I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. (1 Corinthians 15:31)
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
I got to thinking about this again a few days ago. I have pondered these texts for many years and have puzzled over just what they really mean; not only the idea of dying without actually physically dying, but especially the part about being crucified with Christ. Just how is that supposed to take place? And particularly, who is it that does the crucifying?
There are many texts in the New Testament that talk about our need to die to self. Jesus makes it very plain that unless we are willing to give up our right to life and be willing to die that we cannot enter into the converted state of mind and heart needed to participate in the kingdom of heaven. That part is a little easier to understand although I still struggle with it enormously many times. But the texts about being crucified present a particular problem for me. That's because the logistics of crucifixion mean that a person simply cannot crucify themselves very easily. Crucifixion is something that is done to someone, not something that they can very well do to themselves.
So I spent years of my life trying to figure out just who it was that was supposed to be in the role of the one doing the crucifying. For awhile I thought I was supposed to do it to myself but that simply didn't make sense. After much confusion I finally landed on the idea that it must be God who was going to do the crucifying and so my prayers moved toward asking God to crucify me with Christ. I felt that this was part of what it meant to be submissive to God; that I am supposed to simply surrender my will and my life to Him each day for Him to crucify me, at least the sinful, rebellious part of my nature.
This idea, of course, is subtly tied into the common beliefs about what happened at the cross of Jesus on Calvary. Most people believe that God unleashed His anger and rage upon Jesus and caused Him to suffer all the resentment and punishment from God that sinners deserve in order to vent all that 'justice' on Jesus before He took it out on guilty sinners. That way, through some confusing legal maneuver, sinners who repented and believed in this arrangement could then be 'saved' and allowed into Paradise to live with this same Jesus forever. That is in contrast with hell, that other place where those who refuse this arrangement end up suffering agonizing punishment for all eternity, far more than even Jesus experienced for a few short hours here on earth.
Even though I never have subscribed to the eternal torment theory promoted by most other Christians, my approach to this issue of who is to do the crucifying actually was endorsing a small part of that false teaching. I still was looking at God as the executioner who is to carry out the act of crucifying me in some way or another. Thus my beliefs and recent findings along this line were still being undermined by this subtle notion that God was supposed to crucify me with Christ, implying of course that being 'in Christ' I would be suffering right along with Him in His crucifixion (by God).
Of course, I did not think of all that as fully as I am explaining it here. If I had I likely would have quickly seen the falsity of this idea. But I simply could not figure out how this crucifixion of myself was supposed to take place if God did not do it to me and I could not do it to myself.
But then very recently I came under the conviction – probably when I found myself praying this prayer again for God to crucify me with Christ – that I was asking God to do something that at the same time I insist He never did to Jesus in the first place. And since it was not God who tortured Jesus on the cross, either externally or internally, then why was it that I was still thinking that it should be God who would carry out my crucifixion, whatever that might look like or feel like? In essence, I was suddenly confronted with my own serious inconsistency in this matter.
At this point I was compelled to revisit my whole understanding of this verse all over again (not a bad thing with many verses at many times for many people). I carefully began to re-analyze just what was in this verse about crucifixion and suddenly realized that I was certainly asking God for the wrong thing altogether. I ought to be extremely happy that God does not answer all of our prayers for we put Him in a serious bind many times by the things we ask Him to do for us.
What I am now seeing here is something very different than the assumptions that I previously had fallen into. Since it has become clear to me over the past few years that it was not God punishing His Son on the cross arbitrarily in some sort of legal slight of hand, then it is totally out of line for me to be asking Him to crucify me either. God is not in the crucifying business at all. God is in the life-giving business as demonstrated in the resurrection of Jesus not much later. It is not God who dishes out death to sinners as Paul makes very clear, but it is sin that brings pain and suffering and torture and death. And all those who are infected with this fatal virus not only suffer the ongoing consequences of this pain every day of their life but they gravitate toward inflicting it an many others around them. This is made rather plain in the tragic history of this world for centuries and brought into sharp focus in how Jesus was treated.
The New Testament in particular makes it rather clear that God does not desire to impose suffering or use force or employ fear and intimidation to elicit obedience from us. Instead, He does what many feel is almost scandalous – He shows us kindness and grace and unconditional love and forgiveness. So if that is what God is like, and Jesus came to show us the Father very clearly, then far from God being an executioner for sin, God is the one suffering the consequences of sin without ever deserving any of that pain Himself. That is exactly what Jesus came to demonstrate to the whole universe on the cross.
What is beginning to dawn on me is that instead of asking God to crucify me, I need to ask for something radically different than that. What I need is the mind of Christ, the humility, compassion, meekness, confidence in the Father and the insuppressible love that cannot be extinguished no matter how much scorn and shame and pain and death is inflicted on it. What I need is Christ and His true Spirit living inside of me so intensely that when sin or sinners come along to do what they do best that I will spontaneously respond the same way that Jesus did under similar circumstances.
In other words, I should not even be asking for crucifixion at all in my prayers. Paul did not imply here that he asked anyone to crucify him; he simply said that it happened to him with Christ. Pain and death are not something we should ever be seeking out for ourselves; it will come soon enough without our ever looking for it. What I now see here is that it will inevitably come to those who are in Christ, and when it does, if I have Christ living within me, then His life and His attitudes and His disposition will be reflected through my responses to persecution by sinners. It is then that the brilliance of Jesus' demonstration of love on Calvary might again be seen clearly as that same love and forgiveness that permeated His heart will again be seen emerging from my life.
Instead of asking to be crucified, I need to be asking for the Spirit of Jesus to more thoroughly permeate my own mind and heart so that my sinful protective reactions of self-preservation are hidden out of sight – crucified – and the selfless love and kindness of Jesus that draws hearts to repentance are all that might be seen emanating from Jesus living in me.
Having said that I have to honestly say that seems rather impossible to my logical, realistic mind. I'm not saying it can never happen, but very clearly by what I know about myself it will definitely have to be a miracle of grace from a Source far more powerful and life-changing than anything I can ever hope to even begin to accomplish in my own heart. I know that my heart is so self-defensive and protective and subtle that it cannot be trusted to do hardly anything that I see exhibited in the example of Jesus on His way to the cross. My natural and very strong reactions are pretty much the exact opposite of what I see in the life of Jesus and that itself makes me feel shamed and hopeless. If I have to achieve that kind of heroic martyrdom, live up to that level of selfless love, then there really is no hope for me at all.
Quite clearly I can see that I need a much deeper level of conversion in my own heart deeper than anything I have ever experienced up to this point in my life. I have such mixed feelings about all of this that I can't even make sense of much of them. I have to once again turn to God and believe that He knows what He is doing and that in His time and ways He will continue my transformation into something I cannot even imagine for myself at this point. All I can do is ask Him daily to continue to grow His image in me and to discipline/disciple me in preparation for whatever He knows is in my future. All I can do is choose each day to cooperate with whatever part of my preparation He is introducing that day and trust that He is putting His Spirit into me even though I sometimes see little evidence of that yet.
God, I see more clearly that I need saving far more from my own selfishness, bitterness and inner sinfulness and rebellion than from anything external that frightens me. I desperately need a new heart, a new spirit, a radically different outlook on life and on others. I confess freely that I cannot do this for myself and I need a huge miracle of grace to invade my inner space and rearrange all my mental furniture, or replace it altogether. I give you full permission to do whatever it is You need to do to cause me to live or die 'in Christ' and to allow His Spirit to be seen in my life, my reactions, my relationships. Do this primarily for Your glory and reputation, not for my sake alone. Your will be done, Amen.