When you think about scriptural examples of prayer that we should imitate, what normally comes to mind? The psalms? Mary's Magnificat? The Lord's Prayer? Those are all great picks, but what if I told you that Jesus' cry of despair from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), belongs on that list too? It may be hard to believe, but this saying actually contains a very important truth about prayer that we would do well to take to heart. To see it, we have to dive a bit deeper into this cryptic verse than we normally do, so let's do that and see just what these words have to teach us.
Trusting in God’s Vindication
On the surface, this saying seems pretty straightforward. Jesus was suffering so much that he felt like God had abandoned him. However, if we look at the Old Testament, we can see that there’s more here than meets the eye. This is the opening verse of Psalm 22, a psalm in which the author laments his suffering and wonders why God isn’t helping him (Psalm 22:1-18). So far, so good. But then about halfway through, the mood changes entirely. The author asks God for help (Psalm 22:19-21), and then he says that God will indeed rescue him from his predicament (Psalm 22:22-24). Finally, the psalm ends with some general praise of God’s goodness and his deliverance of those who trust in him (Psalm 22:25-31).
Because of this sudden shift in tone, many people think that when Jesus quoted the first line of this psalm, he wasn’t really crying out in despair. They say that he didn’t actually think God had abandoned him. Instead, he was quoting the first line in order to call to mind the entire psalm, so he was actually showing his trust in God, albeit subtly. Just like the author of Psalm 22, Jesus believed that God would ultimately vindicate him and deliver him from his suffering (by raising him from the dead), and that’s what his cryptic words really meant.
And they’re right....kind of. Yes, Jesus knew the Old Testament very well, so he knew that Psalm 22 ended on a hopeful note. Consequently, when he quoted its opening line, he was subtly signifying his confidence that God had not in fact abandoned him. However, we shouldn’t focus so much on the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words that we completely forget their surface meaning. When we interpret these words, we don’t have to choose between a cry of abandonment or a subtle cry of hope. It’s not either/or; rather, it’s both/and.
Yes, just like the author of Psalm 22, Jesus knew deep down that God hadn’t really abandoned him, but also just like that author, he still felt abandoned. He was suffering so much that despite what he knew to be true, he felt like his heavenly Father had simply thrown him to the wolves. Otherwise, it doesn’t make a ton of sense for Jesus to have quoted the first line of the psalm. If he only meant to call to mind the hopeful part of it, why would he quote the despairing part? It makes more sense that he quoted the first line because that’s how he really felt, and he quoted that particular psalm (rather than one that stays depressing all the way through) because despite how he felt, he knew that God hadn’t really abandoned him.
A Model for Us
And it’s important to recognize this because Jesus’ words on the cross are a model for us. When we feel like God has forgotten about us, we should respond the way Jesus did. On the one hand, we have to know that God hasn’t really abandoned us; he never does that. God is always with us, loving us and supporting us, and if we stay faithful to him, he will vindicate us in the end (even if that end is not in this life).
On the other hand, it’s okay to feel abandoned by God despite what we know to be the truth. It’s okay to feel like God has just thrown us to the wolves, and it’s okay to tell him that. Just like Jesus and the author of Psalm 22, we too can lament our suffering to our heavenly Father. We too can express our deepest, darkest feelings of despair when we pray. God knows it all already, so we’re not going to shock him or tell him anything he doesn’t already know. When we tell him how we really feel, we’re simply being honest with him, and just like in any loving relationship, honesty with God is important.
So at the end of the day, we simply need balance here. If we feel abandoned or let down by God, it’s okay to tell him. It’s okay to be completely honest with him and hold nothing back, just like Jesus did. However, we can’t let those feelings of despair have the last word. Despite what we may feel, we have to know that God never abandons his children, so we should always trust that he will in fact come through for us in the end, even if that end comes after our earthly lives are over.