In April of 2010, Wheaton College in Illinois hosted their annual theology conference by bringing together a group of biblical scholars and theologians to talk about the work of N.T. Wright. Because of my (by that point) long interest in and engagement with Wright’s work on both Jesus and Paul, I was very interested. I didn’t attend the conference, but soon after it ended I found a blog that was giving a series of detailed reports about what had happened at each of the sessions. I read these long posts with great interest, and found that I really appreciated the author’s perspective. He was someone whose work I hadn’t come across before, but I soon discovered that in his own right he was a significant writer on the apostle Paul. His name was Michael J. Gorman.

Mike Gorman (right) interviewing N.T. Wright (left).

By the time he had finished blogging about the conference a week later, I was ready to read some of Gorman’s own work. So before the month was out, I bought a fairly slim but scholarly book called Inhabiting the Cruciform God, with a slightly intimidating subtitle: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. It may not sound like the kind of book that could change your life, but in some ways that’s what it did for me. (Through a generous internet hospitality, responding with kindness and grace to many questions I would have about the Bible and life and ministry in the years to come, Mike became a friend, albeit from a distance. I’ll note here that the subject of the rest of this post

is something I saw in practice in his generous gift of time and attention.)

The book, like most of Mike’s writing, put the cross of Jesus at the centre of the Christian life. The cross isn’t just a thing that happened a long time ago. It is no mere event that did something for us but can be left in the past. It is a part of daily Christian living. There was no doubt in reading either the book or the blog that the cross certainly did something essential for us, but it was also more than that. The cross was both the spring of our salvation and the shape of our life. In Mike’s writing, the word “cruciform” came up a lot. It’s a term that simply means cross-shaped. This emphasis on cruciform living made sense of Jesus’ comment about taking up our cross as we follow him, as well as the apostle Paul’s words in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Gorman’s most widely read book is a fine introduction to reading Paul, and full of wonderful insights about the cross and the cruciform life.

The way Mike talks about this is with a formula that sounds sort of like algebra, but which is more life-giving than many people find algebra. The formula is, “Although x, not y, but z.” What it stands for is the shape of Jesus’ self-giving, which our lives are to mirror. The pattern is what we see described in Philippians 2:6-11. Here I will paraphrase: “Although (x) he was God, and equal with God, Jesus did not (y) use his status for his own advantage, but (z) freely gave himself for us, even to the point of death on the cross.” Our lives, by choosing not to serve ourselves or take selfish advantage of what we have but instead looking out for others, take on the shape of Jesus’ own action on the cross. We don’t in any way replace Jesus or his work, but our daily interactions take their basic cue from Jesus. The name of Mike’s blog was “Crux Probat Omnia,” a Latin phrase that means “the cross probes everything.” This is his key insight for Christian spirituality: our lives ought to look whole under the scrutiny of the cross. His earlier book Cruciformity, which I came across later, had already unfolded these insights at length.

Reading Inhabiting the Cruciform God, I learned to see everyday actions as instances of cruciformity, as aspects of discipleship. We had two preschool-aged children at the time, and the demands could sometimes take a toll, especially on our energy levels. At low moments, many young parents feel that it is thankless work. Reading the book, I learned to see even the smallest inconveniences, patiently embraced, as ways to learn the way of Jesus. I was in the middle of reading the book as we approached Mother’s Day. Now I had a new lens through which to see the daily work of Christian mothers (fathers, too, but that would come a month later). Christian parents had a gospel end in mind—raising children in the way of Jesus—but it carried a cost along the way, as almost all good work does.

The argument of Inhabiting the Cruciform God took things one step further. Mike suggested that when we see Jesus living this pattern we are seeing the way of God himself. It is a basic theological insight that in Jesus we see God’s own self-disclosure. In recognizing the way of Jesus as directed toward the cross, we could understand God himself to be a cruciform God. This means that when we live in the way of the cross, in both the small daily sacrifices for others and in the larger scale self-giving that many have undertaken for the sake of the gospel, we are getting closer and closer to God’s own heart.

This is the sixth in a series of posts that could be titled, “Helpful Stuff I’ve Learned.” Most of these bits of learning were connected with reading books or sitting under certain teachers, so I’m usually going to share them as little pieces of autobiography: how I came across them, why they mattered to me at a certain time, or how they continue to matter. These posts will deal mostly with ideas, but these ideas have also supplied me with memorable images or phrases that have helped me over the years in trying to discern what it means to follow Jesus.