The Savior Complex

A few weeks back I was sitting in my friend’s room looking at the posters and clippings on their wall. Most of them were aesthetically designed bible verses or postcards… then I saw one that really disturbed me. It wasn’t a poster for a screamo band with some obscene album cover, it wasn’t a cringey photo of bygone days in junior high, and it wasn’t a quote that used the wrong “your”… it was worse. 

It was the lines to a hymn by English Puritan minister Thomas Shepherd, who penned these words in 1693:

“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.”

I was horrified. How could any Christian answer such a question, “No”? I sat there and thought to myself, This is it. This is the problem with the modern church. They’re trying to take Jesus’ cross away from him. 

On the surface, it sounds like a pious notion. A biblical one even. I mean, Christ does command us to take up our cross and follow him… right?

But that’s just the thing, he commands us to take up our cross. Not his.

Are we to leave Jesus to bear the cross alone? Absolutely! We have to! There’s nothing else we can do. We are so dead in our sins, lost in our own humanity, unable to stand up let alone carry the burden of the Savior of the Universe. 

And why would we want to take it from him? Are we so prideful to attribute altruistic feelings of pity or a violated sense of justice to ourselves? Are we so prideful to think our savior needs saving? 

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, it feels a lot better to spout platitudes and clever sayings about not letting Christ carry the cross alone than it does to simply stand by helplessly as he hangs upon that tree because of our own sin and failing. We would rather arrogantly claim as Peter did that we will die with Christ, because that gives us back the control over our own lives and salvation we crave so deeply.

About a month ago, I was talking with a friend who had limited experience with the church. He was interested in the faith, but wary after some of his experiences with church and church-goers. As we discussed my beliefs he asked some questions, and one struck me as an extraordinarily perceptive observation. He asked, “Is there really much difference between Catholics and Baptists anyway?” I was prepared to jump in with a lecture about church history and theology and to share all my experiences with Catholics and Baptists alike, but this time something made me pause. “What do you mean?” I asked.

He shrugged, unsure how to explain in “church terms” what he intuitively knew from his own experiences with these groups. “I guess I mean that they both are still trying to earn salvation with rules. Catholics have to do a bunch of stuff to be saved. Baptists have to not do a bunch of stuff to be saved.”

He hesitated, unsure if that made any sense. Little did he know he’d clarified an issue that I’d been mulling over in the back of my mind for months. Why was it, in all my many discussions with Catholics and experience in the Evangelical churches, that I felt so much freer in the Gospel preached by Lutherans? This was the very reason. Because I’d been taught in the Lutheran church to rely solely and completely on the Gospel—the good news that I don’t have to try in vain to pick up Jesus’ cross because I can’t. He did it all for me, and all he asks in return is that I sit back and accept gift after gift that he freely gives me. Even the obedience he requires he also freely gives, since it’s a fruit of the salvation he won for me.

An old pastor of mine used to put it this way. You’re free, and all the things you do now, whether it’s good works or abstaining from sin, you can do not because you got to, but because you get to. You are free in Christ.

It’s easy to miss when a sneaky savior complex weasels its way into our lives, especially when its in the form of something so trustworthy as a hymn. That’s why it’s so important to make sure our hymns line up with scripture and to make sure we check the pastor’s sermon against the creeds. Our theology is accountable to something higher than our own thoughts and feelings. Are we to leave Christ to bear the cross alone? Although such a thought may make us squirm in our pew as we realize the weight of our own transgressions, the answer is most assuredly yes, because he is the only one who can bear such a cross. Leave your salvation in the hands of your Savior.

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