Jesus cried these words moments before his death, not long before he screamed, gave up his spirit, and died.
Exposure and Vulnerability
The Romans stripped Jesus of his clothes, exposing his body; they stripped him of his skin by scourging, exposing his sinews and muscles; but with these words, Jesus himself exposed his heart, laying it bare and raw before the human race. He could not have made himself more vulnerable.
So, I move forward with trembling. How can I presume to speak of the mystery of this most excruciating, vulnerable moment in my savior’s life?
Joy Under Despair
I must speak, however, not only because I said I would, but because the longer I sit with these words the more I sense a mysterious, unyielding joy resounding under their despair. While I will never deny their agony, I have come to see the last words of Jesus as among the most strengthening words ever spoken.
I hope I can express what I mean and give you courage.
The “Why?” Question
We understand that our world is fallen, so in a big-picture, detached sense, we understand that suffering exists because things are not right.
But when suffering strikes us, the arbitrary, random, inexplicable kind of suffering, our souls scream “WHY?” Why did my marriage end? Why did my child die? Why did my race suffer genocide?”
From before the time of Job, human hearts have cried “Why?” and received, like Job, no answer. Like a boulder falling into a stream, our unanswered question can send our thoughts flowing two directions – either God isn’t there, or he doesn’t care.
Part of the pain-filled beauty I find in Jesus’ last words consists in that he, like all of us, didn’t get an answer. He died with that question, the worst question, on his lips.
Jesus died feeling forsaken. I know he was quoting Psalm 22, which ends triumphantly. But he didn’t choose the word of victory for his last utterance; he chose the excruciating word of the forsaken: WHY?
I want to take him at his word; he felt God had left him. And his soul screamed, as the human soul will, WHY?
How can these be comforting words, strengthening words, even wonderful words for us? For two reasons.
We Are Not Alone
First, the trajectory of Jesus’ incarnation leads him down through every form of human suffering, down from heaven’s glory to the shameful poverty of his birth in a barn, down from beauty into a body Isaiah tells us was not good looking, down through political oppression, down through rejection, misinterpretation, betrayal, and abandonment, down through false accusations, arrest, and torture, down, down, down, to this, the most excruciating moment, the agony of feeling abandoned by God.
Because of this trajectory and because of this moment in particular, no matter the depth of suffering of any soul on earth, he or she can cling to Jesus, knowing he willingly came to share it. Our God is Emmanuel, God with us, down to the last drop of agony life can serve us.
Thus, as Tim Keller says, though we do not know why suffering strikes as it does, we know what the answer is not: we do not suffer because God is not there or because he does not care. He came. And he suffered with us. He exists and he cares.
We Are Not Forsaken
Second, Jesus’ last words offer this shining hope at the bottom of any pit of despair: Jesus felt forsaken, but he was not forsaken.
How do we know? Three days later, Jesus rose. Years later he spoke to John, “I died, and behold I am alive forevermore,” (Rev 1:18).
Though Jesus felt forsaken in that hour, God’s good purposes for Jesus and for us were not threatened for a moment.
Joy awaited Jesus (Heb 12:2). One day he would see what his death had accomplished and be more than satisfied (Isa 53:11).
God was working in the dark, when even Jesus couldn’t see him.
And because Jesus uttered those words and then rose, his pain-filled words transform into the most joyous, strengthening message to us. It means that if we belong to the same God, nothing – not agonizing death, illness, genocide, famine, war, divorce, abuse, rejection – nothing we experience can mean God has abandoned us. No matter how bad it gets, God is not finished writing a story that will have the best ending.
From Jesus we learn that the cry of “Why have you forsaken me,” though we utter it with our dying breath, is not the last word.
What can we do in response but fall on our faces? Will you join me and cry out with the thousands and thousands of souls Jesus ransomed for God “from every tribe and language and people and nation?” Will you cry, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:10, 11).