Abandonment: When you feel God-forsaken
You all know the Chronicles of Narnia movies, right? The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? The first one was by far the most popular. Well those movies actually come from children’s novels written by C. S. Lewis. The great British writer, novelist, sometimes philosophical, sometimes theological, literary critic C. S. Lewis was a prolific writer. When I was in seminary I took a class dedicated solely to his life and writing.
One of the books Lewis wrote is The Problem of Pain. He wrote it in 1940, and it was essentially a theological and philosophical treatise on the problem of suffering and pain in this world. He wrote it during World War II, so these were obvious questions that many people had: Why does a good God allow this kind of torment, this kind of suffering, this kind of atrocity in the world? Lewis’ book was well received, but he was still relatively young when he wrote it.
After he had lived a few more years, he met a woman named Joy Davidman. He had never been married and had actually said some things about never wanting to be married. But Joy won his heart. She was a writer from New York with a compelling personality and a brilliant mind. They met when she began writing letters to him from the United States and he wrote her back. Over the course of time, as they corresponded and she visited England, Joy and Lewis fell in love. What intensified that love was Joy’s diagnosis of cancer during their courtship. It was in the days that Lewis thought he was going to lose Joy that he realized how much he cared about her and wanted to marry her. They got married, and the cancer miraculously went into remission. They had two wonderful years in which they traveled all over the world. Then the cancer came back with a vengeance, and Lewis lost his beloved wife Joy. And the brilliant philosopher and theologian, thinker and writer, who had lots of answers for the problem of pain 20 years earlier was now left with only questions. None of the answers he offered to the hurting sufficed to comfort his own hurting soul. So in private moments, when he was most distraught, he journaled about his own experience of pain. It was later published, unedited, as A Grief Observed, and it is my favorite of all of C.S. Lewis’ writings. In it, he says this about his experience of God when he was in pain:
But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once.
Is there even a God? I thought so once. It’s amazing that this children’s novelist who wrote about Aslan, the great lion who would rescue vulnerable children, it was his figure for Christ, could now find himself in a place where he wasn’t even sure there was a God. And if there was a God, all Lewis knew was that God was keeping him out, bolting and double bolting a door, making himself inaccessible. Sounds a lot like the experience of the Psalmist in the Psalm we are looking at today. Let’s look at Psalm 22.
You know, more people point to the problem of evil and suffering as their reason for not believing in God than any other – it is not merely a problem, it is the problem. The problem goes like this: “If there is a God, and if that God is all-knowing, meaning God sees this, in fact saw this before it happened, and if that God is all-powerful, meaning God can stop this, and if that God is perfect love, meaning God loves me and doesn’t want to watch me suffer like this, then why am I suffering?” A Barna poll asked, “If you could ask God only one question and you knew he would give you an answer, what would you ask?” The most common response was, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” John Stott said, “The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.” Richard Swinburne, writing in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, says the problem of evil is “the most powerful objection to traditional theism.” Ronald Nash writes, “Objections to theism come and go. … But every philosopher I know believes that the most serious challenge to theism was, is, and will continue to be the problem of evil.” You will not get far in a conversation with someone who rejects the Christian faith before the problem of evil is raised. Pulled out like the ultimate trump card, it’s supposed to silence believers and prove that the all-good and all-powerful God of the Bible doesn’t exist.[i]
Actor Tim Allen is best known for his leading roles on the sitcoms Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, and he also provides the voice for those incredible Pure Michigan commercials. His father died when he was 11 years old. A drunk driver crashed into their car as his dad was driving home from a college football game. Nearly 50 years later, Allen still claims that his father’s death “changed everything forever.” In a 2012 interview he said, “Part of me still doesn’t trust that everything will work out all right. I knew my father was dead, but I was never satisfied with why he was dead. I wanted answers that minute from God.” “Do you think this is funny? Do you think this is necessary?” And I’ve had a tumultuous relationship with my creator ever since.”[ii]
In Psalm 22, David is wrestling with the problem of pain too. Not in a distant, intellectual, philosophical kind of way, but in an intimate, experiential kind of way. He’s suffering now, and the questions and tears are pouring from his soul. And he’s questioning everything. Himself. Everything he’s believed. And God himself. We have no idea what event or series of events in David’s life serve as the backdrop for this Psalm, but we sure know what he’s experiencing on the inside, don’t we? Vv. 1-2. “The door slammed in his face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” Alienated from God. Abandoned and alone. Spiritual writers through the ages have taken to calling times like this “the dark night of the soul,” and I can think of no better phrase to describe it. It’s a struggle that runs deep, right to the core of your soul, and all you can see is darkness.
And that darkness causes questions to bubble up from the depths of our souls. When people feel abandoned, forsaken, alone, those questions tend to go in one of two directions. The first is to question the very existence of God. The second is to assume that God exists, but to question the power and goodness of God, because no powerful and loving God could possibly allow this kind of pain and suffering. And it doesn’t matter what the pain and suffering is. What matters is your experience of it. Something that one person makes it through, scarred by still standing knocks another person flat on his back. We all experience different things differently. A dying child. A lost career. A divorce. An affair. Loneliness. Wanting to be loved. A friend dying of cancer. Physical pain that the doctors can’t seem to make go away, a loved one destroying her life. God, do you see me? And if you do, why are you silent?
But notice the word David uses to describe God. Do you see it? MY God. Even in his silence, God is still God. Even though God seems light years away right now, he is still my God. And maybe that’s what makes it hurt the most. You are still my God. I am not turning my back on you. So why does it feel like you’ve turned your back on me? And David is crying out day and night, persistently praying, doing all of the things we think we’re supposed to do to get God’s attention, doing everything we think we’re supposed to do to get God to act. Refusing to turn his back on God, to deny his God, crying out day and night in persistent prayer. And still … silence. Nothing.
And then he begins to recount the goodness and grace of God in the past, the things God had done in Israel’s past, as time and time again they placed their trust in God and he delivered them. But now, nothing. And he can even see God’s goodness in his own life in the past. But now, in his darkest hour, nothing. He knows God CAN act. But WILL he?
And then this Psalm takes a dramatic turn. Look at V. 21. David goes from crying out to God to save him, to acknowledging that he has been saved! What happened between the beginning of V. 21 and the end? Something certainly happened. Now remember, the Psalms are poetry, not prose. We aren’t necessarily looking at an immediate, instantaneous kind of thing here. Nor is this necessarily completely chronological, like David suddenly remembers to praise God in the midst of his sense of being abandoned. That isn’t what is happening here. But in one sentence David turns from crying out for salvation to praising God for his salvation. But to really understand what is going on here, we have to look a little deeper into this Psalm, because it’s a special Psalm, and David remembers the promise of God.
The cry from the depths of David’s soul in V. 1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” may have sounded familiar to you, because they are the words Jesus cried out from the depths of his soul on the cross. Both Matthew and Mark record the words: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). So striking were the words of Jesus that the Gospel writers, both Jews, recorded it in the tongue in which Jesus spoke it, their own tongue, Aramaic, and then translated it for their Greek-speaking readers. But this isn’t the only parallel between Jesus’ death on the cross and Psalm 22.
In this Psalm we see the taunting of the crowd (Vv. 7-8). We see the physical torment of crucifixion, of the one who cried out, “I thirst.” (vv. 14-15). We see emotional and physical suffering of betrayal and crucifixion (Vv. 16-17). “They have pierced my hands and feet …” When David wrote these words, crucifixion wasn’t invented as a cruel form of torture and death for another two centuries at least. And then we see Christ’s only possession, his robe, a prize for which his executioners gambled (V. 18).[iii] In Psalm 22, roughly 200 years before crucifixion was developed as a cruel form of torture and execution, and roughly a thousand years before Christ would be crucified, David described his crucifixion in haunting detail. Some would say that this Psalm is ONLY a prophecy about the death of Christ. Others want to say that it is ONLY about something experienced by the Psalmist. Both miss the point, because the answer to the question, “Is this Psalm reflective of David’s inner state at some point in his life or a prophecy pointing to the death of Christ?” is both. In this Psalm, David bares his trembling soul, pours his heart out before God, wondering why he has been forsaken by God. And on the cross, Christ became this Psalm, entering into human experience in an intimate and costly way.
For when Christ cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He really was forsaken. He really was alone. As the sins of humanity were poured upon him on that cross and God “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21) – as Christ, who knew no sin, became sin for you and for me, Father and Spirit turned away, forsook him, left him alone there on that cross. We often talk about the mystery of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit existing eternally as three persons, but of one substance. Perfect harmony, perfect relationship because God is three in one. God in three persons, blessed trinity the hymn proclaims. But in that moment on the cross, the Trinity was broken, as Father and Spirit turned away from the one who bore our sin for us. In Christ, God became the God-forsaken one. God turned his back … on God.
Author Max Lucado writes vividly of the abandonment of the Son on the cross as he bore our sin: “Here is the cup, my Son. Drink it alone.” God must have wept as he performed his task. Every lie, every lure, every act done in shadows was in that cup. Slowly, hideously they were absorbed in the body of the Son. The final act of incarnation. The spotless Lamb was blemished. The King turns away from his Prince. The undiluted wrath of a sin-hating Father falls upon his sin-filled Son. The fire envelops him. The shadows hide him. The Son looks for his Father, but the Father cannot be seen. “My God, my God…why?” It was the most gut-wrenching cry of loneliness in history, and it came not from a prisoner or a widow or a patient. It came from a hill, from a cross, from a Messiah. “My God, my God,” he screamed, “why did you abandon me!”
Never have words carried such hurt. Never has one being been so lonely. The despair is darker than the sky. The two who have been one are now two.[iv]
I’ve experienced times in my life when I’ve been desperately seeking God, begging God to act in my life, only to find “A door slammed in [my] face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” What this Psalm has reminded me of time and time again is that although I feel forsaken, I have never been forsaken, but there is one who has. And although I feel alone and lonely, I have never been alone, but there is one who has, and that torment he experienced so that I will never have to. In the birth of Jesus, the Christ, God entered into our experience with us. And on the cross of Christ, God entered fully into our experience of isolation and forsakenness and alienation and abandonment. But God, do you know what it is like to have your parent turn away from you? Yes. Do you know what it is like to have your child taken from you too soon. Yes. Do you know what it is like to be alone, forsaken, abandoned? Yes. For I am with you in your pain. I have experienced your pain, and because of that, you will never be alone. Father and Spirit turned his back on Son, so that God would never, ever, need to turn his back on us. And that, my friends, is the good news of God’s grace. Let us pray.
[i] Randy Alcorn, If God is Good (Multnomah Books, 2009), page 15
[ii] David Hockman, “Don’t Let the Burger Fool You,” AARP (October-November 2012)
[iii] David Bast, Christ in the Psalms (Words of Hope, 2009) p. 42-43
[iv] Max Lucado, The Cross (Multnomah, 2002) p. 33-34