What if God’s Salvation Involves Not Christ’s Dying for Us but with Us in Cross-Bearing Partnership?

By Daniel K. Held

The cross of Christ is God’s ultimate way of partnering with humanity.

Many years ago, I liked to attend my all-time favorite training center for continued professional education units, the Cape Cod Summer Institute. Each morning I would participate in four hours of intensive training, followed by an afternoon of doing whatever other adventures the Cape afforded. I would take my wife along. We had some great times, and we considered this the high point of our annual summer vacation.

One year, the course I signed up for was on Hypnotherapy, conducted by one of the late Dr. Milton Erickson’s protégés, William O’Hanlon. As with most one-week intensives, such a course offered a fairly strong body of knowledge but very little in the way of practical skill-building opportunities. To expand whatever skill set we each brought to the training, O’Hanlon encouraged our application of these therapeutic theories. We were to practice using hypnotherapy with some “willing participant” (to be found in or out of the conference room) at a time of his or her own choosing during the afternoon or evening hours.

My wife volunteered to be my first ever “willing participant.”

At least I think she volunteered.

We made our way to a secluded, pristine sandy beach along the Cape Cod National Seashore. We found a flat space to spread our blanket. We soaked up some rays and shared some relaxing conversation together. She was to choose a problem she wanted to find some new power over. She finally arrived at the idea of “low self-esteem.”

To say that I was the world’s most awkward hypnotherapist in those moments would be perhaps a slight of exaggeration. I recall our practice session as a guided meditation with some early grounding in terms of sight, sound, touch, and smell in particular. Afterall, we were sitting in the summer sunshine, warm to the touch, on soft, fine sand cushioned by our comfy blanket. We experienced the salty scent of ocean air stirred by a gentle breeze, the sound of an ocean tide washing ashore, in, out, in, out, in a perfect hypnotic rhythm rivaled only by the rhythm of our own internal organs, the heart beating and the lungs breathing, in, out, in, out.

As I stumbled along in my own words of possible relaxation and even trance induction, I noticed something rather interesting. I was nearly falling asleep myself. I was ready to lie back onto our blanket for a nice afternoon nap on that warm, breezy summer day. I was in as much of a trance as my “practice partner” was. We were both overcoming “low self-esteem” in those same moments on that day.

My point in sharing this is two-fold.

First, I wonder if there is not something of a “low self-esteem” problem in all of us because of sin. Our sin is actually the “fear story” we receive from our body’s inevitable attention to the world’s outer stimuli; shouts of “fearful control” distracting us from the internal wisdom and the “preferred love story” of our own souls. God’s Spirit is still beating in rhythm within our noisy world, but the worldly fears are like the roar of an ocean, at times, drowning out the still small voice of the Master within us. Fear drives us to attend to the outer stimuli rather than the quiet sound of our own internal heartbeats. Yet it is those very heartbeats within that sustain our lives, not the roar of any distracting ocean tides beyond. The body’s attention to this loudest sound around seems to attack the soul’s loving whispers within.

One of my favorite Psalms of David begins with these words: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam.” David ends that same 46th Psalm with: “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted over the nations, I am exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.”

In a parallel theme, David writes, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1).

My second reason for sharing the hypnosis story is that, as I found myself so sleepily identified with my wife amidst my trance-induced suggestion for relief from her own low self-esteem, I now believe God enters into salvation “with” us rather than “for” us. Just as I essentially hypnotized myself along with my wife, I wonder if Jesus, the Christ, did not join in our own therapeutic work upon the cross, strange as that at first sounds. Upon the cross, perhaps God was able through the body of Jesus to understand what it was like for us to be misunderstood by other people, abused by some and neglected by others, wrongly condemned into a position of low esteem. God could join in our suffering and in our healing, perhaps, like I joined with my wife that day on the sandy banks of Cape Cod. To our own “low self-esteem” problem, God could now say “been there, done that, know how that feels” on the cross of Calvary.

Of highest biblical authority, in my mind, is the use of the Greek word sozo in connection with the sayings of Jesus in Scripture. The word most literally means to save, to be saved, to be delivered, to be healed, to be in right relationship with God. And his most pointed use of this word in the biblical text came in these words found in all three synoptic Gospels: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me, for those who want to save (sozo) their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save (sozo) it” (Matt 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33). The context? Jesus was talking explicitly to his own disciples about his impending death on a cross.

Jesus apparently believed rather strongly that the cross was not his alone to carry. Death was not his alone to suffer. Nor ours alone, for that matter. The cross is that common place where our human fears go to die. The cross is where God comes to partner with us when we most need partnership.

The great British hymnist, Thomas Shepherd, left the Anglican Priesthood to pastor Nottingham’s independent, non-conformist Castle Hill Meeting House in 1694, after daring to write a now familiar hymn one year earlier. His opening verse goes like this:

Must Jesus bear the cross alone,

And all the world go free?

No, there’s a cross for everyone

And there’s a cross for me.

When I survey the wondrous cross of Jesus, I often consider a concept from my years of clinical experience in working to heal the human symptoms of a depressed mood. In the service of psychotherapy, it is widely accepted that helping the depressed individual requires doing as much as possible “with” that person and little as possible “for” him or her. Such a common axiom is often the first point of coaching in relation to the depressed person’s family members. For them, this is wildly counter-intuitive and goes against the grain of what they’ve long-believed is true.

Despite what I’ve long believed about Christian salvation, what I now wonder is this: what if Jesus didn’t come to die for our sins after all? What if Jesus was not a martyr, but a mentor? What if he instead came to die with us? What if this is what the biblical sozo meant as Jesus spoke of it in connection with his own death?

To me it is no accident that Jesus was crucified “with” two other sinners. All four Gospels make this explicitly clear. He did not die alone. He died with others, likely one on either side of him. If, as some suggest, he died for the murderer, Barabbas, who then represents all of us, surely there is reason to think he died “with” us in relation to the alleged thieves at his side, who may represent us even more than Barabbas in that classic allegory.

This has become my new understanding of God’s great love and amazing grace. Jesus saves a wretch like us by becoming a wretch “with” us. Broken. Bleeding. Wretched. Ridiculed. Misunderstood. Traumatized. Abused by some and neglected by others. The ultimate low self-esteem problem shared with humanity by the crucified God, our very partner in salvation. Our ultimate at-one-ment.

Question: How does Christ’s dying with us transform our understanding of the cross, and make that more relational?

Daniel K. Held is an Ohio-based psychotherapist and pastor who blogs at www.danielkheld.com. He is a graduate of United Theological Seminary of Dayton, OH (M.Div) and The Ohio State University of Columbus, OH (MSW). He is the author of Redeeming Gethsemane: when our age of loneliness meets a woke church,and Love’s Resurrection: its power to roll away fear’s heaviest stone.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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