In my last post, we looked at one of the last of Jesus’ seven statements. Today, we look at the one statement that is, for many, the most moving, disturbing, and powerfully haunting of the seven: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These words reflect not only the darkness of the horrific experience Jesus endured, but also the darkness within those who surrounded Jesus at the foot of the cross. Yet as we study the psalm Jesus was praying, we will discover that those words may point to a deeper faith that sustained him in his suffering on the cross.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” sometimes is called the “cry of dereliction” or cry of abandonment. In that moment, as Jesus prayed these words, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, felt abandoned or forsaken by God.
This thought can be confusing in light of our Trinitarian theology, which asserts that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one. While I do not completely understand this myself, it seems clear to me that as he hung on the cross, Jesus no longer felt the presence of his Father. He felt alone and abandoned.
Some believe that Luke and John did not include this passage in their accounts of the Crucifixion because it seemed to diminish the sense of the majesty or dignity of Jesus. Perhaps they worried that believers would be confused by the idea that Jesus felt abandoned by God.
Yet it is precisely the dignity and majesty of Jesus that Matthew and Mark likely saw in this prayer. For them, Jesus the Lord was actually experiencing that feeling of God-forsakenness that every one of us experiences at some point in our lives. He knew what it was to feel that God, his Father, had abandoned him. He knew what it was like to feel hopelessness and despair.
As a pastor I have often shared this story of Jesus with parishioners who were walking through dark valleys. I sat with a family after their teenage daughter had died. The pain and darkness were overwhelming. They felt God had abandoned them. It was to this story that we turned in Scripture to see that at the center of our faith was a man who was cruelly tortured and put to death at the age of thirty-three, and who, as he hung dying, felt abandoned by God. I invited them to pray to Jesus, the one who himself had experienced despair and darkness and who understood.
We all pray this prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” at some time in our lives—when someone we dearly love dies, when we find ourselves facing a battle we never wanted to face, when we’ve been humiliated and made to feel small. There are a thousand other ways we might experience a sense of being forsaken by God—times when God is conspicuously silent and absent. In those times, we can pray to Jesus Christ, because he knows what we are experiencing and feeling. We can pray to the One who sympathizes with us in that moment while, at the same time, saying, “God didn’t forsake me, and God hasn’t forsaken you.” In his intellect, I’m sure that Jesus knew that God had not forsaken him. But in his heart, that’s how he felt. And I am thankful that our Lord—our King—understands fully and completely what it feels like to feel forsaken by God.
I cannot end this post on the “cry of dereliction” without noting the bigger story ends with an empty tomb! In Matthew’s Gospel, as well as in the longer ending of Mark’s Gospel, these are not Jesus’ final words. How tragic if these truly had been Jesus’ final words. The feelings of abandonment and God-forsakenness, and even death itself, would not be the end of Jesus’ story. Neither will suffering and death be God’s final word for us.
Forgive me, Lord, for the times I—like those who stood at your cross—have acted with cruelty. Thank you for identifying, by your suffering, with all who ever feel forsaken or cry out, “Why?” Help me to trust in you in my own times of adversity. Amen.
Today’s post is an excerpt from Final Words From the Cross.