The Cross and the Cry of Abandonment1
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This so-called cry of dereliction by Jesus from the cross (Mark 15:33-35) has been analyzed repeatedly by scholars and theologians. My aim today is simply to draw our attention to the agony of abandonment, the very real sense in which Jesus was alone in his final moments of suffering for sin. Continue reading . . .
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This so-called cry of dereliction by Jesus from the cross (Mark 15:33-35) has been analyzed repeatedly by scholars and theologians. My aim today is simply to draw our attention to the agony of abandonment, the very real sense in which Jesus was alone in his final moments of suffering for sin.
Consider how the loneliness and isolation of Jesus has progressively increased through the course of his earthly life and ministry. Initially, huge crowds followed him, often forcing him to retreat. But the crowds soon left him, once they grasped the meaning of what he said (John 6). Soon, only 12 followed closely. Eventually, the 12 became 11 (Judas betrayed him). Not long thereafter, the 11 became 1 (Peter). Eventually, even Peter abandoned him. But he could always count on the Father to be there! Yet here we see that even the Father turned away. "You, Father! I can understand why everyone else has left. But why you?"
"It is not the way of God," notes Spurgeon, "to leave either his sons or his servants. His saints, when they come to die, in their great weakness and pain, find him near. They are made to sing because of the presence of God. . . . Dying saints have clear visions of the living God" (537). Yet here we see that he forsook his Son in the hour of his weakness, in the moment of his greatest need, at the time of his impending death.
Let us also remember that this forsaking was utterly singular and unprecedented in the experience of Jesus. Never before had he known anything remotely similar to this that might have prepared him for it. "He lived in constant touch with God. His fellowship with the Father was always near and dear and clear; but now, for the first time, he cries, 'why hast thou forsaken me?' . . . His Father now dried up that sacred stream of peaceful communion and loving fellowship which had flowed hitherto throughout his whole earthly life. . . . [Thus] to be forsaken was a new grief to him. He had never known what the dark was till then; his life had been lived in the light of God" (Spurgeon, 537-39).
Let’s think more deeply about the depths of loneliness that Jesus experienced in that moment of abandonment by his Father.
When I was in the first week of the first grade, at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Shawnee, Oklahoma, I suffered an extremely serious broken left arm. After a few days in the hospital in Shawnee I was transferred to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City where I spent three weeks in traction. I was only 6½ years old, but I remember it today as vividly as if it were yesterday. It was my first encounter with loneliness.
I will never forget what happened just before my dad left and drove back home to Shawnee. He took me into the public restroom, hoping to find some privacy. I remember him looking under the stall doors to see if anyone was present. Seeing that we were alone, we went into one of the stalls and I stood on the toilet seat as he took me in his arms and hugged me so tightly I thought I couldn’t breathe. We cried in each other’s arms, as this was the first time I would ever spend a night in his absence.
When we finished, he took me back to the children’s ward and left me there with a dozen or more kids my own age. I was surrounded by noise that night, but I was lonely. I was attended to by nurses, but I was lonely. I was in the company of a dozen or more other children, but I was lonely.
But the loneliness was not because I felt abandoned by my father. It wasn’t because I was the object of his anger or disappointment. As deep and agonizing and heart-breaking as was my loneliness, it was nothing to be compared with what the Son of God felt when his Heavenly Father turned his back, turned away his face, and forsook his only-begotten.
Loneliness is not picky or discriminating. At some time or another it strikes everyone.
• The widow (who suddenly finds herself without the companion with whom she shared so many years)
• The divorcee
• The parents facing an empty nest after the children are grown
• The empty mailbox
• The telephone that never rings
• The long days and forgotten nights
• The forgotten birthday
The cry of loneliness is all too common in our world:
• In the nursing home, as days pass without a visitor
• In the prison, where no one can be trusted
• In the perfectly manicured homes of suburban America, where everyone smiles, dresses sharply, and on the outside at least looks to be happy
Without for a moment wanting to minimize the pain of loneliness that we all at times feel, nothing has ever compared with the eternal loneliness experienced by Jesus. The most horrifying cry of loneliness ever heard came not from a prisoner or an elderly widow or from a six-year-old boy with a broken arm. It came from the cross, from the lips of a sinless savior named Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
There must be a reason why a holy and righteous God would forsake the only good man who ever lived. There must be a reason why God would injure the only innocent man who ever lived. Why did Jesus react to his sufferings in this way whereas others face death without so much as a whimper? The answer is found in Isaiah 53.
"Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood;
Sealed my pardon with his blood,
Hallelujah! What a Savior!
Guilty, vile and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was he;
'Full atonement' can it be?
Hallelujah! What a Savior!"
The only explanation that makes sense of the cry of dereliction is the imputation to Jesus of the guilt of sinners and his consequent experience of the wrath of Almighty God. In our place, as our substitute, Jesus endured and exhausted in his own soul the penal judgment which our sin required. Hereby was God's holy nature propitiated (1 John 2:1-2) or satisfied, and we were set free! Spurgeon suggests that the Father may have said to the Son something like this:
"My Son, I forsake thee because thou standest in the sinner's stead. As thou art holy, just, and true, I never would forsake thee; I would never turn away from thee; . . . but on thy head doth rest the guilt of every penitent, transferred from him to thee; and thou must expiate it by thy blood. Because thou standest in the sinner's stead, I will not look at thee till thou hast borne the full weight of my vengeance" (495-96).
Despite the horribly painful sufferings Jesus endured physically, the spiritual and mental anguish of this moment must have been worse. As Spurgeon explains,
"Grief of mind is harder to bear than pain of body. You can pluck up courage and endure the pang of sickness and pain, so long as the spirit is hale and brave; but if the soul itself be touched, and the mind becomes diseased with anguish, then every pain is increased in severity, and there is nothing with which to sustain it. Spiritual sorrows are the worst of mental miseries. A man may bear great depression of spirit about worldly matters, if he feels that he has his God to go to. He is cast down, but not in despair. . . . But if the Lord be once withdrawn, if the comfortable light of his presence be shadowed even for an hour, there is a torment within the breast, which I can only liken to the prelude of hell. . . . We can bear a bleeding body, and even a wounded spirit; but a soul conscious of desertion by God is beyond conception unendurable" (536).
How, then, shall we respond? Said Spurgeon: "let us abhor the sin which brought such agony upon our beloved Lord. What an accursed thing is sin, which crucified the Lord Jesus! Do you laugh at it? Will you go and spend an evening to see a mimic performance of it? Do you roll sin under your tongue as a sweet morsel, and then come to God's house, on the Lord's-day morning, and think to worship him? . . . Sin murdered Christ; will you be a friend to it? Sin pierced the heart of the Incarnate God; can you love it?" (545-46)