Summary: In order to understand the crucified life, we must: 1. Understand who God is. 2. Understand who we are. 3. Decide whose life we are going to live.
There is a wonderful story of St. Francis of Assisi and one of his student monks. “One day Saint Francis and Brother Leo were walking down the road. Noticing that Leo was depressed, Francis turned and asked: ‘Leo, do you know what it means to be pure of heart?’ ‘Of course. It means to have no sins, faults or weaknesses to reproach myself for.’ ‘Ah,’ said Francis, ‘Now I understand why you’re sad. We will always have something to reproach ourselves for.’ ‘Right,’ said Leo, ‘That is why I despair at ever arriving at purity of heart.’ ‘Leo, listen carefully to me. Don’t be so preoccupied with the purity of your heart. Turn and look at Jesus. Admire him. Rejoice that he is what he is — your Brother, your Friend, your Lord and Savior. That, little brother, is what it means to be pure of heart. And once you’ve turned to Jesus, don’t turn back and look at yourself. Don’t wonder where you stand with him. ‘The sadness of not being perfect, the discovery that you really are sinful, is a feeling much too human, even borders on idolatry. Focus your vision outside yourself on the beauty, graciousness and compassion of Jesus Christ. The pure of heart praise him from sunrise to sundown. Even when they feel broken, feeble, distracted, insecure and uncertain, they are able to release it into his peace. A heart like that is stripped and filled with the fullness of God. It is enough that Jesus is Lord.’
After a long pause, Leo said, ‘Still Francis, the Lord demands our effort and fidelity.’ ‘No doubt about that,’ replied Francis, ‘But holiness is not a personal achievement. . . .it doesn’t come by your Herculean efforts and threadbare resolutions.’
‘Then how?’ asked Leo. ‘Simply hoard nothing of yourself; sweep the house clean. Sweep out even the attic, even the nagging painful consciousness of your past. Accept being shipwrecked. Renounce everything that is heavy, even the weight of your sins. See only the compassion, the infinite patience, and the tender love of Christ. Jesus is Lord. That suffices. Your guilt and reproach disappear into the nothingness of non-attention. You are no longer aware of yourself, like the sparrow aloft and free in the azure sky. Even the desire for holiness is transformed into a pure and simple desire for Jesus.’”
There is a great truth in this beautiful story. Our desire for holiness, or goodness, means nothing unless it is a desire for Jesus. A desire for Jesus results in a desire to be like him and take on his character. But even the desire to be like him cannot come before the desire for Jesus himself. When the desire for holiness comes first it turns into pride and self-righteousness. A judgmental spirit is developed. But when the desire for Jesus himself comes first, the desire to take on his character naturally follows, and day by day desire becomes reality. You begin to understand that it is not what you give up that makes you pure, it is what you become.
It is unfortunate that this kind of Christian lifestyle is seen as unattainable by so many. It is even more unfortunate that it is seen as meant only for the super spiritual. We are afraid that if we took this seriously it would make us freakish. On the other hand, there are those who may see it as attainable, but undesirable. They think, “If I gave myself completely to God he would take away all the things I love and enjoy.” People who believe this see God as the cosmic killjoy. “If I die to myself,” they say, “there will nothing left of me.” They see it as dying, but fail to see that it is the beginning of living.
The first thing I would like to point out is that in order to understand the crucified life: We must understand who God is. Your love for God is directly related to your understanding of who he is. If you think he is mean and vengeful, then you will not give him a very large place in your heart. If you think he delights in taking your joy away, you will not get very close. If you are not sure you can trust him, you will not open your heart up very far. If you think he pays more attention to what you do wrong than what you do right, then you will want to stay away from him. But if you understand who God really is, you will run to him leaving everything else behind.
He is the God of all compassion and goodness. He is faithful and loving. He is our Father and cares for us more than we can ever know. But we must never forget that he is our Creator and that we are dependent upon him for our next breath and heartbeat. He is God and we are not. The prophet Isaiah said, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isaiah 64:8).