My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Another word for forsaken is abandon. When you leave someone or something behind you forsake it, and the person or object or belief becomes forsaken. Sometimes pets are abandoned; they have been forsaken. Sometimes places are forsaken; no one goes there anymore. And perhaps most tragically, we live in a world where people and children are forsaken. Men and women wait their lives out in prison, forsaken by most of society; elderly people sit in homes with few visitors, forsaken by those younger and busier; children who don’t or can’t measure up to certain standards are sometimes forsaken by school systems. And right now, Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, civilians in Yemen, and the people of Venezuela have been forsaken by most of the world’s leaders.
We know and see abandonment of people by people in our world, but in Matthew 27:46, Jesus accuses God of forsaking him.
Jesus cries out to God with the plea, “Why have you forsaken me?” And it seems that this cry must come straight from the core of his pain. Perhaps this is the deepest part of sadness and abandonment that Jesus had ever felt. There were leaders in power who forsook him; there were teachers from his own faith who forsook him; even some of his closest followers abandoned him at the end. But for Jesus to feel he had even been abandoned by God—this takes the feeling of abandonment to another level. A level that, if I am honest, scares me.
Jesus’s words and feeling of abandonment, are a direct reference to the first verse of Psalm 22. Here the psalmist cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?” And the psalmist goes on to say, “I cry to you by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.”
But then the tone of the psalm starts to turn. Verse 3 begins with yet: “Yet you are holy,” says the psalmist of God, followed by, “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe … you have rescued me.”
And this word yet, this turning in the psalm, reminds us that Jesus wasn’t abandoned by God. Jesus’s depth of pain and sorrow and loneliness felt like being forsaken, felt like total abandonment, but it wasn’t, and this is what I hold fast to. God didn’t forsake Jesus. God didn’t abandon God’s son. We know this to be true, because we know the whole story. We know about Easter Sunday; we know about resurrection; we know about new life and bodies being restored. We know about rescue. We will never be abandoned by God, for this is not in the nature of God.
I am reminded of a story that a young woman shared with me when I visited Sicily a few years ago to learn more about the ongoing refugee crisis. This young woman had been held captive in Libya and forced into an unsafe crossing of the Mediterranean Sea. The boat was not seaworthy, and before long, she found herself in the dangerous waters. She feared for her life and for the child in her womb and kept trying to grab a rope because she didn’t know how to swim. She was crying and praying to Jesus, trying to stay afloat. She told me that it was in that moment of being in the cold, dark water that she knew God was real. She attributes her rescue to the hand of God, and she told me it was by the grace of God that she was alive.
This woman could have said God forsook her. She could have said that she was abandoned by God, but instead she attributes her life and her rescue to God. She has experienced the “yet” of Psalm 22 and that is what she holds in her memory. The God who kept her safe is in her mind, the God who rescued her is her God. She is living on the Sunday side of Good Friday now, the restored and resurrected side of forsaken.
I don’t mean to have us skip over real feelings of deep pain. That would not be true to our experience here on earth. Nor do I want to ever gloss over Jesus’s or others’ feelings of abandonment and being forsaken. That feeling was real for Christ. That feeling is real for many people today. But I do hope to remind myself that feeling forsaken is not the same as being forsaken, and that despite deep sorrow and loneliness and fear, God does not forsake us—ever.
Wendy Jager is on staff at the Reformed Church of Highland Park in New Jersey. She also works part time for Interfaith-RISE, a branch office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.