He was crying into the phone. My friend, back in his hometown for a family funeral, had been swamped by harrowing memories of childhood.
“I hate this place,” he raged. “I don’t want to be here; I feel so alone.”
I was relieved. For the last year, I’d watched my clergy friend struggle with self-abuse and denial. He just wanted his feelings to go away; he just wanted to get better. He thought that if he prayed and worked hard enough, God would make it stop. He couldn’t hear that it doesn’t get better until you face it head on.
Which is why I have always been grateful for Mark 15:34.
When Jesus screams from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we are shocked. How could Jesus — God’s beloved son, who told us that whatever we asked, the Father will give — despair? If Jesus couldn’t trust in God’s presence, isn’t this the real scandal of the cross?
I’ve never felt that the worst of the crucifixion was physical suffering. Forgive me if this seems flippant, but many people have experienced greater pain and for longer periods. Jesus’ deepest agony, I’d argue, was abandonment. In the moment of his greatest suffering, his friends and family fled; the few remaining stood at a distance. The fawning crowd turned to a taunting mob. The soldiers ridiculed him; his fellow sufferers sneered. One small act of mercy — wine on a sponge — was withheld in hopes he’d perform a final miracle. Shamed, humiliated and forsaken, Jesus was so complete in his despair that he couldn’t even find his Father.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Notice this: when Jesus cries out from the cross, he uses the words of his community — the opening line of Psalm 22 — to speak of alienation. Notice this: he uses the words of relationship — my God — to speak of non-relationship. In deepest abandonment, he clings to the language of connection. Yes, he feels forsaken; he will not pretend otherwise. But he also asserts his relationship with those who have rejected him. In the face of all evidence to the contrary, he says, “I belong to this human community. I belong to God.”
To be human is to fall, at least once in life, into the hole of despair. Somewhere along life’s path, the bottom drops out; the ground gives way as all that is dear and secure is ripped from our grasp. The cause could be the death of a child or a partner’s infidelity; the loss of our home or our work or our reputation; finding ourselves fighting a war or betraying a friend. No matter what the source, despair takes us to the place where no human fix can save us. Paradoxically, this can be a time of grace.
If we’re open, despair can teach us how to let God take over. When all the doors of human doing close, we can be freed from our desperate attempts to repair that which cannot be repaired. In surrender, we give God permission to open the doors of divine possibility. Behind these doors can be found the gifts of forgiveness, kinship with those who suffer and the fierce determination to live truthfully, however brief our lives.
When my friend cried, “I’m all alone,” he felt that way. But he was not all alone. I was there to hear him. I couldn’t fix his pain, but I did witness its truth. That evening marked the start of a new way of living for him: often distressing, sometimes lonely, usually authentic. It showed in his sermons, in his health and in a deepened realization that he had something to give those going through what he’d been through.
Jesus’ cry from the cross — and our own experience — should forever dispel the childish belief that Christian faith will protect us from the pain of being human. Relationship with the living God does not exempt us from life’s vagaries. In spite of our best efforts, those we love will suffer; we will find ourselves thoroughly broken; our lives will come apart; and we will feel despair.
The journey of mature faith has to include wrestling with this sense of Divine abandonment. It must also include seeing what God offers in that desolate spot: the freedom to place ourselves in community and the freedom to forgive God as well as our sisters and brothers.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We do not hear the answer, but we see what happens: Jesus dies. And something else happens, too, so that his death is not the final answer. But let’s not rush past his suffering. Let’s learn what he knew: that the truth must be told, and that in the telling, the worst can be forgiven, the most broken can be healed, and — all evidence to the contrary — we are not alone.
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.