Savvas Costi writes: We’re drowning in our own personas. Our cultural mood is one where the self has thrown off all constraints in the pursuit of self-discovery, where all absolutes have been dissolved and meta-narratives deconstructed; we followed Nietzsche’s lead in thinking we could philosophise with a hammer and deconstruct the house we were living in. Now, like a cartoon character suspended in mid-air after running off a cliff edge, we’re on borrowed time before we fall and realise the full extent of our having dismantled the Christian foundations which led us here.
Many thought we were stepping into a new era to better ourselves, to carve out our own meaning and space in the world, but the reality is that for many Westerners, we’ve been jolted into realising that our expressive individualism has grossly underdelivered on what was promised. The quest for happiness remains elusive, and the conveyor belt of unlimited choice comes with a dizzying effect that feeds our anxiety. Many are now content to live in the shallows and turn to hyperactivity, digital distraction, anti-depressants, or therapy for solace. Narcissus is now so captivated by his own reflection in the water that he has fallen into the image and is drowning. This is the spirit of the age for many who inhabit the house of post-modernism which, dare I say it, has also infiltrated its way into sections of the Western Church.
Which is why reading The Cross Before Me, co-authored by pastor Rankin Wilbourne, and philosopher Brian Gregor, was so refreshing. It’s an attempt to offer secure footing on ground that seems to be shifting beneath our feet. It’s not a self-help book, yet the aim revealed by the title remains the same as many books found on psychology shelves; we’re reimagining the way to the good life. In fact, there’s nothing novel about the main premise of the book which goes against the tide of much conventional wisdom and can be summarised in an ancient counterintuitive maxim; laying down your life for Christ is the road to finding it (See Matthew 16:25). Human flourishing is not a self-made project. It was never meant to be, and this news offers some much-needed relief to the weary and burdened.
I was drawn to the book after it was listed as one of the best books for pastors in 2019 on the 9Marks website, and given my background in philosophy, I was fascinated to read something which blends together biblical wisdom, historical philosophy as well as modern writing. It’s a useful educational/discipleship resource from two people who have very different vocations but are united in a common goal—the care of souls and helping people to flourish. But do we really need another book on happiness after the plethora of books already out there on this topic? This is how the authors respond:
Though everyone seems to be talking about happiness, there’s something almost no one seems to be saying … anyone who wants to find the life that is truly life must follow … the broken way, though it will take different forms for each of us. No other way but losing our lives will bring us the rest and happiness we long for in this life. (p. 17 and p. 19)
This is similar to what John Calvin said centuries earlier when he wrote, ‘It is necessary for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness.’ Selflessness is noble and the call to “follow your dreams” in the sense that this only benefits an overinflated sense of self is overrated. To embark along the road of selflessness is to go against the prevailing wisdom of the modern world and march to the beat of a different drum. Self-esteem programmes are not in short supply, as documented by Dr Paul Vitz in his book Psychology as Religion, and many would be left baffled by Lauren Slater’s remark that self-esteem is overrated and may even be a culprit for deviant behaviours, not a cure. Is having a lower view of yourself a severe act of psychological self-harm or the road less travelled towards an enriching life?
Jesus seemed to model a life that was very much other-centred (Luke 22:42, Acts 20:35, Philippians 2:3-8), and Christians will be familiar with the call to a different pattern of living, to not let the world ‘squeeze you into its own mould’ (Romans 12:2, J. B. Phillips). But rather than being a form of self-inflicted injury, the way of the cross—or the cruciform life to use Wilbourne and Gregor’s language—is the necessary path to a life lived well. It certainly ‘turns our world upside down [and will] overturn our expectations. But in truth the cross actually turns the world right side up’ (p. 45). But how does this happen?
For Christian believers, our lives are ‘not only saved by but also shaped by the cross’ (p. 31, italics mine). And as they begins to meditate on what the cross of Christ entails, they’ll begin to better understand the main thesis of the book. It’s to overcome the self-absorption caused by what Augustine and Luther described as “incurvature”—the self curved in on itself, ‘the kind of narcissism or vanity that makes the self and our projects the centre of reality’ (p. 73). The reason why the message to “deny yourself” (Luke 9:23) is so counterintuitive (p. 27), even appearing as folly compared to the modern message to “be true to yourself,” is because such words are out of kilter with the default position we now find in a world that is broken and fallen. Being humble enough to always put others interests before our own does not come naturally to us. It takes a renewed heart and vision to recognise that there’s a better way beyond the shackles of selfism.
The road to happiness is a by-product of another goal. We’re instructed to ‘seek God, not happiness’ (p. 73), a sentiment also echoed by C. S. Lewis who said:
God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.
This sets Christianity on a high pedestal and many will struggle with the exclusivity of this claim. Isn’t it arrogant to say that Christianity is the only true path? But the reality is that all truth claims are inherently exclusive, including the claim which asserts that all paths, or no path will lead to God. Alan Jacobs helpfully reminds us of the need to reach ‘settled convictions’ which means that in the quest for truth there is no room for neutrality. We’re unable to remain on the fence (at least not for the seriously thoughtful) for we have to be willing to follow our thoughts to the end and make a decision. Either Christianity is the real deal or it isn’t, it can’t be both, and as G. K. Chesterton eloquently put in, What’s Wrong with the World, ‘the Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.’
The way of the cross is not the way of instant gratification. There is no quick-fix or ‘life hack to ensure you will flourish … the cruciform life must be lived to be learned’ (p. 54). The book acknowledges the vital role that spiritual disciplines play, as a response to God’s grace, in the pursuit of personal transformation.
Living the cruciform life is simply not possible without cultivating new habits of being, and nothing imprints these new habits of being more deeply or consistently than spiritual exercises practiced routinely … [and] practiced within a community’(pp. 235 and 238).
The authors are keen to emphasise that this is not achieved through sheer willpower alone, referencing Dr Schnitker in this piece on cultivating patience—we should seek to reframe these habits by connecting them to a larger story. For the Christian, ‘this is what the gospel of Jesus Christ gives us’ (p. 242). It reminds us that we’re not the centre of the story, but rather a loving God has gone to great lengths to restore us to how we were meant to be, ‘to become our true selves’ (p. 75). Chesterton is exactly right to say, ‘how much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it!’ And Oswald Chambers got it when he said ‘the gospel of God should be recognised as the abiding reality.’ As we fix our gaze upon this ‘larger story’ we’ll be empowered to live the cruciform life (Romans 1:16, Hebrews 12:2, 1 Cor. 15:1-3 ESV).
This message is counter-cultural but much needed at a time when for many happiness is evading them. We’re coming round to the idea that our intuitions about what will make us happy are totally wrong, but this doesn’t stop us trying to reach it. The rest of the book offers reflections on the art of living ‘in light of the cross’ (p. 20), and what that looks like in the area of our work and ambitions, living humbly and freely, reshaping our understanding of love (a chapter I found to be a particularly convicting read), suffering, and lastly, on being joyful. Friedrich Nietzsche misinterpreted the cross as just the gloomy embrace of hardships in this life, and failed to see how this could lead to a genuinely joyful life now (p. 203). Indeed, ‘the call to the cross is a call to joy’ (p. 204).
This will appear as bizarre logic unless one has the capacity to ‘apprehend the beauty of God’s holiness.’ This was the distinguishing mark of genuine conversion which Jonathan Edwards wrote about in his Religious Affections (p. 227), and emphasises the need for reliance upon God to reveal to us ‘the path of life’ (Psalm 16:11). It’s another reminder to lay down our self-salvation projects and to not see this as a threat to happiness, but rather, the road to it.
When the beauty of holiness and the joy of communion [with God] come together in your desire, then the call to cruciform living becomes a call to holiness and happiness. They become the same thing and are inseparable. (p. 230)
One last example worth mentioning is that of Thérèse of Lisieux. A French nun who tragically died in her mid-twenties, she spoke of the “little way” to God. During her illness, she applied herself “to practicing little virtues” (p. 233). These could be simple tasks like seeking out the menial job, befriending those who annoy us or helping those who are ungrateful. ‘These tiny deaths, these secret mortifications, these small daily choices,’ played their part in her autobiography becoming one of the bestselling spiritual memoirs of the twentieth century.
It’s a helpful display of what cruciform living entails and it’s one of numerous stories presented throughout the book given that for Wilbourne and Gregor, ‘a good story is often more effective than a tight argument’ (p. 23). It’s perhaps the best way to help grasp what the cruciform life looks like; by seeing it lived out in real life stories. And there is none better than what Simon Guillebaud saw in the gospel accounts, ‘that if Jesus, who is God, died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.’
It’s difficult, but it’s the way to the good life. Go read the book for more.
Savvas Costi is a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex. He did his teacher training at King’s College London. He lives with his wife and daughter.