Thursday, October 7, 2010

Some Brief Remarks on Being Forsaken by God

If you've ever felt forsaken by God... rest assured that God knows exactly what that's like. That sounds odd, doesn't it? But according to a very persuasive case made by a New Testament scholar whom I rather respect, that's precisely what Jesus meant to convey when, on the cross, he cried out the famed line from Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

In his 2008 book Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity, Richard Bauckham included a very curious final chapter entitled "God's Self-Identification with the Godforsaken in the Gospel of Mark". And in it, he pointed out that the meaning of being forsaken by God is that "he has allowed this to happen and does nothing to help" (257). Of course, that doesn't mean that he's entirely absent, or that he's really forgotten us, or that he's delivered us up for good, or anything like that. But by this definition, Jesus really was forsaken by God on the cross. This isn't a loss of faith; actually, Psalm 22:1 constitutes an expression of faith, since it appeals to God to remain faithful even in the starkest of circumstances. But Bauckham also argues that in quoting Psalm 22:1, Jesus wasn't just expressing something about his own situation at the time; he was identifying himself with God's people and indeed with everyone who has ever experienced God's apparent absence.

But as I've mentioned before, Jesus is intrinsic to the unique divine identity - or, in layman's terms, Jesus is God. And the Gospel of Mark bears that view out. So in a very real sense, Jesus' crucifixion isn't just God identifying with our pains, our sufferings, our shame - as radical as all of that is. No, there's more. God actually put himself in the place of everyone who's ever searched for God and found nothing. God put himself in the place of being forsaken by God. That's... a really radical idea. I mean... God being God-forsaken? But that's the paradoxical culmination of the Gospel of Mark, it seems. In Jesus, God bore our sins, our shame, our suffering... and he even bore the absence of God for us. Which means, likewise paradoxically, that the very moment when God was most revealing his ultimate love to all humanity was a moment of God's own apparent absence. "God redeems and renews humanity in this way, by entering the situation of humanity at the deepest level of the human plight: the absence of God" (268). The darkness itself was the brightest light there could ever be.

I'm not sure whether that thought would have comforted me when I, too, was apparently forsaken by God during some of my times of deepest, crushing depression, the times that nearly drove me to overcoming my cowardice enough to take the plunge into the abyss. I suspect that I was so inconsolable that no realization would truly have alleviated it much. But, on the other hand, I don't know that. And there's a real sense in which it should be a great comfort. The God to whom I'm crying out, begging, pleading, ranting, cursing, cajoling, idly threatening... that's the same God who has been in that very same situation of reaching out to God and touching only a dreadful, enigmatic, terrifying lack. God knows what it's like to be abandoned - even abandoned, for all intents and purposes in the here-and-now, by God! God empathizes more intensely than I can fathom. He can, in Christ, actually identify with that situation every bit as deeply, and no doubt so much more so, than I can. And if perhaps one of the benefits of suffering is that, if we bear with it rightly, we can identify more closely with the crucified Christ in his own sufferings and thus, by sharing with him, be united more nearly to him... then perhaps... perhaps one could go so far as to say that the experience of the apparent divine absence could function the same way? Could it be that these 'dark nights of the soul' are not just an opportunity to curb spiritual pride (for which purpose I lost the felt presence of God for several years), but a further opportunity to engage in a very different sort of spiritual experience: the identification with the crucified Christ in his Godforsakenness, just as he identifies with us in ours? Ah, if only I had had the capability to make such use of my own 'dark nights' during those times! But should I ever pass through a similar time, I pray that God will grant me the wisdom to follow through and thus grow in faith rather than weaken in it. And I pray, too, that any other sufferings I must endure will present themselves to me, not merely as trials and tribulations, but as similar opportunities to find the crucified Christ there amidst it all.