I grew up as a Christian hating the symbol of the cross as an expression of the Christian faith. I recognize how offensive that statement will seem to many people, and I’m trying to find a way to express why I felt that way and the evolution of my thoughts on the matter.
In the church I was raised in the primary speaker of our church during my teens and twenties outright ridiculed wearing the cross as he said it was a symbol of the instrument of death used to execute Jesus Christ. We chose rather to use a dove as a representation of the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ’s life and accomplishments made available for all humanity to receive. I am able to look back now and see that the extreme criticism this leader had for the cross strongly impacted how I viewed this symbol. I was at a very impressionable age and greatly looked up to and respected this leader.
I don’t think that church initially set out to express such a negative view of the symbol of the cross, but over the years it evolved into a symbol I truly despised. There are aspects of teaching I received, that I still believe are powerful and true that contributed toward the development of my negative feelings. However, I believe that as so often happens with people, we turn beauty and truth into religion and form, so that a truth meant to set one free becomes a doctrine that hurts and cripples.
Things simply are not black and white. Certainly when it comes to people and beliefs it is not black and white. I used to feel I was so superior to other Christians, and I have to be careful to not allow the pendulum of my thoughts to swing so drastically to the other side of the realm to now declare that all I believed and thought before was erroneous and wrong. I embrace so many of the beautiful, incredible teachings I received, but I have to learn where I need to separate truth from error, or simply what things do I hold tightly to, and what things do I hold loosely to.
One of the first teachings that powerfully excited and moved me was in a biblical research class. Over the course of many hours the speaker laid out an incredible idea that Jesus was actually crucified in the midst of four other people and not two. It remains one of the most thrilling teachings I’ve ever sat through as he pieced together an extraordinary amount of details across all four gospels. I listened to this teaching many more times over the years and as he put everything together it made perfect sense. It cleared up so many seemingly contradictory verses and was incredible. He also spoke about how often the Romans crucified on a stake of wood. Sometimes it did have a cross beam, but often it was a tree stripped of branches without the additional cross beam.
So much of the Christian imagery around Calvary is the picture of three crosses. This is such a strong image throughout Christianity, it’s difficult for most Christians to even consider an alternative of five crosses, especially if you remove the cross beams and it looks more like a stake. Five stakes is not the imagery people have of Calvary. This was an area where our teaching differed greatly from other Christians, and I along with others who were excited by the handling of the scripture and wanted to share our passion were often not received well by Christians. There are a lot of people not interested in reconsidering their concepts or to explore other possibilities. This was not the main or only place we differed with other groups.
It’s difficult to write about this and open up about some of the areas where I have a different view point. It’s difficult for me to process through how I do agree with aspects of the teaching, but how other aspects for me didn’t help, but harmed me. And I don’t know who this will speak to. The more I blog, the more I realize what a benefit I receive to work out things, and for me to remember the victories God has brought me through. I do think somewhere in this, there is a benefit for others, but I don’t suppose I will know what that is for some time. This blog may also be helpful for others who came out of my background who are trying to make sense of certain thoughts and beliefs.
Going outside the accepted norms is difficult not only in making sure we don’t go down the wrong road, but it’s difficult to differ from what others think and believe. Because of the differences in our teaching and in the lack of accord we often encountered with other Christians, we turned away from much of the regular church-going crowds, and became our own ministry. Because of the criticism felt from other Christian groups, I know that I and many others in my group responded by feeling critical back to the people who judged us and were intolerant of exploring or understanding our beliefs. It’s the story of humanity, right? This wasn’t something that happened over a weekend. It was something that happened over years and decades and generations. What a mess.
And today I have a different experience of now celebrating and rejoicing in aspects of Christianity like the symbol of the cross which makes me “fit in” with many Christians, but then separates me from the spiritual heritage of my youth. Now, most of the friends and relationships that I shared for years and decades are no longer accessible to me. They do not remain in touch and they do not approve of my new acceptance of the cross, water baptism and praising Jesus. It’s strange indeed and I’m sure there are others who didn’t come out of the group I did, but where there is enough cultural – if not theological – similarity for them to relate to my experiences. Or maybe it will just cause you to rejoice that you haven’t come from this background or had this particular challenge!
So in the middle of all this, one of the aspects of the Christian experience that I didn’t have was that of the cross. My church growing up never outright said that it was not a cross, but rather that it was likely a stake and that the condemned had their hands stretched over their head. Having the hands stretched over the head also strengthens the effectiveness of the grotesque execution process of crucifixion which causes the condemned to actually become too exhausted to breath. I’m not trying to argue that it was a stake or was a stake with a cross beam, I’m saying, none of us were there and it’s not a matter upon which our salvation hinges.
So, for years every time I saw the three crosses, I felt angry. I felt it was wrong, I felt disturbed by it. Looking back, I can see how I distorted the importance of the matter, and allowed it to become a bad place for me. But it wasn’t just seeing the three crosses that disturbed me. All crosses bothered me. And I also know now that there were other deeper, spiritual issues that spurred this deep hatred of the cross. I know now that it was more than whether it had a cross beam or whether it was an appropriate symbol of faith. I realize now I, as a Christian, had actually hardened my heart on aspects around Jesus Christ that, even as I professed him, I was against Jesus – I was against Christ. Understanding that has been part of the deepest freedom that I have received in the last years, to come to genuinely love Jesus, to come to be able to celebrate Jesus.
I just heard a beautiful analogy of how we can be close in proximity to Jesus like Judas Iscariot was at the last meal in the upper room before he went to betray the Messiah. We can be close in proximity to Jesus, yet far, far in alignment and unity of purpose and heart from Jesus. Looking back at who I used to be, I was very close in proximity to Jesus, but so very far in heart. I express some of this in my blog about when I first began to position myself to “sit across from Jesus.”
Thankfully around 2008, I was able to make peace with the cross as a symbol of faith. I was able to recognize that most people wearing the cross saw it as a symbol of faith and hope. Gaining that recognition was powerful and freeing for me. That was when I began being able to look at the cross without a feeling of anger.
In the last few years I have begun to realize that I was also missing the current reality of an experience of the cross. While the occasion of Christ’s crucifixion occurred thousands of years ago, and is a past tense accomplishment that benefits all the way through today and into the future, I also believe there is a place to come to the cross today as a born again believer. The cross is a place I can return in my heart and mind to lie down wrong thoughts, carnal habits that cling and hinder, and symbolically lay my current cares down to allow it to die with Christ to experience the resurrection life Christ paid for. Even though it is a past tense accomplishment it continues to be a present day experience of revival and redemption whenever I want to come and lay down my burdens. Praise God for the experience of the cross!