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The Sacrifice of True Love

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the unlovable

God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly… God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. — from Paul’s letter to the Romans – Romans 5:5-8

"Places where sacrifices have been made are holy places."

All my life I have been “brought to the cross” so that a tepid version of it, sanitized by art and comfortable church sanctuaries, has long since become a familiar, safe place for me. But standing here on a dusty road, jostled by outbound pilgrims eager to get home and local farmers carrying their produce to market, it’s hard to see the sanctity of it. Three short, mean little crosses, planted so close to the road that passersby can spit on the groaning figures nailed to them without breaking stride. They don’t even know who the criminals are; most can’t even read the satirical title nailed, along with its defendant, to the cross in the middle.

There is no serene, back-lit hill here. The crosses are not majestically distant. There is only a ghastly lump of rock behind them, its rough domed shape and a couple of shallow caves like empty eye sockets providing a macabre backdrop. A couple of bored soldiers gambling in the background.

If I dare to stand close enough to the middle cross and can filter out the rough jokes and catcalls of the commuters, I can hear Him breathing. Gasping. He is in constant, increasingly feeble motion, rising on pierced feet to take the weight off His hands and to relieve the crushing pressure on His lungs and heart. His breathing eases a little then, but He begins to sag again almost as soon as He has pushed Himself up straight.

This is love?

Every fresh group on the road behind me passes with a wave of muttered disgust. It doesn’t bear looking at, but I do seek out His face. Isaiah was right:

There were many who were appalled at Him — His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man… He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected…

I can’t stand to stay here for long, not if I really look and listen.

It’s dirty, gory, sordid. His every breath a wrenching moan. I need to find some safer, more mundane way to witness the embodiment of this word love.

The sacrifice God made by turning Adam and Eve out of the garden of Eden is astonishing enough to me. No more would He be able to delight in daily intimacy with the two he loved so much; no more ambling through the trees and beside the rivers, watching the animals play while chatting contentedly with the two beautiful young lovers. He had created everything for precisely this purpose, and now, to avoid the horror of their bodies continuing forever while their souls crumbled into a grotesque parody of the image in which they had been created, He would have to watch them leave.

He would have to take a voluntary step back, allowing them to face the consequences of their actions with only the memory of His love — and the knowledge that He was watching over them from afar — to protect them.

This is a costly kind of love. Knowing that to truly save them it would take the destruction of the world as they knew it — the world He had so lovingly crafted for them — and thousands of generations of alienation and suffering while He watched it all with an anguished heart.

But the sacrifice of the cross, the costliness of that kind of love, is of a whole other order. It’s daunting even to look at it, let alone get close enough to hear His agonized breathing. This is not what I want love to look like.

Here, I can understand why Paul referred to the “offense of the cross.” It’s gruesome. Fresh blood oozing over the brownish dried stuff from the first beating. It’s not surprising to me that many dismiss this part of the story as bloodthirstiness, or quibble about how, really, can this atonement business work? In our sanitized middle-class western lives, there isn’t much space for a scene as raw as this.

The cross terrifies me. Against every natural desire, if I dare get close enough, I recognize in this unrecognizable, mutilated, and humiliated form the image of the wreck of humanity, the horror of what Adam and Eve, once beautiful in their innocence, have become. Worse: I recognize my own helpless, ugly, utterly fallen self. The darkest, most unlovely, perverse, wicked aspects of what I fear myself to be. This is the self I am desperate to keep hidden from everyone; even, as much as possible, from myself.

Standing here, I cannot escape it.

If the Son stood in the Jordan for me, and received the blessing from above for me, He hangs on this cross for me also.

Stretched, like me, between earth and sky, receiving every judgment that ever was due me. I have feared to be so truly known by anyone, convinced that the darkest truths of my soul would be as appalling as the face of the One who hangs on the cross. But because He has seen His Son thus, allowed Him to become thus, I know the Father can see me also at my most degraded, and love me still.

Golgotha is, ultimately, the end of every form of sin and death.

Its power reaches backward and forward in history, encompasses the universe, defeats all darkness.

But because God is God, it is also directly and intimately personal. Paul speaks the language of my longing heart when he says that his old, bruised, and broken self died there with Jesus; that he is now living a new kind of life, animated by trusting that the Son of God “loved me and gave Himself for me.”

Trusting this myself, I can creep toward the squalid killing ground at the base of that eerie rock. Holy ground. He is sprawled on the timbers, and the soldiers are stretching out His arms and feet. His chest heaves in agitation, but He makes no sound. A hammer, raised. As it falls, He is gazing upward, dreaming of me.

Excerpted with permission from Close Enough to Hear God Breathe by Glen Paul, copyright Thomas Nelson.

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