I’m kind of a tech geek. A videographer by trade, I’ve also found myself on the business side of Photoshop crafting countless sermon slides and church program brochures. By far, the most common stock image we use in the Church is of some person standing on top of a mountain with their arms outstretched in exultation. They’ve conquered the impossible peak, and now they’re either, a) enjoying the fullness of life Jesus promised in that one glorious moment; b) worshipping God in the splendor of his creation; or c) celebrating the tangible reality that they can do all things through Christ who gives them strength – in particular, climbing this mountain.
The message we send through the use of this imagery is that this is the kind of life God wants you to live. Successful and free. Celebratory and worshipful. God wants all of us to climb our metaphorical mountains and find freedom from the trials and obstacles in our life. And to a certain extent I think that’s true, but it fails to tell the whole story.
Jesus went up on a mountain and stretched his arms out wide, but instead of smiling silently and embracing the accomplishment of conquering the hill, he screamed in agony as the Roman soldiers pierced his flesh with spikes. Rather than drinking in the scenery and breathing in the wildly fresh mountain air, he drank bitter wine vinegar and breathed his last. And it is this, the image of the broken and dying Son of God, not the conquering hero of the stock photograph, that God intends to be normative for those who would follow Jesus.
The real deal we make with God when we answer his call on our lives is to willingly enter into redemptive suffering. That is, after all, the essence of the cross. The call of Jesus is not to find success or fulfillment, but to take up our own crosses and follow him; that is, to live lives that reflect the crucifixion and resurrection (the Gospel!) of Jesus our King. This is the deal that God makes with us, the one that Jesus talked about again and again, but that we are angrily offended by whenever it manifests itself in our lives.
In my arrogant sense of entitlement, I thought the rules didn’t apply to me. I thought that the process of church planting, because it’s so inherently difficult (especially the way I decided to do it), was suffering enough. I thought the mere act of pursuing my dream of Ember Church was all the redemptive suffering my life required. My cup would be full. So when my son’s issues surfaced, I took offence at God. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was already carrying my cross! (Although now I can see that the pursuit of one’s dreams is far different than carrying one’s cross.) I was doing God’s work, so God was supposed to take care of me.
The reality is that God was, and is, taking care of me. He was helping me to understand, to truly know, both his own son and mine. The deep, relational knowledge of Jesus Christ is forged in the furnace of suffering, loss, frustration, and disappointment. The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering and failure are kingdom victory. The paradigm of true Christian faith isn’t the victorious and exultant climber atop the mountain; it’s the broken and bloodied Son of God stuck to the cross atop the hill. We who minister in this kingdom should expect our lives to more often reflect the latter than the former.