December 4, 2020

Another Look: Circle Or Cross?

Lent 2012: A Journey through the Wilderness
Circle or Cross? (Jeff Dunn)

• • •

 This is an essay from 2010 where I look at the unevenness and disorganization of the cross. As we enter into this Lenten season, our focus must be on the cross, and not on ourselves. This essay owes much to the thoughts of G. K. Chesterton from his classic work, Orthodoxy.

This is an interactive essay, one that requires your participation. You will need a piece of paper, a pencil or pen or crayon or some sort of marker, and a compass or something you can trace around to make a circle, such as a soup can. Go gather your materials. I’ll wait.

No, really. Go get your things. You need will need them in order to “get” what I will be talking about.

Got them? Good. Mmmm…Campbell’s Chunky Chicken and Noodle. Good choice.

Now, on your nice white piece of paper, I want you to draw a circle. If you have a compass (the kind you used in geometry, not the type you use in the woods when you want to find your way), you can spread it out to make it as big as the paper will allow. If you are tracing, well, your circle will only be as large as the can. Any size circle will do, actually. Are you done? Do you have a perfectly round circle? Good.


The circle is the basis for most all mathematics. It led to what we now know as geometry and calculus. From the circle we get the wheel which, along with gears (also circles), puts the world around us in motion. The circle, if drawn properly, is a perfect shape. There are 360 points, or degrees, in your circle, each one equidistant from the center point. If you draw a straight line from the center point to the any point on the circle, you have the radius. A line that goes from one point on the circle to another while passing through the center point is the diameter. The distance around the circle is called the circumference. The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is measured as pi, an irrational number, meaning its digits never repeat and never end. It short form, pi is equal to 3.14159. Modern computers have been able to measure pi in digits exceeding a trillion without the sequence repeating.

Have I lost you yet? Hang in there—our lesson in math is just about over.

The circle is about as perfect of a shape as you will find. But it is a finite shape. It cannot grow larger or smaller. Look again at the circle you drew on your paper. In order to make it even one degree larger, you will have to recreate the entire circle. You can’t just stick another dot in there and make it bigger. A circle is 360 degrees period. If you want a circle with a larger diameter, you have to start over. Circles may be a perfect shape, but they cannot change. They are stuck being what they are.

Many of us want our Christian lives to be like the circle. We have Jesus as our center, and everything revolves around him. What is wrong with that? We use the Bible as the radius, checking and rechecking verses in the Bible to be sure we are staying in proper orbit around the center, Jesus. Each point in our lives, all 360 of them, must stay in the proper place, otherwise we might become warped in our thinking. Then we will not be able to turn like a circle should. We will be “out of round.” If that happens, get the Bible and find out where we have gone wrong. Our goal is to stay a perfect circle. There is no growth, of course. We can’t make our circle any larger–we would have to deconstruct it first, and that would involve great pain, great stress, incredible turmoil. No, that is not what we want at all. Peace–that’s what a circle is. Perfect and peaceful. Why mess with that?

Let’s make another drawing on your paper. You can do it on the same side at as the circle if you like, or you can turn your paper over. Ready? Draw one vertical line–a line up and and down. It doesn’t have to be perfectly straight. As a matter of fact, it will be more real if it isn’t straight. Now, starting about a third of the way from the top of this line, draw a horizontal line through the vertical line. Make it as large or small as you like. You have just drawn a cross. A cross is not a perfect shape. Euclid did not use a cross when he developed our modern theories of geometry. A cross is a coarse object, not perfect in any sense. Just two lines that intersect somewhere.

Yet for the Christian, the cross is where our lives end, and where they begin. You cannot be a Christian without the cross. Let me say that again: You cannot be a Christian without the cross. And the place where the two lines intersect? That we can call the paradox of Christianity. An intersection of two ideas that don’t go together.

God becoming man. Now really–how can the God who created the entire universe shrink himself to become a newborn baby?

God the man suffering and dying. Again, how can that be? How can God, who is the creator of life, succumb to death?

There are many other paradoxes that form the teaching Christians are to follow. To be rich, you must become poor. To live, you must die. The weak person is the strongest. You want to get even with an enemy? Love him. These are the paradoxes we find at the intersection of the cross.

Then there is the whole thing about faith. We are to believe something before we see it. We are to have faith in something we don’t understand. This faith makes up the biggest paradox of all. Parker Palmer puts it well in his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. He says:

The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure;
the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair;
the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring:
these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.
If we refuse to hold them
in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain,
we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.

Great. So in order to have the Christian virtues we all want to display—faith, hope, and love—we have to endure doubt, despair and pain. Let me get back to my circle. It is peaceful. I just keep myself at the same distance from Jesus, using verses in the Bible to check and be sure I am “in round.” The cross causes too much confusion. I don’t understand these contradictions. Lose my life in order to find it? Believe before I understand? That is much too hard.

I cannot grow in my circle. It is finite. It cannot be other than what it is. But look at the cross you drew. Use your pencil and extend one of the lines, any one you like. Draw it to the edge of the paper. Then onto your table, across the floor, out the window, across your lawn to your neighbor’s house. The lines of the cross are infinite. They can go on forever.

And they do.

So this day you must choose. Do you live in your safe, perfect circle? Or do you embrace the cross of paradox and contradiction? There is safety and predictability in the circle. You get to be in control. And when people look at you, they see symmetry. A circle is nice and neat and tidy. People will look at you and see a good person. The circle is a place where you can have a nice, safe life.

Or do you choose the cross? Two lines, unevenly drawn, that intersect in inconsistencies. There are challenges to what you think is right. Things are turned upside down from what you think they should be. You are called to believe when you can’t see. You are told to trust when it doesn’t make sense. And here is the kicker. The cross means your death. It is the death of you being in charge. Death of you controlling what is right and what is wrong. It means you are dead—and the life you now live is Christ Jesus living through you.

He is not a tame lion, you know. He won’t do as you please. He will lead you to places you didn’t think you should go. He will not stay nice and round. If you go the way of the cross, you will be a misshaped misfit in this world. People, especially people of the circle, will tell you just how wrong you are to be doing what you do.

The only consolation you have is that you will be walking the way of the cross with Jesus. And really, what else is there to consider?


  1. Poetic and yet concrete for my mostly let-brained self.

    Christ doesn’t ask us to do much….except look at everything that is obvious about human interactions, power, importance, fame, purpose, bonding, priorities of need, fairness, and acceptability…and turn them inside out, move them 180 degrees, change their rank and texture, make bi small and small big, and have NO valid logical reason for this fun-house mirror distortion of “how things really are” EXCEPT because He says so and lived it out.

    (with apologies to Billy Joel , since everyone seems to have their favorite trubador)…..

    regarding following Christ…..

    “You may be right, I might be crazy, but it just may be a Lunatic we’re looking for…”

  2. Great post, Jeff.

    Christ doesn’t ask us to do much…but die.

    And He always gives to us what He asks of us. So, in our baptisms He kills us. Drowns us with Him in death…and then raises us agin.

    What then is left for us to do?

    How much time do you have? The possibilities are endless.

  3. Thanks Jeff.

    I read Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” several years back, but didn’t remember any of the geometry imagery. Thanks for urging me away from my circle and back toward the cross. Highly applicable message as Lent commences!

  4. Jonathanblake says

    I was going to put this on the “Collapse of Excessive Evangelicalism” post but realized no one would ever see it. Ok so it’s been quite a while since I stopped by here but I’m glad I did. I personally feel drawn to a higher church (Anglican/Orthodox/Something) but my wife is absolutely fixated on low church evangelicalism with its loud upbeat rock bands, charismatic speakers and personalities, and super spiritual teaching (while she doesn’t like all of it her mom does and influences her so it turns into a disagreement over this kind of stuff). I’m in college getting a Bible/Theology degree and Biblical Languages degree preparing for ministry presumably in a low church context.
    I want to ask the IM family of whom I’m kind of a prodigal son to pray for us about this. There is unneeded tension and while I’ve been more the one to give (attending historic churches on my own time) I don’t know how I’ll live my life in ministry in an ecclesial context I have no love for.

    Again sorry for the OFF TOPIC post but thanks for your prayers for this struggle 🙂

    P.S. Excellent repost. I’m actually preaching this Friday on what it means to take up your cross and live the cruciform life. Lent is a good season if only because of its sobriety and serious reflection

    • I’m not so sure it is off topic. Jeff ends by saying ‘The cross means your death.’ What does that mean in your context? Death to what you want perhaps? Death to what you think you need? Death to what you long for? I don’t know the answers for you but the season of Lent seems an appropriate time to ask yourself what death means for you.

    • Prayers out…sounds like some time with a NEUTRAL spiritual director and/or marriage therapist might help. This isn’t like living with flounces and duckies in the blue living room when you prefer chrome and black leather. This is central to your live…forever, not just on earth….and you have to get to the heart of honoring the Lord’s call and being respectfull of your wife. (For the record, I am RC, so this is ONE problem our pastors don’t struggle with.)

    • Christ puts to death all expressions of the theology of ‘glory’.

      He puts alll of that to death. All gone. Now…it’s just the cross. Just Him. All our striving…our desires…our efforts…nailed to the cross.

      How much dying goes on in those glory churches?

    • I understand some of where you’re coming from. I have similar issues in my congregational setting. Maybe God’s desires to use you in elevating a portion of the “low” church to a higher level of understanding and relationship with our Lord by expaning their lines…

    • David Cornwell says

      “There is unneeded tension and while I’ve been more the one to give (attending historic churches on my own time) I don’t know how I’ll live my life in ministry in an ecclesial context I have no love for.”

      A kind of wilderness you find yourself in. Prayer is a good way to proceed, but answers may not be immediately apparent. Try to see it as a needed, rather than unneeded tension. The biblical themes of “wilderness” are about the tensions of life that come to us.

      Thanks for sharing this with us.

    • One more Mike says

      In the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas” (some of us wander far, far into the wilderness and down some very odd paths, “places you may not think you should go”) Jesus reportedly says, “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate…” He may or may not have said it, but he could/should have. You can’t live a lie or live and work in an ecclesiastical tradition you have no love for. Only misery, resentment and a dead soul will come from following that path, or staying in that circle.

    • Keep pulling the thread… pretty soon the whole sweater will unravel….
      This may not help you, but I made the switch from low church to high church. Nine months in now, and no regrets. I can still appreciate the sincerity of my low church brethren, but their tradition is just not my home. It doesn’t work for me, it provides more obstacles to Jesus than bridges. My wife is in full agreement with me on these issues, but I couldn’t imagine if they came between us. I suppose I’d be prone to give up my preference for hers, but perhaps this is just something to seek the Lord over. As in, where is Jesus truly calling us? If you’re planning on going into ministry, consider praying with your wife consistently over which group/network/denomination God is leading you to pour your efforts into. There’s a lot of good choices, so it’s not right or wrong, it’s good vs. best.

  5. Atheist Gladiator says

    I think Christianity would be more appropriately represented by a squared circle.

    • Well, if we’re going to talk Chesterton… from “The Ball and the Cross”, Professor Lucifer and the monk Michael (yeah, the allegory is not subtle here) are viewing from up close the ball and cross on the top of St. Paul’s cathedral, designed and built by Sir Christopher Wren, and discussing the symbolism of the same:

      “The Professor frowned thoughtfully for an instant, and said: “Of course everything is relative, and I would not deny that the element of struggle and self-contradiction, represented by that cross, has a necessary place at a certain evolutionary stage. But surely the cross is the lower development and the sphere the higher. After all it is easy enough to see what is really wrong with Wren’s architectural arrangement.”

      “And what is that, pray?” inquired Michael, meekly.

      “The cross is on top of the ball,” said Professor Lucifer, simply. “That is surely wrong. The ball should be on top of the cross. The cross is a mere barbaric prop; the ball is perfection. The cross at its best is but the bitter tree of man’s history; the ball is the rounded, the ripe and final fruit. And the fruit should be at the top of the tree, not at the bottom of it.”

      “Oh!” said the monk, a wrinkle coming into his forehead, “so you think that in a rationalistic scheme of symbolism the ball should be on top of the cross?”

      “It sums up my whole allegory,” said the professor.

      “Well, that is really very interesting,” resumed Michael slowly, “because I think in that case you would see a most singular effect, an effect that has generally been achieved by all those able and powerful systems which rationalism, or the religion of the ball, has produced to lead or teach mankind. You would see, I think, that thing happen which is always the ultimate embodiment and logical outcome of your logical scheme.”

      “What are you talking about?” asked Lucifer. “What would happen?”

      “I mean it would fall down,” said the monk, looking wistfully into the void.”

  6. We are working on geometry in my class. I think I’ll work through this thought process with them today.

  7. Prodigal Daughter says

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  8. Needed something to make me slow down this morning, Jeff — thank you for giving me something to chew on all day!

  9. Maybe we need to revise an old song: “May the Circle Be Broken.”

  10. I really needed this reminder today. Thank you.

  11. Thank you very much, this is just the word I needed today.

  12. Jeff, A home run. It made me stop and think.

  13. As always, Jeff, you’ve provided us with “food” to savor and digest to become part of our lives.

    “do you choose the cross? Two lines, unevenly drawn, that intersect in inconsistencies. There are challenges to what you think is right. Things are turned upside down from what you think they should be.”

    It takes great courage, profound humility, in a spirit of surrender, to embrace the reality in your above statement. For many, it is too scary to even consider that what they believe, what they think is true, might have some “holes” in it which keeps them from Seeing the “Whole” Truth. It truly is only when we are willing to surrender it ALL that our understanding and “knowledge” of God deepens because we loosen the grip we have on each “dot” in our personal circle enabling the Spirit of God to break into it and enlarge it and re-shape it according to the image of His Son – Jesus Crucified – the Ultimate Witness and Expression of Agape.

    Thank you, Jeff, for these words to feed on today, so appropriate for the beginning of our Lenten journey.

  14. petrushka1611 says

    “I don’t like spam!”

  15. Another Mary says

    Thank so much. Yeah, that circle can be so comfortable sometimes. You can slide around a bit and maybe even sleep in it. But, that’s not what we are called to is it?
    I too struggle with being in an evangelical setting when my little liturgical heart wants a different form of worship. But I am reminded that ‘it’s not about me’………………..hmm. I am carrying this light for a purpose and it’s not so that I can admire it on my own.
    I so appreciate the encouragement of this site.

  16. Off topic, but I just watched Ed Donson’s short video “My Garden”. I would rcommend it 1000% or more… Former pastor of a megachurch tells where he’s been since getting ALS. Just amazing. The Lord’s peace and blessing be on us all this Lenten season, and always.


  17. Richard Niebuhr wrote the following, reflecting upon Ritschl:

    “Christianity needed to be regarded as an ellipse with two foci, rather than as a circle with one center. One focus was justification or the forgiveness of sins; the other, ethical striving for the attainment of the perfect society of persons. But there was no conflict between these ideas; for forgiveness meant the divine companionship that enabled the sinner after every defeat to arise again and resume his work at the ethical task.”

    Perhaps I would disagree regarding the perfectibility of society. But I think this sums up the Christian life, that ethics and good works are only possible within the assurance of forgiveness of sins. Those who emphasize grace seem to become passive when it comes to works and moral responsibility; those who emphasize moral responsibility (i.e. Finney) seem to lose site of grace. I think Luther understood this duality of forgiveness and action.

  18. Jeff, just when I think your writing is at it’s best, it seems to get better. Thank you for this message, it gives hope.