When I Survey

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of Glory died,

My richest gain I count but loss

And pour contempt on all my pride.

We’re familiar with the hymn. But it’s easy to mouth words without thinking about them.

I was personally struck by the words while at work the other day, because I got to play at being a surveyor.

I work in construction, but on the survey type end of things. However, most of the time I don’t get to go off and measure and store point locations for stuff like property corners, and it’s kind of fun.

Now, I know this isn’t technically what it means by “when I survey”, but bear with me.

Surveying is a profession that depends absolutely on precise and accurate measurement and precise and accurate record-keeping.

If you’re a surveyor, it’s in no wise good enough to say “the property line runs along the treeline”. Nor even “the centre of the road”. A line of trees may be planted along the property line, but the actual line is defined not by tree lines, but by the relationship of an absolute boundary to the iron rods or posts or markers that are used to delineate it.

Because money is often involved with precisely where the boundary runs, you have to measure accurately.

Once, the centre-line of the road may have defined the boundary. But the off-the-beaten-track asphalt roads that are often meant can shift over time, pressed by the wheels of countless vehicles. I’ve seen “centre-line of road” buried iron rods three quarters of the way to the outside edge.

Precise observations and precise records are vital. The records tell you where to look and what you ought to find; the observations tell you what’s there.

It occurs to me that this might be an interesting metaphor for gazing upon the cross, like in the words of the song.

It may not be enough to just glance at the cross. To vaguely say that Jesus died for our sins.

Sometimes, we need to be more detailed in our examination. To really look at the cross, take in its detail, imprint its wonder and mercy on our hearts.

We have the record. The Bible accounts written by those who were there; who saw with their own eyes. People have repeatedly challenged the authenticity and accuracy of these accounts and come up short. People have claimed that the record has been altered, or that it was made up. But if you want to claim that, you have to deal with the amount of attested, accurate historical detail that the Bible records, and the sheer volume of manuscript evidence. We’re not looking at a situation like with the Qur’an, in which the fourth Caliph decided what the authentic Qur’an should look like and burned all deviant manuscripts. We have the scribal errors; the transposition of letters and misspellings. 99.9% of the errors do not affect meaning one way or the other; the few remaining do not materially affect the overall message.

We can say with a high level of confidence that we have accurate records.

But all the records in the world won’t tell you where your property line runs in the actual world of fields and forests.

In order to do that, you have to take your records and study them, and then go out into the real world and see if what actually exists matches the records.

Again, this is something which we can have a fairly high level of confidence in. Giving proper regard to genre – not trying to treat a poetic passage of Scripture as accurate history, for instance – and with due regard to the limitations of understanding in the times in which it was written, the Bible record matches a lot of what we know about the world.

We observe that people do bad things. Even the best of us make mistakes. No-one acts with perfect love all the time. This accords with what the Bible says that we ought to see.

When faced with the cross, we don’t have a reason for pride before God. The highest expressions of human justice, philosophy and religion all conspiring to take the life of the sinless Son of Man.

Jesus was without sin. He always acted in perfect love. If we’re going to do it ourselves, that’s what a holy God requires. Sin hurts people that God loves; He’s not willing to stand by and just overlook it.

But the cross isn’t just a miscarriage of justice; it’s an act of salvation. He died for us; an atoning sacrifice for sins.

And God is pleased to look on Jesus’ sacrifice and declare me righteous.

Where is pride? I don’t deserve it. I don’t act with perfect love all the time. No; but God is “the Lord, the Lord, the gracious and compassionate God; slow to anger, abounding in loving-kindness and faithfulness; maintaining love to thousands and forgiving rebellion, iniquity and sin“.

Even if I’m a pretty good person by human standards, I have no cause for pride. I’m not doing anything extra; I’m not even doing all that God really wants. It’s like a pickpocket demanding to be let off because when they picked a man’s pockets they didn’t also knife him.

But the wonder of the cross is that God in His justice and mercy toward those that sin is hurting is willing to die to make an end of it and release those held captive by it.

That’s worth a closer examination.

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