s universal, everlasting wrath on humankind, which often begets a narcissism, if not sociopathy, in some of the people who are so focused on this condemnation, whereas creating vulnerability and anxiety towards others who feel less secure in themselves. As the Scriptures testify to God being slow to anger and that His anger is usually temporary, only rarely staying persistently angry, the idea that everyone on earth is destined for an eternal life of hell until they believe in Jesus not only misrepresents the God of the Scriptures, but it reinforces the fear of mortality that gives the devil even greater power. The way the power of this fear manifests itself is often with a subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) authoritarianism within Christian circles, that suggests that if you stray from what is deemed “orthodox” you are in danger of hell.
I call this heresy not simply because it misrepresents God, but also because it is ultimately an implicit derogation of Jesus as the Word made flesh. Jesus showed no such pervasive, universal wrath and anger in His earthly ministry. His anger was spoken against those towns that saw the glory of God in Jesus’ miracles and would not repent and demonstrated towards the religious leaders, such as the Pharisees and scribes, who were white-washed tombs that were ultimately murderers at heart, and the Temple officials who were robbing the people. Yet, if God was filled with universal, lingering wrath towards all humanity, then Jesus, who did not demonstrate such anger, can not legitimately be called the Word of God because He would not be showing us who the Father truly is. In the end, the idea of the persisting, universal wrath of God is a heresy because it functionally denies the *reality* of the Incarnation, even if someone might still affirm the Incarnation as a doctrinal, theological *abstraction*.
The effect of this heresy is to keep people rooted in a sense of righteousness that is rooted in fear. Far from seeing Jesus as the revelation of God’s pleasing, good, and perfect righteousness, Jesus is functionally treated as the demonstration of God’s wrath for sinners that allows us to escape God’s eternal anger if we just believe. Consequently, the kingdom of heaven has been experiencing the rhetorical violence of those who by inculcating the fear of death seek to make the kingdom of heaven their own.
Yet, the Biblical vision of the cross is not about averting an otherwise certain, assured wrath from God (Romans 5.9 has often been misread as about escaping an otherwise certain wrath, rather than having a certainty of avoiding God’s wrath that would otherwise be left up in the air apart from Jesus). It is connected to discovering the deep love of God, to bear the goodness of Christ in our lives, to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit. To die to oneself is to give the opportunity for God’s resurrection power to manifest itself in our lives this present age so that we can discover what is good, what is right, what is holy, what is the way that makes for peace.
This is what Jesus came to teach and demonstrate to us about God, if only we would come to Him under the shelter of His wings, to be taught by the gentle Teacher. Yet, so many teachers have turned the cross of Jesus into something else, with the manifest result being that of people being blinded to God’s true righteousness, replaced instead with their own righteousness, and as a consequence, their house of theology and teaching is becoming desolate, witnessed by the declining influence of “Christianity.” Such people have been confident that they have in the Bible the embodiment of knowledge and truth, that they are a light in the darkness, but by their actions, they have made many people come to blaspheme God. Rest assured, God’s wrath will come, but as Jesus and James speak to, it will be to those who judged and measured in a wrathful way; it will be merciless to those who showed no mercy.
To find the true gift of life, we have to lose the life we sought to build in our fear so that we can discover God’s true goodness. And, in this age, seeking to lose our life may very well entail us being willing to risk facing the so-called damnation of the god of this age so that we can discover the love of the God visibly displayed in Jesus Christ so that we can replace human righteousness built upon the imagination of wide-spread spiritual violence towards to the whole world with the true vision of God’s righteousness built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ.