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My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

For centuries Psalm 22:1-2 has shaped the grief and bewilderment God’s people have felt in their darkest hour. The Psalmist expresses anguish only known to the innocent sufferer who feels abandoned by everyone including God:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

I’ve choked out these words during seasons of suffering. Having battled chronic health difficulties and episodes of clinical depression, I know what it’s like to feel God-forsaken, what it’s like to cry out by day but not hear an answer or by night and find no rest for my anxious soul. The sense of desolation that accompanies depression is terrifying. It feels like you’ve been plunged into a black abyss. You can’t help but wonder if God is displeased with you, if your suffering is a sign of his judgment.

That kind of suffering crushes, confuses, and leads to overwhelming feelings of abandonment, even by God. These feelings are genuine and should not be minimized. But the question that I’ve had to resolve in the face of such suffering is: Does God ever truly abandon those who are in Christ? Will God ever abandon me?

The Cry of Dereliction

We’re not the only ones who have cried out the words of Psalm 22 in our agony. We find these very words on the lips of Jesus as he, the innocent sufferer par excellence, prepares to die for the sins of the world. Understanding Jesus’ cry of abandonment is the key to dealing with our feelings of abandonment.

Matthew 27:45-47 (also Mark 15:33-34) says:

Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew describes a thick, unnatural darkness covering the land for three hours. In Scripture, darkness is a visible sign of God’s judgment and displeasure. It’s symbolic of separation from the very One who is light. This same “felt” darkness covered Egypt in Exodus 10:21-22 as a means of God judging the Egyptians separating them from Israel. So the darkness that fell upon Jesus should be understood as something more than a purely natural phenomenon; it’s a sign of God’s judgment and displeasure.

Jesus certainly understands the darkness this way. He suffers beneath the weight of it for three hours and around the ninth hour (3 PM) he emerges out of the darkness and breaks the silence, crying out in anguished desolation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22:1 pours forth from the sinless Son of God as he faces abandonment from everyone, including his Father.

Did God Really Abandon Jesus?

Jesus’ cry of dereliction is difficult to understand. Was Jesus truly God-forsaken or did he merely feel God-forsaken? Some understand his cry of dereliction to be a cry of loneliness. Others see it as a cry of triumph (e.g., the end of this psalm ends on triumphant note). But we must take Jesus’ cry at face value—as a genuine cry of abandonment. R.T. France notes, “The words Jesus chose to utter are those of unqualified desolation, and Matthew and Mark give no hint that he did not mean exactly what he said.”[1]

This Scripture expresses the depth and horror of what Jesus was suffering. In that moment, Jesus was plunged into outer darkness away from the Father’s presence to bear the sins of the world. France again says, “In giving his life as a ransom for many for the forgiveness of sins he must, for the moment, be separated from his Father.”[2] Having experienced unbroken communion with the Father from eternity past, Jesus now enveloped in darkness felt the full weight of separation from God that our sin demanded and for the first time he was truly alone, utterly God-forsaken.

As we digest this difficult truth, remember two things. First, this was not divine child abuse/divine child neglect. The Father and the Son willingly chose to carry out this plan of redemption and both the Father and the Son were in agony during Jesus’ crucifixion. To obtain our salvation the Father painstakingly separated himself from the Son but only temporarily. Second, the unity of the Trinity was not broken. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist eternally in perfect, unbroken fellowship. We aren’t privy to the details of the “psychology of the Son of God” in this moment.[3] We affirm that Jesus experienced a real abandonment by the Father while simultaneously affirming the unity of the Triune God.

Will God Ever Abandon Us?

So will God ever truly abandon those who are in Christ? If Jesus’ cry of dereliction was the result of temporary abandonment by the Father, does that mean we could be abandoned by the Father also? When we crumble to the floor and cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” does this express our feelings or represent our reality

The good news we celebrate during Easter (and always!) is that God will never abandon those who are in Christ.Jesus’ cry of dereliction helps us understand this—he was abandoned momentarily so that we can live with assurance eternally. The innocent sufferer was God-forsaken so that we would never be. That’s startling.

Even when we suffer innocently, we are still sinful. And it is this sin that separates us from God. On our best day, we don’t love God with everything we are, treasure him as our greatest good, or love our brothers as ourselves. Thus, we deserve to be plunged into outer darkness and separated from the presence of God. God could justly desert us and leave us to die in our sins.

Yet, Jesus on his worst day loved God with everything he was and treasured him as the greatest good and loved his brothers as himself. Jesus then chose to be separated from the Father that we might be reunited to God through him. Jesus was forsaken by God so that we might be forgiven. Nothing can change that! Not your circumstances. Not your suffering. And not your sin.

This is the good news I preach to myself again and again in my pain and depression. Were it not for the light of the gospel, the darkness would crush me. But Jesus was crushed on my behalf, so I have hope. I constantly remind myself, “There is always hope in Jesus!”

Suffering saint, I want you to know that there is always hope in Jesus. Whatever you are walking through this Easter season, remember that God will not abandon you because you are in Christ. It may feel like you have been abandoned. The darkness may feel as though it’s going to crush you. But the unshakeable truth that you stand on in the midst of your suffering is that Jesus was temporarily abandoned on your behalf, so you will never be truly abandoned.

[1] France, R.T. The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007. Print.
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.

Whitney Woollard is passionate about equipping others to read and study God’s Word well resulting maturing affection for Christ and his glorious gospel message. She holds a Bachelors of Science in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and a Masters of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. Whitney and her husband Neal currently live in Portland, OR where they call Hinson Baptist Church home. Visit her writing homepage whitneywoollard.com.