I recently read a wonderful book called ‘Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved’ by Kate Bowler. The book is about Kate’s experience, as a woman in her thirties, about being diagnosed with terminal cancer - of looking at her young husband and her four-year old boy and knowing the chances are very good they’re going to lose her. It was written during the first year of Kate’s diagnosis – she’s still alive, thanks to an experimental drug treatment, but her diagnosis is still terminal. It’s a wonderfully honest and refreshing book; you will not find clichés here! That’s what the title means, of course. So many of us have experienced this! We’re going through some time of deep suffering and some well-meaning soul says piously “Oh well – everything happens for a reason”, and somehow we just can’t find any comfort in that phrase; it just annoys us!
In one of the funniest chapters of the book, Kate talks about how she decided to take up swearing for Lent. Now, I’m a person who one year decided to stop swearing for Lent – I fined myself a dollar off my open stage beer money for every infraction – so I was intrigued by the idea that swearing could be a good Lent discipline! As I read the chapter I realized what she was doing: she was protesting against this need that Christians seem to have to dismiss death and suffering and give easy answers for everything. Her Lenten swearing discipline was aimed at those easy answers.
She talks about how she was out for coffee with friends one night and got so frustrated with this Christian desire to jollify everything. “This is Lent”, she said. “I’m dying of cancer – I’m staring into the face of death – and during Lent the church has asked all its members to join me there. We started out with an ash cross and the words ‘Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return’. That sets the theme for Lent! But no one is willing to stay there with me!” And then she uses this wonderful phrase – probably my favourite phrase of the whole book: “Everyone is trying to Easter the crap out of my Lent!”
Well, we’re not going to ‘Easter the crap out of each other’s Lent’! Today is Good Friday, and although all around us people have started wishing each other Happy Easter, we’re going to stay with the cross today. And one of the best ways of doing that is staying with our psalm, Psalm 22. Here are the first two verses:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).
And then in the next few verses the mood seems to change abruptly.
Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (vv.3-5)
In other words, ‘There are all sorts of stories about how you worked mighty miracles to help our ancestors in the past; they trusted you and you saved them. So what’s the matter with me? Am I a worse sinner than them? Am I not really one of your people after all? Or are those stories just not true?’
‘And what have I done to deserve this?’ the psalmist asks. In verses 9-11 he talks about how he has been dedicated to God since he was born; ‘since my mother bore me you have been my God’ (v.10). He looks back on a life dedicated to the service of God, and asks himself if this is all the reward he gets. Why did he bother, if he was just going to be abandoned?
Which of us hasn’t felt like this from time to time? I think of people living with long-term, chronic pain who don’t seem to be able to get any relief. They pray over and over again; they lie awake at night, unable to sleep, doing their best to hold back the tears so as not to wake their spouse. They read stories about how God miraculously heals people, and they think, ‘Why doesn’t he heal me, then? Am I some particularly vile sort of sinner, that he refuses to help me? I always thought I was a Christian and a child of God, but perhaps I was wrong – perhaps I’m really nothing to God’. You see, the worst thing this sort of suffering does to some people is not to stop them believing in God, but to stop them believing in a loving God, and give them a monster instead.
Psalm 22 is a prayer for people who feel like that; it enables us to pray our experience, honestly and openly, before God. It’s the prayer of the person who suffers chronic pain day and night. It’s the prayer of the person who’s suffered some public disgrace and is afraid to show their face in public for fear of the ridicule they’ll encounter. It’s the prayer of the bereaved person who longs for some sort of sense of companionship from God in their loneliness, but finds only empty skies above.
And this is the prayer of Jesus on the Cross. ‘At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ (Mark 15:34). Jesus was a Jewish boy who would have learned the psalms by heart at a very early age. Now, in his hour of greatest need, the psalms gave him the words he needed to pour out his heart to the Father he felt had abandoned him.
The early Christians developed a new way of reading the Hebrew scriptures. They came to believe that Jesus was the climax of the Old Testament story; he was the one the whole story had been leading up to. And because they believed that, they loved to look for hints of Jesus in the Old Testament passages. Some of the hints they point to seem fanciful to us, but it was all part of their belief that Jesus was the true Word of God, the highest revelation of God to us, and that the whole story up until then had been pointing to him.
So they took their cue from Jesus praying the first verse of this psalm on the cross, and they looked for other hints of his story in there. When they read the psalmist saying, ‘O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest’ (v.2), they thought of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying that God would take this cup of suffering away from him – and not getting what he prayed for. When they read, ‘All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads”’ (v.7), they thought of the soldiers mocking Jesus, putting the crown of thorns on his head and dressing him in a purple robe to taunt him. They thought of the chief priests saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him’”’ (Matthew 27:42). When they read ‘They pierce my hands and my feet’ (v.16 BAS), they thought of Jesus on the cross with the nails through his hands and feet. And they remembered how the soldiers divided his clothes between them and threw dice for his seamless outer robe, and they read, ‘they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots’ (v.18).
Old Testament scholar John Goldingay explains that this psalm isn’t a prophecy in the sense that someone wrote it thinking “One day there will be a Messiah and all these things will happen to him”. This is a prayer for Israelites to pray when they need to – it gives them permission to acknowledge their sense that God has abandoned them. But it’s also one of the most horrifying prayers in the Book of Psalms, so it’s not surprising that when the Messiah comes - and goes through excruciating suffering and a sense that God has abandoned him - this is the prayer that comes to his lips.
Goldingay goes on to point out a really important truth. Of course, Jesus wasn’t abandoned by God in the sense that God wasn’t present at the Cross. God was there all right; that’s why Jesus prayed to him! You can’t address someone who has wandered off out of earshot! God is watching as Jesus is executed; God is suffering as deeply in his spirit as Jesus is suffering. And maybe more. It’s hard to imagine the depth of agony involved in watching your son be executed when you could stop it. But God doesn’t stop it. God listens to Jesus asking, “Why have you forsaken me?” and does nothing. God’s forsaking Jesus doesn’t lie in going away, but in being present and seeming to do nothing.
So many people feel they’ve experienced that! They’ve gone through awful suffering, and all the while God was sitting in heaven, knowing what was going on, and doing nothing to stop it. How could he do that?
We can attempt to give a rational answer to this question, which is good as far as it goes. We can say, “God has set up the world in such a way that people’s decisions are really free. He doesn’t make wood hard when we build houses with it, but soft when people want to use it to hit other people. He wants to teach us to truly love him, and so he can’t compel us to obey him”.
All of which is true, but it tends not to help people who are hanging on the Cross, or being unjustly persecuted, or dying of terminal illnesses. They want a sense that God is with them in their suffering. Why does he seem so far away?
And that’s the difference the Incarnation makes. Of course, we’re limited by human language; we’ve been talking about Jesus hanging on the Cross and the Father as a separate entity altogether, watching on the sidelines. But St. Paul changes the language a bit: “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three in one and one in three. God was not separate from Jesus on the Cross. Jesus is God, and in Jesus God was suffering too.
And this was not something that just started on Good Friday. Throughout the whole of Jesus’ life, he had been identifying with us in our sufferings. Think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings he experienced. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working-class family and experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father at a very young age, so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family – they even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.
Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.
Jesus has gone through all of this, and God has gone through it in him. As the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are…’ (Hebrews 4:15). In Jesus, God has allowed himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.
In 1967, at the age of seventeen, Joni Eareckson broke her neck in a diving accident, and she has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair; she was often tempted to abandon her Christian faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilized in a Stryker frame with absolutely no control over any of her bodily functions.
But then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realization was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her. It was still a long struggle, but she no longer felt alone. She felt that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with us’.
So we don’t have a God who is far removed from our sufferings. We have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer with us. We could even go so far as to say, we have a God who has chosen to make himself vulnerable and suffer at our hands. Humanity’s anger and hatred and rejection was poured out on God on the Cross. God knows what it’s like to be rejected, brutalized, tortured, and unjustly murdered. He’s experienced it from humans just like us.
Edward Shillito was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. In it he talks about how a pain-free God is no comfort to those who are suffering. To humans who are scarred by the physical and emotional scars of trench warfare, only a God with scars of his own can comfort them. The last verse goes like this:
The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.