We have all heard the popular clique, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, hoping to ease the pain and suffering and attempt to lend those when faced with times of trial a comforting solace. According to the Theology of the Cross, all occurrences of the human existence are to be lived, felt, and understood through the suffering of the cross. God asks of us, first, to endure death before we experience life. Death before life? That seems contradictory to our anthropological understanding the proper order of life here on earth. Even, most typical Christian doctrine, the emphasis on death before life, weighs far less heavily on most, than the original intent of these pungent words of St. John of The Cross. The Cross is a vibrantly and violent intermediary for what the gospel speaks of becoming alive in Christ. I believe many Christians genuinely desire to know God; however, his [or her] course of action is all too often driven by human emotions and desires, or to put in Theology of the Cross terms, the “senses”, removing the powerful template of that which the cross can prod and prune our hearts by God’s divine hand.
To spiritually die, surrendering everything to God through The Cross is uncomfortable and quite frankly, a painful process. However, the reward of knowing, and I mean truly KNOWING God, the Father in heaven is irreplaceable, overshadowing any residual scars left as a reminder of a season of suffering. In truth, to experience an authentic relationship with God, Christ believers must go undeniably through The Cross. St. John of The Cross does not lightly heed his readers flippantly that this approach, this rendering of your soul to rid itself of sinful, numbing, layers that have shielded us from fully understanding what it means to be right with God.
The word of the cross kills and makes alive. It crucifies the old being in anticipation of the resurrection of the new. These two statements bring the dawn of finding God through the death of Christ. To proclaim and dedicate a life that follows Christ, we forge space in our souls to be gifted with the opportunity to find spiritual death and re-birth. This is not a literal death of the body as Christ underwent on The Cross. Paul makes this clear in Galatians 2:20 stating, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." Christ paid the ultimate price of death for the sins of all mankind. For all disciples of Christ, the imprisonment of sin no longer has the power to claim life. The cross liberates all from the bondage of sin and death. As we uncover what it means to die and be re-born through the cross, it is important to take note that I am not speaking in the literal “mortality” definition of death. Rather, the death of the sinful man once owned by the prince of darkness, now re-born into a union with God, through and only through, The Cross.
The Cross is itself in the first instance the attack of God on the old sinner and the sinner's theology. God rightly removes the old dingy corruptive sinful film that infiltrates every fragment of our human body, mind and soul; purging all that is harmful to this life and the one that awaits us in eternity. A similar approach to what St. John of The Cross describes in the preliminary stage of The Dark Night of the Soul where, “anything that the soul can do of its own accord at this time serves only, as we have said, to hinder inward peace and the work which God is accomplishing in the spirit by means of that aridity of sense.” Fundamentally important, the senses must become dry and barren, left void of the remembrance of sinful pleasures. Through this “death” the margin is now present for God to refresh and renew us further into his likeness.
About 10 years ago, I began the ever painful yet invigorating process of this journey through The Cross. It started with the senses. Then, into a slow, painful, and burdensomely moved into the spirit. The death of the body and the spirit are intricately woven into the Theology of the Cross. Though this was and still is, in some ways, the most painful, lonely and desolate season of my life, I rest in knowing that it is a gift. A treasured honor of God seeing me as a servant capable, strong enough, unbreakable enough, to endure and once again re-surface as a renewed tapestry stitched together by my Father in Heaven.
To put my story into context I must first tell you that I have never had what most Christians describe as a 'conversion experience'. Meaning, I have never had a moment in my life where I could explicitly say that I made the life-changing choice to follow Christ. I have always known Christ; however, knowing Christ and embodying the knowledge of Christ, I have come to realize, are two completely different statements. I can with full conviction proclaim, my previous view of myself and world was not through the Theology of the Cross. Even though I am confident I was what most Protestant Christians would say, was saved, I really had no comprehension of what it meant to be crucified with Christ. What it means to fully and abundantly encounter that space between life and death.
My heart began to stir, to know God more, and to experience a fervent relationship with my Creator. I realized there was something missing in my faith. There was a sharp knowing at the very core of my being there was more. More to be found, more to be understood, more to be illuminated about God. God granted my desire, though looking back, if I had known that path I was hunting for, would take me on, I may not have requested this. Honestly, I was one of those Christians who felt I was a good person – believing I was practically void of any bad sins, reflecting more of a murky shade of white. Well, as we all know, a sin is a sin, no matter what color! I was far from looking at myself through the cross; I was looking at myself through my reflective inflation of my own self. God purged this arrogant assumption, and confident pride I was infected by. I may have outwardly said I was dependent upon God, yet, deep down, I was all too often confident that I was too good for dependency.
Not only did God purge my senses spiritually; he allowed me to feel it physically. Honestly, I don’t know exactly how long I dealt with one health issue after another, and I continue to endure some death of the self to this day. But for a time, in the beginning of this all, there was an ever-present, never ending, dull withering of my body. Strangely enough, during my experience of the physical body dying, I felt great comfort. Especially, when reading St. John of the Cross and knowing that I was not alone in my internal war. Knowing that when I read the words, “God sets them in this night only to prove them and to humble them, and to reform their desires, so that they go not nurturing in themselves a sinful gluttony in spiritual things.” It was all worth it. I became awfully aware my physical experiences were the byproduct of my senses being purged and pruned so I may experience all things through the suffering of The Cross. God showed me the ugliness of my sins and even more so the ugliness of my spiritual arrogance. I truly felt, in some insignificant way, what suffering with Christ felt like. My senses were dying, though my spirit was alive and thriving, wishing for more. The Cross brought me to a place where I faithfully believed I was beginning to understand how one feels to be crucified with Christ. In other words, I gained the knowledge of oneself and of one’s misery.
I became increasingly conscious of my dreadfulness, allowing for a continued understanding of God’s greatness. Through The Cross, I realized; God will enlighten the soul, giving it knowledge, not only of its lowliness and wretchedness, but likewise of the greatness and excellence of God. Saint Augustine said, “Let me know myself, Lord, and I shall know Thee.” The outcome of seeking The Cross to understand oneself results in knowing God surpassing any efforts of our own. As Christ followers, we need to become ever aware of our inability to save ourselves. Without The Cross, we are nothing; we are powerless of progressing to further knowledge of God. To know God, is to know how utterly helpless mankind is without him. It is impossible to trust in God unless one has despaired in all creatures and knows that nothing can profit one without God. Utter despair of our own ability, however, looks to the grace of Christ and so leads to life. When looking through the cross, clarity reveals his [or her] dependency on the grace of God. As awareness of God increases, enslavement to the sin of senses diminishes, permitting the capability to experience God in a fresh way. We can hope for transformation because, with our conversion, our lives become centered on God-with God's help we hope to achieve what we cannot achieve by ourselves.
As the purging of my senses came to an end, my awareness of God increased, initiating my acute internal awareness of the ugliness of my sin. I was utterly mindful of where suffering through The Cross brought me. God walked me through a barren valley leading to the death of my senses. For a moment in time, God granted me a short reprieve from my state of suffering; physically and spiritually. Little did I know, I was going to soon be set forth into a deeper hole of darkness and suffering. Initially, I had only scratched the surface of suffering with Christ; realizing now I was to genuinely experience the cross completely and wholly. Again, I believe God used my earthly senses (my physical body) to fully embody the next stage leading to purging of the spirit. I was deprived of God’s presence, resulting in a darkness residing within me that was unexplainable. As Christ pleaded, “My God, why have you forsaken me,” I too found myself petitioning.
My health had deteriorated significantly accompanied with an abundance of questions as to why? surrounded it. Why was I so sick? What was inside my body causing it to decline at such a rapid pace? One night, profusely sweating, lungs drowning in bloody fluid, suffering agonizing pain, I pleaded with God to come by my side and comfort me. There was nothing, just silence. Yet, amongst my agony, my spirit kept diving deeper, escaping this place pain and suffering to find the one thing that could be of comfort. Seeking to find God underneath the darkness. I physically felt the bareness of my spirit, confirming my belief that I would have never fully understood the depravity of my spirit without this bodily component. I began to understand why the suffering of Christ’s body paled in comparison to the spiritual deprivation he suffered from God. Why Jesus pleased in the Garden, “Please take this from me.”
The word of the cross kills and makes alive…. It crucifies the old being in anticipation of the resurrection of the new. I was literally dying, not only in the physical sense, but also in spirit. God was emptying me in preparation to fill me back up with Himself. God used the suffering of The Cross to cleanse my senses and my spirit. I began to share in Christ’s story on the cross. As Martin Luther said, “The cross makes us part of its story. The cross becomes our story.” The cross, in Luther terms, became my theology allowing for Jesus’ death to become my death. Luther said, “We see in the death of Jesus our death, and we remember that we are dust. We can begin to take the truth. We learn dying.” I was dying, left with the peculiar comfort of knowing this was a temporary state. And yet, in many ways, I’m still here. All sensations of sweetness and pleasure where stripped away forcing me to walk through the darkness with blind faith, being the proper and adequate means whereby the soul is united with God. I needed him more than ever before. I need him more than ever. I was determined to find him in my place of barrenness; faithfully hopeful he would reveal himself to me.
Being in this physical and spiritual state of suffering, I sought refuge in constant contemplation. Looking for the only companionship I now only knew, darkness. A darkness not of evil or of wicked origin, but a darkness that when seen through The Cross, that heals all wounds, cleanses all imperfections, and makes whole of the broken. I found relief in knowing God chose to suffer through his own son Christ, using his death to me with him in spirit. The Cross bridges the gap between my darkness and God’s perfectly, divine, beauty. As I drew closer to God his glory remained ever present. His presence comforted the starkness of my soul.
Many would say intentional suffering is contrary to the love of God. I would argue that God’s love was most clear in my state of darkness, in that unforgiving place of suffering. With no spiritual or physical comforts, only God, was my provision. I firmly believe, and feel I can say with some authority, that spiritual perseverance through suffering, defines the rationale behind the Theology of the Cross. All we believe that is good and pleasurable become ugly and lifeless as God floods the spirit with His goodness. As stated by theologians of The Cross, “We call evil good and good evil.” I became acutely aware, much of what I valued as truth, pleasure and good, was in fact distorted and repulsive when viewed through the lens of The Cross. God emptied my soul and filled it with the truth of Christ’s suffering. Theologians of The Cross know that the love of God creates precisely out of nothing… Therefore, the sinner must be reduced to nothing in order to be saved. The Cross saved me from a life held captive to spiritual murkiness.
I am beginning to live again. With much reflection and gratitude for my time of suffering in darkness, I am grateful for the journey I have begun. I know this is just the beginning of my connectedness with God. I am still consciously going to The Cross faithfully yearning for this experience to saturate my entire being. Every day the sinful nature inside me struggles to reject the blessings of suffering life with Christ. This journey is endless, and my sinful nature will continually creep back to the surface. Much like how the reeds growing from the bottom of a lake re-appear every spring hopeful to reach the surface of the water. Their stringy slimy tentacles creep from the deep eternally motivated to destroy the beautiful blue hue of the waves glistening from the warm summer sun. Much like the reeds, the sinful nature of mankind is never gone and will persistently attempt to reach the surface through spiritual weakness. Yet, when Christ’s suffering entertains every facet of our existence, the water becomes clearer loosening the crowded bunches of reeds suffocating the breath of life within us.
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theol
ogian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 120-121). Kindle Edition.
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 120-121). Kindle Edition.
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Location 124-126). Kindle Edition.
 Saint John of the Cross (2010-07-27). Dark Night of the Soul - Enhanced Version (pp. 27-28). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition.
 Saint John of the Cross (2010-07-27). Dark Night of the Soul - Enhanced Version (pp. 28). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition
 Saint John of the Cross (2010-07-27). Dark Night of the Soul - Enhanced Version (pp. 39). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition
 Saint John of the Cross (2010-07-27). Dark Night of the Soul - Enhanced Version (pp. 41). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition
 Saint John of the Cross (2010-07-27). Dark Night of the Soul - Enhanced Version (pp. 42). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 580-581). Kindle Edition
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 790)). Kindle Edition
 Diogenes Allen. Spiritual Theology (Kindle Locations 113-114). Kindle Edition.
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 124)). Kindle Edition
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 161)). Kindle Edition
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 183)). Kindle Edition
 Saint John of the Cross (2010-07-27). Dark Night of the Soul - Enhanced Version (pp. 85). Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Kindle Edition
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 455)). Kindle Edition
 Mr. Gerhard O. Forde. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Theology) (Kindle Locations 1249)). Kindle Edition