Allahu Akbar. It’s a Muslim phrase that’s become familiar both in the Middle East and in the West. Unfortunately, our typical exposure to the phrase comes from news reports of some terrible atrocity being committed after crazed radicals shout it with triumph in their voices. Yet that phrase literally means “God is greater.” Growing up as a devout Muslim, it took years of investigation for me to realize that the cross of Jesus Christ—the very thing I had thought insulted God’s greatness—was the very thing that demonstrates it.
To worship God as the greatest being was my chief pursuit as a Muslim. It was also my central reason for rejecting Christianity. I realized Christians wanted to believe that God was great (see Psalm 145:3), but I thought that they had no justification for believing that.
Muslims say Allahu Akbar when showered with good fortune (“God is so great for blessing me”) and when gut-punched by hardship (“God is greater than my circumstances”). For Muslims who take their faith seriously—as I once did—this phrase embodies the central idea of Islam: that God is the greatest possible being.
But if God is the greatest possible being, then why would He trap Himself in a finite body that sweated in the heat and shivered in the cold, needed food, needed sleep, and would eventually die at the hands of the very sinners He created? Wouldn’t that be the very epitome of weakness, shame, dishonor—and not greatness? To avoid that disgrace, the Quran denies that Jesus died on a cross as a matter of history (Quran 4:157).
As I said, it took years of investigation for me to realize that the cross demonstrates God’s greatness rather than insults it. As the evidence for the cross mounted, I found myself compelled not just by its historical reality, but also by the way its message bleeds beyond history and into transcendent grandeur. I came to realize that for God to be the greatest possible being (Allahu Akbar), He would necessarily express the greatest possible ethic, which is love. He would go further than that, of course, because the greatest possible being would not express the greatest possible ethic in a half-measured way. He would express it in the greatest possible way.
And what is that greatest possible way? The greatest possible way to express the greatest possible ethic is self-sacrifice.
Every parent who puts their children’s needs ahead of their own knows this. Every spouse knows that the true measure of the other person’s love isn’t in the chocolates or the endearing notes they give one another. We are assured of another’s love when he or she sacrifices for our sake. If mere humans can express love so wonderfully, ought not the God of the universe be able to do so? And yet for God to be the greatest possible being, His love must be expressed to an even greater degree than human self-sacrifice. What could be greater?
Our self-sacrifices have limits. We sacrifice for those who love us back. It simply isn’t our inclination—indeed it may never really occur to us—to sacrifice ourselves for someone who hates us. But God’s love has no such limits. In Romans 5:8 the Apostle Paul tells us that, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we were sinners—who hated God—God sacrificed for us.
Isn’t it fascinating that my nine-year search to find such a God can be summarized in but one verse? Only the Lord of language—God the Word—could be so economically eloquent and profound.
God’s purpose was that Jesus would be born and live among us, growing into the man who would die in our place. If Allahu Akbar—if God is the greatest—then He must be the God of the cross.
When I saw that what I was looking for was actually found in the very cross that I once rejected, I gave my life to the God who gave Himself on that cross and rose from the dead to prove that His sacrifice achieved my salvation.
Calvary’s hill is where seeming weakness and shame are turned into strength and honor. James Stewart wrote: “[God] did not conquer in spite of the dark mystery of evil. He conquered through it.” Calvary is where God turned thorns into a crown, a cross into a throne, and a sinner like me into a saint.
That is the cross’s beauty and grandeur. It demonstrates God’s transformative power and contrasts our temperamental and conditional love with His perfect love.
Once I saw shame and weakness in the symbol of Christ. Now, I see glory and power. The blood I once thought dishonorable I now see in everything He has made. Indeed, I see His cross everywhere. The God I was looking for anywhere else could be found nowhere else but on a cross, and in a tomb He no longer inhabits. ©2020 Abdu Murray
Abdu Murray is senior vice president of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and host of a new RZIM podcast called “The Defense Rests.”
The Scripture quotation is taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version.
Above: Abdu Murray speaks during a recent event at the University of Miami.
Photo: Gustavo Cruz