June 4, 2020

Living In The Land Of The Real

masksWe 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.”

Comments

  1. Thank you! Your post expresses my thoughts on this subject. It’s in the valleys we grow!

  2. We all go through times of grief and suffering and anguish. All of us. The saved and unsaved alike.

    And we quite often feel as though God has abandoned us. But He has not. He is true to His Word and we can trust that He is there, with us, in the midst of our suffering.

    This gospel Word brings great comfort to many in their time(s) of darkness.

    I’m so thankful for the brothers and sisters in Christ who remind me of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness in the midst of faithlessness.

    Thanks.

    • To build on Steve’s point here a bit and bridge it with the earlier article and comments that inspired this post, Jeff wrote here:

      “I just don’t see, however, how you can do that [take up your cross] and not face the feeling of abandonment.”

      The issue wasn’t whether we would feel abandonment in our struggles, but whether or not God has actually abandoned us. Paul confessed in a letter his own despairing to the brink of death during his immense sufferings…so no argument here that we follow suit. But the contention in the earlier article was whether or not God abandons us and whether he forsakes us as he forsook his Son on the cross. Personally, I don’t believe Scripture (and the Word made Flesh) supports this notion:

      “The saying is trustworthy, for:

      If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
      if we endure, we will also reign with him;
      if we deny him, he also will deny us;
      if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
      for he cannot deny himself.” – 2 Tim 2:11-13

      As for feelings of abandonment, they speak to our fallen nature in response to the hardships that God permits – in the same way that Job didn’t understand the true impetus of his sufferings (that they were tests of his faith, not punishments due to a lack of integrity or faith).

  3. Vega Magnus says

    Even in the darkest and most gnostic moments of my life, He was there in ways I could not see at the time. He graciously spared me from the full effects of my flawed beliefs by helping me to forget them most of the time and by eventually guiding me to The Christian Monist and this place where I began to repair my philosophy and psyche. The pain was very real and it felt overwhelming at times, but looking back on it now, He was there even as I horribly misunderstood Him. The journey is difficult and we may experience horrible things, but if we look to Him, He will always hear our grief, even when we do not receive the answers we seek.

  4. Thank you Jeff.

    T

  5. I think today’s Savage Chickens cartoon is applicable here.

  6. Great words, Jeff, and great cartoon, Martha. So true!

  7. Thanks for this. I think it is perfect.

  8. +1

  9. Jeff, it seems if we obfuscate Scripture enough we can decide for ourselves what it really means. I see that happening here. It is inconceivable that God would be internally divided, that he would have forsaken His Son, changed His mind, turned around and then raised Him from the dead, a plan for resurrection and redemption that He had in mind from the beginning.

    Jesus was teaching from the cross. It was remez, pure and eloquent. Seen in that light, what He said is revealed as much more powerful, much more meaningful than any pain induced delusion about being forsaken. Think about it …hanging there on the cross, surrounded by onlookers enjoying the show and munching their cotton candy, he bookended the 22nd Psalm. He recited both the opening and closing lines.

    To understand this brief but amazing chapter in Christ’s ministry, try reading Psalms 22, 23 and 24 …first Jesus’ vantage point on the cross, then His moment of death, and then His victory. Those three Psalms were originally a single work. They were His words given through David. He was confirming and verifying to these bystanders nothing less than that what they were witnessing was predicted in detail (including a form of execution unknown at the time it was written) 900 years before in a Scripture they would have known by heart. All history, then pointed to Him as Messiah.

    Yes, Jesus dealt with reality. He made sure, with those words from the cross, that everyone else knew what that reality was.

  10. The mind boggles, the jaw drops, one walks away shaking their head thinking I must have read that wrong. One comes back, reads it again, yep, that’s what it says. Job not only lost everything and got pounded into the ground by his friends, he had to pray for them when it was all over. This Way ain’t so easy as some would have it.

    Meeting the Savage Chickens for the first time makes up for a lot. Bless your heart, Jeff, hang in there!

  11. Randy Thompson says

    “Why have you forsaken me?” is a prayer.

    As Leander Keck, the former Dean of Yale Divinity School once pointed out, there’s a huge difference between what Jesus said (prayed) and crying out “Why has God forsaken me?” The former is communion with God in suffering; the later is a cry of despair.

    The paradox is, if Jesus felt forsaken by his Father on the cross, he was still on speaking terms with Him.

    And, a few days late, God answered his prayer, which is why we celebrate Easter every year.

  12. I’ve been thinking about it, and perhaps when Jesus says he will be with us even to the end of the age his presence will necessarily include the kind of darkness and desolation we’ve been discussing here since Sunday; it may be that he is here with us as Crucified One as much as the Risen One, and so his promise is a promise of suffering as well as blessing.

    But timing and manner are everything, and the cross intersects the lives of different Christians in different places and at different times; for some, the cross may not involve clinical depression, for others it may; for some, it may occur earlier rather than later in this life, for some later rather than earlier; for others, at death or on the far side of death.

    Please do be careful when you use the term Dark Night of the Soul; the man who coined it in the poem he wrote about the experience, John of the Cross, had something very specific in mind, and it’s not about the cross that must intersect every Christian life. I know that the term is thrown around loosely these day, but John deserves the posthumous respect of not having his phrase filled with a meaning he did not intend.

    For the rest, I wish you Peace, Jeff; it was certainly not my intention to exacerbate your depression. Please forgive me if I did.

    I’m afraid I’m becoming the kind of man that one of the sayings of the Desert Fathers warns others to avoid: one who only opens his mouth to argue.

    I’ll try to curb that vice.

  13. Josh in FW says

    Thank you for the Homily post and for this follow up. By the time I’m done processing all of this the comments section will be done and everyone will be going back and forth on another post. Thanks for sharing so much on this topic.

  14. After many years of theological reflection, I have come to the conclusion that, as you say, God the Father has indeed forsaken His Son, consigning Him to eternal damnation in hell. After all, if not for His death on the Cross, we would merit eternal torment. Would a mere three days in the tomb suffice to redeem our transgressions? No, only an eternity of suffering on Christ’s part could possibly ransom our souls out of hell–otherwise the debt goes unpaid. and it is we who are damned. So great is God’s love that he offers His Son daily as a living Sacrifice.