I was one of seven people who each spoke at our church’s Good Friday service on one of the seven sayings of Christ on the cross. I chose, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”
In my more skeptical days, I viewed the question as odd — almost ammunition for the cynic. Why would Christ, if he were truly God, need to ask God about anything? Also, why would an all-powerful God have been in such a vulnerable position?
I now realize that these questions are no more unique than the basic misunderstandings of Christianity and Christian doctrine that give rise to them. But interestingly, this utterance of Christ that was once a stumbling block for me has now become a powerful reinforcement for my faith.
I used to wonder how the crucifixion, no matter how much physical suffering Christ endured, could cancel out our sins. After all, other human beings have experienced similar physical punishment. But I was completely unaware of the spiritual wounding that was involved. The Scripture tells us, “The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?”
But Christ was spiritually separated from and abandoned by God. To atone for our sins, he took on our sins, and God cannot look upon sin. We cannot begin to comprehend the agony he experienced in this separation after he had enjoyed infinite bliss with the Father and the Holy Spirit in eternity past.
After having lived a sinless life, the full force of mankind’s accumulated sin was heaped upon his human soul. All the spiritual forces of darkness were joined together in their collective hatred and fury in one last effort to defeat the conqueror of death because if they failed, death would be defeated forever.
Human beings had no power either to comfort or deliver him; the Father wouldn’t because he had to allow him to complete his redemptive work. At that moment, Christ was the loneliest man who ever lived. Yet consider this staggering irony: At no time was Christ more perfectly in his Father’s will. And through it all, he never renounced his Father, referring to him as “my God, my God.”
Although we sometimes separate ourselves from God, he will never abandon us this side of eternity. Witness the prodigal son. And consider the martyrs who died joyfully because even in their death, though hated and persecuted by men, God did not abandon them. Ignatius, waiting to be thrown to the lions said, “Let me be food for the wild beasts, if only God be glorified.” Christ, unlike the martyrs, did nothing to deserve his abandonment.
Skeptics should note that the Gospel writers never would have invented this potentially embarrassing saying of Christ because it suggests Christ’s powerlessness to deliver himself from his own predicament.
But I believe the statement is only comprehensible in reference to God’s Triune nature: Christ’s nature as both fully human and fully divine and God’s salvation plan for mankind.
Christ’s question to the Father on the cross shows not that Christ wasn’t God but that he was also a distinct divine personality in the Trinity and also fully human. If he had not been fully human, he could not have taken on our pain. Nor could he have died. If he was not God, he couldn’t have lived a sinless life or wiped away our sins.
Evangelist John Stott wrote: “We are not to envisage God on a deck chair, but on a cross. The God who allows us to suffer, once suffered Himself in Christ, and continues to suffer with us and for us today. … I myself could never believe in God were it not for the cross. … In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of His. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark — the Cross, which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours.”
Despite his indescribable suffering, Christ would not rescue himself, precisely because he was a co-conspirator in the salvation plan, which required him to fulfill his prophesied substitutional sacrifice.
As Bishop Fulton Sheen observed: “Every other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. Christ came into it to die. Death was a stumbling block to Socrates — it interrupted his teaching. But to Christ, death was the goal and fulfillment of his life, the gold that he was seeking.”
Christ died forsaken by God so that his people might claim God as their God; he endured abandonment so we would never be abandoned; he tasted hell so we’d never have to taste it ourselves; he endured loneliness so we’d never be alone.