The days before I knew Christ as Savior were memorable, to say the least. A near miss with death got me on the road, but the twists and turns were sometimes perplexing. Not comforted by the Catholic religiosity with which I grew up, I tried Transcendental Meditation (TM) under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and walked barefoot over hot coals at the urging of success guru Tony Robbins.
When I finally heard and responded to the gospel at a Pentecostal church, I assumed that my new life in Christ—indwelt by the Holy Spirit, with the Scriptures in hand—would be one of continuous victory. How wrong I was! As the great D. L. Moody once said, “I thought when I became a Christian I had nothing to do but just to lay my oars in the bottom of the boat and float along. But I soon found that I would have to go against the current.”
Before long, I experienced God’s call into ministry and eventually married the love of my life. So far, so good, I thought. But I had a major wake-up call when, over twenty years ago, our first child was born and diagnosed with a health condition. This was not the victorious Christian life I had expected. I quickly experienced my own brokenness, with crushing fear and anxiety, sleepless nights, and even depression. In Jesus’ words, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38).
In due course, I completed seminary, entered pastoral ministry, and eventually joined a prominent parachurch ministry. Those of us on staff were given the opportunity to attend a conference with celebrity speakers who explained how to make a lasting impact for God’s kingdom. They filled our sails with inspirational wind, but the doubts weren’t long in coming.
As the sessions unfolded, I began to realize that the word “sin” was never mentioned. No one acknowledged that we really need a Savior, not a heavenly life coach. By the end of the conference, I was done with it. I concluded that Christianity without the cross isn’t Christianity.
John Stott says it well:
Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to say to us, “I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.” Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is here, at the foot of the cross that we shrink to our true size.[i]
I was beginning to grasp what is called the “Upsilon Vector.” Upsilon is a Greek letter resembling the English capital U. Its contours trace Jesus’ descent into apparent defeat (dying on the cross) before ascending three days later in consummate victory (in the resurrection). And it portrays the trajectory of life in Christ. The counterintuitive nature of our faith forces us down before we can go up. As Romans 6:4 affirms, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
It is one thing, of course, to confess this uncomfortable truth. It is quite another to embrace it. Anyone familiar with Roman crucifixion will rightly pause before endeavoring to carry a cross. As historian Tom Holland notes, “To be hung naked, long in agony, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds: such a fate, Roman intellectuals agreed, was the worst imaginable.”[ii]
Yet Jesus calls His followers to pick up a cross and follow him: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:24b-25). Only here, at the bottom of the Upsilon Vector, are we prepared to receive God’s blessing.
Martin Luther, who challenged the corruption and unbiblical doctrines of the 16th-century Roman church and consequently was forced into hiding and labeled a heretic, knew well the counterintuitive trajectory of the Christian life. “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all,” Luther confessed, “but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
We see this kind of life with crystal clarity In the Beatitudes—a life that traces its path down into defeat and death before ascending into victory and resurrection:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:3-12)
Think of the Old Testament account of Joseph, whose jealous brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph was then carted off to Egypt—hitting the bottom of his personal U. But on the other side of the Upsilon Vector, a forgiving and victorious Joseph was able to say, “[Y]ou meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Think also of Corrie ten Boom, who, for daring to protect Jews during the Holocaust, was put in a Nazi concentration camp and saw her sister, Betsie, succumb there. For decades afterward, Corrie never tired of quoting something her dying sister had told her: “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.”[iii]
In May 1968, professional editor Elizabeth Sherrill met Corrie during a Holocaust remembrance observance. Stan Guthrie writes:
Two speakers were featured during an evening service. One was a Jewish man who had survived brutal treatment at a concentration camp; his father and brother had not. The man was shaking and bitter, still traumatized. Then the other speaker stood up—white-haired and wearing sensible shoes. Though this woman, too, had lost numerous loved ones to the Nazi horror and had seen the worst evil that human nature can inflict, she was beaming with peace and joy.
“I want to talk with you,” Elizabeth Sherrill said when the talk was over. “You must have some secret.”[iv]
Indeed, she did. Like so many Christians before and after, Corrie had experienced the full trajectory of the Upsilon Vector—the movement toward lowliness and mortification that eventually ascends heavenward. May we, by God’s grace, do the same.
[i] John Stott, The Message of Galatians (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), 179.
[ii] Tom Holland, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 2.
[iii] Stan Guthrie, Victorious: Corrie ten Boom and The Hiding Place (Paraclete Press, 2019), 43.
[iv] Guthrie, 47-48.