Thoughts and Theology on Hiddenness and Abandonment
My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
Recently, I have experienced a season.
A dark night of my soul.
Now my testing has certainly been tame in comparison to most. A struggle for a name that barely displaced my hip. But a slight limp still is a limp all the same, and I now join with the many gimping saints, in struggling with the question, “Why?”
But no, “why” is a question of despair, one any broken soul must push past to mend. And push past we eventually do, those who choose to continue limping down the road of faith. “Why” will have to wait for the end of the road. We each meanwhile journey forth with new names to placate the pain.
No, as my season of testing begins to fade, a far more urgent, far more terrifying question is uttered in the recess of my mind, resounding in the silence with its reverberating claim.
Where were you my God when the pain flooded in?
Where were you my God when I cried out your name?
Where were you my God when I searched desperately and you could not be found?
Would not be found?
Yet I am comforted in my sorrow that I am not alone in finding God hidden in these seasons of agonizing absence.
There was a night, a long, cold, and lonely night where the man of sorrows was more than wounded. And on that cross, the one who was in every way “one with God” cried aloud;
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What are we to make of this most terrifying of mysteries? Jesus the Son of God, abandoned by his Father on the cross? Now I realize this passage is uncomfortable. However, as we approach this Good Friday, the more I’ve become startled at its audacity. Surely this flies in the face of every feel good cliché offered to Christians in their time of need? Surely such a cry from the cross should if naught else give us pause to reflect on the possibility of such a trembling inquisition: If God truly did, even for a moment, abandon his only son, does He ever abandon us?
Now before you dismiss my query, I invite you to sit at the feet of my suffering. But far more than mine, small and feeble in its throbbing, I ponder the darkest nights of every soul. The abusive husband who attends church. The child molested by the one teaching him about God. The wife neglected by his drinking and anger. The suffering innocents defeated by a corrupted system of economics and race. The emaciated child starving for food or his parents affections. The agnostic Jew who looks upon the tragedies of the Holocaust and says, “If there is a God, he was not present in Auschwitz.” Though we may even come up with feeble attempts to the “Why?” the “Where?” continues to perplex even the most faithful of souls.
So as we turn to the Sacred pages, we find Jesus voicing his agony by quoting another. The psalm of dereliction (Psalm 22) which Jesus uttered gasps out a similar demand;
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
No rest for his sorrows. No end to his misery. No salvation in sight. The Psalmist voices the fears of those darkest of nights by facing into the abandonment he feels by a God who should have been there but cannot be found. (Such a powerful vocalization of pain makes me wonder if we indeed could begin to grasp the permissiveness of the psalms then maybe the Scriptures would not be so quickly abandoned in the face of our grief.) Here the psalmist invites the faithful reader of God’s word to ponder with him where God could possibly be in the midst of our excruciating forsakenness.
This word, “forsaken” is a powerfully direct and unabashed word, the Hebrew equivalent used by the Psalmist, עָזַב (‘zb), included in its ancient context the male prerogative to divorce (literally to “forsake” his wife). Thus in contrast to any who would minimize the possibility of God, the psalmist is insistent in his choice of wording at the extent of real and tangible abandonment that has occurred. God has literally removed himself, left behind, departed from, or even “loosened himself” from the psalmist. Far from isolated, the theme of abandonment runs a consistent current of anxiety in other passages of the Scriptures. With reference to the exile, Israel asks;
Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken (‘zb) us these many days? (Lam 5:20)
What has begun in these two passages later in Isaiah has become a conclusion:
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
My Lord has forgotten me.” (Isaiah 49:14)
To be sure, the question is quickly answered, even refuted in v. 15:
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
And yet, in the same body of poetry (thus the same witness), Yahweh concedes the point of abandonment, even though it was “for a moment”:
For a brief moment I abandoned (‘zb) you…
In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you… (Isa 54:7-8)
The question lingers in Israel. It lingers because Israel is so honest in its testimony and because lived reality does not easily conform to core statements of God’s enduring presence. It would appear that we are invited, if only for a moment to be utterly perplexed. It would seem that, even if just for a moment, Jesus was forsaken on the cross. And perhaps its even possible that in those darkest nights, if even just for a moment, there is a real and tangible possibility that God might have abandoned us as well.
And yet commentators have been quick to point out that the psalm Jesus quotes does not end in despair. Though the Psalmist throughout the first half of Psalm 22 is despairing of God’s absent present, he suddenly changes to a pronouncement of praise in v. 24-25:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
Something has happened for the Psalmist that is now causing him to praise. Or maybe something hasn’t happened, but the Psalmist has decided it’s time to praise all the same. Of course, it would seem, God has not been wholly idle in his absence. And his face will not be hidden from the afflicted forever. Sunday will arrive, Jesus will rise, curtains will be torn, Rome will be awed, every knee will bow and heaven will come to Earth.
But today is still Friday.
And other days it is Saturday.
And we wonder where and sometimes even why. The questions it seem are not always alleviated even by the offering of a name, as each unsteady step of our limp assures us we too will be burdened by the forsakenness of a cross. But as I reflect on my dark nights of testing, I return with Jesus to read and sometimes even cry aloud the words of the Psalm. Surely it felt (and even feels) like I have been abandoned by God. But the psalmist conclusion makes me wonder if it is not God’s absence but simply his ability to be seen that has gone away. Hidden from my sight. Indeed, my faith cannot allow me to believe that God’s sovereign hand was wholly removed from my plight. But perhaps intentionally, God was hidden in order that I might start to call. Cry out. Anguish in despair only to huddle back crouched over in faith, curled in the shadow of a cross, where my savior could simultaneously cry, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” and “It is finished.” For there is indeed a refining fire through my suffering that no quiet waters could procure. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences but shouts to us in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world. And sometimes he abandons us it would seem, only for us to realize that he has been present all along, simply hidden from our view, until the appointed time when he will reveal himself again.
Where then is God?
He is here. We could not escape him even if we tried. But for now he is hidden, and we are invited to cry out, even to question if he will ever return. But he will, and he does. As surely as Sunday comes, he will come for us.