“In the National Gallery of Art in London there's a picture of the crucifixion [of Jesus] that is so dark that when you first look at it, you can't see anything. But if you stand and ponder it ... eventually you will see ... a very dim figure of the crucified Christ. If you look longer ..., you ... begin to discern behind the figure of Christ the presence of God the Father, whose hands are holding up his Son, and on his face is a look of unimaginable grief.”[1]

If ever there was a question that deserved an answer, it's the question posed by Jesus Christ as he was dying. He was being executed by one of the most horrific methods ever devised. He was being crucified.

Crucifixion was not only a painful, but was a shameful way to die. The condemned person's wrists and legs were tied and often nailed to large wooden beams, and the body was left hanging in public view for hours, sometimes days, until the person died.

Jesus was God's messenger who went about doing good, healing multitudes, feeding thousands, freeing many from the control of demons, and telling people how to enter the reign of God.[2] He had done nothing to deserve such a death. But even the most righteous prophets—precisely because they are righteous—are perceived as a threat by those who hold power. Jesus' followers believed—and Jesus himself claimed—that he had a special relationship with God, a relationship so unique that he called God his own Father[3], and claimed, “I and the Father are One.”[4]

In Jesus' day, those who wielded political power also guarded religious orthodoxy. Perhaps they would have accepted Jesus' claims if he had come leading an army and bringing political liberation. But they could never accept someone who taught his followers to love their enemies.

And so Jesus, though he was faultless, was hanging on a cross, dying an excruciating death. He had prayed that this moment would not come, yet when it did, he did not try to escape. As he hung there on the cross, however, an overwhelming sense of alone-ness must have overtaken him. He had always felt so close to God—even being One with him. But now ... now he felt alone.

So he cried out some of the saddest words ever uttered. Words that hung in the air so powerfully that they are recorded for us in Jesus' native language: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” —and the interpretation is provided, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[5]

These words pierce our hearts just as the nails pierced Jesus' flesh. Some people find them intolerable, and refuse to believe that God would have allowed his Son to be crucified. Others believe that God really did abandon Jesus—that a holy and pure God was forced to turn his back on the One who was bearing the sins of the whole world.

They may be right, but I find it just as likely that Jesus really did share an experience that many of us have felt. He experienced the feeling of being abandoned by God even though, just as in the painting, God was present with him, supporting him through the pain and suffering with him.

Christians believe in a God who enters into our world and who suffers with us. John Stott has written,

“I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. ... In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? ... I turn to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.”Stott continues by saying,

“He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering.”[6]

Have you, like Jesus, felt forsaken by God?

That doesn't make you a bad person. God knows just how you feel. Jesus was guiltless, without sin, yet he felt that way. You are human—and Jesus shared in your humanity.

Even though Jesus may have felt abandoned by God, he was not. Yes, he died. But death was not the end. Jesus was raised from the dead—and not just from the dead, he was raised to reign eternally!

The first ones to proclaim this message understood that the prophet David had foreseen this long before. He had spoken about Jesus in the ancient Psalms when he wrote, “you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, you will not allow your holy one to see decay.”[7]

Have you ever felt forsaken by God? It's a normal, even understandable feeling.

“My God, why have you forsaken me?” is a question that deserves an answer. The answer may be slow in coming, but the answer is that you have never really been abandoned by God. He may, as in the painting, be out of view, but He is there, to deliver and to rescue you, just as he was for Jesus.

Many times God saves us from suffering. Sometimes he saves us through suffering. Yes, there are questions that are still unanswered. But over those question marks is the sign of the cross—a sign that says, “You are not forsaken.”

 


[1] Bruce W. Thielemann, “The Cry of Mystery,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 66.

[2] Acts 10:36-37

[3] John 5:18

[4] John 10:30

[5] Matt. 27:46, TNIV

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (IVP, 1986), pp. 335-336.

[7] Acts 2:27, TNIV, cf. Psalm 16:10.

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