When it comes to suffering, it just seems to be that part of life that’s inseparable from the human experience.
So long we’ve been able to communicate, suffering has always had a place within our stories.
The strange thing about suffering, though, is that despite it being a part of life, for many of us, there is something within us that screams, “This should not be.” Somehow, we know that suffering, while a part of life, should not be a part of my life.
Christianity certainly doesn’t shy away from this discussion on suffering. In fact, everywhere in the Bible you’ll find various manifestations of suffering. Whether it be through rape, murder, war, betrayal, the variations of suffering are only limited by the imagination of humanity.
There is one form of suffering that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, especially with everything happening with this pandemic. I’d be willing to argue that this kind of suffering is the worst compared to any other type of possible; the suffering of estrangement.
Estrangement is probably best understood as being broken off from a bond or loyalty.
There are definitely many kinds of estrangement that you can find throughout Scripture, however fundamentally, estrangement will usually be seen in one of two ways: worldly estrangement and spiritual estrangement.
Worldly estrangement is what see between people. Examples are David and his Absolom (v.?) other examples
Spiritual estrangement is what we see between God and humanity apart from Jesus Christ. Paul provides a lot clarity on this in his letter to the Ephesians in chapter 2.
So in thinking about these two forms of estrangement, there’s a particular verse that is pretty significant because it doesn’t simply show one or the other, but both forms of estrangement at the same time.
You might be familiar with the story of Jesus Christ, how He came to die for the sins of the world. You might know that He was crucified to a wooden cross and left to hang there bloody and naked, until He died.
It was on that cross where Jesus shouted what is perhaps the most controversial statement to have come from His lips. In Matthew 27:46, we are told,
Imagine that, Jesus the Christ, Son of Man, the God-man, crying out to His Father, “Why have You forsaken Me?”
Now regardless of whether or not you’re a Christian, you have to admit that that is a strange thing for a guy to say when on multiple occasions He has predicted not only His death, but of His resurrection to follow.
So what gives?
Well what is first important to note is what is it exactly that He is saying.
“My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?”
Now maybe some of you have read through the Bible before, but in case you haven’t or maybe have forgotten, this isn’t the first time we see this quote in the Bible. In fact, Jesus, who is bloodied and nailed onto a cross, recited the first verse of Psalm 22.
If you don’t know, Psalm 22 is essentially a worship song where a king named David, cries out to God in the midst his overwhelming sense of forsakenness.
When we look at both passages, it turns out that there are many comparisons that can be made.
Looking at Jesus and David in their experiences of forsakenness, specifically God-forsakenness, for both, it seemed to be the last stop before death. For David, death or rescue would be the only remedy towards his sense of forsakenness (עזב) and for Jesus, His death was the only remedy to His experience of forsakenness (ἐγκαταλείπω).
In fact, if we look closer at the forsakenness David, we might find that we can relate to what he is going through.
David, in his despair calls out to a God who is apparently not there. However, he knows his history. In fact, his theology is absolutely sound and orthodox; he knows of God’s faithfulness to His people. David knows how God has delivered those who trusted Him, who cried out to Him; he knows that God did not fail them in their time of need. Furthermore, David knows God is holy and well-deserving of the praise of His people. He knows this. But his experience was starved of his theology; his experience was at odds with what he knew to be true.
You may have thought about something like this before, “Why would a loving God allow that?”
It’s a fair question. God is suppose to be faithful, good, and loving and yet, here we are, stuck in quarantine, watching people lose their loved ones, their jobs, their hope, their identity.
For David, his identity was rooted in the faithfulness of God. In fact, there’s actually a word to describe a specific kind of faithfulness, the חֶ֫סֶד of God, sometimes referred to as the “covenant love” of God.
In fact, in another psalm that he wrote, David acknowledges how the חֶ֫סֶד of God is more precious to him than life itself.
This idea of covenant love, it binds people to God through the faithful promises that He gives to them; it is the standard of measurement that God gives to His own faithfulness towards those whom He is in covenant with. So, with such a high standard being placed upon His own faithfulness, the idea of being cut off from this faithfulness is creating for David what is known as an existential estrangement.
Then there is Jesus. Everything about who Jesus Christ was, from his genealogy to His promises of returning back for His people, it all pointed to His relationship to God the Father; Christ had no other purpose but to be about His Father’s business (Lk 2:49, KJV).
As a man charged with the mission to do, not His own will, but the will of the One who sent Him (Jn 6:38), the identity of Christ was more than rooted in the faithfulness of God. It was the manifestation and fulfillment of God’s חֶ֫סֶד to mankind.
So when it comes to Jesus suffering, like I said, He was quite open about what was to come (Mt 16:21; Jn 16:28) and as indicated by His wealth of knowledge on Scripture (Jn 7:15), He certainly was aware of Isaiah 53 which prophesied about His death. So, while the dynamics of estrangement may have differed between David and Jesus, the pain that accompanies the shadow of estrangement certainly did not.
This is specifically observed in the garden of Gethsemane, the night of His betrayal. All three synoptic gospels go into the details of that night; however, Matthew and Mark paint the painful details vividly. The God-man informs His disciples of His spiritual disposition: He is grieved and distressed, grieved to the point of death (Mt 26:37-38; Mk 14:33-34). Like any man being swallowed by crippling anxiety and fear, He asks of His friends only one request: remain and keep watch with Him. They fail Him. Their contrasting action with the request of Christ has been utilized in the narrative of the gospel writers as a means to emphasize the affliction to come. Jesus, who is crippled with the knowledge of what was to come, is alone with this burden on a temporal level. Next, followers of Christ are in for a shock once they see the prayer of their Lord and Savior, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mk 14:36). Mark’s portrayal of this event is astonishing, as we are shown the utter vulnerability of the God-man. True to what He has spoken, Christ has come to do exactly as what God the Father had commanded Him (Jn 14:31), yet even so, He pleads against it. And it is here that His spiritual estrangement would begin to unfold and be epitomized upon the cross.
The significance of the cross as that embodiment of spiritual isolation and abandonment resides in what was declared in Deuteronomy 21:23, where the sinner who was strung up on a tree after their execution would be accursed to God. The apostle Paul establishes this connection in Galatians 3:13, noting when Christ was crucified, that was the moment He had come under the curse of God. . It stands as a controversy simply because there is no absolute means of knowing whether or not the beaten, bloodied, suffering God-man on the cross spoke those words of estrangement as a nod to the rest of Psalm 22 or because He truly did sense His forsakenness at the hand of His Father. Yet because there is no history of Jesus utilizing the beginning of a text as a means to refer to its entirety in the Gospel of Matthew, there would be no logical reason for Matthew to arbitrarily display a beaten Christ to suddenly employ such a technique at this dark hour now. Suffice it say, it very well may be the case that the humanity of Christ, in its frailty and weakness, was at full display before world which hated Him so. If this is the case, then Matthew 27:46 presents the epitome of all forms of estrangement possible, surpassing even the temporal existential type of estrangement. It could be argued that Christ’s experience of existential estrangement was to a divine degree of hopelessness. And like David, the Christ knows that it was His Father who not only led Him to the cross, but also abandoned Him there.
In this comparison of existential crises, both David and Jesus partake and share together the darkest experience that anyone can ever be exposed to: God-forsakenness.
If anything is to be understood from the accounts of David or Jesus, it’s that no one is untouchable from the cold touch of alienation. How does one rightly respond to the hopelessness perfuming these two men? Where is hope to be found if anyone is susceptible to the crippling experiences of temporal or spiritual estrangement?
It could be tempting to categorize our suffering or the suffering of others by sinful deeds committed. Somehow humanity has been plagued with this deception that suffering is only given when it is deserved and requires an atonement of some kind for it to cease.
In confronting this faulty notion by looking at Psalm 22, what is important to note is that there is no mention of personal sin on behalf of David. His experience of temporal and spiritual estrangement do not give enough reason to suspect that he simply “put it on himself” or that he just “had it coming” because of some sin. David’s experience is likely akin to Jesus’s, where his estrangement was not out of punishment, but out of the mysterious will of God. This reality is certainly unsettling. Perhaps one might remember that after the trial of Job, when was he soon after restored and established by God twofold; he is never told why he suffered. In fact, we, the reader, do not plainly know why God allowed the suffering of His servant Job. In our culture of information, this is absolutely disconcerting. If God would allow the suffering of estrangement to occur over His servant Job, or David, or even His own Son, responding to their pleas with His silence, what should keep the sovereign Lord from doing the same unto me?
The remedy to the dilemma of estrangement, and the fears that surround it, is bound to the fulfillment of a חֶ֫סֶד longed for. It is to the benefit of generations later that Psalm 22 and the Crucifixion did not end with the miserable demise of our David and Christ. For David, it is in the last third of Psalm 22 that we can observe a transition from lament to trust to rejoicing (v. 21-31). Similarly, it is upon the third day that lament and sorrow have turned to rejoicing and praise. The very premise from which David cries out to God is the very one that Christ had come to fulfill: the חֶ֫סֶד of the Lord. It is the faithful love of God, that love which is manifested through the promises our Lord keeps, that hope can be built upon, anchoring our peace in the midst of devastating isolation. It is upon these promises, declared by God Himself never to be void of purpose or success (Is 55:11), that an identity can be established, sustained, and preserved upon. For this reason, estrangement of any kind can be endured and conquered, so long as we hold on to the promises of God.
Now as people living in the 21st century, we have the benefit of being able to reflect upon Psalm 22 and Matthew 27:46 if we should ever find ourselves feeling the sting of estrangement by those around us or even by God Himself.
We stand in the advantage of time, being able to meditate upon the fuller context of the חֶ֫סֶד of God manifested through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the words He fulfilled, uttered by David long before. Our joy is imbedded in precisely what gave David and Jesus, along with all of God’s covenant people, peace and strength to endure: the חֶ֫סֶד of God. To this point, we too are able to rejoice as Moses and the Israelites did immediately after their rescue from their 400 years of estrangement, singing, “In Your lovingkindness You have led the people whom You have redeemed; In Your strength You have guided them to Your holy habitation.”