“Abide hard by the cross and search
the mystery of His wounds.”
As someone with a past of pornography addiction, I know all too well that there are no quick fixes, no tricks, no easy solutions. Believe me, I’ve tried them. There were many times of spiritual desperation where my latest epiphany seemed like the missing link to my personal holiness. “This is it!” I thought, “This is the key to beating this addiction.” I’m not much for self-help psychology, but I was the first guy in line to buy the newest book about sexual healing, go to the addictions conferences, and tap into the power of prayerful meditation.
I don’t mean to belittle these moments in my life. They were sincere moments of remorse over my sin. They were steps forward. These moments were footprints on the road to recovery. They were only footprints, not monuments. As William Faulkner put it, “A monument only says, ‘At least I got this far,’ while a footprint says, ‘This is where I was when I moved again.’”
So where did my trail of footprints lead me?
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The Excruciating Cross
I remember the first time I read “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” a thought provoking article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (March 21, 1986). This article follows the historical account of Jesus’ last night in Gethsemane through the moment he breathed his last at 3 p.m. the next day while He hung from a Roman cross. Based on historical information found in Roman and Jewish records, and of course the Gospels, the authors of the JAMA article conclude that Jesus’ death “resulted primarily from hypovolemic shock and exhaustion asphyxia.” These are medically precise terms, but they don’t begin to tell the horrific story about the day the Son of God died.
For those of you who saw the film The Passion of the Christ, you may have some sense of what the author of Hebrews calls the “shame” of the cross (Hebrews 12:2). You may also begin to understand what Peter meant when he wrote that he was “a witness of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 5:1). Cisero, a first-century BC philosopher wrote that crucifixion is so altogether disgusting and shameful and a good Roman or Greek should not even speak about it. The Roman’s had indeed perfected what first century Jewish historian Josephus called the “most wretched” of deaths. It may be one of the most humiliating and horribly painful ways to die that mankind has invented.
First there is the physical pain of the cross. The JAMA article reports,
“Adequate exhalation requires [the crucifixion victim] lifting the body by pushing up on the feet and by flexing the elbows. . . . However, this maneuver would place the entire weight of the body on the tarsals and would produce searing pain. Furthermore, flexion of the elbows would cause rotation of the wrists about the iron nails and cause fiery pain along the damaged median nerves. . . . Muscle cramps and paresthesias of the outstretched and uplifted arms would add to discomfort. As a result, respiratory effort would become agonizing and tiring and eventually lead to asphyxia.”
Many times the Roman executioners would build a little seat for the victim to sit on so that this asphyxiation process would last longer. Victims, in acts of desperation, would attempt to lift their naked bodies off of these seats to hurry along their deaths. The executioners would at times force their victims to stay on the seats made for them. The whole point was to make sure each victim suffered for as long as they could endure.
The pain was so bad, it was not uncommon to for the victims to lose control of their bowels while on the cross. Is it any wonder why our word “excruciating” comes from a Latin root meaning “out of the cross”? The cross is the definition of excruciating pain.
And these were not private executions. They were done in public centers. Imagine today this being done in the center of your town where folks do their shopping. There the victim would hang, completely naked, stripped of their dignity and respect. It wasn’t uncommon for people to hurl insults at the victims as they walked by. Crucifixion sites would also attract the some of the lowest elements of society—the outcasts, lepers, and drunks. They would come out of the woodwork to mock, spit, and laugh each time the victim cried out in pain.
This would go on for days as the victim slowly lost strength.
And this was done to God.
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The Great Offense of the Cross
There’s a scene in the movie “Dogma” where George Carlin, playing the role of a Catholic Bishop, speaks about the cross: “While it has been a time-honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified.” His plans are to replace the crucifix with the “Buddy Christ,” a figure of Jesus standing proudly upright, one hand giving a big thumbs-up, the other hand outstretched, pointing forward, one eye winking as if to say, “Hey, how you doin’.”
This attempt at humor is actually reflective of what certain corners of the Christian world are doing to the cross. For many there is a generic discomfort with the cross leading to ignoring it or even rejecting it. Some want to wash the cross of its bloody stains or get rid of the symbol altogether.
The simple truth is that the cross is meant to be offensive. Why would the Lord of time ordain His Son to enter human history at a season when crucifixion was going to be His mode of execution? It should shock us. It should offend us. Paul writes,
“For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” (1 Corinthians 1:17-23)
Paul’s readers had walked long, dusty Roman roads lined with crosses, sometimes hundreds of crosses. For Paul’s hearers, the idea of the anointed King, sent from heaven, dying in such a shameful way, among the worst of criminals was stupidity and folly.
Paul had so graphically and forcefully spoken about the cross that he could later write to the Galatians (who were obviously not present at the crucifixion of Jesus), “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). This was the jarring message the apostles carried into the Roman Empire: Christ crucified.
The cross is meant to make us stop in our tracks and ask why. We are meant to wonder why God’s Son is put on display in such a shocking fashion. We are meant to be shocked at His wounds.