One constant theme on Breaking Free is the subject of desire. Perhaps it is because we interact with the subject of pornography all the time. Porn taps our sexual nerves, and sexual drive has a way of awakening us to our soul’s capacity for desire.
For the Christian who wants to steer away from pornographic temptations, the question often is, “How can I counter my desire to look at pornography when that desire in me seems so strong?” The long-term answer to that question is that we must have a stronger desire grip our souls. We do not overcome the desire to sin by quenching our passions but by channeling them toward a worthy object.
This is why the cross of Christ is of central importance.
Tomorrow is Good Friday, a day marked on our calendars for a special remembrance of Christ’s death. For many churches it is a day of community renewal and recommitment to God. But our whole year, not just Good Friday, should be marked by a cross-centeredness.
How does meditation on the cross move us to live a holy life?
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The Cross and Religious Affections
The great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards wrote about the importance of what he called “religious affections” in the Christian life. Affections are the faculties of the soul to go beyond merely understanding theological ideas to being moved by them, being filled with inexpressible love and joy.
His book, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, was published in 1746. In this work he has some stirring statements about the cross of Christ. For Edwards, the cross was proof-positive that God wants our affections to be deeply moved toward Him.
“. . . [H]ow insensible and unmoved are most men, about the great things of another world! How dull are their affections! How heavy and hard their hearts in these matters! Here their love is cold, their desires languid, their zeal low, and their gratitude small. How they can sit and hear of the infinite height, and depth, and length, and breadth of the love of God in Christ Jesus, of his giving his infinitely dear Son, to be offered up a sacrifice for the sins of men, and of the unparalleled love of the innocent, and holy, and tender Lamb of God, manifested in his dying agonies, his bloody sweat, his loud and bitter cries, and bleeding heart, and all this for enemies, to redeem them from deserved, eternal burnings, and to bring to unspeakable and everlasting joy and glory; and yet be cold, and heavy, insensible, and regardless! Where are the exercises of our affections proper, if not here? . . . Can anything be set in our view, greater and more important? Any thing more wonderful and surprising?
“. . . [I]s there anything which Christians can find in heaven or earth, so worthy to be the objects of their admiration and love, their earnest and longing desires, their hope, and their rejoicing, and their fervent zeal, as those things that are held forth to us in the gospel of Jesus Christ? In which not only are things declared most worthy to affect us, but they are exhibited in the most affecting manner. The glory and beauty of the blessed Jehovah, which is most worthy in itself, to be the object of our admiration and love, is there exhibited in the most affecting manner that can be conceived of, as it appears, shining in all its luster, in the face of an incarnate, infinitely loving, meek, compassionate, dying Redeemer. All the virtues of the Lamb of God, his humility, patience, meekness, submission, obedience, love and compassion, are exhibited to our view, in a manner the most tending to move our affections, of any that can be imagined; as they all had their greatest trial, and their highest exercise, and so their brightest manifestation, when he was in the most affecting circumstances; even when he was under his last sufferings, those unutterable and unparalleled sufferings he endured, from his tender love and pity to us. There also the hateful nature of our sins is manifested in the most affecting manner possible: as we see the dreadful effects of them, in that our Redeemer, who undertook to answer for us, suffered for them. And there we have the most affecting manifestation of God’s hatred of sin, and his wrath and justice in punishing it; as we see his justice in the strictness and inflexibleness of it; and his wrath in its terribleness, in so dreadfully punishing our sins, in one who was infinitely dear to him, and loving to us. So has God disposed things, in the affair of our redemption, and in his glorious dispensations, revealed to us in the gospel, as though everything were purposely contrived in such a manner, as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part, and move our affections most sensibly and strongly. How great cause have we therefore to be humbled to the dust, that we are no more affected!”
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Edwards’ point is that the drama of the crucifixion is presented in such a manner that we unmistakably know God wishes to move our deepest affections when we contemplate it. Edwards mentions six aspects of the cross that stir our hearts:
1. We are deeply moved when we consider Jesus’ love seen in His voluntary physical agonies.
Crucifixion is one of the worst forms of human torture ever devised. The first-century BC philosopher Cicero said crucifixion is altogether so disgusting and shameful that a good Roman or Greek should not even speak about it. It was called by other contemporary historians the “most wretched” of deaths. It is not hard to understand why.
Edwards alludes to Christ’s “dying agonies,” from His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane to His final breath on the cross over twelve hours later: “his bloody sweat, his loud and bitter cries, and bleeding heart, and all this for his enemies.”
Alone in the silence of the Garden, surrounded by friends too tired to stay up with Him, Christ pleads with His Father for another way to redeem mankind. His prayers become so fervent He literally begins to sweat blood, a sign of the most extreme psychological trauma. In the distance a band of armed guards snakes up the hill in the darkness. Christ knows He could at once call on God to send legions of angels to His aid. Instead, He chooses to face Judas’ betraying kiss and the cold shackles of the guards.
He is taken to a midnight trial where false witnesses are lined up to accuse Him. He remains silent. Surrounded by members of the highest legal court, He faces the injustice of a rigged trial. Following the litigation they blindfold Him and proceed to beat Him mercilessly.
After a sleepless night He is taken to the Roman courts where He is stripped naked and scourged. The guards shackle His arms above His head and tenderize His back with their cat o’nines. Hooks from their whips rip into His flesh, sinking in deep enough to tear ligament and muscle, ripping His back and legs to shreds. He is marred to the point of being unrecognizable. He is dehydrated and exhausted. To top off his torture, a crown of long thorns is pressed into His skull as the soldiers spit in His face to mock Him.
A hundred-pound cross is laid on His back for Him to carry to Golgotha, but even Jesus, in the prime of life, is too weakened by His torture to walk the full distance. Taken outside the city, Jesus is laid on the splintery wood and 5-7-inch spikes are driven through the sensitive nerve centers on His hands and feet. He is lifted up for all to see. There He hangs for 6 hours, needing to flex his elbows and push up on his nail-pierced feet to breathe, experiencing searing pain in each bruised joint and along each nerve.
And He experienced all this for the sake of His enemies.
2. We are deeply moved when the cross displays Christ’s awe-inspiring virtues.
Edwards notes that God’s beauty is worthy of all our admiration and love, and we see that glory “shining in all its luster, in the face of an incarnate, infinitely loving, meek, compassionate, dying Redeemer.”
Jesus’ relative silence during His trial, torture, and death is staggering. Many crucifixion victims would curse the onlooking crowds, sometimes urinating on them as the only way to satisfy their vengeance. But not Jesus. Weakened, beaten, bloody, and humiliated before a jeering mob, Jesus looks down on His executioners and mockers and says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). He knows they are unaware of the significance of the moment. They see Jesus only from a human point of view (2 Corinthians 5:16), unaware that hosts of angels are looking on in wonder as God’s eternal plan unfolds. Knowing their ignorance, Jesus beseeches His Father to forgive them for their involvement in this enormous injustice. Hanging on the cross is One who loves His enemies and prays for those who persecute Him (Matthew 5:44).
Here hangs a condemned man who seems to pay more attention to others than His own pain. Hanging from the cross He takes time to assure a repentant revolutionary of His place in Paradise. He comforts His grieving mother and beloved disciple staring up at Him from the blood-stained ground.
But the pinnacle of Jesus’ virtue is not in how He treats His spectators, but His willingness to be on the cross in the first place. Earlier the disciples marveled at how Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem” knowing of the execution that awaited Him (Luke 9:51; Mark 10:32; John 10:17-18). His unflinching obedience to His Father’s commission is staggering to those around Him. Looking back, many years later, one witness of Jesus’ death, Peter, would still marvel at how fervently Jesus entrusted Himself to God in the face of unspeakable pain, injustice, and shame (1 Peter 2:23).
As we look into the eyes of Christ on the cross we see what Edwards was talking about: “All the virtues of the Lamb of God, his humility, patience, meekness, submission, obedience, love and compassion, are exhibited to our view.”
3. We are deeply moved when we consider what Christ redeems us from.
Edwards is primarily concerned with the nature and purpose of Christ’s torments: “to redeem [us] from deserved, eternal burnings.”
Hell is not a comfortable topic. It is not meant to be. But if our affections are to be moved by Christ’s death beyond the sentimentality and natural pity we feel at the sight of human suffering, we cannot neglect this important doctrine.
Christ often spoke of hell, using vivid imagery typical of His contemporaries. Often Christ would use the word “Gehenna,” the Valley of Hinnom, as a word-picture for this place of eternal torment. This is a place outside of Jerusalem which was once used for human sacrifice and idol worship. It is speculated that this was a garbage dump for the city, a place where the carcasses of criminals rotted under the putrid stench of decay. There the fires burned continually and the worms forever fed on the flesh of man and beast (Mark 9:42-49).
Worst of all, Christ described hell as a place of “outer darkness” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), or as Paul would later put it, “eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (2 Thessalonians 1:9). There is an all-consuming nakedness about hell, a place where the light of God’s face is never seen.
Whether these pictures of fire, worms, and darkness are to be taken literally or figuratively is not the point. Jesus clearly believed hell to be real and horrid.
Jesus also taught about the psychological realities of hell. Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man is particularly instructive. After a lifetime of selfish greed, utterly ignoring the beggar Lazarus at his doorstep, the rich man dies and is sent to Hades. There he experiences an anguishing thirst in the flames. The beggar Lazarus also dies and is carried by angels to Abraham’s side. Looking afar off, the rich man can see Father Abraham comforting Lazarus. At this point we might expect the rich man to cry out to God or Abraham for one last chance to make things right. But He doesn’t. At no point does the rich man beg to be released. He calls out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue” (Luke 16:24). He doesn’t want to go to Paradise; he merely wants some of its comforts. Moreover, he still looks on Lazarus as a peon, his water-boy. Not even the fires of Hades convert him. For the rich man, hell is the place where his sin finds its ultimate expression: still self-absorbed and self-centered, desiring only the mercies of heaven but not the God of heaven. This parable shows us, among other things, that we should not think of hell as a place where sinners cry endlessly for forgiveness from a jaded and begrudging God. It is a place where sinners forever live in the darkness of sinful selfishness, thirsting for pleasure but desiring nothing of God.
This was what Christ came to redeem us from: the eternal sufferings of hell. He does this by experiencing hell in our place. This hellish suffering is multifaceted: physical, social, and spiritual.
Instead of dying with dignity among His own people, Jesus is handed over to unclean Gentiles, led out like a cursed man sent into exile.
The disciple John recalls Jesus’ cry of suffering, “I thirst” (John 19:28). Just as prophesied, Christ’s strength was dried up like sunbaked clay and His tongue was clinging to his jaws (Psalm 22:15). Like the rich man in His own parable, Father Abraham sent no one to cool His tongue with water.
For 6 hours Jesus endures the agony of the cross alone. This is the same Jesus who once spoke about the great kindness of His Father who “makes His sun shine on the evil and on the good” (Matthew 5:45). But at noon the sun suddenly vanishes and a mysterious darkness falls upon the land. God’s face has tuned away.
Finally, at 3:00pm, Jesus cries out, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Recording these words in the mother-tongue of Jesus, it is as if the gospel writers are bringing us as close to the lips of Jesus as possible. The cry is translated, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” These words reveal the greatest suffering in Christ’s soul: the Father has forsaken the Son. Jesus is facing the “outer darkness” of God’s silence, and it is pure torture.
In all these things, Christ endured the sufferings of hell in our place.
4. We are deeply moved when we see the cross as the display of our sin’s ugliness.
All our attempts to soften the language of sin melt away before the cross. Startled by the brutality of the cross, the sheer ugliness of Christ’s disfigured body and the pain of His soul, we are meant to ask “Why?” Why is this innocent man willing to suffer so much?
John Calvin wrote, “When we behold the disfigurement of the Son of God, when we find ourselves appalled by His marred appearance, we need to reckon afresh that it is upon ourselves we gaze, for He stood in our place.”
Looking at the cross, calling sins mere “mistakes,” or “faults,” or “lapses in judgment” seems trite. Sin is rebellion. Sin is wicked. If we ever want proof of how much God detests sin, we need look no further than the cross, to how God poured out His unmitigated wrath on His own Son. Martin Luther said, “The whole value of the meditation of the suffering of Christ lies in this, that man should come to the knowledge of himself and sink and tremble.”
Joni Eareckson Tada’s description of our sins on Christ is most fitting:
From Heaven the Father now rouses himself like a lion disturbed, shakes his mane, and roars against the shriveling remnant of a man hanging on a cross. Never has the Son seen the Father look at him so, never felt even the least of his hot breath. But the roar shakes the unseen world and darkens the visible sky. The Son does not recognize these eyes.
“Son of Man! Why have you behaved so? You have cheated, lusted, stolen, gossiped—murdered, envied, hated, lied. You have cursed, robbed, overspent, overeaten—fornicated, disobeyed, embezzled, and blasphemed. Oh, the duties you have shirked, the children you have abandoned! Who has ever so ignored the poor, so played the coward, so belittled my name? Have you ever held your razor tongue? What a self-righteous, pitiful drunk—you, who molest young boys, peddle killer drugs, travel in cliques, and mock your parents. Who gave you the boldness to rig elections, foment revolutions, torture animals, and worship demons? Does the list never end! Splitting families, raping virgins, acting smugly, playing the pimp—buying pornography, accepting bribes. You have burned down buildings, perfected terrorist tactics, founded false religions, traded in slaves—relishing each morsel and bragging about it all. I hate, loathe these things in you! Disgust for everything about you consumes me! Can you not feel my wrath?”
Of course the Son is innocent. He is the model of blamelessness itself. The Father knows this. But the divine pair have an agreement, and the unthinkable must now take place. Jesus will be treated as if personally responsible for every sin ever committed.
The Father watches as his heart’s treasure, the mirror image of himself, sinks drowning into raw, liquid sin. Jehovah’s stored rage against humankind for every century explodes in a single direction.
“Father! Father! Why have you forsaken me?!”
But heaven stops its ears. The Son stares up at the One who cannot, who will not, reach down or reply.
The Trinity had planned it. The Son endured it. The Spirit enabled him. The Father rejected the Son whom he loved. Jesus, the God-man from Nazareth, perished. The Father accepted his sacrifice for sin and was satisfied. The Rescue was accomplished.
(When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, p.53-54)
What marred Christ more than the whips and the nails is the stain of our sin. Edwards contemplated his own sin in light of the cross: “There also the hateful nature of our sins is manifested in the most affecting manner possible: as we see the dreadful effects of them, in that our Redeemer, who undertook to answer for us, suffered for them.”
5. We are deeply moved when we consider what Christ saved us for.
Edwards celebrated that Christ’s death was designed to bring us “to unspeakable and everlasting joy and glory.” His death was not in vain.
Christ’s last cry from the cross is not the weakened cry of a man giving up, but a shout of praise, “Father, into your hands I commit My spirit!” (Luke 23:46; Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37). These famous last words display Christ’s unshakable trust in the Father, knowing His work is completed.
As Jesus breathes His last, suddenly it is as if the whole earth revolts at the death of its Maker. An earthquake shakes the city. Rocks split in two. Tombs open. The people watch astonished.
Then a great miracle happens. At Jesus’ final breath, the curtain of the temple is torn in two, from top to bottom. This is the thick veil that separated the rest of the temple from the Holy of Holies, the room where God’s presence is said to dwell. Suddenly there is no barrier between God’s presence and His people. Christ has made a way in. This miracle shows the very purpose for Christ’s death (in the words of the prophet Jeremiah): “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Through the cross God has made a way into His presence, and some day the whole world will become the Holy of Holies, the place where God dwells.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true. . . .”
“And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. . . .”
No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 21:1-5, 22-26; 22:3-5).
6. We are deeply moved when we consider the belovedness of Jesus in His Father’s eyes.
This is not just any man who is bleeding to death on the tree: this is Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father. Edwards points out, this is God’s “infinitely dear Son” being offered up as a sacrifice for the sins of men.
We can only scratch the surface of what Christ experienced on the cross, but imagine trying to understand the Father’s experience as He inflicted His Son with holy wrath. Since eternity past, Father, Son, and Spirit have shared a fervent, mutual love and passion—a love for which theologians have had to invent words to describe.
In John Piper’s book, The Pleasures of God, he shows the Father’s unimaginable love for His Son:
God’s pleasure is first and foremost a pleasure in his Son. The Bible reveals this to us while showing us the face of Jesus shining like the sun. In Matthew 17 Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain. When they are all alone something utterly astonishing happens. Suddenly God pulls back the curtain of the incarnation and lets the kingly glory of the Son of God shine through. “His face shone like the sun, and his garments became white as light” (v. 2). Peter and the others were stunned. . . .
. . . The point is not merely that humans should stand in awe of such a glory, but that God himself takes full pleasure in the radiance of his Son. He reveals him in blinding light, and then says, “This is my delight!
Their intimacy and communion are incomparable. “No one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son” (Matthew 11:27). “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Jesus spoke with such unprecedented endearment and intimacy concerning the Father that his enemies sought to kill him “because . . . he called God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (John 5:18). The Father’s intimacy with the Son was such that he opened all his heart to him. “The Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing” (John 5:20). He withholds no blessing from the Son but pours out his Spirit on him without measure. “He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that he gives the Spirit; the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:34–35). And as the Son carries out the redeeming plan of the Father, the Father’s heart abounds with increasingly intense expressions of love for the Son. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life” (John 10:17). This overflowing esteem that the Father has for his only Son spills over onto all who serve the Son: “If anyone serves me,” Jesus says, “the Father will honor him” (John 12:26). Thus the Father seeks every means possible to manifest his infinite delight in the Son of his love . . .
It is impossible to overstate the greatness of the fatherly affection God has for his one and only Son. We see this unbounded affection behind the logic of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how shall he not also with him freely give us all things?” The point of this unspeakably precious verse is that if God was willing to do the hardest thing for us (give up his cherished Son to misery and death), then surely that which looks hard (giving Christians all the blessings that heaven can hold) will not be too hard for God. What makes this verse work is the immensity of the Father’s affection for the Son. Paul’s assumption is that “not sparing his own Son” was the hardest thing imaginable for God to do. Jesus is, as Paul put it simply in Colossians 1:13, “the Son of his love.
As we begin understanding the infinite intimacy the Father and Son shared since before time began, and as we try to fathom what it was like to break that intimacy for just a few hours as the Father poured out His wrath on His crucified Son, then our affections will be stirred when we remember that it was all done for love of us.
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The Thunder of Resurrection
The Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore says that the cross is meant to wake us up to the seriousness of our sin. We are relentlessly self-absorbed, we gloss over sin, and we rationalize it. At times we only pretend we are sinners so we can pretend to be forgiven. Whenever we doubt the ugliness of our sin or the immensity of God’s love for us, we need only to meditate on the cross. And when our faith buckles under the gravity of the cross, when all the evil in our hearts tries to hold its own against God, He answers with “the thunder of resurrection.”
Edwards was right. The drama of the cross was “purposely contrived” by God in such a manner “as to have the greatest possible tendency to reach our hearts in the most tender part.” It is so startling that the human heart must respond, either in repulsion or obedient amazement.
The cross makes us all theologians. Facing the cross, we are moved to probe deeper into the mystery of Christ’s wounds. Our mind awakens. But the cross is not just a mental exercise in theology. “Theology” did not bleed and die for us. Christ did. And it is this fact that warms our affections and hurls us toward the heart of God.
Don’t let piety turn the cross into jewelry and sentimentality. Allow it to provoke your deepest affections.
“You may study, look, and meditate, but Jesus is a greater Savior than you think Him to be, even when your thoughts are at their highest.” (Charles Spurgeon)