Life, I believe, is learned from Auschwitz, or Vietnam, or the gulag, or the cancer ward—not from the golf links. If someone gasps from his deathbed that unbearable pain has taught him the meaning of life, I eagerly bend down to hear. I would never show the same interest in the philosophy of some unbearably healthy, happy person.

Perhaps it is strange that I am so interested in the lessons of pain, for, in my life, I have not done much suffering. Yet, of the “seven words” Jesus spoke from the cross, the agonized cry recorded in Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels has fascinated me most: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

There is a theological interest: for in these words we can hear the awful creaking of gears for the Atonement—God heaping human sinfulness on Jesus, and then, horribly, but justly, banishing him from his presence. But there is more to my interest than theology. I have been fascinated by Jesus’ words because they seem so modern.

C. S. Lewis noted in his essay “God in the Dock” that former times took great interest in imagining humankind on trial before God. Nowadays, the tables are turned; people imagine God on trial, called to account for all the terrible things that have happened. Where was God at Auschwitz? Where is God when a baby dies? There, on Calvary, Jesus seemed to anticipate such cries. He knew what it meant to be completely alone, questioning God at the moment of greatest pain. He knew existential despair. His question, as I used to hear it, was a peculiarly twentieth-century accusation.

But now I think I had it wrong. I had not seen what a difference it makes that Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22. I had thought of the quotation as a curious footnote. Perhaps I missed its significance because, in ...

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