I sat alone in a cabin in the mountains on Friday. That little retreat was a fantastic opportunity to edit my novel, but I can’t say I wasn’t lonely. It turns out God gives us friends and family for a reason, and I missed mine.
That was Good Friday. We celebrated Easter, but first, we both mourned and cherished the death of Jesus Christ. One Man, over 2000 years ago, hung on a cross, bled and died, and made His mark on history.
Pastors all over the country preached that night. They each had a slightly different message. Redemption, propitiation, suffering, salvation, love. And they were all correct (hopefully). The Cross was a scandalous moment. A Man (yet, God-incarnate, God-infinite) died a death He never had to, for us. It carries a purpose and meaning equally infinite. We will stare at that date for eternity and find new meaning every time. But Friday, alone in the mountains, aching to go home because I just wanted a hug, what did the Cross mean for me then?
Three years ago, I read a book for one of my theology classes – Jesus and the God of Israel, by Richard Bauckham. Honestly, it was a dry read, mostly. I skimmed most of it, except for the last chapter, where Bauckham explains the significance of Jesus’ cry on the Cross in Mark 15:34, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” 1
It’s a peculiar passage. Many theologians say that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 because it was known as a Messianic passage. That He tried to show the Jews that He was the Messiah. Maybe that’s true, but Bauckham has a different explanation, and frankly, a much more poignant one. Bauckham calls it Jesus’ “self-identification with the Godforsaken.”
First, if Jesus quoted a passage for the benefit of Jerusalem’s religious leaders, why didn’t He quote it in Hebrew? If it was for the benefit of the Romans, why not Latin or Greek? It was, and is, peculiar. He chose not to use any of those languages. Instead, He spoke in Aramaic, the common tongue of the common man in Judea, not the whole world. He spoke not for the hierarchs, but for the plebeians, the poor and hungry masses gathered around the Cross for a good show. The weak and infirm and enslaved.
“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”
Psalm 22 is awfully descriptive. It certainly looks like a prophecy about the Cross. The author of Hebrews quoted it when he wrote about the salvation Jesus accomplished for us. It makes sense to call it a Messianic passage. But it’s more than that. Psalm 22 is one of a collection of psalms known as the Psalms of Lament.
All of these psalms have a common thread. The author faced danger and suffering and cried out for deliverance. The author, despite an obvious intimacy with God, could not sense His presence or perceive His leadership in the midst of the pain and found himself abandoned and rejected by God, who left the psalmist to suffer and die. Sound familiar?
Theologically, suffering has always been a difficult topic. How can an all-powerful God call Himself good while He allows so much suffering in the world?
How many couples pray for a child for years and the child dies from some strange illness or freak accident? How many young people are killed by drunk drivers? How many children are bullied mercilessly in schools? How many have been abused? How may people plead for the lives of their loved ones in hospitals today? How many have suffered divorce or affairs or abandonment and begged God for restoration?
We’ve heard the stories. How many have lived them?
The fact is, Western Christianity has no idea how to handle suffering. We try to defend God without painting Him as a senile old man, and we can’t bear to deal with Job. Sometimes, the people who scream that God abandoned them, by all the evidence at hand, just seem right. We shut our mouths and say we’ll pray for them. We shrink back to the shadows. We try to forget about the discomforting reality of it all. We quietly wonder how God could do such a thing and then deliberately forget about it when we can’t find the answer. But, foolish as we are, we’ve never bothered to look back at the Cross.
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
I’ve known a bit of suffering. I remember spending a birthday completely alone. I remember how powerless I felt while a boy who weighed over 100 pounds more than me sat on my scrawny chest and slapped me in the face, repeatedly. I remember all the ridicule and teasing a tiny 14-year-old boy finds at an all-male high school. I remember that strange quivering in my father’s voice when he told me my mother was dead. I remember when my brother told me his chemotherapy and radiation had failed, that the cancer would claim him if God didn’t give us a miracle. I remember when they carried his body out of the house a week later.
I remember all these things, and plenty more. Though compared to some, my life hasn’t been so bad. Yet, it’s always easier to count our curses instead of our blessings, to shake a fist at our Father and accuse Him of gross negligence.
But remember the Cross. Remember who Jesus was, is – God-incarnate, with all power and authority. Remember that He chose to go to the Cross. Remember that He could have stopped it any time. Remember that He didn’t. Remember that He chose to cry those words, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Because He knows. Because He sees. Because your way has never been hidden from Him. And knowing that suffering, He chose to come. He chose not to deliver you from it like a wizard with a wand, but to stoop low and suffer with you, to suffer for you.
In fact, He chose to have David write those words so He could scream them later. Because He knew the one thing we rarely want to accept – suffering part of this life. With that fruit in the Garden, we chose it, and we languish under the consequences of that choice, but He doesn’t. He did not choose that sin. Yet, He chose to come down and take our flesh and our sin and carry it to the Cross. On that Cross, He allowed the Father to abandon Him. To forsake Him, just as we feel He has forsaken us.
He came and bore our burdens, our sorrows, our suffering. A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.2 He chose to be forsaken, like us.
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani. We are not alone.
That abandonment was real. He is the Truth, the very Word of God. When He cried out, He wasn’t just putting on a show. He was abandoned by the Father whose will He came to carry out. Snatched from the perfect communion of the Trinity. He bled and suffered and died, alone.
But He knew something that we so easily forget: He makes all things new. In Christ, there is no death without resurrection. No suffering without restoration. We may not see it now, but we will see it one day.
Fundamentally, that means we are not forsaken. The Cross is a testimony that He will not allow death and suffering and despair to overcome us, no matter what the cost.
Remember: There is a resurrection coming.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare He own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As is it written, “For Your sake we are being killed all day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Rom. 8:31-39
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani. We are not alone.
1 This is still the only commentary that’s ever made me weep. It felt like someone pointed a finger at my heart and called out the pain of the loss of my mother and brother. Called it forth, but with the first whispers of being healed. If you’d like to read it, you can find it here.
2 Isaiah 53:3.