Psalm 22 begins with the psalmist lamenting God’s absence:
My God, MY GOD, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
God’s absence is enduring:
I cry by day, but you do not ANSWER,
and by night, but find no REST.
The poet describes how abandonment feels in his body:
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are RACKED
My heart has become like wax,
DRIPPING out of my bosom. (Ps 22:15)
In Biblical times the HEART was understood to be the CORE of a person’s being. And melting meant WEAKENING. The core of the poet’s being is weakening, melting and pouring away.
Most of us have felt the absence of God in our body, the FEAR when our lives are radically disrupted; by the DEATH of someone we LOVE, the melting of our inner self after a BETRAYAL or a DIVORCE or the loss of a job; the bone-weariness of ADDICTION or mental illness or of full-time caregiving.
The sense that God has abandoned us instills FEAR, fear of how we continue, how we rebuild, whether we will never experience joy again.
I felt this fear, this abandonment, when my father died. My father had raised me, was my closest person. I was only 34, a young mom, and I still needed him. And I remember well-meaning Christian friends who hadn’t lost a parent yet being perplexed by my grief. “But he’s in heaven!” they’d say.
Modern, American Christianity has been tainted by ideas that if we love God enough, if we hope ENOUGH, we will be blessed with unmitigated happiness and material abundance. Some distortions of Christianity mimic self-help formulas, with stigmatizing phrases like, “You don’t need therapy, you just need Jesus!” There are even Christian diet programs to help us “pray the weight away.”
But following Jesus is not a formula for an easy life. And coercive optimism is a cheap knockoff of Christian hope.
The Psalms attest to the realities of our existence, with prayers of petition, praise and thanksgiving as well as prayers of lament, of complaint, as in Psalm 22’s, “Where ARE you???” God can hold our anger at GOD.
Psalm 22 played a pivotal role in the Protestant Reformation. In the book Here I Stand, a biography of Martin Luther, the Jesus of the middle ages is described as enthroned on a rainbow, waiting to “consign souls to the flames of hell.” (Bainton, Ch. 2)
Medieval Christian culture required a constant, transactional grace, prayers and penances in exchange for indulgences, for reduction of time in purgatory, in the tirelessly negotiated hope of Heaven.
Believers were constantly concerned with the state of their souls. I once thought of Martin Luther as a grumbly German monk with an agenda. But Luther was a human being who struggled with sin and who feared for his salvation.
In the early 1500s, Luther was writing a sermon series on the Psalms. While reading Psalm 22, Luther recognized Jesus’ cry from the cross.
On the day of his death, after Jesus had been hanging on the cross for 6 hours, he cried out, ““Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He prayed the first lines of Psalm 22. The God who was first addressed in Psalm 22 by one of His creatures, prayed Psalm 22 as one suffering.
Luther was moved by the thought that Jesus on the cross experienced the extremes of our humanity, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
Jesus’s death was emotional, the shame of being spat upon, derided and mocked, of being executed as a criminal.
Jesus’ death was physical, his body straining from nails fixed in his feet and hands, the slow suffocation of crucifixion, the sting of blood in his eyes.
And his death was spiritual, experiencing abandonment by God, so desolate, he was alienated from his own divine self.
God took on our being, not just the pleasures of friendship and good food and the beauty of creation, but he took on our every suffering. Even our DOUBT and our sense of ABANDONMENT.
Luther wrote on Psalm 22, “I will say a few words about this ‘being forsaken of God.’––This we cannot understand better than by showing first, what God is! God then is LIFE, light, wisdom, TRUTH, righteousness, GOODNESS, power, joy,
glory, peace, BLESSEDNESS, and all GOOD! And therefore to be left of God, is to be involved in death, darkness, ignorance, lies, sin, malice, weakness, sorrow, confusion, dismay, desperation, damnation and all evil. . . .” (Luther, 359)
On the cross, Jesus embodied the absence of God, holding in his body all sin and all sorrow.
This offers us an answer to the question we ask ourselves in our darkest moments, the question atheists sometimes ask us when they challenge or dismiss our faith. It is a question I asked working in a trauma center this past year, during the pandemic. People hurt and alienated by the church ask us this. Where is God in all the sufferings of this life?
Sometimes it takes distance to discern. So where was God for me in my father’s death? God’s grace was present in the hospice priest who administered the full Last Rites to my father, “against the rules”, since neither of us knew if my father had ever been baptized.
God was present in my father’s last words to me, and in my friend, Gina, who showed up moments after he died and sat with me for hours.
God was present in the loving witness of the hospice team, who first instilled in me the idea I was called to some sort of ministry, even though I had no idea what that ministry would someday look like.
In those hollow moments when you cry out day and night and find no help, you have entered the mystery of salvation, the narrative of suffering, death and resurrection. Have hope.
In Matthew, we read, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” (Mt 1:23)
GOD WITH US. Not a distant judge upon a rainbow. The story of our redemption is a humble GOD who walks beside us, who bore our every trial in his own body, whose own heart melted like wax. Who felt unloved by his father as he was dying. And then, on the third day, rose again.