Safe to Trust
When they came to the place called The Skull, there they crucified Him and the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. But Jesus was saying, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:33-34)
I have spent most of my life attempting to make sense out of the meaning of the cross of Christ. The confusing and conflicting messages labeled 'salvation' I have heard from every direction do little to make the cross appealing to me which seemed odd given that Jesus said if He would be lifted up He would draw all to Himself. I wondered for many years why it was that so many other could seem to see significance and power in the cross while it had no effect on me. Maybe I was such a hardened rebel that I was beyond hope. Or maybe the explanations about the cross I was getting from everyone were not the real truth. If that was so maybe if I kept holding out for something better that someday it might have the power to save me as well.
As a result of this deep dissatisfaction about religion's spin on what the cross was all about, I have spent many years sifting through one version after another of this story weighing each one to see if it might make more sense. Some years ago I began to detect what I believed was potential truth beginning to emerge from the chaos of voices around me and I started to get excited. For anyone who knows me now very well they could tell you that what I have since concluded has become a passion of my life, for I must confess that God has been leading me closer and closer to what I am confident is the transforming truth of the cross that is finally beginning to take effect in my own soul.
It has been a long journey from a young person very intimidated and afraid of offending a deity in the sky who was primarily looking for excuses to punish me and keep me out of heaven to a person who believes what I am settling into today. But the course I have taken has challenged me to reexamine every belief and assumption I ever had about God to see how they might better fit together or even be scrapped in light of fresh revelations about the kind of God that is really on the throne. And what I have been learning in turn is indeed beginning to slowly change me from the inside which is the only really effective way for genuine change to happen.
A few days ago I was pondering over these things with a close friend and something new suddenly grabbed my attention. It has to do with trust, and given the situation I found myself in right then it was very relevant. I was struggling to make sense about what kind of relationship I should try to maintain toward people who obviously believe differently about key doctrines than I do. My natural tendency is to keep a certain distance from them emotionally until they might be willing to reconsider their stand and embrace truth more closely to how I see it. Of course putting it in these words does make me look rather prejudiced and narrow-minded, but then maybe that is part of my problem that can be hard for me to see from my perspective.
At any rate, I was doing a lot of praying and self-examination as well as challenging my own feelings and fears when I felt the Spirit impressing me with this thought. What if this person I was trying to figure out how to relate to did in fact at some point in the future decide to investigate more deeply things that I feel are solid truth that currently they stiffly resist? What if that person wanted to know more about what I believe? Would my treatment of them right now have an effect on their willingness to approach me later?
The answer to that is very obvious. Of course the attitude I project to a person I disagree with will have an enormous effect on how they perceive me, both now and later. And the degree to which they view me as safe to trust with their vulnerability or differences of believe will determine whether they would be willing to seek to reconnect and allow me to share with them things that may seem strange to them at this point.
As I thought about this my mind took it much farther. The same principle would apply to someone who not only disagrees with me on certain viewpoints about religious beliefs but applies equally to a person who might outright despise me. In reality I can recall such a time and person in my life who seemed to really have it in for me and who was in a position they believed gave them authority over me that they sought to leverage as much as possible to try to control and suppress my participation in the local church. They repeatedly tried to publicly shame me, to create rules designed to limit my participation in the group and to suppress my attempts to share the exciting things I was learning about God with anyone while at church.
During this time I felt under extreme pressure and was often before God begging for guidance as to how to relate to this man. It was obvious that he was extremely immature and was a control freak who felt very insecure. His actions were also discouraging many others and were actually driving new believers out of the church. All of this upset me very much, but God kept impressing on me strongly that my first responsibility was to love him unconditionally no matter how badly he might treat me. This was both the teaching of Jesus and His example and is what it means to be a real follower of Jesus.
But what God also impressed me with at that time was the thought of how this man might view me later if God actually were ever able to capture his heart and bring him to repentance. What if that man decided he wanted to change and that maybe my claims that God is love and is always forgiving were really true? And what if at that point this man could not think of anyone else and wanted to know more about this God I was trying to share with everyone? Would the way I reacted to his abuse and public shaming of me affect his future willingness to approach me? Absolutely.
I realized the enormous importance and long-term implications involved in the instruction of Jesus to love our enemies. This is not just an obligation we have to follow in order to be saved. That is entirely the wrong way to look at it. Rather, what Jesus instructs us to do is exactly what He is like Himself. And the power of loving an enemy even while they are still abusing, mistreating, shaming and slandering my reputation may be one of the strongest incentives there is to attract that person and anyone else watching the situation to want to investigate what kind of love could be so effective.
It is easier to explain this if I turn it around. If I lash out at someone and attack their reputation, judge them as evil and slander them and try to humiliate them, I may certainly be in the wrong but the way that person reacts under those circumstances would determine to a great degree my willingness to approach them later when I am feeling deep remorse for the way I treated them. If they react defensively and react by treating me in any way the way I am treating them, then when I want to come to repentance and seek forgiveness from them there will be reason to be afraid of trusting myself to them. I will not have a lot of confidence that they will see me differently and I will likely struggle to open up to them.
On the other hand, if I lash out at someone and abuse them and mistreat them but all the while they never once even hint of taking offense from my actions and words but demonstrate unrelenting love and unsolicited forgiveness that is clearly genuine and heart-felt on their part, then when I come to my senses and want to reconcile with them, recalling how they treated me under abuse will give me encouragement that I could open my heart to them safely and I would more likely be willing to approach them.
Then the light of the true meaning of the cross suddenly flashed into my consciousness. I saw clearly that this is the very truth that Jesus demonstrated during those intense hours leading up to His death. Far from gritting His teeth to resist taking revenge on all who were mistreating Him, or deferring it to when He would return again in glory to then get His revenge, rather Jesus demonstrated before the entire universe that God is absolutely safe. This is the real power that draws anyone to Him who finally begins to grasp the truth about how God feels toward sinners that is exposed at the cross.
Consider this scenario that could well have happened. Only about a month or so after the crucifixion on the day of Pentecost, we find 120 disciples filled with the passionate love of God creating such a stir that thousands of people crowd around to see what the commotion is about. Peter is explaining the real truth about all the things that had just happened in the previous weeks involving the unjust killing of God' Son and the resurrection that brought Him back from the dead only two days later. Many of those people had been there, witnessed everything Peter was talking about and had even participated in that horrific act of Deicide (killing a deity). And Scripture says that these people were pierced to the heart.
Think about that for a few moments. What if I had participated in the crucifixion of Jesus, had been swept up in the frenzy of the mob and been filled with such passion that I couldn't even think clearly about what I was doing. Then I find myself confronted by one of His disciples (who himself had acted cowardly during those events) who is recounting all that had taken place and my involvement in all of it. Unavoidably I would feel extreme guilt, shame and maybe even terror. This was not just a case of the lynching of an innocent man by a bunch of prejudiced bigots; this was an unprecedented event in history where human beings had actually managed to murder the very God of the universe and had succeeded.
As all of this begins to soak into my awareness I realize that this very same God is now putting on display His own enormous power in the lives of His followers who are now amazingly bold and filled with joy. And they are confronting me with my guilt of killing their beloved Master.
At this point I can easily imagine that many of those people found themselves in a situation where they had to decide how much they could really trust this Jesus who had come back to life. They realize that if He was really God that He would have infinite power at His disposal. If there was even the slightest indication or evidence that He might desire revenge for what they had done to Him they would not be keen on meeting Him again.
But on the other hand, if every memory they had of this Jesus had been nothing but pure selfless love and unconditional forgiveness with never a shadow or hint of any other attitude, then they could have confidence and feel safe to open up to this kind of God realizing that He would never leverage His power to inflict punishment or seek revenge no matter how wickedly He had been treated.
I have never clearly seen it from this perspective before. And even writing this out is having a profound effect on my own heart. This view of the cross is completely opposite to the picture of God in most explanations where Jesus comes to take the hit from God for our sins. In reality Jesus took the hit from us in our sins along while demonstrating unequivocally that there is not a shred or hint of desire for revenge or punishment. The most important thing that is found at the cross is the revelation of a God who is absolutely worthy of all trust by everyone and that He is safe. He will never turn away anyone who wants to be reconciled and restored into intimate relationship with Him.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing." (Revelation 5:11-12)
Why does God instruct me to love my enemies when that is impossible for me to pull off myself? I believe it is not because it is a requirement to get into heaven. Rather it is because I am representing Him before my enemies (and friends). And because I am viewed by others as a reflection of God, the way I relate to my enemies becomes their perception of the kind of God I claim to follow and promote.
This is why in the Bible one of the greatest sins was to misrepresent God – like Moses did, and also Elijah. God didn't chide Moses for violating His rule in the rock-striking incident. But specifically He noted that Moses had projected a false picture of God before the agitated masses. I believe God knew there might have been a major breakthrough in the way those people related to God if only Moses had maintained complete trust in God's heart in that moment. But because Moses lost his patience the world ever since has been influenced to assume that God too loses patience with people if you push Him far enough just like Moses. And this is now yet another one of the lies that must be reversed so that people can see the real truth that was obscured in that pivotal incident.
God still remains patient and is always safe, even when we misrepresent Him. And although there may be consequences He allows to happen in our lives for misrepresenting Him, He allows them only for the purpose of seeking to correct the misperceptions about Him we created, not as punishment.
The key point here is that our enemies will only be attracted to want to know God as the truth about His loving, forgiving character becomes clearer to them. This is what we are called to do, to cooperate as God restores us to our original design as mirrors of His pure, passionate, never-offended love. This can only take place as we fill our minds and imaginations with the truths about God from the story of Jesus. Then our own lives become transformed to reflect that same image and we will grow from glory to glory. This is how God plans to draw all to Himself, both through the direct testimony of His Son and through the similar testimony of all those who allow God to make them reflectors of that same likeness.
"You are My witnesses," declares the LORD, "And My servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and believe Me And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me. "I, even I, am the LORD, And there is no savior besides Me. "It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed, And there was no strange god among you; So you are My witnesses," declares the LORD, "And I am God. (Isaiah 43:10-12)