As we live in the light of the cross and resurrection here on the other side of Easter, I wanted to share some words from Alister McGrath about Martin Luther’s powerful idea of a cross-centered understanding of God. How does it feel and what does it look like to experience God as more absent than present, His back more than His face?
“God tells Moses that he shall never see his face, only his back: and that is his only certainty. Luther interprets ‘the back parts of God’ to mean the despair and the anguish of the absence of God, of being forsaken by God, of the contradictions of life: in short, the cross. But it is of decisive importance to see what Luther taught was not that God is somehow there, in spite of defeat, sorrow, pain, humiliation, anguish, failure, sin and death. Not at all! He taught that God himself confronts us in person and makes his presence near in and through defeat, sorrow, pain, humiliation, anguish, failure, sin and death. The ‘contrary things’ of failure, sin and death constitute the raw material which God transforms into his own self in the human heart. God reveals himself through a contrary form. It is the back of God which is revealed—but it is God, and not another. To learn this is to learn Christ.” (Alister McGrath. The Mystery of the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books/Zondervan Publishing House, 1988, p. 8.)
Luther believed that a cross-centered faith understands experiences of defeat, sorrow, pain and the like as encounters with God rather than evidences of His absence. I’m tempted to see God only where I feel good. What I’m tempted to judge as God’s absence is more of a disguise, I suppose. You don’t appear in my life according to my demands.
My assumptions about how You are supposed to reward my seeking with felt consolation and clear insights have to die. You won’t let me get trapped seeking experiences of You rather than You Yourself. My expectations and assumptions begin to take on a life of their own, and it is not the life of Christ they’ve taken on.
Father, teach me to discern when it is “your back parts” that You are revealing to me. Grant me simple faith to receive and acknowledge Your presence in ways that I haven’t expected it. Wayne Anderson called these ways “back door grace.”
For many reasons, life seems to have taught me that I am to avoid failure at any cost. And if I cannot avoid it, I must hide it. But experiencing the backside of God will involve many experiences of apparent failure in relation to Him. This is just one spiritual implication of taking up my cross.
Please open the eyes of my heart to notice how You are revealing “your back side” to me in the places of defeat, sorrow, pain, humiliation, anguish, failure, sin and death that I’ve walked through recently. I have assumed that these experiences were evidence of Your absence, Your disfavor. Change my mind and heart. Free me and transform me so that I reflect Your kingdom and Your righteousness. Help me to learn Christ.
“If God is to be found in the cross of Christ, then he is hidden in its mystery; if human experience is illumined by that cross, then the experiences which are illuminated are those of suffering, abandonment, powerlessness and hopelessness, culminating in death. Either God is not present at all in this situation, or else he is present in a remarkable and paradoxical way.” (McGrath. p. 102.)
As I listen to these words it dawns on me that the cross moves from being merely a symbol to being a central reality of my life. The cross is not just an ornament or a church decoration. It is the brand of my life. My experiences of suffering, of abandonment, of powerlessness and of hopelessness are a kind of sharing in the cross of Christ. My pain and hardship and suffering are not meaningless. Christ knows and understands. He is with me in this.