A Cruciform Journey into the Cruciform God

A journey into God may be the best way to describe Lent and Holy Week. Of course, it is also the best description of the Christian life. In Paul’s words, we are to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Peter frames it more boldly; we are to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

In the beginning, one might presume a rather triumphalistic image of becoming Christlike, being “hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). We are all too ready to be the Jesus who feeds 5,000, but not the Jesus who fasts for 40 days; to be the Jesus who casts out demons, but not the Jesus who is tempted by the Devil; to be the Jesus who is transfigured, but not the Jesus who is despised and rejected; to be the Jesus who alleviates suffering and heals infirmities, but not the Jesus who is a “man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity” (Is. 53:3); to be the resurrected Jesus, but not the crucified Jesus.

Then what is the nature of this God into whom we are invited to journey;  what is the nature of the journey? If we don’t know the nature of the goal, how can we journey with integrity?

The Nature of God

God’s most profound self-revelation is seen in the Cross. We usually think the Cross is something God did to “solve” the sin problem that alienates us from God. In his visionary experience, however, John realized that in the Cross we see the manifestation of the essence of God’s nature. The Cross reveals who God is, not what God did as an action separate from God’s nature.

In Revelation 12:1-5, John sees God, imaged as a woman,[1] birthing God’s very being into the mouth of the dragon. Since the dragon’s rebellion or Satan’s fall follows this  (12:7-9), John is seeing God’s response to the seed of Satan’s rebellion — Satan wanting to usurp God’s role–even before the rebellion. Here is a way to help grasp this profound mystery: We are created for a relationship of loving union with God. But a love relationship requires the beloved be free to reject the relationship. Integral to the intention to create beings for such a love relationship was God’s intention to maintain the relationship of loving union from God’s side even in the face of rejection.  As one Eucharist liturgy puts it, “When we turned away and our love failed, your love remained steadfast.”[2] Any loving human parent who has suffered rejection by a child has an inkling of the cost of God maintaining loving union with those who reject that relationship; the cost is cruciform love![3]

God’s Love for Us

The saints of the Christian tradition have reminded us from the beginning that God dwells in every person. What else could John mean when he writes, “The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn. 1:5), but that God dwells at the heart of the darkness of our rejection. Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (Jn. 15:4); he already abides in us. Paul tells us, “God was pleased to reveal his son in me” (Gal. 2:16), not “to me,” as in many mistranslations. Then there is St. Augustine’s famous witness: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.”[4]

One way to envision this mystical reality is to picture yourself as a sphere with another sphere at its center. The central sphere is the presence of God within, the Light shining in our darkness; the sphere around it is our being “outside” of God, our being in a state of rejection of God.[5] The boundary layer between the two spheres is cruciform. It is the place where God maintains loving union with us at an unfathomable cost.

Our Response to Cruciform Love

That boundary layer is also cruciform from our side! Jesus was describing this when he said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24). He then said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (16:25). To be restored in loving union with God requires the abandonment of the self we have constructed around the rejection of God as God. This is far more than polishing up a few rough edges of our life; it is the relinquishment of that fundamental posture of rejection of God as God which underlies and informs the entire structure of our being — our perceptions, our values, our behaviors. This is a dying to that entire mode of being. This is a cruciform action. It is why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:19), “our old self was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6), “those who belong to Messiah Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). Paul uses “old self,” and “the flesh” to describe a state of being in rejection of God as God.

The conclusive reality is that our journey into God is a cruciform journey into a cruciform God. The place where the boundary layer of God’s cruciform love impinges upon facets of our rejection of God as God is where we are called to respond, crucifying our rejection in whatever form it may take. Just as God “loses” God’s self to maintain loving union with us, we lose our self to enter into loving union with God. How then do we take up this cruciform journey? Jesus’ question to Peter is a good place to start, “Do you love me more than these?” (Jn. 21:15)

In the context of this question “these” is ambiguous. Is Jesus asking Peter, “Do you love me more than these other disciples do?” Or is he asking, “Do you love me more than you love them?” Or, perhaps, “Do you love me more than your boat, your nets, your sails, etc.?” In any case, the ambiguity of “these” is an alert for us. Anything in our life that we love more than we love Jesus is closing him out at that point. Often the “these” are things, relationships, perspectives, values, behaviors which, in themselves, are innocuous. But when they usurp Jesus’ place in our life they hinder our journey toward wholeness in the image of Christ. Usually we love “these” more than we love Jesus because something of our identity, our worldview, our values, our behaviors are deeply rooted in them. To love Jesus more than “these” is to lose something crucial to who we understand our self to be; in Jesus’ words to “lose our self for his sake.” To love Jesus more than “these” is to deny “these” as having major influence on who we are. Such loss, such denial, is a crucifying experience, a dying to something in our life that has had a vital role in our self-understanding.

Engaging the Cruciform Journey

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis offers a powerful illustration of cruciformity when he describes a person from Hell who is making a visit to the outskirts of Heaven.[1] He has a lizard of lust riding on his shoulder and is met by a heavenly being who offers to take care of the lizard. The person is all for it, because he is tormented by that lust. But when the heavenly being reaches out to kill the lizard, the person recoils because so much of his identity has been misshapen by that lizard. In the end, he allows the heavenly being to kill the lizard but, in the process, the person he was “dies.” He enters into the cruciform nature of transformation. Out of his “death,” however, he is transformed into a whole being. The lizard is also transformed into a magnificent stallion upon which the transformed person rides off into deep heaven.

It is only in that loving union where we find our true self, the self created in the image of God, the self “hid with Christ in God,” the self which is a “partaker of the divine nature.” It is this Christ-self for which, in the words of Thomas Merton, “One’s great need is now no longer to be loved, understood, accepted, pardoned, but to understand, to love, to pardon and to accept others just as they are, in order to help them transcend themselves in love.”[6]

Question:  If you heard Dr. Mulholland’s teaching on cruciform love in your Transforming Community experience, how has it impacted you?

[1] For the development of John’s imagery cf. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. Revelation, The Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2011), 504-505, 507-512.
[2] The Upper Room Worship Book (Accompaniment and Worship Leader Edition), (Nashville: The Upper Room, 2007), 44.
[3] Recent New Testament scholarship has begun to realize the Cross reveals the essence of God’s nature. Cf. N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 56-98; Michael  Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Richard Bauckham, God Crucified, Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism or Christian Theology, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
[4] Confessions, X, 27, 38
[5] Perhaps better stated as our rejection of God as God on God’s terms.
[6] Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998), 114.

©Dr. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. 2014. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Dr. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr.

(1936- 2015) was Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary before his retirement. He is the author of Invitation to a Journey, Shaped by the Word, and The Deeper Journey, which are all required texts in the Transforming Community experience.
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Sitting at the feet and at the table with Dr. Mulholland was one of the rich experiences of my life. I am grateful that TC made it happen. I love and long for you all with a heart full of gratitude.

Mulholland’s live teaching and book “The Deeper Journey” took my understanding of the sinful (false self) human nature to a new level. Consequently, how I respond to sin and teach about how to be more holy has had a major overhaul as well.

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