Monday, April 06, 2015

Where Is God?

Where Is God?
Psalm 22:1-19 [1]
At the beginning of Lent we looked at the second half of the Psalm for this evening from the perspective that God is on the side of those who suffer rather than being the one who inflicts suffering. The Psalmist says it this way: “he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Ps. 22:24). But as we conclude this season with the remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and death, I think it is fitting to take another look at the first half. Especially since Jesus himself quoted the first line of the Psalm in his agony on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).[2]
It is a cry that leaves us deeply unsettled. The idea that the God who promises never to forsake us would in fact do so is troubling to say the least. And the prospect that he abandoned his own Son at the moment when he fulfilled his commitment to God’s saving purpose most completely I find to be shocking. I think Jesus knew he had to die.  Yet he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  I believe Jesus trusted that God would raise him from the dead. Yet he cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” What troubles me is the question where God was while all this was happening. 
I know the standard response: “he had to turn away because Jesus took all the sin of the world on himself and God cannot look upon sin.” That just doesn’t cut it for me.  I want to know where God was during the awful silence that followed Jesus’ prayer, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”  It is a prayer after all, addressed to God.  Jesus wasn’t just acting out some sort of elaborate play. This was the real thing.  And when the agony of the cross overwhelmed him, Jesus cried out one of the most heartbreaking prayers of the Bible.  And God’s response was … silence. Did God really forsake Jesus on the cross?
Maybe the answer to this problem is that we’re looking at this in the wrong way.  We tend to equate silence with abandonment.   But maybe that’s not what was going on at all. Sometimes we’re silent with those who are suffering because we are suffering with them. I believe that’s where God was; rather than abandoning his Son, God was right there with Jesus, experiencing all the anguish that heartbreaking prayer expresses.[3]  God was silent because God was suffering with Jesus.  To some of us it might seem even more shocking that God would allow himself to undergo such humiliation. It might seem even more deeply unsettling that God allowed himself to become so apparently powerless and weak.
Again, I think we may be looking at things from the wrong perspective. The Scriptures tell the story of how, time and time again, God reveals his power in weakness.[4] This is a mystery as deep and as hard to explain as the trinity. In that moment, God made it clear once and for all that his suffering has become our redemption, that his apparent weakness is actually his powerful love transforming us all, along with all creation. Yet it also communicates that important reality that we started with at the beginning of our Lenten journey this year—God suffers with all who suffer. 
Perhaps the more practical question applies to us. Just what do you do when you feel abandoned by God? That’s when the silence of God is most disturbing—when we cry out for God to redeem us.  At those times it can seem like all our suffering takes place “under a silent heaven.”[5] That’s when we may begin to wonder whether any of what we’ve believed is true at all. At least, that’s what I do—I complain, sometimes bitterly. I wonder why I ever believed in the first place. And I complain again.  I contemplate walking away from it all for good.  And I complain some more! Perhaps you do something like that. But if you do, I think we’re in good company.  Moses, Gideon, Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, Jesus—they all cried out to God “Why?”  Sometimes patiently, sometimes bluntly, but always honestly and in a faith that leaves behind all superficiality.
That may be the biggest surprise in all of this—that the cry “My God, My God, why?” can be an expression of faith. In his agony Jesus cried out to God, which in and of itself demonstrated his faith that God had not abandoned him. When we feel abandoned by God and we cry out to him, even when we’re complaining or angry or afraid or all of the above all at the same time, we’re still crying out to God. We’re praying. That, in and of itself, is an expression of faith. It may be as small as the tiniest seed, but it’s still faith.   And when we pour out our hearts to God, we discover that “God is not an abandoning God.”[6] Any lingering doubts about that on Good Friday were settled on Easter!
When we wonder where God was while Jesus was suffering on cross, the answer is that God was right there suffering with him. That applies to each and every one of us when we cry out to God in our moments of despair and anguish.[7] When we wonder where God is when we’re suffering, the answer is that God is just a present with us as he was with Jesus. God will not abandon us any more than he abandoned Jesus. If God seems silent, it is not because he is ignoring us, it is because he is suffering with us.[8] That’s where God always is—right beside us, walking with us every step of the way, supporting us in ways that are sometimes unseen and unfelt. But they are real nevertheless. Wherever you find any suffering or heartbreak or anguish in this world, that’s where God is, pouring out his love to bring healing and new life.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A Maundy Thursday meditation delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 109, where he says that the psalmist’s complaints express “the contradiction that rends the soul when the unity of faith and experience is broken.” Thus he “can speak of that rupture theologically only as forsakenness, as the distance of God.”
[3] In several of Jürgen Moltmann’s works he holds in tension the idea that Jesus died a “God-forsaken” death together with the idea that Jesus was never more closely aligned with God’s will than when he died on the cross. He resolves this tension in different ways in several of his works, but in The Way of Jesus Christ, 173, he says that far from being unconcerned about what was happening, far from abandoning his Son, “in the surrender of the Son the Father surrenders himself too.”
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV:244-48. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 205: “God is not greater that he is in this humiliation.  God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender.  God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness.  God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”
[5] Cf. Helmut Thielicke, “The Silence of God”, a sermon preached during the battle of Stalingrad in The Silence of God, 14.
[6] Cf. David Garland, Mark, 600: “Amid human hatred and violence, God may seem to be absent; but never was God more fully and forcefully present than when Jesus died on the cross.  God is not an abandoning God.”
[7] Cf. Martin Marty, A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart, 174 “God participates in the life of the people [who suffer] and suffers at their side.” Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV: 764: “The affliction is still very real, but the affliction itself has somehow become an answer (v. 21b). What the psalmist now affirms is that God is present with the afflicted.”
[8] Cf. Thielicke, “The Silence of God,” 14-15: “Even when He was silent, God suffered with us.  … Even when we thought he did not care, or was dead, He knew all about us and behind the dark wings He did His work of love.”

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