This is a first of three posts by pastor and philosopher, Jeff Cook, on philosophical reflections of the cross.
I have long believed that without pain, love is impossible.
Real love requires sacrifice. The love I have for my boys is manifest in my persistent back pain from lifting them up over and again. I see it on hands covered in morning filth, a depleted bank account, and the recent massacre of my DVD collection (which we really shouldn’t talk about). My love for my boys is shown in the fact that they can hit me, and yell at me, and even say desperately mean things to me—and I will still pick them up after they hurt themselves or wrap them in my shirt when their skin is cold.
Love isn’t having a picture on the refrigerator or pleasant thoughts from time to time. To be known, love must be tangible, and love makes itself known through self-sacrifice. Without such self-giving, “love” does not exist.
Sacrifice is essential to love and this is disturbing. In its fullest expression, love gains its beauty from the potency of pain and death. When the martyr dies she gives all of herself away. Her love for others and God has depth and beauty because death wins. There’s no other way to showcase love in its most complete and beautiful form.
If our world lacked pain, we would lose what is most essential to the human experience—the love of our friends, the love of our spouses and children, the love of strangers, but even more so a real display of the love of God.
There is no sidestepping this truth. Pain is required for God to display his love, and this truth makes Jesus absolutely unique in the pantheon of potential deities.
Jesus is not a God who is absent from our pain, who sits high on Mount Olympus watching while the world destroys itself. Jesus’ crucifixion-colored life is vibrant display of God’s love. We can all imagine the agony and shame of hanging to death, body nailed to beams next to a highway. Apparently when Christ says, “I love you”—he holds nothing back.
The portrait of God known as Christianity is extraordinary, for this God pays us not only the complement of creating us—beings who would collectively work to assault his world, each other and ourselves—but has declared in the most self-giving way possible that we are his beloveds. We are the ones for whom he would gladly endure torture and alienation and doubt. Though we are dead, he would do all it takes to make us alive.
This is love.
One New Testament writer said, “For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross.”
And you and I are that “joy.”
No other philosophy, no other religious tradition has a story that I find as compelling—that gives form to so much I instinctively value. This is one of the many reasons I am drawn to the Jesus story. The cross speaks to me in a way nothing else does, for there I not only see the kind of God who made our world. On the cross I see God’s character and his aggressively self-giving choices.
JEFF COOK teaches philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado and pastors Atlas Church in Greeley, Colorado. This is an excerpt from his book Everything New: Reimagining Heaven and Hell. He will release his third book, Small Batch Church, in 2017. Connect with him @jeffvcook or www.everythingnew.org.