My God My God Why Have You Forsaken Me?
October 27, 2019
When I say the word “Christian”, what type of person comes to your mind? Is it someone who is thoughtful and contemplative? Do you picture someone who is charismatic and full of life? Is it someone who is involved in their community, seeking justice and restoration? Do they have a halo over their head?
When I hear the word Christian, this is what comes to my mind: (powerpoint picture of Buddy the Elf saying, “I just like to smile! Smiling’s my favorite!”). Now, I hope we can all agree that this is not the most accurate caricature of a Christian, but this is the picture I was sold growing up. In Sunday school as a kid on up through high school, I was taught that this is what the ideal Christian looks like: someone who has it all together. Someone who is so full of the peace and joy of Christ that they can’t help but exude it at all times. Someone who may be affected by suffering or tragedy for a brief time, but is so deeply connected with God through prayer and Bible-reading that they are able to return to a state of peace and joy before too long. No matter what life throws their way, their faith in God is not shaken, and they are even thankful to God for the trials they have been given to strengthen them and bring them closer to God. For most of my life this is the type of Christian I thought I had to be and so I strove to be one.
I always believed the sign of real faith in God was the measure of joy and happiness I was experiencing at any given moment. Anytime I didn’t feel like a joyful praising Christian, was only a reflection of my lack of faith in God. I wasn’t in touch enough with God.
This image I had of what a Christian should look/act like worked for a while, until I was plopped as a chaplain into a state psychiatric hospital. In a place that is more prison than hospital, where trauma practically drips down the walls, where delusions are reality and hallucinations cling to the mind like a plague, I found myself unable to praise God, unable to be joyful. Trying to be joyful in the midst of such suffering seemed fake and forced. I found that I needed a new image of what it means to be a Christian. These old images and ideals I had grown up with no longer fit.
Maybe it’s time for the whole of Christianity to find a new image, a new ideal of what it means to be a Christian; maybe it’s time for us to rethink the American Christian ideal that if you trust God you should always be praising, joy-filled and unconcerned with your present suffering. Because the reality is that this ideal image of a faithful Christian does not match our human experience. We go through seasons of life or trauma that leave our soul empty of praise and joy. We experience illness. Job loss. An accident. Depression. Divorce. Death of a loved one. And when we find our souls bereft and empty of joy, we question our commitment to God. Perhaps it’s something wrong with us; maybe I’m not trusting God enough with this trauma, this life-change, because otherwise I wouldn’t feel this way right now.
But for us to assume that the only way to approach God is with thanksgiving and praise is to deny God’s presence in the valleys of life; it is to deny the possibility of engaging God from the depths of our despair, our sadness, our protests against the present circumstances. Not only that, but how many biblical characters can you name who fit the American Christian caricature of someone who is full of nothing but praise, smiles and joy? Abraham and Moses both protested God’s way of dealing with things on multiple occasions. Jeremiah the prophet lived a miserable existence of sadness and frustration with God, asking God at times to end his life. Mary, the mother of Jesus wept at her son’s death. Even Paul, who we indiscriminately quote as the one who says, “Rejoice in all things….be joyful in all circumstances,” even he is a blubbering emotional mess in some of his letters to the Corinthian church, and he even writes about his wish for God to end his life. And David, often used as the quintessential model of what a faithful Christian looks like (minus of course his fling with Bathsheba), even he would tear his clothes and cover himself in ash because of his circumstances, authoring countless psalms of lament that protest against God and bemoan the suffering he was enduring. All of these biblical greats would flunk out of church if they showed up in any typical American church today.
As Christians we need to reclaim the biblical language of lament, we need to unlearn these flat images of what a faithful Christian life looks like, and we need to learn how to embrace our very real human emotions of sadness, despair and grief, as openings to engage God authentically, and as opportunities to receive God’s grace.
We’re continuing our sermon series on the Psalms as a mirror for our souls. Athanasius, the early church father said: “most of Scripture speaks to us; but the Psalms speak for us.” The Psalms give language and articulation to every human emotion, and show us how to approach God in prayer no matter what we are feeling. If the book of Psalms is a collection of inspired prayers, used by the church for millennia, then we have ample permission to engage God with lament. Lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow; lament psalms often accuse God or protest against the suffering that must be endured. Over one-third of the 150 psalms are prayers of lament. That’s a lot! And yet, these are the psalms that are most overlooked, most ignored because they don’t match the type of prayers that good Christians “should” be praying.
Psalm 22 that Cindy/Paul read for us is one of those prayers. It is a prayer that rises from the depths of the human soul. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me? Oh my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night but find no rest.” Our psalmist is distraught. God is nowhere to be found. Death and suffering seem to be prevailing. Our psalmist has been praying, but there is no answer.
He carries on: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of join; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my chest; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.” Our psalmist’s grief is so great that his heart feels poured out and empty; his body is wracked with pain and he feels surrounded on every side by an enemy. But worst of all, he is alone. Forsaken. Seemingly abandoned by the God who was supposed to always be by his side. He cries out: Where the hell are you God? You were supposed to be here. You were supposed to heal this disease, you were supposed to save my loved one, you were supposed to prevent the accident, you were supposed to do something, anything. But all I get is silence.
Our psalmist not only cries out in grief to God, but he accuses God. He lays it all out on the table, no holds-barred. He pours out his soul and he requests just one thing of God; in verse 11: “be not far from me, Lord; for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” And again in verse 19: “O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!”
This isn’t the type of prayer we were ever taught to pray in Sunday school. It is not joyful, it is not full of praise, it accuses God – which is a big no-no – and some would say it lacks real faith in God. Because real faith would never doubt whether God is actually present; real faith would never accuse God; real faith would never complain so much to God.
And yet, this is the exact prayer that came from Jesus’ lips as he hung limp on a cross: eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani – “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus prayed this prayer, Psalm 22, with his dying breaths. Jesus, it seems, would not even qualify as a faithful Christian by some people’s standards. Jesus cries out from the depths of his human soul. He laments. He feels abandoned by God – abandoned by his own Father. Now let’s just stop and think about that. Jesus, who is believed to be fully God and fully human, even Jesus doubted that God, his Father, was present at the point of his own death. Even Jesus felt forsaken by God and cried out for God to come, be present. If Jesus felt forsaken, then how much more justified are we in our feelings and cries of abandonment from God? Jesus, the God-man who lived the fullest human life, shows us what it means to be faithful and human at the same time.
I have found over the course of my time as a chaplain at the psych hospital, that those who suffer acutely and frequently, whether it’s from mental illness or something else, tend to be more in touch with what it truly means to be human – the way Jesus taught us to be human. Jesus, on the night of his arrest, in Gethsemane feared God’s providence. He feared suffering and death. He was so afraid that he sweat blood as he prayed vigorously for God to remove the cup of his suffering. He was hurt by the abandonment of his friends; Jesus’ prayer for God to remove his suffering was not answered. At the point of his death, hanging on a cross, Jesus feared God’s abandonment – he feared the abandonment of his own Father! Because Jesus was afraid, we can be too. Because Jesus embraced his weakness rather than running away from it, we can too. Because Jesus didn’t put on a good face and pretend to be a joyful, praising Christian in the midst of suffering, neither do we have to. Because of Jesus, we can have the courage to be truly human. We can more readily accept our limitations and our weaknesses; we can approach God in our grief, our sadness, our fear.
This picture of what it means to be a Christian, aware of our limitations and weakness is very different than our oftentimes American view of what it means to be Christian. Many of us are taught that to be a Christian means to be joyful when we suffer, it means to be at peace when we are distressed. But I want to challenge these ideas. In many ways we are trying to be more “Christian” than Jesus was before and during his death.
Jesus was anything but joyful that night in Gethsemane and on the cross. Jesus was anything but peaceful as he sweat blood, fearful of what would happen to him. Jesus was anything but “fixed” and put together in the sense that we want/expect all Christians to be. I want to suggest that to be Christian is not to be any of these things; to be a Christian is not about being joyful, peace-filled or put together; but to be a Christian is to recognize our limitation and our weakness, and to recognize our need for a Savior. To be a Christian is to be fully human, with all of the baggage, illnesses and weaknesses that come with that—and to allow ourselves to be embraced by God in spite of all these things. To be human is to have the courage to approach God with our lament.
When we acknowledge the fact that we worship a suffering God, then we have permission to suffer too, and we have permission to accept those in our midst who suffer, rather than assume there is something wrong with their faith, or to push them away because they don’t fit the mold of what it looks like to be a “joyful, peace-filled, praising Christian” all the time; that’s exhausting – Jesus didn’t do it, so we don’t have to either.
Lament is the rawest and most natural language of the human soul. Lament is the articulation of our soul’s longing for God’s presence; lament longs for God’s redemption; it is our soul’s longing for the day when tears and death will be no more. And in my opinion, I actually think lament and protest take more faith than it does to praise God when things are good. Because to engage God from the depths of our grief, our suffering, our doubts about God’s providence, that type of faith needs a big God to believe in. And indeed we do have a big God, who is able to receive all of our prayers, all of our emotions. The act of lament is an act of hope. It is an act of hope that God is bigger than all the tragedies, the sorrow, the accidents of life – lament is an act of trust that there is a God who is listening and who also mourns the sad state of things.
As Christians we live between the crucifixion and the resurrection. We live between despair and hope. Between death and new life. Between suffering and redemption. The cross exposed the violence, the suffering, the tragedy of human existence, and the resurrection overcame it. We live in the shadow of the cross, all too aware of the reality of pain and death and we eagerly await the resurrection, when every tear will be wiped away, when all things will be made new and life will triumph over death. Lament meets Jesus at the cross and looks forward to the day of resurrection.
And we do not lament in vain. We do not cry out to God in vain, because God is surely present with us. And if we slow down enough, we might just catch glimpses of the resurrection all around us.
Yes, there is good reason to praise God, but let us be courageous enough to let our lament mingle with our praise in a beautiful melody of faithful prayer. Let us allow ourselves the permission to be human the way Jesus taught us to be.