As I noted in my last blog, I find the words “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?” coming from the mouth of Jesus to be terrifying. If Jesus, the most trusting and most trustworthy human who ever lived, experiences being abandoned by God right when he longs for that reassuring presence the most, what does that mean for the rest of us? No wonder the prayer coming from Jesus’ mouth is so often explained away by Christians rather than faced squarely. This explaining away occurs despite the fact that both Matthew and Mark record these words with the same matter-of-factness that they record the fact that the Roman soldiers enjoyed torturing Jesus. Jesus tells God that he feels abandoned by quoting the words of another servant of God who had experienced the same awful feelings centuries earlier (Psalm 22).
Having said that, and with no intention of downplaying any of Jesus’ despairing cry, I also find this terrifying passage reassures me even while it terrifies me. Here are four reasons why.
First, I find it comforting to know that when you or I are experiencing none of God’s presence at all, it may not mean that we have been unfaithful and are experiencing what we deserve. (At other times it might be what I deserve.) In fact, as it was for Jesus, it could be because we have decided to be faithful despite all the really outrageous injustice and hatred going on all around us. This was certainly the case for Jesus wasn’t it?
Second, I find it comforting to know that expressing my frustration with being unable to experience any of God’s presence right when I want it most does not separate me from Jesus. It allows me to be in his company.
Third, yes, Jesus who knew the Psalms quite well, did know that the Psalm that began with a horrible experience of God-forsakenness did not end there. After rehearsing how bad things were, the Psalmist claimed that God finally acted in ways that the Psalmist could celebrate. And, after rehearsing how God did finally act, the Psalm ends with a powerful staccato phrase – “He did it!” Perhaps you too have gone through some horrible times that included a lack of any sense of God’s presence, but you can now look back and see that later on you began to see God act again. If so, you know two things. First, that outcome did nothing to change the fact that what you experienced of God’s absence was horrid and terrifying. And, second, you can also be thankful that God did show up later in ways that reassured you that God is good and active. Neither of these experiences cancels the other. They are just both true.
Fourth, and to me most puzzling and yet most reassuring, is a truth that none of us will ever completely get our minds around. But perhaps we can let our hearts rest in it. God didn’t just start paying attention later. At the very moment Jesus was really and truly experiencing God’s complete and total absence, God was acting to open up new possibilities in Jesus’ relationship with God and through Jesus for the entire world. The writer of Hebrews 5:7-9 puts it this way:
7During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9and, once made perfect (or, “once completed”), he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
This moment of abandonment turned out to also be a central part of God “perfecting” or “completing” Jesus in a manner that allows him to be the one through whom God saves the rest of us from our self-destruction and from being destroyed by others. The moment God was absent was also the moment God was very active.
At least for me, this “God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah” (Ephesians 1:3, 17) is the only way I see for this world to make any sense. The ways of Jesus’ God both terrify me and are the only assurance I have ever found.