December 5, 2020

Circle Or Cross?

Note: 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 walking the way of the cross with Jesus. And really, what else is there to consider?


  1. Brilliant, Jeff. Thank you.

  2. Channelling G. K. Chesterton? From Orthodoxy, chapter 2:

    As we have taken the circle as the symbol of reason and madness, we may very well take the cross as the symbol at once of mystery and of health. Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers.

    • Thanks for pointing this out. I have read Orthodoxy, and must have made the connection without remembering where it came from. I humbly tip my cap to the great man himself.

      • I immediately thought of Chesterton’s comparison of the wheel and the cross as well. Steal from the best, I always say.

        Regardless, this may be one of the best things I’ve read all year.

      • I think it’s on the lines of, “you are what you eat”: the people and writings that influence us manifest themselves in our thoughts and actions – similar to the Jewis proverb quoted by Ray Vander Laan: “Follow a rabbi, drink in his words, and be covered with the dust of his feet.” It is also a testimony to the communion of the saints, that those who have gone before us still are a part of us and influence us through their writings and legacy.

  3. This may become one of my all-time favorite posts. It’s funny how modern theology seeks mathematic precision when math itself is paradoxical.

    Kudos, too, to RonH for his Chesterton quote.

  4. Wow, it feels like I’ve been away awhile.

    I’m glad you posted this. I’m glad to see another thinking about Chesterton’s analogy. It’s always seemed to me one of the most robust, and yet simple, metaphors for the central truth of Christianity. It is not confined to anything except the form of its founder; it emanates. Before, I had generally thought of this cosmologically or ontologically – the breaking of reality from the universe, the influence of endless cycles broken by the solemn directions of eternity. But these sorts of thoughts are too high to generally have an influence on how I think about things everyday. It is good to place the sign of the cross, not in the heavenly heights only, but in the mundane and heartfelt things of this life and earth.

    If that previous paragraph strikes you as a bit presumptuous, I apologize. Quite right; it is presumptuous. But I cannot help it sometimes; this is the way my brain talks.

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that there are an infinite amount of degrees to a circle’s radius, not 360. Isn’t it just that we traditionally divide it into 360 parts so that we can practically use degrees?

    • It’s just an analogy. Jeeminy.

    • Infinite number of points around the circumference, yes. Degrees are dependent on the system, and the normal system has 360 degrees. The point of the analogy stands, however. Even with an infinite number of infinitesimal points, the circle cannot grow or develop. It is perfect and complete, but also locked-in.

  6. A couple of questions:

    So, if the people of the Circle “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”, how do the people who are following the way of the Cross use the Bible?

    And if “People, especially people of the circle, will tell you just how wrong you are to be doing what you do.” How is it different when “people of the Cross” tell “people of the Circle” how wrong they are to do what they do?

    Chesterton’s point in Orthodoxy was quite different, by the way. He wasn’t using the circle to pigeonhole other Christians.

    • Hi Paul,

      Please if I may share some thoughts. I don’t believe nor see Jeff as trying to pigeonhole anyone or any “group”. The analogy is talking about the journey of life that a person embarks on when they let go and let God truly have the reigns of control. This isn’t a once for all letting go, it’s a moment by moment letting go . Included in this is surrendering to God all our thoughts and opinions and interpretations and yes, even beliefs. Key point : we are surrendering them to God not to another person or persons. This is a stance of total openness and if I may say “nakedness” before God in which we cling to nothing but Him.

      In my experience personally and of those I’ve walked along side of, God will often take someone who is willing to so surrender and put them in a place (not necessarily physical place but spiritually speaking) where everything get’s shaken up – truly turned upside down and inside out. Where in all humility they realize they Know for sure “God Is” ; but, that everything we “think” we know about Him and what He wants of us and what He is saying to us in Scripture isn’t so cut and dry and solid and clear anymore; our only security is in Him who we can’t see, feel, hear or touch in the human realm.

      We come to realize our thoughts(beliefs) are not His thoughts and we may not understand things and see things the way God does. This process can be painful and scary the more tightly we’ve clung to our thoughts for out security. God can only bring us to a deeper understanding, a clearer knowing if we are willing to let Him correct our vision. If we refuse to let go of the “glasses” we have been looking through He can’t give us new “glasses”.

      This is often a crossroads point in someone’s life in which they sense God moving them in a direction that doesn’t make sense, that isn’t so clear and to many others seems crazy and totally wrong. Just think of Noah….

      • Daisey,

        I certainly have no problem with the way you or Jeff describe the journey characterized as following the way of the Cross. I would think, though, that this can be done (as you have done it) without setting it in contrast to what Jeff calls the “people of the Circle”. Yes, I think the two statements I quoted from Jeff are pigeonholing. The first is a caricature, I think, characterizing other Christians who supposedly misuse the Bible in this way and implying a better use without explaining what that is. The second statement seems to imply that the source of criticism is more important than its content. In other words, any criticism you may get for following in the way of the Cross will come from people of the Circle and you can dismiss it for that reason.

        I would think people of the Cross would live and teach simply by their own example, not by comparison and contrast with other Christians who are supposedly not following in that way. Why would those who follow in the way of the Cross need to make such a contrasting example out of others to make their point? Isn’t that a “circle type” behavior in itself? As I see it, those who follow the way of the Cross should have no axe to grind (radius: Mt. 7:3-4).

        • Paul,

          As to “using the Bible,” check out an essay I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the proper approaches to Scripture.

          I never said that those who go the way of the Cross should respond in any way to criticism leveled against them, no matter who it comes from. I just said it would be there. Who criticized Jesus the most? Was not those who followed the religious laws to the “t”? Sometimes he responded, sometimes not.

          I think those who are seeking after Jesus have better things to do than to respond to those who don’t like what they are doing. I usually just smile and move on.

        • It is true, Paul, I may not have interpreted what Jeff wrote exactly however, even if that be so, I do not see a problem with what You said above with what Jeff and I have said, all being part of the same fabric. Sometimes a different way of expressing it can help get the thought across.

          My belief is that we can all find ourselves within any “circle” at times in that we cling so strongly to what we think, believe, have been taught, so much so that not even God can get in to bring us deeper into the mysteries of life or higher above where our current vision lies. While we remain within any given “circle” anyone outside that circle, who thinks, believes and acts contrary to our circle of thoughts and beliefs will will be seen as on the “wrong” side of the tracks. Jesus’s life, as Jeff pointed out, is a perfect example of that. Everything He did and spoke, and proclaimed as the Truth of God was not on par with what so many in His day thought and believed. He wasn’t on their side of the track.

          In my own life there was a time I held very strongly to certain things that to me were very clearly how God saw them and that to uphold them certain things had to be done, and be done in certain ways. To think contrary to this was to go against the Will and Spirit of God. These things were a “circle” within which I lived and I felt secure before God in being there. Anyone who wanted to challenge this, either verbally or just by their way of being, was considered on the “wrong” side of the track – they didn’t get it – they didn’t know the real truth – they were interpreting things wrong…. God saw to it that “life” would teach me otherwise.

          I learned that not each person necessarily has the same grace to understand things in the same way at the same time. That what God is asking of me at any given time is not necessarily what He is asking of someone else and vise versa. At times this may be due to a lack of understanding on my part (yes I(we) can be wrong in what I(we) think and believe) at times it can be the other person . I learned that what God wanted above all else was that I love the other person regardless. Looking back my life has been like the upward flight of the eagle – spiraling circles, each one larger than the other – each one stretching and changing how I see the world, what I believe, how I understand things. But, just as Jeff said in his post, the only way I could be part of a new “circle” was to let go, being willing to experience insecurity, to step out into the unknown, to let God, through life, challenge every part of me. I would have to open my arms and surrender, the position of being on the cross. The more I have been willing to let go of is equal to how far I am willing to stretch my arms out on my cross and thus the higher, like the eagle, and clearer “the air” so I see things differently. This I believe will have no end in this life because no on can know the Mind of God. Letting go never seems to get easy.

  7. Beelzebub's Grandson says

    “[In its] short form, pi is equal to 3.14159.”


    The Bible says three. Decimals lead one straight into the trap[ezoids] of Satan.

  8. I hadn’t heard this analogy before. I love it and find that the cross describes how I want to live my life and actually how I seem to live it. I have for many years felt that living in the circle mindset was suffocating and kills the Spirit. There is so much freedom (and challenge) living with our hearts and minds fixed on the cross of Christ.

  9. You might be interested seeing this site about the Bible Wheel…

    He speaks a lot about circles and crosses and the cross within the circle…

  10. Brilliant insight, Jeff. This is so where I am right now!

  11. Oooh! Chesterton! And “The Ball and the Cross”! I feel a quotation coming on!

    (You shouldn’t encourage me in my obsessive-compulsive behaviours, Jeff) 😉

    “The Ball and the Cross”, a novel from 1910. By way of introduction, there are two men – a scientist, Professor Lucifer, and a monk, MIchael, who are in Lucifer’s flying ship and have come to rest on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where they are observing the orb and cross at the very peak on the roof:

    “Professor Lucifer slapped his hand twice upon the surface of the great orb as if he were caressing some enormous animal. “This is the fellow,” he said, “this is the one for my money.”

    “May I with all respect inquire,” asked the old monk, “what on earth you are talking about?”

    “Why this,” cried Lucifer, smiting the ball again, “here is the only symbol, my boy. So fat. So satisfied. Not like that scraggy individual, stretching his arms in stark weariness.” And he pointed up to the cross, his face dark with a grin. “I was telling you just now, Michael, that I can prove the best part of the rationalist case and the Christian humbug from any symbol you liked to give me, from any instance I came across. Here is an instance with a vengeance. What could possibly express your philosophy and my philosophy better than the shape of that cross and the shape of this ball? This globe is reasonable; that cross is unreasonable. It is a four-legged animal, with one leg longer than the others. The globe is inevitable. The cross is arbitrary. Above all the globe is at unity with itself; the cross is primarily and above all things at enmity with itself. The cross is the conflict of two hostile lines, of irreconcilable direction. That silent thing up there is essentially a collision, a crash, a struggle in stone. Pah! that sacred symbol of yours has actually given its name to a description of desperation and muddle. When we speak of men at once ignorant of each other and frustrated by each other, we say they are at cross-purposes. Away with the thing! The very shape of it is a contradiction in terms.”

    “What you say is perfectly true,” said Michael, with serenity. “But we like contradictions in terms. Man is a contradiction in terms; he is a beast whose superiority to other beasts consists in having fallen. That cross is, as you say, an eternal collision; so am I. That is a struggle in stone. Every form of life is a struggle in flesh. The shape of the cross is irrational, just as the shape of the human animal is irrational. You say the cross is a quadruped with one limb longer than the rest. I say man is a quadruped who only uses two of his legs.”

    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.”

  12. Donald Todd says

    For those who are interested in GK Chesterton, his big books were the Everlasting Man and Orthodoxy, but he was a prodigious writer (and speaker. I believe that you can probably find a biography of him online should you have that interest.)

    I remember reading him after reading CS Lewis, and my impression was that Chesterton was one of the sanest people I ever read. He made me read slowly and return to re-examine the ideas he was presenting. He was much more difficult than Lewis from the perspective of the reader, but he was a great read and caused me to think hard about what I was involved in.

    If you liked the article above, I would recommend GK Chesterton and either the Everlasting Man or Orthodoxy as the first book to read.



  13. Jeff,

    Thank you so very much for your post today. I spent and hour 1/2 inside an MRI machine today and this post my mind couldn’t get away from – I think God planned this out…you 2 are in cahoots….

    Some things are just so hard to surrender….like a kid sometimes I just don’t want to jump! “jump” into that unknown place. I’m not ready God…how about some calm waters with a comfy raft so I can just float awhile…..I sense that pin coming to pop my float…….Yes Jeff, today you and God were in cahoots!