I relish my memories of playing college football. I often think back to the locker-room antics and bus rides. I think about the big wins and bad losses. I remember all the sayings from the coaches and laugh; some would be fight-worthy insults except for the personal relationships we had. In saying all of that, I should clarify that I wasn’t just an ordinary football player, I was an offensive lineman. I specify that because most offensive linemen would tell you what we most enjoyed about football was moving a man against his will wherever we wanted to push him.
As offensive linemen, the objective was simple: move the men in front of us out of the way so the pretty boys could move the ball and score touchdowns. Every time we lined up for a play, it was our job to “compel” the men in front of us to go where we desired them to go.
If the difficulties and hard circumstances of life played football, they would be offensive linemen. That’s because hard, cruciform moments are able to seize a person and compel them to do something they would rather not experience. I’m referring to the unexpected cancer diagnosis at an annual checkup, the third miscarriage after all necessary precautions, and the child who goes wayward despite a faith-filled upbringing. Such unexpected and undeserved moments meet us on our road to Damascus and reroute us from our desired destination.
A Cruciform Life
As I write this, I think back to my childhood watching my mother fight for her life after a terrible car accident. I think back to my college years when I received an academic probation letter and lost my scholarship. I remember the early years of marriage when my wife demanded a divorce. Those moments—different in their nature, time, and reasons—all had a similar impact. They gripped me. They compelled me. They moved me beyond where I was to where I now believe God was taking me.
As I think back to them, I can see they are foundations to my life. Seeing my injured mother and enduring the years that followed has deepened my love for her and shaped my outlook as a parent. Those tough college years humbled me; I was knocked low enough to hear the gospel clearly. The early years of hard marriage moved me from dysfunctional manhood that had broken my marriage toward a godly alternative that helped save it.
In his preaching, the late Dr. Gardner Taylor would say of such moments, “Life is built on a cruciform.” By that, he meant that everything worthwhile, worth having, or of any importance in life has a foundation built upon a compelling struggle. It can make you or break you. It will change you for the better or send you to your demise. It will lead to a cross-shaped life or leave you for dead. Dr. Taylor would always point to the example of Christ. Simply put, if the most significant truth about life is built on a cruciform, then all of life follows from that.
The idea of life being built on a cruciform, once understood, I would imagine, is one that every generation of God’s people can attest to. The idea that life has a unique way of bringing us all to a place of Calvary is a fact few will debate. Life as we know it can quickly seem like our very own crucifixion, yet Jesus showed us through his resurrection that struggle and crucifixion needn’t end in defeat; instead, it can act as a foundation for something great and the doorway to something worthy.
A life-altering moment
Many of the people we encounter in Scripture were in a cruciform season and faced a “compelling” moment. One particular man, in fact, is known most for the very thing he was compelled to do. This man occupies very few lines of our sacred text, but three of the four Gospel writers saw fit to include what must have been the key moment of his life story.
He was noted as “a man from Cyrene, named Simon” (Matthew 27:32) and “a passer-by coming from the country, Simon of Cyrene (the father of Alexander and Rufus)” (Mark 15:21, New American Standard Bible). As the caravan escorting Jesus toward his eventual death on Calvary passed by this man, Simon was “compelled” to come along for the journey with the expressed purpose of carrying the cross that would be used to slay the Lamb of God.
This moment surely was not one Simon had mapped out for his life. No one wakes in the morning and sets out to carry a cross, yet here Simon was. He had unexpectedly found himself in a life-altering moment. I earnestly wonder what that journey was like for Simon as he walked with the Savior of the world in our Lord’s final hours. I can only imagine how the bloody, wounded, struggling body of Jesus compelled him, along with the crowd’s loud derision, insults, and spit. Surely, he also was compelled by his own mental and physical exhaustion as he walked up that hill carrying another man’s death instrument.
I wonder, Had Simon heard of Jesus? Did he know the charges levied against him? Had he seen the miracles? Was he a believer? Many have tried to fill in the blanks about this significant yet obscure man. Many believe the mention of his son’s names in the narrative point to their significance in the early church; many believe Simon and his sons became missionaries. Some have surmised that this moment, and the subsequent resurrection of Jesus, saved Simon and his family. The mention of “men of . . . Cyrene” preaching in the book of Acts has also been traced to this cross-bearing man. All of this has been researched but remains speculation. It’s tempting to believe that this cruciform and compelling moment paved the way for something great, something worthy.
During this past year, all of us have collectively been through a Simon-like season. We were on our journeys doing what we’ve always done when we suddenly were caught up in the chaos of COVID-19—something we never expected, a trial we never chose. The new virus quickly became an invisible enemy that took our loved ones away . . . even if it didn’t kill them. It was a virus that divided us as families and as a people.
Churches and schools closed temporarily (we thought); ultimately, we transitioned to virtual worship experiences and home academies. Inconveniences such as temporarily closed restaurants and canceled sporting events became more serious when businesses closed for good and jobs were permanently lost. And just as we were coming together to fight the virus, generations of pain and misunderstanding contributed to the explosion of racial tensions; this long-suppressed sin finally burst into light and received the public airing that will change the future.
(Oh, and 2020 also was a presidential election year . . . one which spilled over into 2021!)
If there was ever a moment to compel us to bear a cross like Simon, it was 2020. Yet, I am convinced that the God who is faithful and never wastes a moment in our lives won’t waste this one.
Walking behind jesus
Earlier in his ministry, Jesus made a claim that has long been unsettling to his followers. He said, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).
Words have a way of finding the last corner of superficial faith in our lives. They exegete our hearts and bring to the forefront those things that live deep within us. And from time to time, God gives his people moments that are tangible expressions of his words. I believe we’re passing through just such a moment! How will this cruciform and compelling moment change us?
I’m not sure how Simon was changed by his trek of carrying Jesus’ cross, but I am convinced he was never the same. I’m convinced he was better for it. May the same be said for Christ’s church as we walk behind Jesus!