In 1995 Alanis Morissette emerged on the pop-music scene with a distinctively gritty, raw, impassioned, and honest—even confessional—style. Her breakout album was Jagged Little Pill, and one of its songs, in particular, swept through the airwaves and into the hearts of listeners across the country: “You Oughta Know.” The premise of the song is simple: a woman has lost her lover, who has since entered another relationship and forgotten her. Despite this apparent simplicity, however, the song evokes all the complex emotions that attend such a loss, from a defiant attempt at nonchalance to a deeply vindictive bitterness.
Unexpectedly, this pop sensation centers on a metaphor of Christian sacrifice. Here’s the chorus:
And I’m here, to remind you
Of the mess you left when you went away.
It’s not fair, to deny me
Of the cross I bear that you gave to me.
You, you, you oughta know.
Morissette describes her grief as a cross she now bears. In objective terms, the comparison is melodramatic: the loss of a youthful romance pales in comparison to an agonizing ancient method of torture and execution. However, many of us can identify with the feelings of betrayal, loss, grief, and pain she describes as the result of this broken relationship, and we can see how these might relate to the Cross of Christ, who was Himself betrayed and abandoned.
For Morissette, the Cross is an image of suffering and loss, and she is not alone in this perspective. In secular contexts, an unavoidable hardship is often described as one’s cross to bear. For example, being hounded by paparazzi and fans is a celebrity’s cross to bear, and (in more noble terms) sleepless nights of worry for her children are a mother’s cross to bear. Likewise, in Christian contexts, bearing a cross is primarily associated with suffering. Christ has commanded us: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). For us Christians, taking up the cross generally evokes a life of voluntary hardship and endurance of sufferings. For Christians and nonChristians alike, both the Cross and the sacrifice it represents are primarily about suffering.
However, a more careful comparison of Morissette’s hard breakup with Christ’s sacrifice calls into question this equation of the Cross with the mere experience of suffering. The song describes her lost relationship explicitly as “perverted,” backing up this descriptor with a fairly graphic example. Yet how can losing an immoral relationship be compared with the death of one who “like a sheep was led to slaughter” and “who committed no sin nor was guile found in His mouth” (Is. 53:7; 1 Pet. 2:22)? The distinctive meaning of the Cross is found not in Christ’s pain but in His innocence—His persistence in righteousness not just when it was easy but, especially, when it was hard. It is this kind of cross that we as Christians are called to take up, not merely suffering for Christ’s sake like some masochistic cult but remaining doggedly faithfully to God through thick and thin, like totally loyal soldiers. And if we lose immoral pleasures (such as “perverted” relationships) along the way, this is not to be lamented but rejoiced in, for “the momentary lightness of our affliction is working for us an exceedingly, extravagantly eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17); the pursuit of God that leads us to abandon worldly things ultimately brings us to far better things.
Morissette’s cross is distinguished from Christ’s in another important way: she employs her cross, her sacrifice, as an accusation against the one who has hurt her. You gave me this cross, she says, and you should own up to the pain you’ve caused. By accusing him, she seeks to vindicate herself as one nobly bearing suffering. This is something we do quite often, consciously or subconsciously. Metaphors of sacrifice are tools we use to justify ourselves and to undermine our opponents: a soldier’s sacrifice can serve either to ennoble his patriotism or to reproach the enemy’s brutality; a father’s sacrifices can serve to magnify his selflessness or guilt his demanding children. This self-justifying use of sacrifice is diametrically opposed to the humility of Christ on the Cross, “who, when reviled, did not revile in return, who did not threaten while suffering,” but instead proclaimed in the throws of agony: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (1 Pet. 2:23; Luke 23:34).
Morissette is not to blame for this distortion of sacrifice. She merely makes use of the historic reduction of the Cross to suffering that we have all accepted. By focusing on Christ’s pain as the the source of our salvation, Western Christians have lost sight of the self-giving love and faithfulness that make His sufferings meaningful. It is these (and not pain) that should define the Cross, as well as true sacrifice.