“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Not too long ago, I read a blogger who tried to explain away this cry. He said Jesus was just quoting Psalm 22, which is ultimately a psalm about trust. So we could in no way take Jesus’ words as a serious cry of anguish from his soul. It was just another teaching moment. All I thought was, How can you possibly interpret Christ’s cry this way? Why would you encourage others to do likewise? Echoing in my mind was the wisdom Yann Martel shares through the mouth of Pi Patel:

If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ (Life of Pi).

When reading Peter Rollin’s Insurrection, I was surprised and disheartened to learn that this is a common interpretation of Jesus’ cry.  Though I disagree with how Peter Rollin’s (at least as far as I’ve read) is reducing the central moment of Christianity to this cry,* I appreciate how he challenges this interpretation:

This perspective, however, fails to take into account the significance of the fact that the cry recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is put in Jesus’ native tongue (Aramaic) rather than in the psalm’s original Hebrew. In the Jewish faith, the Hebrew Scriptures are read, memorized, and recalled in the original language not one’s native tongue, so while this cry might be inspired by the psalm, the words reflect a person’s heartfelt cry of agony and loss rather than some mere quote. [Here, echoing Pi’s sentiment, he goes on] To read it otherwise would be to view it as part of some kind of cosmic theatrical show, a phrase that provides the whole Crucifixion scene with a sense of drama and despair all the while offering a wink that tell us everything is really fine.

What I cannot help but wonder is, Why are people so afraid to believe that Jesus’ cry of anguish was sincere? Why must we deny that God might have actually turned His back, or withdrawn His presence, from His Son on the cross as he hung there taking all of our sins upon himself? Why are we reluctant to think that Jesus experienced fear?

In the Garden of Gethsemani, Jesus calls out to God three times to take this cup of suffering from him. Mark tells us that his spirit was in such agony that he sweat blood even though an angel appeared to strengthen him. He seems to have been fearful, and the severity of his internal turmoil suggests that he might have known that he was going to suffer more than simply humiliation and a human death.

I don’t think that accepting any of this makes God less God-like. But I think it does make Christianity more frightening. Rollin’s makes another apt observation about this moment:

The Crucifixion signals an experience in which all that grounds us and gives us meaning collapses. On the Cross, Christ is rejected by his friends, betrayed by the religious authorities, and crucified by the political leaders. We witness here, in the starkest of terms, the loss of all those structures that ground us and give us the comfort that life makes sense. More than this, Christ experiences the loss of that which grounds each of these realms—God.

It strikes me that this is why so many Christians try to come up with alternate explanations. We are afraid of sharing in this experience. Thus, the Church has been subtly and not so subtly peddling the idea that doubt and fear and struggle are signs that we’re in rebellion. That something is wrong with us. They don’t want to accept, the fact that following God is so often painful. That, though God promises to never turn His back on us as He did his Son, He does not even promise that we will always feel His presence.

I have a hard time not saying, if this is the story you buy into, if you accept Jesus without fear and profound suffering and separation on the Cross, if you think your own suffering, doubt and fear is necessarily the result of your faults, than you don’t know the Christian story. You do not know the Christian God. Even before Christ, we see that those who follow Him experience great doubt, fear and struggle as much as they also experience His profound power and love and provision. All you have to do, if you don’t have time to read the Old Testament, is turn to Hebrews 11.  The author recaps many of the Old Testament stories and ends like this:

For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to fight the armies of the aliens. Women received their dead raised to life again.

Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.

The heroes of the Christian faith know what it is to be and to feel forsaken. That Christ allowed himself to experience the most profound experience of being forsaken is part of why he can be our Savior. It is why we can relate to him in our weaknesses as well as our strengths. Thus, we must stop trying to rid ourselves of Jesus cry on the cross. If we want comfort, all we must do is look to the resurrection. Jesus separation from the Father was not permanent, just as our feeling of forsakenness will pass.

*It strikes me as a great fault when any theologian reduces the defining characteristic of Christianity or the Christian life to one moment and particularly one moment in the New Testament. Soon, I might find myself taking Rollin’s to task for this so don’t think that just because I’m quoting him I fully endorse him.

White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall

2 thoughts on “Forsaken

  1. i really appreciate this and agree. i’ve found myself in more than a few conversations with people who try to explain Jesus’ cry away. i think you’ve tactfully woven together a more comprehensive view of the christian life that includes loneliness, abandonment, persecution and loss, rather than the sugary gospel of health, wealth and prosperity that so many preach today. i think what i wonder about is the idea of the Father turning his back on the Son. i hear that quite a lot, but it’s not actually stated in Scripture. i think the assumption is that if Jesus cried out the words, they must have reflected the actual reality. however, this grates against me a bit. if we consider any human person who unfortunately goes to Hell, I don’t see any reason to believe that they are there because God has ever, even in eternity, turned God’s back on them; the person has willingly chosen separation. Jesus crying out “why have you forsaken me?” is indeed a quote from psalm 22. but like you, i do not at all think the fact that he is quoting means he doesn’t actually mean it. i think there’s beauty in the fact that he indeed felt it, and more intensely than any of us will ever feel that sense of separation since none of us have yet to experience the kind of intimacy Christ had up until that time experienced with the Father. his words remind me of mother theresa, who is now famously quoted as saying that she couldn’t feel the presence of God for roughly the last decade of her life. i think for both of these people, this does indeed point to an element of incredible trust. but not the feel-good trust you cited for that blogger. this kind of trust is rooted in love. so to me, i envision jesus on the cross bearing every ounce of shame humanity has to offer (which is a depressing lot) and feeling for the first time in His life that God the Father wasn’t there. again, i don’t think this means that God wasn’t actually there, I think it’s actually more beautiful to know that just like me, Jesus FELT that way even though we all know intellectually it’s not true. but so often what we know intellectually isn’t exactly comforting. mother theresa loved the people she cared for so much that she knew she couldn’t turn her back on them or her God, even if she could no longer feel him near. Jesus LOVED US enough to HOPE (which i think is more robust and complex and embedded than the blogger’s flippant trust)–hope against hope, as St. Paul puts it–that the intimacy he had once felt with God would return, and that what God promised him was true.

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