It was a sunny day in Chattanooga, TN. I was 17, and I was working as a “bag boy” at the local Red Food Store. Sweat was dripping from my temples as I hustled in and out of the building carting groceries mostly for busy moms and elderly ladies who appreciated the help.
In those days, at least in the store where I was working, people generally tipped the bag boys. It was not uncommon to get a dollar or two for 10-15 minutes of work, and I quickly discovered that the friendlier I was and the faster I could help a patron, the more cash I would take home.
It’s been over 20 years, and I can still vividly remember the conversation I had with one of the customers that hot, smoldering day. I had never met this woman before, and I never saw her again. It wasn’t a long exchange, but it has left an indelible mark on my life for these 20+ years.
As I recall, I was wearing a white shirt with khaki shorts. A wooden cross dangled from the end of a tight rope necklace, making it visible between the collar of my shirt.
When I loaded the final sack of provisions into the trunk of her car, she handed me a tip, paid a thoughtful compliment, and asked me one of the powerful questions I’ve ever been asked. Here’s how it went down…
The Lady: “Your such a kind young man; do you mind if I ask you a question?”
The Lady: “That cross around your neck” (pointing to the wooden cross dangling from my rope neck chain)
The Lady (The Question): “Is it decoration, or is it real?”
I can remember being somewhat stunned by her question. Initially, I didn’t know how to respond.
The truth was, I wore the necklace because I thought it looked cool. I also wore it because in the circles I ran in, it was socially acceptable. I went to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday night, and on most Wednesday nights. I was a leader in our youth group, and I had recently been baptized.
On the outside, everything looked great. I wasn’t drinking or doing drugs. I was the Sr. Class Vice President heading toward graduating high school as a Valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA. Yet, inside, I was fully driven by envy and selfish-ambition, the desire to “one-up” my identical twin brother in a constant competition for the applause of others (I’ve written previously about my struggles in comparison as an identical twin).
I frequently found my emotional state was dependent on how I measured up against him, and he often won the rivalry. We had five major fights our senior year of high school. When I say fights, I mean the real-deal: raw, fist-flinging, furniture-throwing, glass-breaking, injury-inducing bouts and brawls.
During our last major fight, we stood in the cul-de-sac and duked it out, my face taking the worst of the beatings until our older brother stepped in and stopped the fight. The entire scene was like something from a bad movie, full of anger and hatred. I retreated to the woods on my hands and knees, with the dirt between my palms. I looked up to the heavens and prayed, “God, please help us.”
It may have been the first time I truly prayed.
Is This Decoration, or Is It Real?
I share these details to give you the context for this particular exchange. Basically, I was a “religious” guy, a pretender with a wooden cross around my neck, masking a hidden life of anger, lust, malice, envy, and hatred. I was far from God.
Maybe the question just entered her mind, prompted by the Spirit, and she was faithful to step out of her comfort zone and ask it. If so, I respect her for her sensitivity to the Spirit and boldness with me. Or maybe she could tell I was a fake, kind of like how someone at a bank could recognize counterfeit bills just but being so familiar with the real thing.
Perhaps she wasn’t even aware of how deeply it would affect me. In any case, I could not get the question out of my mind, and as I slowly made my way back to the front doors of the grocery store, all I could think was, “That cross around your neck… Is it decoration or is it real?”
Deep down inside, something told me it was more than decoration to her and whatever she had, I lacked.
It wasn’t long after that I heard the gospel during my freshman year of college on the campus of the University of Tennessee and the cross became real to me. I heard the good news that Jesus Christ lived a perfect, lust-free, greed-free, envy-free, sin-free life and that he willingly laid down his perfect life to die a substitutionary death on a wooden cross in order to bear the full wrath of God for the sins of all who would trust in him. That night, God turned me from my trusting in my own performance to trusting fully in the Savior and my life was forever changed.
The True Message of the Cross
The cross is not a decoration. The cross is a declaration of the holiness of God and His great love for sinners. It’s not about religion. It’s about being real with God. It’s about coming to Him just as we are and admitting that we’re so bad that it took the Son of God himself to come and to live his life for us and to offer his life as a sacrifice so that we could be forgiven.
The news of the cross is at the same time the most horrifying and best news in the world. It displays for us vividly that we’ll never be “good enough” to earn the favor of God because we’ve all blown it. That’s why Jesus came, and that’s why he died. It’s not faith + our works that will save us. It’s faith alone in Christ alone for the glory of God alone.
That’s what the cross is all about. It’s about dropping the act, admitting our need for rescue, and rolling the burden of our sin completely over to Jesus while we trust entirely in the life he lived and died for us. That’s why this dear woman’s question has stuck with me for so many years:
“That cross around your neck.. Is it decoration, or is it real?”
Only when it’s real will we turn from our own performance and trust fully in Christ alone to save.
Is the cross real to you? Oh, may God make it so real to you that you find eternal life and present joy in Him! “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).