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 the twentieth century, a quotation seems an odd way to express agony. A man who spouts Shakespeare as he dies would seem to us out of touch with his own feelings, for we admire originality and self-expression.
We revere—even unbelievers revere—Jesus as a strikingly original man. But he was equally—and this we do not so revere—a man of tradition. The Gospels show him as a man steeped in Scripture. He grew up in a Bible-saturated culture. His people knew the Psalms well, and believed they told as much truth about their lives as any words of self-expression could. So did Jesus. At his moment of greatest temptation, he quoted Scripture. In introducing his ministry, he quoted Scripture. At his trial, he quoted Scripture. At his death, he quoted Scripture. While suffering, he spoke to his Father in the words of Psalm 22.
I feel sure the choice was not arbitrary. Jesus did not pick the psalm’s words out of the air because they happened to express what he was feeling. The author of the Sermon on the Mount did not need to borrow from Bartlett’s.
It is important to realize that Jesus would not merely have known the first verse of Psalm 22, which he quoted. He would have known the entire psalm, and known it well, so Jesus would have had the context of Psalm 22 in mind when he quoted that verse.
I think it very likely that he had been meditating on that psalm all day. Imagine its words turning through Jesus’ head as he stood through his trial, as he heard the phony testimony and felt the blows, as he listened to the soldiers bicker over his clothes. He must have quoted Psalm 22 not only because it expressed what he was feeling, but because it described what was happening.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent.…
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads:
“He trusts in the Lord;
let the Lord rescue him.…”
A band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.
vv. 1–2, 7–8, 16–18 (NIV)
The psalm is ascribed to David, but it seems to describe events beyond anything Israel’s great king experienced. The first half seesaws between descriptions of a mob scene and desperate, unanswered cries for help. Truly, it horrifies. And then, without warning or explanation, the psalm shifts to exalted praise. “You who fear the Lord, praise him!… For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (vv. 23–24). The psalm concludes with familiar messianic promises: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord” (v. 27).
If Jesus had that context in mind, he was not responding to his suffering as the first existentialist theologian, discovering the silence of God during his hour of need. Rather, he was responding to suffering by falling back on the Scripture he had learned, for he understood his experience as fulfilling Scripture. Jesus expressed his agony using words that centuries of God’s people had taken on their lips in prayer. Jesus’ suffering did not set him apart. It united him more deeply with the great current of God’s suffering people.
And if that is so, Jesus’ question was not pure despair. Yes, he gave the loud, anguished shout out of darkness. They are completely and authentically his words, quotation or not. He was alone, deserted by God. But beyond his shout looms the end of the psalm: victory, deliverance, the reconciliation of the world. Jesus certainly knew that the God of Psalm 22 saves his people when they cry to him.
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.…
Future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it.
vv. 23–24, 30–31
Jesus, and all students of Scripture who looked for Messiah, would have studied Psalm 22, trying to discern its meaning. Jesus, at Golgotha, knew its meaning. There is no contradiction between these words of Jesus—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—and his last words—“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Both speak of the darkness. Both speak of relationship: “My God, my Father.” Both speak of faith.
How am I to meet suffering? I have long thought that Jesus’ example gives me permission to say what I feel, and not coat it with a Panglossian patina of “faith.” If I feel deserted by God, I may tell him so.
The trouble with this is that Jesus’ suffering was unique. I can never be deserted in the way he was, simply because he suffered so I need not.
However, Jesus’ quoting of the psalm makes his cry un-unique. It was a cry from the hymnbook. It belonged specially to Jesus, but not exclusively to him—any more than suffering on behalf of others belonged exclusively to him. He belonged, and I belong, to a community with a tradition of righteous suffering. I should use that tradition to express my fears, my woe, my sense of desertion, just as Jesus did. Even the psalms do not all resolve into happy endings. It is all right, after all, to pray the psalms with your heart, and thus it is all right for a Christian, in prayer, to despair.
But let no one do it alone. That is where the biblical tradition differs deeply from the modern way. A twentieth-century sufferer knows that he is completely alone; he almost flaunts being alone. A biblical sufferer knows that, even when alone, he follows the path of those who went alone before him. Even the best of them cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
This is what poetry often does, of course: It expresses the particularity of one person’s experience and universalizes it. When, centuries later, I read lines that powerfully express what I feel, I am joined to the author and indeed to the whole community of readers who have responded to the poem. A lonely experience becomes a community experience.
But Psalm 22 is more than a poem, it is a prayer, and more than a prayer, it is an answered prayer. When I use it, I join more than a community that has discovered itself in art; I join a redeemed community. I am part of a people who have cried out in the same way, and have been delivered. Even as I cry out, I form part of the deliverance. For the psalm promises, “Future generations will be told about the Lord” (v. 30). I am one who has been told of Jesus’ great death and resurrection, and of his cry. I am one who has taken up the cry, and will take up the deliverance. I follow in his steps, even when I cry out.
That is authentically Christian despair. David expressed it, Jesus expressed it, I can express it. I need not hem in my feelings with theological qualifications. Let me say it with all the agony I possess. But let me do it in full knowledge that I am not the first to do so. Let me speak in the words that David used in order to remember that I am part of a community through time that has spoken these words. Let me remember, too, how his prayer was answered—that I am part of the answer.
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