Chapter 11: Embracing the Cross
“Then Jesus said to His disciples, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
The Bible makes clear that it's our sufferings that bring us into Enlightenment and onto new paths.
What may sometimes seem like a failure, what may feel to us like a fall, is many times God creating space in our lives for us to go in a different direction or to really mature.
In other words, to experience Transformation.
By “Embracing The Cross,” we take hold of the real meaning of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The way to God, I believe the Bible tells us, is not by climbing up to Him, but by “falling” into our Heavenly Father.
Opportunities to do this take place every day.
Let’s say you’ve been passed up for a promotion, or your spouse has misinterpreted your mood after a particularly rough day at the office. When we are wounded, either in mind or of body, whether by accident or purposeful action taken against us, or whether through a devastating event or the smallest of setbacks, life is knocking us down into God.
For many of us, including myself, more than I still would like to admit, our fleshly reaction to this part of the “death and resurrection” process is to look somewhere to cast blame. Blame your boss. Blame your wife. Blame yourself.
Even, blame God.
Too often, and I see this frequently when individuals land in the criminal justice system, we channel our blame through a process psychologists call “self-medication” by using drugs or alcohol to mask the pain of our hurts.
Or by following the earthly “wisdom” of some false prophet.
As we face “death,” we seek a quick and easy change to our circumstances, rather than just holding onto the pain and accepting it for what it is.
“What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” 1 Corinthians 15:36.
When we Embrace the Cross and take personal ownership of our sorrows and setbacks, our failures and pain, real Transformation begins.
Think of it as “marinating” our souls.
Here in Texas, barbecue is as popular a pastime as football. Cook-offs are attended by thousands of people, and participants spend thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art mobile outdoor kitchens.
Every chef has his secret ingredients, but every one of them understands the importance of the slow marinade, usually a combination of salt, spice, sauce, sugar, and seasoning.
Good things on the barbecue grill take time. A flavorful outcome cannot be rushed.
In the Bible, Paul said, “[I] delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:10
Paul understood his personal suffering as a catalyst for growth and wisdom.
And, just like Paul, we oftentimes hurt, too. With that pain can come confusion in our attempts to find an answer to the simple question, “Why me?”
The answer is also simple: It is in our darkest moments where real Transformation occurs. Through our personal suffering, we can present our bodies as living sacrifices to our Creator. Like Paul, we can rejoice in our persecution because God has allowed it to come our way for an important reason.
These are the moments in which God provides us His greatest Wisdom, gives us His most abundant Grace, and most of all, LOVES us unconditionally as His children.
Think about the last time life brought you to your knees. Chances are, when you reached the other side, when you experienced your own resurrection, you felt a sense of peace and understanding beyond “earthly reason.”
Where did that “Miracle” come from? How did such sorrow turn into Joy?
That’s what happens when you’re “Embracing The Cross.”
In many of the world’s religions, God is portrayed as a judge, sitting on a heavenly throne, casting His righteous authority on mankind.
That’s more in line with someone like me, an “earthly” judge.
In a courtroom, there's accusation, there's blame, there's condemnation, there's incarceration, and sometimes there’s even death. As a district judge for the State of Texas, I have pronounced the death penalty on two individuals in response to the lawful will of the people.
As I’ve already written, I no longer believe in capital punishment, just as I do not believe in abortion. But in both cases, death remains the law of our land, and I am sworn to uphold that earthly law.
I know this as much as I know my own self: God does not kill people. He dies for people.
He doesn't accuse but takes the accusation. That's what Jesus did at the cross upon which He died.
This sort of thinking is foreign to a lot of contemporary Christians. We’ve lost sight of a critical element of Biblical teaching and that is the nature of what the Bible calls “agape love.”
“Agape”—pronounced ah-gahp’-ay—means one-way. Simply put, if I have agape love for you, it means I love you unconditionally–regardless of whether the feeling is mutual–and I expect nothing in return.
That’s how God loves. That is His essence.
God cannot do anything that goes against His nature. God’s Love is both unconditional and unending. It’s there for us constantly.
As a judge, I see examples all the time of how people accept this concept and how they also fail to do so.
There are two kinds of defendants in my courtroom. One constantly seeks to shift the blame to others.
“I didn't do it!” they will say, even after both the evidence and a jury have found them guilty.
“The jury was wrong. They’re wrong about me! The system has screwed me over!”
I hear that in my courtroom a lot.
Every now and then, though, an accused individual will stand up and own their crime.
“I was wrong,” they’ll say, “I did it, and I'm here to face the consequences.”
Most importantly to me, they’ll also sometimes add, “I’m sorry. I don’t ever want to do this again.”
That person has already been spiritually received by God. They’ve begun the process of both earthly rehabilitation and heavenly restoration, through both death and resurrection.
When I pass sentence on a convicted criminal, I try to look past the details of the case or what prosecuting attorneys may have said. Instead, I try to peer into that individual’s heart. How has he or she responded to their experience before me?
For the many that wish to cast blame elsewhere and refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, my sentence will usually be severe and, hopefully, just. For the individuals who admit to their wrongdoing and are sincere and contrite in accepting the consequences for their crime, my punishment will be more moderate.
Those individuals have already moved toward their own Resurrection.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James 5:16.
Of course, a lot of defense attorneys, knowing I’m a Christian, will try to persuade their clients to offer me what amounts to a tale of “jailhouse conversion.”
I see through that most of the time. Having represented hundreds of clients as a defense attorney myself, I know when someone is sincere and when they’re trying to pull the wool over my eyes.
I’ve spent my life seeking to find the truth. I’ve spent years in study of the law and years more in intense Biblical inquiry looking to find God’s truth. The theology that I’ve derived from that analysis could be called orthodox, and I’m okay with that.
In the last hundred years or so, many Christians have lost their way. Some churches, particularly in recent times, have softened their message to attract larger congregations. Some prominent ministers put forth before their flocks a concept some call “the Prosperity Gospel.”
“If you have enough Faith,” Prosperity proponents preach. “you won’t suffer, you’ll have plenty of money, and you’ll live in a big house.”
Not many Christians today have ever heard of the Keswick Convention. It started in the late 1800s in Keswick, England, and continues sporadically even today.
In my search to find God’s truth–as a result of personal heartache and misfortune of which I’ll write about later–I began with a Biblical immersion and from there expanded my studies to books written about the interpretation of God’s Holy Word.
That’s how I first learned about the Keswick movement.
The fundamental Keswick precept involved what they called the “exchanged life.” By laying down our figurative lives and seeking death for our egos, mankind receives–in exchange–the Life of God.
Christian life, so the Keswick followers believed, is not of the natural world, but of a “supernatural” existence that comes to you through death and resurrection.
In the Bible, Paul calls embracing the cross a “mystery.” What he describes sounds a lot like undergoing a heart transplant. The Great Surgeon, Jesus Christ, removes our old, hardened, and infected heart, and exchanges it for a new one.
This is nothing you can do yourself, no matter how hard you try.
When you Embrace The Cross, you must give of yourself completely and entrust yourself completely to the Lord.
As egocentric beings, we mostly rage against that notion. We refuse to yield control. But that's the key element in this Transformation. When we spiritually die, we allow our egos to die. We are then willing to give up control of our being.
And from there, good things happen.
In our world, Satan has an order, and God has an order. God's order is called the Kingdom of God, or God's Reign, or the “New Creation.” Through the Cross, God is ending the creation that began in the Book of Genesis and bringing about the New Creation.
To be a part of that New Creation, we must welcome death, burial, and resurrection.
When that New Creation is complete, “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” Habakkuk 2:14.
The Cross is the fulcrum event of the universe. People are not just individually going to be saved, the entirety of all Creation will be saved and transformed.
The fallen world lifted up through the Cross.
Through my own eyes and in my own experience, I have come to believe that the only force that will conquer evil in this world is the power of unconditional Love.
In our courts, in our prisons, in every aspect of the American judicial system, I’ve seen that power. Guns won't do it. Threats won't do it. Clout won't do it. Not even education will do it, not even what we call “street smarts” achieves the objective.
Love is the only thing that will conquer evil.
And yes, many times, that Heavenly Law of Love will motivate you to turn the other cheek. Yes, you will have to absorb some blows. Vulnerability must become our hallmark. And more often than you will like, you’ll have to get comfortable with being Vanquished.
But God will protect you if you have Faith. Just love people and open yourself to receiving in return their hatred–or their love–without passing judgement. God will work through that. Maybe not immediately, but He'll plant a seed of love in the hearts of others, thanks to you.
My brother Tim and I share a house in Carmel, California, and our families visit there frequently.
One morning during a recent trip, Becky and I went for a walk along the cliffs bordering the golf links at Pebble Beach. Not a lot of people do that, but as an avid golfer myself, I know how to stay out of the way.
As we were walking, a golfer and his caddy came over a hill. The caddy veered off in our direction, obviously in search of a lost ball. He put forth a minimal effort, and when he spotted us he yelled out “Hey, you picked up my player’s ball!”
While my daddy wasn’t above the recruitment of high school athletes and leveraging himself for the best outcome on a business deal, he never cheated anyone, and he never infringed upon the sacred constructs of the game.
And in that respect, he taught me well.
The caddy’s unfounded accusation infuriated me, and from a good bit away, I let him have it verbally. I did not swear, but otherwise I read him the riot act. I was livid in the moment and walked away fuming for some time.
Becky, who is familiar with my teachings on The Cross, and also acquainted with my occasional bouts of egotistical weakness, spoke to me calmly as she said, “You didn’t really ‘embrace the cross’ there, did you?”
Her words cut me to the quick, and in her truth I experienced my death.
Shortly before lunch the next day, I headed over to Poppy Hills for a tee time there. Before I hit the course, I decided to grab a bite to eat. I walked up to a hamburger stand close to the first tee and asked, “What’s for lunch?”
The proprietor, busy at his grill, turned and scowled at me. “Can't you see the sign on the wall?”
I looked up and saw his menu.
“Okay, I'll take a hamburger.” I said.
He jerked open his icebox, hastily unwrapped a patty, and slapped it onto the grill. As he did so, without even looking my way, he snarled, “Get back away from my counter so somebody else can order!”
Usually, every day is a good day on the Monterey Peninsula, but this week was not heading in that direction.
As I stepped back, I again felt anger boiling in my gut, the same anger I had felt when the caddy had barked at me that morning.
Then, I remembered my wife’s words.
The better course of action at the hamburger stand was to take a Christ-like approach to the situation.
I fought off the urge to tell the guy off and walk away. Instead, I paid heed to the “other” voice in my head.
“Give him a big tip,” God told me.
When my order was done and I had paid my bill, I handed over an extra $10.
“Keep the change,” I said, mustering up a smile.
The guy was stunned. And in the next instant, he, too, was resurrected.
“Can I put some cheese on your burger?”
“For sure!” I replied.
Once I got my cheeseburger back, he reached out and grabbed five different kinds of chips from his chip rack. “Take your pick,” he offered. “No extra charge!
“Do you want a drink? No charge for that, either!”
With no one else around, the burger man and I carried on a ten-minute conversation about everything: our lives, our families, our troubles, and our hopes. I got to know that guy simply because I died to myself, and God moved into the situation and created a connection between the two of us.
It was a small event, but a major miracle as far as I was concerned.
To me, that episode is the perfect example of how, when you’re willing to die to self and just Love someone in the moment, Good Things will happen in the Lord.