Death by Degree
Transformation is slow and painful for the pride entrenched soul
Death by crucifixion, a gruesome form of torture reserved for serious criminals or enemy combatants, was first conceived in Persia, nearly three hundred years before Jesus was born.
One of the first instances happened when Alexander the Great conquered the small island of Tyre. After the victory was secure, he crucified the remaining 2,000 Tyrian soldiers on the beach.
The upright wooden cross was the most common technique, and the time victims took to die depended on how they were crucified. Some were tied, which meant death could take several days. Some were nailed with outstretched arms and died within 24 hours.
Regardless of how it was done, the purpose was to kill slowly and painfully.
This could not have been lost on Jesus when he invited his listeners to take up their crosses and follow him. Why is it that Jesus uses crucifixion as a metaphor of invitation? I can't think of a less persuasive way of inviting people into something. I can't think of a worse metaphor.
It couldn’t have been that he just wanted to communicate that something inside us needed to die. There are less grisly ways to communicate that. So, why crucifixion?
I once heard a story of Abraham Lincoln being pressed for an answer by a political challenger. He famously responded with a question: “Do you want it with the bark on or the bark off? In other words, do you want an easy, smooth answer; or do you want the hard and uncomfortable truth?
I think that’s what Jesus gives us here: the hard truth of our human condition.
Crucifixion communicates to us that transformation will be slow and painful for the pride entrenched soul. Arriving at this awareness—and not letting go of it—has been vital for me because I’ve noticed that pride overwhelms me with the opposite thought:
“Transformation,” it says, “should be quick and enjoyable. If it’s not, then you’re doing it wrong.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus wants us to know that learning to give ourselves away is hard. It hurts. And it takes a long time.
Older Christians had another word for this slow, painful process: mortification.
Mortification, like paying a mortgage, means you make a series of small transactions over many decades. It’s a series of intricate concessions made all our life long—its death by degree.
But mortification is not obvious today. As Dallas Willard said, “…mortifying or putting things to death doesn't seem to be the kind of thing today's Christians would be caught doing. Yet there it stands, at the center of the New Testament teachings.”
Occasionally I wonder if I had been in the garden struggling to stay awake under starlight, would I—like Peter—have abandoned Jesus. Would I, when the cross finally became a real possibility, evaded instead of embraced it? I think I know the truth. I don’t need to travel back to that dark night to discover my answer.
I run away from the cross everyday.
The real question, I suppose, is not would I run away? But would I return? Would I, like Peter, let Jesus restore me?
Would I, like Peter, embrace my cross in the end?
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