A Messy Business

Life is messy, like making sausages. When you think about it, a lot of food is like this. Pretty much everything from milk to steak to lettuce to mushrooms goes through at least one not-so-pretty stage as it passes from farm to fridge.

Most of us city folks are happy with the hosed-down, shrink-wrapped groceries to be found in the aisles of the nearest megamart. Even there, however, we dare not poke our noses behind the mysterious swinging doors. After several summers in a grocery warehouse, and cleaning up a bakery every night after school, I can personally attest to the principle that ignorance is bliss when it comes to store-bought food.

A little mess along the way is not always a bad thing, of course. A farmer, a mechanic, a construction worker will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that getting your hands dirty is part of the job. Indeed, an entire series on the Discovery Channel is predicated on this principle. Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs, always begins with this word of explanation: “I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty – hard-working men and women who earn an honest living doing the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

What about making eternal life possible for the rest of us? In one sense, the task of redemption was a very orderly business. God made a plan and stuck to it. But a lot of the people we encounter along the way are messy. There was nothing neat and tidy about David’s life. We can say the same thing about the lives of Solomon, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab… well, you get the picture.

Perhaps the messiest part of God’s plan was the cross itself. Some people find this particular incident decidedly off-putting. The cross was so violent, so painful, so awkward, so bloody. They would prefer that we look at something else. They want the cross to mean something else.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins says that the Christian doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is “barking mad.”[1] In other words, the idea that the Son of God would die on the cross, in our place, for our sins, is just plain crazy.

There are those who count themselves as Christians who would also avert their eyes from the brutality of Golgotha. They cannot bear the weight of the cross; they cannot bear the sight of the cross. Just as we want to be shielded from the messy business of raising beef or milking cows, so they want to shield us from the messy business of Jesus’ dying for our sins.

This new gospel will permit us to emphasize the love of God that brought Him to the cross. It will cite His participation in human suffering. At all costs, however, it will shield the unchurched and the disaffected postmoderns from the sheer bloodiness of the cross. Feeling guilty for our own misdeeds is bad enough, so the thinking goes; feeling guilty that someone else bore the brunt of those misdeeds is too much to bear.

Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, who actually claim to believe in God, share some of Dawkins’ skepticism on this point. If the doctrine of substitutionary sacrifice is true, then the Father is guilty of “cosmic child abuse.”[2] What we really need, they think, is a hosed-down cross for a sin-free people. We need a God who suffers with us and never for us.

“Of course,” as Robert Coleman notes, “if somehow the blood could be taken out, then the Gospel would not be so offensive to our sensibilities (cf. Galatians 5:11). It’s the horrible spectacle of Calvary – that awful sight of the Son of God nailed to the tree, His tortured body writhing in pain, red blood streaming from His wounds running red down the wooden beam – that is the scene from which the proud of this world shirk in horror.”[3]

The apostle Paul promised this would happen. The cross, he said, would be offensive, scandalous (1 Corinthians 1:23). There is no getting past the messiness of the cross, and the messiness of the lives, our lives, that made it so appallingly and gloriously necessary.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2010, p. 28.]

[1] Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion.  London: Bantam Press, 2006, p. 253.

[2] Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. The Lost Message of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003, p. 182.

[3] Robert E. Coleman, “Fools for Christ,” Preaching, May-June 1999, Vol. 14, No. 6. http://www.preaching.com/resources/sermons/11565594/

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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