My God, My God

By Will Willimon

My church doesn’t do that well in the dark. My church doesn’t venture out too often after twilight. My church prefers the bright light of day, Sunday, the upbeat, happy, daytime, not Friday, not night. But tonight we who want to follow Jesus must follow him into the dark.

Did you hear the cry, the words, the terrible, terrible words? While he hung there, he cried out sometime between two and three, by my reckoning. What words!

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

The words are not original with Jesus. They are a quote from Psalm 22, alluded two three times in Matthew’s account of the Passion. Words that had been sung on the Sabbath in the synagogue, now were gasped from the cross. The same crowd who gathered in the Temple to praise God with psalms was now forced to hear the same words from Jesus.

Psalm 22 is a type of Psalm called a “lament.” You don’t hear much of this sort of talk on Sunday morning, charges of God’s abandonment and divine desertion, of a faithful one being left to hang there, alone, of words screamed out into the awesome, awful silence. A lament is poetry of deepest anguish, a poem where the words almost crack under the pain. What does it mean to frame our picture of Jesus in terms of this psalm of lament? What does it mean to hear Jesus say such words?

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Is a psalm that speaks of the silence of God, that dares to charge God with turning his back, the ultimate expression of the loss of faith, or is it a daring assertion of faith?

Here is someone who is determined to be heard by God. Such determination bespeaks a believer who speaks out of deep confidence that God will hear, that God will act, that God cares. Behind the lament are some frightening questions? Is God to be trusted? Does God hear? Does God care? The lament arises in the confident conviction that the answer is, Yes. These faith-threatening questions arise out of deep faith.

It is faith that is the source of our deepest groaning and sighing.

When I was young, in seminary, I spent four months as a student chaplain in a hospital for the seriously ill. I was assigned a woman, Mrs. Bush, who was dying of lung cancer. I was told to visit her, minister to her as best I could. It wasn’t easy.

“She’s angry,” the head chaplain warned me, “very angry.”

And it was true. She was made at the world, mad at God too. She had been a faithful Catholic, she said, but now this, and she was only in her late forties. She endured my visits only because my visit allowed her to suck on a cigarette, for she was not permitted to smoke unless someone was in the room.

Toward the end, she cursed, raged, yelled me out of the room more than once. I, student of Kubler-Ross, hoped by my ministrations, to move her through the various stages of grief work —denial, anger, etc. — toward peaceful acceptance of her plight. But no, no peace for Mrs. Bush. She raged, cursed, swore, fought right to the end. At the end, the night she died, I confessed to the chief chaplain my disappointment that I was unable to help her have peace at the last.

“Really?” he asked. “I’ve been grateful for her fight. I love the way she loved life. Her life wasn’t all that great by my standards, but she loved it. Nothing was so noble, to me, as the way she fought to the end. I thought her cursing, and struggle were a kind of compliment to God.”

One does not ask, in extremis, Why? Unless one believes there is an answer. One does not call out for deliverance from a God who does not save. One would be wasting one’s voice to demand a hearing from a God who does not care.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

I know a man who tells me that he couldn’t believe in Jesus were it not for this account of these words. He finds these words, not terrible but comforting, a final validation not only of the humanity of Jesus but also of his divinity, his incredible, filial closeness to the very heart of God.

Who was it who spoke these words? He was the suffering servant (Matt. 12:15-21); he was the very Wisdom of God, present at Creation (Matt. 12:41-42; 23:34); the Son in intimate, personal relationship to the Father (Matt. 11:27; 6:32). Thus, in this lament, in these words, we are listening in on a conversation deep in the very heart of God.

Who is God? In parables, acts of healing, miracles, arguments, encounters with critics, Jesus had revealed a God who reaches out, reaches in, who cares, who waits, who gives, feeds, and finds.

Now, on the cross, the reality of that God is at stake. Hanging there, seemingly forsaken, no one to hear him but the crucifying mob, was all that wrong? Now’s the time for God to step forward and say, “Yes, this is who I am. I am who Jesus has revealed me to be.  I now vindicate Jesus by my loud, undeniable, strong answer, “No! No, I have not forsaken you!”

But there is no answer. Look in the text. There is only the question, the terrible, terrible question.

Throughout the Bible, the very “godness” of God is defined as hearing, acting compassion. In the Exodus 3, in burning bush, God comes before Moses and says, “I have heard the cries of my people and I am come to deliver them.” Repeatedly on the journey through the wilderness, “we cried out, and God heard” (Exod. 2:23). Much is at stake in the question from the cross, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Was Jesus wrong, in the parables, the miracles, the teachings and the testimony? Who is the God we’ve got? Or, more to the point of the biblical story, Who is the God who’s got us?

That’s the anguish that is beyond the pain. The cancer that won’t heal, the kids that won’t grow up, the marriage that won’t take, the injustice that won’t be made right, it’s the pain that leads to the anguish lament, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Though you may not know the Psalm, you know the question. Everything hinges on the answer. All of Jesus deeds and words, all that he did and said, now, in the Good Friday darkness, all hinges on the answer to that anguished question. And all of our hope too, our final hope, in life and death. No wonder we dare not ask such a question too often, except in those moments when life drives us to it. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Note that, at least in the Friday darkness, there is no answer. There is no sound, no word in response to the lament. There is no resolution to the tension caused by the question. Now, the next move is God’s. We must wait in the darkness, a darkness that can be broken only by the light of a morning that is of God. For now, we wait. The next move is God’s.

The Rev. Dr. Will Willimon is professor of the practice of ministry and director of the doctor of ministry program at Duke Divinity School, and the retired Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church.


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