And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" —Mark 15:33-34, ESV
Here Jesus speaks a word we could have spoken. Not always, not everywhere. But there are times when this word has become our word, words he may have taken right out of our mouths: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Sometimes this word remains unspoken, but the sentiment is a steady reality. There is no great anguish. There are no tears. There is just the daily, ongoing experience of God's absence. We don't feel God's presence in prayer or worship, but we still go through the motions. We read the Bible faithfully, but gain no flashes of inspiration. This reality has become such a part of our lives we don't panic. We recognize that extraordinary spiritual experiences are few and far between and that we live in vast stretches of between. We wouldn't quite say we're forsaken, but neither would we say God is a living reality. But at the end of another dreary day of divine absence, when we turn out the bed lamp and lie still in the dark, waiting for sleep to overtake us, we wonder, Why don't I experience God more?
Sometimes the experience of God-forsakenness is much more keen. You are at a place of deep and profound need. You are staring into the face of death. Or your spouse is. Or your child is. Or you've lost a job or are about to lose a marriage. Or you are losing your faith. But whatever the crisis, it is a crisis. My God, you hang on a cross, and it's excruciating, and this would be an awfully good time for God to show up, to prove that your faith is not in vain, that all your efforts have been worth it, that everything you've depended on for meaning and purpose and direction has been true and right and good.
But God is not showing up. There is nothing but silence, and the sounds that make the silence worse, like the wind blowing through the trees, air going nowhere in particular.
What is it with God, the God who promises abundant life, the God who invites all the weary and heavy laden to seek him out for rest? Why does this God sometimes seem to fail us just when the chips are down, just when we need him most?
Let's not paint an overly dreary picture here. We Christians don't believe tragedy is the last word. Indeed, God does marvelous things in our eyes. He's healed some of cancer. He's restored marriages. He's brought back a prodigal son. His power has helped many stop drinking. Miracles have restored dead faith. Let's not get too gloomy here—God is good! And we have lots of evidence of that not only in the Bible but in our lives. But it's precisely the manifest goodness of God that makes those moments of forsakenness so much harder to bear.
Yet if we would have eyes to see, we'd see that the goodness of God is actually most manifest in these moments of forsakenness.
Early on in our journey with Jesus, we weak and fickle people need signs and wonders, reminders that God is real, that he is with us and will never forsake us. It's not unusual in these early years to have prayers miraculously answered, and divine guidance given—for life to be an exciting adventure of walking with God.
But at some point, in the middle of the euphoria, we build an idol. God has given us extraordinary experiences of forgiveness, has miraculously answered our prayers, has given us a palpable sense of his presence day by day. But we weak and fickle people inevitably start depending on those experiences to shore up our faith. When a famine of experience ensues, we try to manufacture a sense of divine presence by attending a conference that promises to fill our spiritual tanks, or by flitting from one prayer technique to the next to find that spiritual buzz.