I was thinking about the Cross the other day, and the incredible severity of what Jesus went through. Of course, there is the physical pain that He endured — the scourging, the blows with a rod, and the slow, agonizing death of crucifixion. There is the interpersonal aspect, from being betrayed to being abandoned and denied. To top it all off, there is the spiritual trauma, both of bearing the world’s sins and of the terrifying interruption of the divine fellowship of the Trinity. No one in the history of creation has endured the kind of suffering that Jesus did.
When we see this — really see it — it is jarring. It can and should deeply impact our emotions. But there is one response it should not elicit in us: pity. Even as He was in the throes of agony, gasping for breath, being mocked and spit on, and crying out to His Father, there is nothing pitiful about this marred Man of Sorrows.
There are several reasons I say this.
Love Doesn’t Look at Price Tags
Song of Solomon 8:7 says, “…If a man were to give for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.” One way to understand this verse is that, essentially, love doesn’t look at price tags. It is not such a great thing to give everything one has for the sake of love. It is reasonable, and even necessary to do so.
There is no more powerfully motivating force than love. If we love someone, there is almost nothing we wouldn’t do for them. People have moved across countries, jumped in front of bullets, and gone into poverty for the sake of those they love. If we are truly and deeply in love, we will do whatever it takes to be with the person and to care for them. I can’t help but think of the quote by Jimmy Stewart’s character in It’s a Wonderful Life, offering to throw a lasso around the moon and pull it down for his sweetheart, were she just to ask for it. Through the promise is absurd, and the characters fictional, the sentiment is a dim reflection of truth: extravagant giving is part and parcel with genuine love.
Imagine, for instance, a couple whose child fell deathly ill with a rare, treatable (but difficult to cure) disease. Those parents would not say, “Well, honey, we love you, but these hospital bills will just set us back way too much. It’s been nice knowing you.” Instead, they would sell everything to send the child across the country to the best hospital. They would be banging down every door of every government aid office or charitable agency they could get ahold of. They would beg money from all their friends, family, and even distant acquaintances to help. And if anyone was to walk up to those parents and pat them on the back for how awesome and sacrificial they were to save their child’s life… I think it’s safe to say that person would get the death glare of a lifetime. “Heroic?” the parents might say. “That’s my child. I would give it all again, and ten times over, if that’s what it took.” It would be revolting to them to think that someone would dare insinuate they went to more trouble than their child was worth, or that it was even a hard decision to make.
Now looking again at Jesus at the cross, we remember that love doesn’t look at the price tag. Jesus was not merely a Man under a moral obligation. He was not just some hero who weighed the cost and decided to sacrifice for the amorphous “greater good”. He was, and is, deeply in love. In fact, He Himself is love. Yes, the price He paid was high. Yes, He deeply felt the cost of what He was doing. But was it too high? Was He reluctant to do it? Could there be a price so high that He would be unwilling to pay it?
Of course not. He is love.
No One Took His Life from Him
In John 10:18, Jesus delcares: “No one takes [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
Jesus was not a random victim of an unjust political system. He was not some misunderstood and persecuted philanthropist. Nor was He a mere casualty of the corrupted religious leadership. Even though it’s true that He was being crucified despite His recognized innocence, there was something much greater at work than iron-fisted Rome or the jealous Sanhedrin.
Shockingly, Jesus wanted to go to the cross. Of course He was not giddy with anticipation about it, and had to pray earnestly in the Garden before He went, but it was His sovereign and willing decision. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him. Jesus Himself frequently predicted His death, and even severely rebuked one of His nearest companions for trying to dissuade Him from His course. He was not caught by surprise. He was not dragged into it unwillingly. He chose it, and He did so for love.
It would be preposterous to see Him hanging there and shake our heads, going, “Poor Jesus. I guess those evil Pharisees finally got the upper hand on you.” Quite on the contrary, the Pharisees were powerless to touch Him before His appointed time (John 7:30, 8:20). Pilate had no power over Him at all, except what was divinely assigned to Him (John 19:11). Jesus even silenced those who would weep for Him (Luke 23:28).
No one took His life from Him. The crucifixion only took place because He consented to it, and even actively desired to go. You can’t pity someone who is doing exactly what they wanted to do in the first place.
You Don’t Pity the Victor
Not only was Jesus willing to go to the cross, but He wrought a tremendous victory there. Calvary is often painted in sermons, movies, and songs as the proverbial darkness before the dawn. And in a very real sense, it was that for the confused and disillusioned disciples left in the aftermath. It was certainly a day of great pain and grief in the Godhead. It was no light thing that the people God loved turned around and killed the God who loved them. There was still a fullness to be had and a new era to be initiated in the Resurrection.
However, this was not a three-day victory for darkness. Jesus was not “down for the count”. Satan may have had delusions of defeating God as Jesus was being hauled off to His execution, but you’d better believe he was set straight before that day was over.
How can we be so sure of this? Consider what the New Testament authors have to say about the Cross:
Col 2:14-15 “…having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”
Hebrews 2:14 (emphasis added) “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil…”
1 Corinthians 2:7-8 “But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
Satan was dealt a powerful, decisive, defeating blow at the cross. Jesus was not the underdog, not even for a moment. He went there for love. He went there by choice. And in His death, He triumphed over the principalities and powers, and destroyed him who had the power of death.
That doesn’t sound like Someone to be pitied.
Who Really Has the Power Here?
When you think about it, in our modern vernacular, “pity” tends to imply something bestowed by the stronger upon the weaker. We don’t pity the rich person whose stocks plummeted and they therefore had to sell their summer home, even though they did, in fact, suffer massive financial loss. We might feel for them on some level, but there’s no pity. We do pity the beggar with the cardboard sign who doesn’t have ten dollars to his name. We don’t pity the Hollywood celebrities whose homes were damaged in California’s wildfires. We do pity the people in a podunk town whose houses were flattened by a tornado. We most likely won’t pity two mature adults who mutually decide to divorce one another (even as we are sad for them), but we will almost certainly pity any young children caught in the crossfire. In short, we only pity those in a disadvantaged position to us, usually those whom we have some power to help.
So in light of the above, when we find ourselves at the foot of the Cross… who really has the power here?
I look at that beautiful, broken, bruised and despised Man, bleeding out the last of His life. But He is not on the cross because of coercion or defeat. He is there willingly, by choice. He is there because He is burning with a love like this world has never seen. He is burning with love, even for me, even from before I had any capability or inclination to love Him. He is groaning under the weight of the burden of my sin, but He is nailing it to that tree and wiping it out through His own blood. He is triumphing over the principalities and powers that harass, oppress, and trouble me, before which I am utterly powerless on my own. He is suffering separation from His Father, but in so doing, is healing the infinite breach between the Holy Trinity and sinful humanity. It is He who is despised and rejected by men, but it is I who am wretched and depraved, with no goodness apart from Him.
I cannot pity Him. It is He who, through His unbridled mercy and full heart of love, has pitied me and is reaching the unthinkable distance to save me.
What Remains to Us
The only alternative to pitying what we see — and perhaps this is why we might gravitate towards pity in the first place — is to be broken by it. When we see things as they really are, with the victorious, sovereign King of Love pouring out His very own blood for us powerless, depraved sinners, we must put our mouths to the dust and worship. There is nothing so humbling on all the earth. There is nothing that tears down walls of accusation and unbelief in our hearts quite like this. Our prideful self-assurance crumbles before the force of this Love. Our doubts of God’s affections for us are definitively and conclusively answered for all time. Our own righteousness looks like the filthy rags that it is, and the miracle of salvation strikes awe in our hearts like it should. It is seeing this love that awakens love in our own hearts (1 John 4:19), and prompts us to take up our own cross and follow this slain Lamb wherever He may go.
We can’t pity the One on the cross as if we had anything to offer Him. But if we stop trying to stand afar from Him, above it all as a distant observer, we will be graciously and tenderly broken before Him, transformed in the depths of our being, and will live the rest of our days giving Him our all, just as He has given us His.
It’s time to look at the Cross again — this time, with an open heart.