My Paradox to Bear (Apr 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Scott Simpson

Pete Rollin’s book, Insurrection, opened my eyes to something of which I should already have been aware. When Jesus, on the cross, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he really meant it. To imagine that he would make an outcry like that just for the dramatics, or for the sole benefit of the surrounding listeners, or just “to fulfill prophecy” would be to make Jesus the grand manipulator, to counter all that I know about his true nature. I have to believe that Jesus, at that moment, felt truly abandoned by God. It was a moment of “Divine Deism,” an experience of God’s absence. Rollins even dares to call it “a-theism.”

… a properly Christological reflection should lead us to see the felt experience of God’s absence as the fundamental way of entering into the presence of God. For if being a Christian involves participating in the Crucifixion, then it means undergoing this earth-shattering loss.” (Rollins 24)

Rollins suggests, and I agree, that this IS the essence of crucifixion— to come face to face, as a human being, with the utter, existential angst of being alone, abandoned in the universe. This is the core of crucifixion. And the core of resurrection? Well, that would be living fully into the reality of the Love that IS God. But resurrection doesn’t happen until you’ve been crucified… on a cross.

“Resurrection is not some form of ascension in which we are miraculously transported out of our immediate problems or ripped away from our humanity in all of its frailty. Just as the resurrected Christ is said to have borne the scars of the Crucifixion, so our Resurrection life will continue to bear the marks of the death we had to undergo. This new mode of living is not one in which the anxiety of death, meaninglessness, and guilt are taken away; it is one in which they are robbed of their weight and sting.” (Rollins 111)

One prevalent American Christian view of “taking up your cross” to follow Jesus depends upon a line of reasoning that goes something like this:

  • Jesus expects followers to trust him implicitly. They must do what he does, believe who he is, love what he loves and despise what he despises.
  • Most of the time, we humans are plagued with doubt. Doubt causes us to do what WE want, to dis-believe, to love things we shouldn’t… including things that Jesus despised …
  • SO, taking up my cross means flogging my doubts into submission, playing the “Little Train that Could” by tugging my load up the steep hill, chanting “I think I can, I think I can …” and then “I know I can, I KNOW I can …”
  •  … all the while singing songs of praise and promise and stuffing any dark seeds of doubt so they’ll never take root and grow into giant redwoods.

It’s as if following Jesus meant leaving behind the burden of thinking and taking up the mantra of the happy-faced pew-zombie. That’s not cross-bearing … that’s a frontal lobotomy.

The brain isn’t the “self” Jesus calls us to deny. The “self” I must deny in taking up my cross is the self that works so hard to justify its existence that it will abandon all integrity to gain affirmation. This is the lying self, the deceiving self, the false self. This is the self that has so little faith, it must manipulate all inputs and outcomes to make sure its own version of god comes out on top.

This is the god that often wears the name, “religion.”

One day, some 30 years ago, I was out walking around a lake with my best friend Mark. We were high-schoolers, and were, as usual, debating some theological or perhaps cosmological topic, when he paused, bent to the ground, and picked up a rock.

“See this rock Scott?” he said.

“Yeah… what about it?”

“Do you know how many ADULTS I know who, IF this rock somehow proved — beyond any shadow of a doubt — that God didn’t exist, would tell me to throw it as far as I could into the middle of this lake so it would sink to the bottom and NEVER be found?”

As I recall, the conversation ended there. He had touched on something we both knew to be true, and both knew to be somehow deeply troubling, deeply wrong—deeply a-moral.

The implications shook us to the core.

Mark doesn’t believe in any sort of a sentient “god” anymore—especially the Christian kind. He learned long ago that, to be “Christian,” he’d have to choose between his brain and God. He made his choice around 25 years ago.

You see, many Christians believe that the greatest threat to faith is some combination of the Evolutionists, the Satanists the Abortionists and the Liberals… when, in reality, the greatest threat to faith comes when we imply that people must check their doubts—and by that I am, of necessity, including their brains—at the door.

When Jesus said, “Take up your cross, and follow me” he didn’t mean “Drop your doubts, pump up your faith to 130 psi, do churchy stuff, sing songs filled with happy clichés, and be proud if you can become a martyr by taking some hits from your “worldly” acquaintances…” He meant, “You will have to die to be resurrected.” Translation: Trust me, even as you doubt me. Bear your doubts and your frustration, and take them into the community with you. You all have them. God gave you brains enough to doubt, to question. Your questions may lead you to toss your most cherished understandings, to toss your most well-constructed arguments, to start back at square one, to feel abandoned, alone, left out in the cold—even forsaken by God. That’s death! That’s crucifixion!

But the promise is resurrection: New life. This life is eternal in nature because it is made up of the one absolute that John reminds us “God is …” and Jesus reminds us “… sums up the Law and the prophets …”

Love.

But to get there, I can’t be afraid of taking up my cross.

I don’t get to play the game of closing my ears and eyes to whatever creates hard questions — that’s not taking up my cross.

I don’t get to limit my interaction to only people, books, blogs, music and theologians who give me stronger doses of what I already believe — that’s not taking up my cross.

I don’t get to put on the “no doubts” face when I’m among my community, or say and sing only those things that suit our Christian power-of-positive-thinking mentality — that’s not taking up my cross.

The cross is a paradox. It’s death AND life. It’s unconditional love AND absolute abandonment. It’s penalty AND forgiveness. In the life of the cross-bearing follower, absolute trust is placed in the person and Nature of Christ, and when the God-given brain I’m bearing brings on the questions, the doubts, the deep angst of loss, instead of a numbing chorus of “Trust and Obey” I may need a rousing wail of “My God! Where are you?! What’s going on here!!?”

In community, this could look like a death. But think of the love that can surround us in the darkest nights of the soul. Think of the courage it takes to be a wide-eyed, open-eared human being who stands in what Parker Palmer in, A Hidden Wholeness, calls the “tragic gap” between paradoxical binaries. A small sample of my own paradoxical binaries would include:

  • My own minute field of vision, and my absolute certainty of God’s Love
  • Clear, compelling evidence, and unnamable, mysterious faith
  • The utter pain of human existence, and the utter joy of human existence
  • The conviction that some things are always wrong, and that all wrongs can be transformed into good

“There is a name for the endurance we must practice until a larger love arrives: it is called suffering. We will not be able to [live] in the power of paradox until we are willing to suffer the tension of opposites, until we understand that such suffering is neither to be avoided nor merely to be survived but must be actively embraced for the way it expands our own hearts.” (Palmer from Courage to Teach, 88)

What is required in order to expand the heart, is humility about myself. I am a person of faith who is often faithless. I possess knowledge that I’m constantly having to refine and revise. I’m fearful of new insights that spark questions and doubt, and I seek those things out, because THEY are the green-growing edges of my self and my soul. Somehow, I know, that when Jesus said “Take up your cross and follow me…” he meant, “You’re gonna die several times on this trip, but each time, your capacity to love and to accept love will be deepened.”

…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” (Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet)

God gives me permission to question and doubt, to bring my brain along and trust that my ego will be confronted multiple times and put to death as needed … and each time, I’ll find Love in Christ, in God … and if I’m fortunate, within a community of souls who are also bearing crosses. The lovely thing is that the Marks among us want only to be allowed to bear their crosses with integrity, with honesty—to bring any and all questions to the table, to, as Mark once told me, “beat every idea with the Big Stick of Disbelief” to see whether it’s true or not. Walking any other way would be to make a mad rush toward Heaven while denying the cross Christ has called us to bear. How else can one fully commit life and soul to anything or anyone? Crucifixion is paradox, is a harsh, wailing question between what is now, and what might be possible tomorrow.

We can’t arrive at resurrection without going through crucifixion. We can’t arrive at the all-out praise at the end of Psalm 22 without going through verses one and two:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

The most surprising paradox for me? To see most clearly the integrity of Jesus’ cross-wailing crucifixion moment not in the praise-singing crowd, nor in the fool-proof rationalistic theologian, but in an honest atheist like my friend, Mark.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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