It was the ultimate act of obedience and submission.
Jesus, perfect and sinless, allowed himself to be nailed to a cross to die in the most tortuous way in order to save the very people who were putting him through that mess. The only person that Jesus has to turn to in his darkest hour is the Father.
And in his agony, the Christ calls out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani”
My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken me?
It’s generally well-known that Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 at this point. The delightfully cheerful Psalm starts off like this:
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.
It’s easy to understand why Jesus might feel that way. After all, Jesus has been nothing but faithful to the Father for his entire life. His faithfulness led him to homelessness, persecution, hatred, loneliness, betrayal, and ultimately death. And in the midst of that death, Jesus cries about being forsaken.
With the crucifixion being something of a key moment in Christianity, we have really attached to this saying. It shows up in our speech, our prayers, and even our songs. We take it for granted. The song, “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us” by Stuart Townend includes the lyric, “The Father turns his face away.” We don’t question it, we just expect that it was the case.
As a kid, this was explained to me as the Father being so Holy, he can not possibly be around sin (and certainly not sin of that magnitude), and so though it breaks God’s heart, he has to look away in order to spare his holiness.
So engrained was this particular bit of theology that I was convinced there was a Bible verse that specifically stated that God was too Holy to even be in the same zip code as sin (although that was almost certainly the Message translation). I didn’t know where the verse was, but I was convinced that it had to be there, or else God would have stayed with Jesus the whole time.
So as a young adult, I looked into it a little bit. And I think I’ve found the verse where we get this impression.
In the book of Habakkuk (one of your favorites, I’m sure), Habakkuk says this to the Lord:
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
Here it is. Habakkuk states that Yahweh is too pure to even look at evil. The only problem with that is that Habakkuk then comes back immediately to tell God that for someone who can’t stand to look at evil, he sure seems to be idly watching a lot of it.
This tells me that Habakkuk believes that God, in all his holiness, has an obligation to intervene. But God doesn’t seem to place the same obligation on himself. That is, what Habakkuk says ought to be true about God isn’t actually altogether true about God. In fact, while Habakkuk believes that God shouldn’t look upon evil, the passage reveals that God is certainly not excluded from the option.
And really, if God is not capable of being around in evil then there are an awful lot of things in the Bible that just don’t make sense, not least of which is Jesus (who we claim is God) spends a majority of his time with people who are described solely in terms of the evil they commit (prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners).
So I think it can be concluded that this particular bit of theology is, at the very least, unattested by scripture.
Unfortunately, if this is the case, it may cause more problems than it solves. The fact remains that God abandons a perfect and obedient Jesus at the moment of his greatest faithfulness to God. How can we as Christians claim the eternal faithfulness of God when he abandoned the only one who was truly faithful to God? How can we possibly make the argument that God will never leave us or forsake us when that’s precisely what he does to Jesus, the one person who actually deserves the faithfulness of God?
If it’s true that “The Father turns his face away,” then what hope do we have, as broken and disobedient followers of God, that God will remain faithful and present in the midst of our sin and anguish?
But maybe it’s not true.
If Jesus is quoting Psalm 22 (and he is), then he also knows that the Psalm continues on to say this:
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him. (v.24)
When Jesus quotes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He’s not admitting defeat. He’s not claiming that God is not present in his current suffering. To the contrary, God is not only present, but active. God has not hidden his face! He has not turned his face away. He has not been unfaithful. God’s faithfulness is assured for Christ upon the cross the same as it is assured for you and me right now.
Jesus’ cry in Matthew 27 is not one of despair. It’s one of hope. Yahweh who has always been faithful continues to be faithful, even among the agony of crucifixion, and certainly in the trials we face in our own lives.
Our God is faithful, all the time. He did not turn his face away, and he does not now. Even when we feel beaten down, oppressed, and alone our God always remains by our side.
And according to John 19:30, Jesus uttered a final phrase: “It is finished.”
One of my Greek professors, Brandon Fredenburg, taught me that phrase can be translated another way: He has done it.” Which happens to be the final line of the 22nd Psalm.
Christ knew that God was faithful. He always knew it. We need to know that too.
May we rest in the faithfulness of God, knowing that he has not turned his face away. He remains faithful at all times. He is working in us, even when we cannot feel his presence.
He has done it.