We should be grateful to the Lord our God, for putting us to the test, as he did our forefathers. Recall how he dealt with Abraham, and how he tried Isaac, and all that happened to Jacob in Syrian Mesopotamia while he was tending the flocks of Laban, his mother’s brother. Not for vengeance did the Lord put them in the crucible to try their hearts, nor has he done so with us. It is by way of admonition that he chastises those who are close to him. (Judith 8:25-27)
In my homily on Sunday, I dared to suggest that when Jesus cried on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that God had actually forsaken the Son. And that when we go through dark periods of our lives and feel abandoned, we are drinking from the cup that Jesus drank from in his passion. I was met with cries that I was ignoring Scripture. “God says he will never leave us or forsake us!” was your plea.
Yes, that is true. He did say that. But he does forsake us, all the while not ever forsaking us. Trying to nail God down and say “he always does this” or “he never does that” will only lead to frustration and headaches. You have heard that God will not be put in a box. Ask Job. God allowed all kinds of evil to devastate Job’s life—in essence, abandoning Job—all the while proclaiming that he is God and it is futile for us to question his ways. Job experienced his misery while cupped in the palm of God’s hand. Forsaken, never forsaken. Don’t box God in by saying he can’t ever forsake us. And don’t spend fruitless time trying to explain how this works.
I was told that I wasn’t paying attention to the Word of God. Well, let’s be clear about this. The Word (capital W) of God is Jesus. The Word made flesh. The word (lower case w) of God is what many people call Scripture, the 66 (or 73, depending on your view of the deuterocanonical books) books collected in our Bible. These books were written by men (and, possibly, women) in a variety of lands over a period of thousands of years, but they have one purpose: To reveal God in Jesus to us. We see Jesus in Genesis through John’s Revelation. He is revealed to us in ways that surprise and even shock us. But he, the Word of God, is the central figure in the word of God. The Bible is not given to us for any reason other than so that we can see Jesus. It is not a handbook on how to live a successful life. It is not the Great Answer Book. It is not a book filled with magic verses that promise we will never suffer. It is a collection of books to show us Jesus. If we are not seeing Jesus as we open the Scriptures, it is because we are not living in reality.
We would love nothing more than for God to only do what makes us happy and content. We look for him to solve our problems and meet our needs. When someone (like yours truly) dares to say that God causes our problems and creates our needs, we panic and start to toss out verses that make us feel better. “But Hebrews says, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Yes, it does. The writer of this epistle is quoting Deuteronomy 31:6, as the Israelites were preparing to cross over into the Promised Land, but were afraid of the “giants” in that land. And as we obey God into a land that is fraught with fearful things, we, too, can trust that he will be with us. But that does not negate the reality that there are fearful things to face.
Reality. Jesus only deals in reality. He didn’t sugarcoat his pain and anguish on the cross. He cried out that God had abandoned him. Yet God could not abandon him. It is a mystery, a paradox, but reality nonetheless. Much of what Jesus—the Word of God—says to us is very tough to swallow. “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” (Notice he didn’t say, “I mean, of course, in a metaphorical manner.”) “If you want to be my disciple, deny yourself and pick up your cross daily.” (He does not add, “But remember the promises that you will live a victorious life.”) When he said these things, those who were following him because they had received a free meal or because it was the latest fad or because there was nothing better to do turned back. And Jesus let them turn back. He didn’t chase after them with a whining plea, “If you will just come back and stay with me, I promise not to say any of these tough things ever again.” No. As a matter of fact, he seems surprised that any stay with him. “Aren’t you twelve going away, too?” he asked.
The comforting thing in this is knowing that Jesus deals with our real, not our fantasy, lives. In the darkness of depression, I have felt abandoned by God. Jesus has yet to tell me to snap out of it, to realize that the Bible says God won’t abandon me. He lets me sit with him in the forsakenness and abandonment of the cross. He comforts me with the silence of sorrow. My despair is very real. I need a very real Jesus to carry me through it.
No, I am not saying those who don’t experience a Dark Night of the Soul are not saved. I am not saying anyone should strive to feel abandoned. There is no “suffering test” you need to qualify for in following Jesus. I’m very happy if you never have to go through sorrow or grief that makes you wonder if God was ever there to begin with. But it was Jesus—the Word of God made flesh, mind you—who said only those who deny themselves, picking up their cross daily, can be his followers. He doesn’t leave that as optional. How you work that out is up to you. I just don’t see, however, how you can do that and not face the feeling of abandonment.
I don’t have answers for you. And guess what? Neither do you. So much of life—the good and the bad, the desperate and the delightful—is mysterious to us. Trying to have it make sense only leads to burdens we are not meant to bear.
Can joy and sorrow co-exist? I read this yesterday in the classic devotional Streams in the Desert. Think on this today.
Sorrow was beautiful, but her beauty was the beauty of the moonlight shining through the leafy branches of the trees in the wood, and making little pools of silver here and there on the soft green moss below. When Sorrow sang, her notes were like the low sweet call of the nightingale, and in her eyes was the unexpectant gaze of one who has ceased to look for coming gladness. She could weep in tender sympathy with those who weep, but to rejoice with those who rejoice was unknown to her.
Joy was beautiful, too, but his was the radiant beauty of the summer morning. His eyes still held the glad laughter of childhood, and his hair had the glint of the sunshine’s kiss. When Joy sang his voice soared upward as the lark’s, and his step was the step of a conqueror who has never known defeat. He could rejoice with all who rejoice, but to weep with those who weep was unknown to him.
“But we can never be united,” said Sorrow wistfully. ”No, never.” And Joy’s eyes shadowed as he spoke. “My path lies through the sunlit meadows, the sweetest roses bloom for my gathering, and the blackbirds and thrushes await my coming to pour forth their most joyous lays.”
“My path,” said Sorrow, turning slowly away, “leads through the darkening woods, with moon-flowers only shall my hands be filled. Yet the sweetest of all earth-songs–the love song of the night–shall be mine; farewell, Joy, farewell.”
Even as she spoke they became conscious of a form standing beside them; dimly seen, but of a Kingly Presence, and a great and holy awe stole over them as they sank on their knees before Him.
“I see Him as the King of Joy,” whispered Sorrow, “for on His Head are many crowns, and the nailprints in His hands and feet are the scars of a great victory. Before Him all my sorrow is melting away into deathless love and gladness, and I give myself to Him forever.”
“Nay, Sorrow,” said Joy softly, “but I see Him as the King of Sorrow, and the crown on His head is a crown of thorns, and the nailprints in His hands and feet are the scars of a great agony. I, too, give myself to Him forever, for sorrow with Him must be sweeter than any joy that I have known.”
“Then we are one in Him,” they cried in gladness, “for none but He could unite Joy and Sorrow.” Hand in hand they passed out into the world to follow Him through storm and sunshine, in the bleakness of winter cold and the warmth of summer gladness, “as sorrowful yet always rejoicing.”