The world has a lot to say about hearts. We can be heartsick, heartbroken, half-hearted, all heart, hard-hearted, tender-hearted; we can lead with our heart or follow our heart, wear our heart on our sleeve, or have a change of heart. We can have a heart of gold, or a heart of stone. Our heart can be in the right place, or it can wander.
The Bible has a lot to say about our hearts as well. In Proverbs, we are told to guard our hearts above all else.
Our hearts are precious, but they are also fragile and fickle. Our hearts can be led astray, bruised, crushed, and hardened by sin– not just our own sin, but sins that are committed against us. And hardened hearts are not immune to damage– they don’t become stronger, just more rigid and brittle. We live in a world of damaged hearts. And damaged hearts are prone to damage other hearts.
God does not want us to lock up our hearts or wrap them in barbed wire, but He does want us to be watchful and active in protecting our hearts from the enemy. God created us with emotions, but not every emotion should be indulged or shared with others. We are told to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn. But we are never told to encourage jealousy, anger, depression, envy, apathy, rage, boastfulness, or hatred. Letting these emotions control our actions can only lead to further pain, destruction, sorrow, and heartache.
We need to guard our hearts, not only from external threats, but from internal deception. We think we know our own hearts– we tend to trust them more than we trust God, or His Word, or the godly advice of friends or family. We act at the prompting of our emotions– sometimes in direct conflict with God’s Word and Wisdom, and to our shame and pain.
When we pray, God’s spirit can heal our heartache, and give us the strength of heart to reach out and heal others. But we must be careful not to attempt healing others in our own power and wisdom. Our heart may seem to be “in the right place,” but often, that’s how we got hurt in the first place!
Tender hearts, broken hearts, even hard hearts– God can heal them all and use them to heal others. That’s because God’s heart is perfect–and on Calvary, He poured it out to rescue you, redeem you, and restore you.
Prayer is both simple and complex. Anyone can pray. There is no single correct “formula” for prayer. God is always listening and hears the prayers of those who sincerely seek Him. I can pray to God in formal words, songs, groans, and scattered thoughts.
But there are times when I don’t know how to pray. More precisely, I don’t know WHAT to pray. When someone is diagnosed with cancer, or a chronic illness, my first instinct is to pray for healing– immediate and total healing. When I hear of a mass shooting, or a blatant injustice, or a natural disaster, I want to pray for all the pain and loss and evil to disappear or be reversed. I want all those things that I know to be “good”– health, happiness, healing, hope, unity, righteousness, and wholeness.
Still, God’s ways are not my ways. God’s “goodness” is not measured in comfort and quick resolutions. I may not understand the goodness of struggle and pain in the short term. I think of disaster as total and irredeemable, and my prayers often come out of my own short-sighted thinking and my own discomfort at the realization of others’ (and my own) weakness and mortality.
There are a few Biblical principles that I find very helpful when I don’t know “how” to pray:
God knows –REALLY KNOWS– all my inner thoughts and feelings. Even more, He KNOWS what will happen, what should happen, and what is best in every situation. I can pour out my desire to see my friend restored to health, or a community re-united in hope, knowing that God is a God of healing and restoration; but also knowing that God’s timing and purposes may involve temporary suffering–even for those I love. Moreover, God knows why I am confused. He knows why I struggle to know how to pray. He doesn’t ask me to always know the “right” answer– He does ask that I trust Him to know and act in His sovereign strength and wisdom. No matter the circumstances, God is still on His throne. And I am not!
Jesus gave us simple but powerful examples of “how” to pray. In “The Lord’s Prayer,” He prayed for simple, personal things– daily bread, forgiveness, guidance–as well as big and overarching things–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done..” His trust in the Father’s ability to accomplish all things was absolute, and His relationship was firmly established– “Father…Hallowed by Thy Name.” In the garden, Jesus was clearly suffering, and asked that the “cup” of suffering– the torture of the cross and the inconceivable horror of being rejected as He bore our sins and carried them through death and the grave– be removed. Yet, He submitted His desire, His fears, His anguish, to His Father– “Not My will, but Thine..”
There are other wonderful examples throughout the Psalms, the Gospels, the Epistles, and hundreds of years of Church leaders and saints: their prayers can teach us, encourage us, and embolden us.
Jesus promised that we would have an advocate–the Holy Spirit– who would intercede for us. When we don’t know how or what to pray, the Apostle Paul says that the Spirit makes intercession for us with “groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26 KJV). The Spirit also speaks to our own spirit to help us understand more clearly God’s ways and plans.
I may not always know how to pray, or what to pray. But I can be confident that God hears my prayers. I can come before Him with the assurance that my prayers– and all my thoughts and emotions–are precious to Him because I am His child, redeemed by His sacrifice. My heart may not know all things, but as He continues faithfully completing the work He began in me (Philippians 1:6), my prayers will come more fully into alignment with His will.
We just celebrated Memorial Day in the United States–a day when we remember all those who have given their lives in service to their fellow countrymen and women. People decorate the gravestones of soldiers who were killed in action, they march in patriotic parades, and they hold memorial services, with military rites, prayers, and speeches.
Not everyone celebrates in the same way. Some just use the day as an excuse to have a pre-summer cookout or swim-party. Some don’t commemorate the day at all. Some people use the day to honor veterans of the armed forces, or even those who risk their lives in emergency services– EMT’s, Firefighters, Police officers, and others. Others use the day to honor their ancestors, regardless of whether they served in the military.
My husband and I fall on this end of the spectrum. We like to pay tribute to those who came before us– to those who left everything behind to start a new life as “pioneers”; those who lived through wars and diseases and struggles; those who left a legacy to our grandparents and parents–a legacy we hope to pass on. But we don’t worship our ancestors; we don’t worship the soldiers who died. We honor them, we remember their sacrifice, but we recognize that they were human, just like us. They may have died in battle or as the result of battle, but they died, just as we will. Their sacrifices may have been heroic; their efforts may have preserved freedom for us, or brought freedom to those who were oppressed. And that is what we honor. That is what we remember.
Jesus Christ was not a soldier. Yet He sacrificed His life for a purpose much greater than the honor of a nation, or the freedom of family and friends. His sacrifice opened a way for us to be reconciled with God– to be declared righteous and Holy, in spite of what we have done (or failed to do). Our best efforts may end in tragic death on a battlefield– or in a hospital bed fighting cancer or AIDS. But our best efforts end in death. His best efforts destroyed the power of Death, and offered hope to all the world.
Memorial Day comes once a year in my country. Other nations have similar days. It is important to remember those who have come before– those who have made sacrifices, and paved the way for future generations to live free. But around the world, Christians have reason to celebrate every day– to remember the death AND resurrection of our Savior that gives us eternal freedom from the sting of Sin and Death.
Before His death, Jesus gave his disciples a rite– a ceremony– to remember His death, and what it would mean in light of His resurrection. We call it Communion or Eucharist– the “body” and “blood” of Christ–consumed and memorialized each time we take it. We don’t hold parades or play Taps or plant flowers. We don’t have pool parties and barbecues. But we reflect with solemnity and gratitude on the sacrifice that conquered the grave once and for all!
On this Good Friday, it may seem redundant and unnecessary to point this out, but Jesus died. As the world around us faces a global pandemic, we are forced to face our own mortality. People are dying from COVID-19– people we know; people we know about; people we have never met. Their deaths are more than just statistics. They represent personal loss to all their friends, family, and people in their communities. Jesus’ death was more than just another execution– more than just another dead body to be disposed of before the start of the Sabbath.
Jesus. Died. Emmanuel– God with us– died. Ceased to live. Bled out and stopped breathing. His body was cold and lifeless, wrapped in burial cloths and laid in a tomb. This was not just like sleeping, or missing a heartbeat. He was gone. This is not normally cause for celebration– this was not a “Good” Friday.
Jesus was not the only religious leader to die at the hands of enemies or rivals. The fact that his followers would commemorate or memorialize his death is not unusual or incomprehensible. But Jesus wasn’t just assassinated. He was condemned to die as a criminal. His death wasn’t just shocking or violent– it was humiliating, vile, excruciatingly painful, and involved public ridicule and anguish. There is nothing glamorous or brave or victorious about a cross. Christians who wear cross necklaces or t-shirts with blood-covered spikes might just as well wear handcuffs or ankle bracelets, or a picture of Jesus in an electric chair to show their devotion to a man who died as a criminal. Even though Pilate declared that he could find nothing wrong, he still allowed the conviction and death sentence to stand. Jesus didn’t win against his enemies– he lost, and he lost everything.
In our rush to celebrate Easter, and the “rest of the story,” sometimes we lose sight of the cross. Jesus– creator of the universe, perfect in the eyes of the law, beloved by God the Father–died a cruel, humiliating, senseless death. Those who are dying today of COVID-19 are struggling for their next breath, exactly as Jesus did so long ago. Jesus did not just “give up,” he didn’t just go into a coma as a gesture, knowing he would wake up in three days anyway, so why struggle for that next breath, or push through that cramp in his arm or leg, or let the sweat and blood from his forehead run into his eyes, unable to wipe them away or keep the flies from landing around his nose or ears… Jesus died– He heaved and strove and agonized until his heart and lungs and muscles could do no more.
We talk about Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Earlier in Israel’s history, God rescued the entire nation of Israel from their slavery to the Egyptians. He caused the angel of death to visit all of Egypt and kill all the first-born throughout the land. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Exodus+12&version=ESV)
All of Passover is a foreshadowing and visual representation of what was to happen at the crucifixion. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb, whose life would be given, and his blood be used, to save us from death and destruction, and allow us to be free. His body was broken, just like the bread of the Passover, to give us life.
Just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the sides of the door posts, Jesus’ blood stained the two ends of the cross where his hands were nailed. It stained the top and bottom of the cross where his head and feet bled, just as the lamb’s blood was placed on the top of the door frame and dripped to the ground beneath.
Jesus became a metaphysical “doorway”, painted with blood, through which we can enter into a place of safety, forgiveness, and promise. But only by going through the door– only by trusting fully in the work of Jesus’ death (and resurrection)– that we can be saved.
It wasn’t merely the act of painting the lamb’s blood on a door that saved anyone– it involved going into the house, and obeying the word of the Lord. It was wrapped up in preparing for a journey in which they would leave behind their slavery and old way of life, and walk through uncharted territory, led by God’s spirit, to a land of promise they had never seen. No Egyptian, by merely smearing blood on the doorposts or wrestling with the angel of death, or wearing a mask or staying behind locked doors, could defeat the plague. No Israelite could ignore God’s instructions, and roam the streets, trusting the the blood on the doorposts would cover him three blocks away. Death–and life– came on God’s terms. Wearing a cross necklace and “looking the part” won’t substitute for true faith that results in repentance, obedience, and discipleship.
Jesus died. And he rose again! But he didn’t do it so we could sail through life on our own terms. He came to show us that God can take our slavery, our sin, our failure, our sickness and sorrow, even our death– even senseless, humiliating, forsaken death– and give victory, life, and peace to those who follow Him.
Prayer is often about burdens– the burden of need; the burden of sin and guilt; the burden of worry and distress. We bring our burdens to God, to the “throne of Grace;” we bring them “in Jesus’ Name,”, and we bring them to “Our Father.” But how often do we bring them to “Calvary?”
Not the victorious empty cross on the hillside with a beautiful sunset in the background, but the bloody, hot, dry and dreadful Calvary of the crucifixion? How often do we make the pilgrimage to that rocky outcropping with the smell of blood and sweat and death and agony? How often do we cry out to the one who was lifted up, struggling to breathe, pierced, wounded, broken and humiliated? When do we reach out to touch the scars and bruises he received in our place?
It is at Calvary that we get the real story of Grace, Mercy, and forgiveness–the real cost of victory and peace. It is at Calvary that we see the full extent of God’s Holiness married to the full extent of His Love. Holiness demands justice; Love demands intimacy– together, they require sacrifice.
And it is at Calvary that we find, in the darkest and most hopeless of moments– God forsaking Himself, giving all He IS to bring justice and reconciliation for all we’ve done–that we trade our burdened souls, our worries, our despair for God’s embrace. Arms stretched so wide they are pulled from their sockets; blood spilled from head to toe; breathless and exposed in His passion for your soul and mine–that’s what God offers at Calvary.
Why do I pray? I am ambushed and overwhelmed and enraptured by such a love. God had no need to suffer even a moment’s discomfort. He owed nothing to His rebellious creation; no mercy, no explanation, no hints as to His character (or ours). The creator of galaxies had no need to lift a finger to save one puny planet or any of its inhabitants from His own right to un-create them and blot out even their memory. Instead, He showed the greatest act of Love across all of space and time–to me!– At Calvary!
We often fear questions. We are afraid to ask questions; we are afraid of being questioned; we are afraid of asking the wrong questions or not asking the right ones. And we are often afraid of the answers, too.
God is not afraid of our questions. In fact, He wants us to ask, to seek, and to knock (Matthew 7:7, Jeremiah 33:3, and others). God knows the answers to our questions– He even knows our motives in asking them! God may not give us the answers we expect, or answer in the manner or time we expect. But God encourages us to ask anyway, and to trust in His ability and His desire to give us what we need in the moment we most need it.
God also asks questions–not because He doesn’t already know the answers, but because we can learn from the questions He asks, and the answer we give. Some of God’s questions seem self-evident; others are probing. Some are rhetorical; others are anguished. Let’s take a look at just a few, and see what we might be able to learn from them:
In Genesis 3, God asks some very obvious questions of Adam and Eve after they hide from him. “Where are you?” Adam and Eve had not successfully hidden from God. He knew exactly where they were and even why they were hiding. But instead of storming into the Garden of Eden with condemnation and instant judgment, God asked a simple question, giving them both the opportunity to confess, and a clear reminder of their broken relationship. There had never been a need (on either side) to ask “Where are you?” After Adam responds with the excuse of being naked and ashamed, God asks his second question, “Who told you that you were naked?” God knew the answer to this, as well, but He added a third question that forced Adam to get to the heart of the matter and tell Him the truth– “Have you eaten from the tree…?” God could have asked condemning questions– “How could you disobey me like this?” “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?!” But God isn’t asking questions to overwhelm Adam and Eve with their guilt and shame. He’s asking for truthful acknowledgment of their disobedience, so their broken relationship can begin to be repaired. God assigns punishment, but He does not bring additional questions and condemnation
In the very next chapter, God asks Cain a probing question, “Why are you angry? (And why has your countenance fallen?)” God knows the answer. He knows how Cain feels and what Cain is thinking. God knows it so well, that He challenges Cain to master his anger and turn his face upward (i.e. seek God’s counsel over his own emotions). We don’t like probing questions, because they reveal our selfish motives and dark impulses. But God actually WANTS us to be aware of our own tendencies–and our need for His wisdom and grace! God is not afraid of our darkest thought– He doesn’t want to expose them for our shame, but enlighten us for our own good!
In Genesis chapter 18, the Lord asks a rhetorical question, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do…” (concerning the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah). God had already determined that they should be destroyed; He had no need to share this information with Abraham. But in asking the rhetorical question, God gave us a glimpse into His character (as well as a window into Abraham’s character!) God does everything with purpose. He is not willing to hide information we need, nor to waste time or energy on useless information. Imagine if we knew everything–everything!- that would happen to us for the next year? If we knew about that near miss at the intersection on May 22, or the toothache on June 2, or the “surprise” birthday party in October? But when God does choose to open a window, He gives us a chance to respond. Abraham did not choose to argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were not wicked cities, or that God had no business destroying them. His heart was driven to discover if God would destroy the innocent with the wicked. He got his answer (several times over!) And even when God did not find ten innocent people in the cities, He still offered rescue for Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family.
It isn’t only God the father who asks questions. Jesus the son asked two agonizing questions in the New Testament. While He was dying on the cross, He asked the Father, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus knew, intellectually and spiritually, why God had forsaken him; but His question echoed the one found all the way back in the Garden of Eden– “Where ARE you?” The ultimate anguish of being separated from God’s presence was felt by God himself! The agony of loneliness that comes from sin and shame and guilt– God knows it intimately from both sides!
Jesus also asked and anguished question of Saul of Tarsus– “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4) Just as God asked Cain to look carefully at his motives and emotions, so Jesus challenges Saul to reexamine his activities and ambitions. Jesus knew, of course, why Saul was hunting down those who were preaching the Good News. He knew Saul’s ambition and his zeal for the Law. He knew that it had blinded him to the truth. And in Saul’s physical blindness, Jesus could “open his eyes” to a greater ambition and zeal–to preach this same Good News to the Gentiles– the same Gospel that is opening eyes around the world to this day to see the Awesome, Eternal, Victorious, and All-Encompassing Love of God.
Today, may we ask, seek, search out, study, cry out, knock on doors, and pursue this truth–God wants to meet with us! He wants to talk to us, to listen to us, to share closeness, to increase our Joy and be joined to us in our Grief, to lift up our countenance, end our isolation, and be the ultimate answer to our questions.
The most common symbol of the Christian religion is the cross. And, while many statues and necklaces and artistic renderings include a dying Christ figure , the kind you most often see is the empty cross. On this day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, I want to consider the significance of the empty cross.
First, the empty cross reminds us that Christ lived. In spite of those who continue to challenge the historical evidence, there was a man named Jesus of Nazareth. He lived in a particular time and place, and he was tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion. His existence caused the modern Western Calendar to be split into two distinctive parts based on the estimated year of his birth, and his life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a movement that has never been stamped out, equaled, or eclipsed.
Second, it reminds us that Christ died. He was fully human in his capacity to feel pain, rejection, betrayal, hunger, thirst, and grief. Yet he also experienced joy, companionship, hope, love, compassion, laughter, and growth. He didn’t just grow old or fade into obscurity. He didn’t leave his life’s work unfinished, he didn’t compromise or change his message; he didn’t give up or start over with a different “crew.” Though he never staged a coup, or built up an arsenal, or rose to a seat of power or influence, this homeless, itinerant, soft-spoken rabbi was seen as enough of a threat to the leaders of his time that he was framed, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death.
The empty cross also reminds us how he died. Modern crosses often look imposing and even triumphant, as they tower over a mega church parking lot, or hang on a chain of elegant silver, or stand in rows of chiseled rock in a military cemetery. “O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?” (I Cor. 15:55) But the torture before and during the crucifixion were brutal– bones were not broken, but they were pulled out of joint and then forced to bear the full weight of a bloody, swollen and bruised body of ripped muscles and exposed flesh. Heat caused the salty sweat mixed with blood to drip into his eyes, his open wounds, and around his nose and mouth, but he was unable to wipe any of it away. Flies gathered; he couldn’t keep them from buzzing or biting. Each breath was a torturous push and pull of the arms and body upon the nails holding him at an unnatural angle against a wooden bar that rubbed against his already raw back. And all of this was public; entertainment for the masses of hecklers, and those who were rejoicing in his humiliation and failure. There was nothing pretty or majestic about the cross on that day.
The empty cross reminds us that Jesus was buried and put under Roman guard. His emaciated, bloody, barely recognizable remains were wrapped up and prepared with spices. Guards, whose lives depended on this body remaining in the tomb and undisturbed, were posted, and a huge boulder rolled into place to block entry to and exit from the tomb. Jesus didn’t spontaneously climb down off the cross, or waltz out of an air-conditioned cave.
Finally, the empty cross reminds us that Jesus was the Christ–death could not stop him; the grave could not hold him. His victory was complete. He didn’t claw his way out of that tomb; he didn’t sneak out in the dead of night; he didn’t hobble into hiding for several weeks because he was only “mostly dead” of his torturous injuries. He arose, victorious, recognizable to those who knew him best; healed and full of power.
There are hundreds of reasons why we “cherish the Old Rugged Cross.” And, though the cross stands empty, our reasons are not. Hallelujah! Tomorrow, hundreds of millions of Christians will be celebrating the empty tomb. But for today, I want to celebrate the empty cross.
Good Friday is a stumbling block for many people who would be Christians. Some get angered at the mere mention of “Good” Friday. They see nothing good in it, and no reason to celebrate. They mock Christian celebrations and practices throughout Holy Week. They ask, “What could be good about being arrested, beaten, tried in an unfair court, mocked, and condemned to death?” “What could be good about celebrating someone’s final meal, and following the gruesome details of his humiliating crucifixion?” “Why remember someone being tortured by his enemies and abandoned and even betrayed by his friends?” I know someone who uses the crucifixion of Jesus as “proof” that God is neither omnipotent, nor holy.
Yet the Bible chooses to focus time, detailed description, and several varying viewpoints to make this the pivotal event (along with the resurrection) of history. The Crucifixion does not come as a sudden and inexplicable episode in Jesus’ ministry. He predicts it; not just once, and not just in one account–he doesn’t hint vaguely at some “future trouble,” or potential danger–he gives a detailed description of what will happen to him:
Mark 10:33-34New American Standard Bible (NASB)
33 saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be [a]delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will [b]hand Him over to the Gentiles.34 They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.”
Luke 24:6-7New American Standard Bible (NASB)
6 He is not here, but He has [a]risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee,7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.”
Why do we need Good Friday? Why, my acquaintance posits, does a loving God make salvation contingent upon the death of himself in human form? Is it that God is incapable, or unwilling to offer “unconditional” grace? After all, does he not offer “unconditional” love? Why must salvation be achieved only by the unjust death of a perfect being? Why must reconciliation and new life be forged in suffering and death?
These are not unreasonable questions, but I think they miss the broader picture. Before the cross, before the scourging and the betrayal, let’s look at the life of Christ. Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, the author of creation, could have stepped out of Heaven at any moment, and arrived in all his glory, surrounded by angels, to walk in pomp and dignity through the world he created. He could have swept the entire Roman Empire off the face of the planet, healed every disease with a whisper, and lived in the Temple in Jerusalem as the Ruler he is. Instead, he came as a helpless child, born to a teenage mom and her fiance during a grueling tax season. He grew up in relative obscurity, never attended college, and is lost to history until he begins his second career as an itinerant rabbi at age 30. He never held political office, never owned a home of his own, never wrote a book, or produced a piece of art work, never led an army into battle, never married or had children, never became wealthy, never did anything to make himself famous by worldly standards. He was not crucified because he posed an actual threat to the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, but because he was accused of blasphemy by not denying claims that he was the promised Messiah of Israel. His only “claim to fame” was that he was a dynamic teacher and had performed miraculous healings. By almost every worldly standard, his life was a failure and a lesson in wasted potential.
His death is in keeping with his humble life. It strikes us as a failure– humiliating, unjust, anti-climactic. A life of servitude, poverty, being misunderstood, and making all the “wrong” friends and enemies. Why would God live such a ridiculous and unfulfilling life? Except he didn’t– it wasn’t a failure; his life and death stand as examples of how to live at peace, and how to change the world! Hundreds of people flocked to hear him teach; hundreds more to see him heal the sick and raise the dead. But he never charged a single coin, never demanded accolades or even thanks.
This is the paradox of the Gospels. God’s ways are not our ways. His humiliating death on the cross was necessary for the ultimate triumph of the resurrection, but it was more than that– it was a vindication of justice over injustice and service over selfishness. Good doesn’t always triumph over evil in a power play. God has the power to obliterate every one of his enemies, but more often than not, he causes them to fall by their own arrogance and blind ambition. The Chief Priests, the Roman Soldiers, the agony and torture of death– they were no match for God’s love.
Good Friday showed us that God can ALWAYS make even our most difficult circumstances, even the worst situations, into something VICTORIOUS. Jesus still had to suffer and die, because we will still have to face betrayal, hatred, injustice, unanswered questions, and even taste death. An Easter without Good Friday is a happy ending without the story. Only an omnipotent God could have given us the triumph; only a loving God would have walked the Via Dolorosa to fight in the trenches with us.