Psalm 22 and Feeling Forsaken
Psalm 22 starts with the line Jesus famously spoke as he hung on the cross:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish? (1-3)
In my years as a chaplain, I have listened to many people describe how forsaken they felt, abandoned by God, alone, and afraid. Most of them blamed either God or themselves. If they felt angry at God, they often felt guilty about it.
Though I never felt guilty because of it, I was angry at God for many years. Not that I blamed God for the tragedies or turmoils of my life. I never expected God would protect me from pain or even from evil. What I did expect was that God would be there for me when I died.
I don’t believe that at the time I thought of it in those terms. On a conscious level, I didn’t even believe in God. Certainly not a literal god. Even so, I somehow acquired the belief that, in a primal and eternal way, some sort of god existed and, when we died, that god would welcome us home. I never voiced that belief, but it must have there, because I knew when it disappeared.
Abandoned by God
My memory about the incident is fuzzy about, but I think that when I was seventeen, I developed hypothermia. One moment, I was numb with cold, and the next, I knew nothing. I slumbered in a timeless darkness until I came back to consciousness, wrapped in some blankets and a friend’s arms. In between those separate moments of awareness, I had no thoughts or dreams. I suspected I had died, and I knew that God had not been there. I had fallen into an emptiness where no god existed, and that was terribly, horribly wrong.
Years later, when my father was dying from mesothelioma, he asked me if I believed in a life after death. I told him I didn’t know. It turns out that months before her own death, his mother’s heart had stopped. The medics revived her in the ambulance. Apparently, she had no memory of being dead. She saw no light, heard no voices, felt no gentle, godlike touch. If those stories people tell, of being sent back from some brilliant land because it’s not their time, were true, why had his mother not seen anything?
Again, I didn’t know. The best I had to offer was that we are not given certainty.
As a teenager, though, I had been certain. Until I wasn’t. Then, when certainty failed me, I became angry. This was not a conscious decision on my part. I just stopped trusting. God had lied to me. She had promised to be there, and She wasn’t. If God wanted me to talk to Her, She was going to have to make amends for what She had done.
For decades, my relationship with God stayed that way. Then some old anxiety came back to haunt me, and I went to see a counselor. In the course of our work together, I told her the story of how I had died and how God had broken Her promise to be there.
She said to me, “Maybe you didn’t die. Maybe you just passed out.”
That statement changed my relationship with God. Suddenly, the facts of the situation didn’t matter. It didn’t even matter if God existed. My counselor’s statement showed me how foolish I had been, holding onto a grudge like that, especially since I couldn’t be certain what had really happened. Because of that moment with my counselor, I no longer felt forsaken or abandoned. I forgave God.
I’d like to be able to say that ever afterwards, my life has been easy, or I’ve never felt anxious, or I’m confident God’s going to be there when I do finally die, but none of that would be true. Regardless, something shifted inside me. Although outwardly, my life didn’t change, inwardly, I opened, as if my heart or spirit had become more expansive, deeper, wider, more whole. I didn’t feel peace, exactly, nor happiness. I just felt as if I had God back.
There are still days when I can’t wrap my logical brain around this crazy idea that a spiritual realm — or any kind of God — exists. Nonetheless, since the day that shift occurred, I have been able to settle into that tension between belief and unbelief with a peace I hadn’t felt since before that frigid day so many years ago.
Coming to Terms with Feeling Forsaken
As I mentioned, I have met with many individuals who feel abandoned by their god. Like the writer of Psalm 22, they feel alone, forsaken, afraid. They cannot understand why God has allowed horrible things to happen to them. Many have suffered for years with illness, pain, loneliness, and anxiety. They face the death of loved ones, crippling addictions, disorienting mental illnesses, poverty, homelessness, and abuse. Why would God allow so much misery?
Some patients receive comfort from the idea that God doesn’t give them more than they can handle, or that there’s a reason for everything. Others trust that whatever happens is, ultimately, for our good, even if we don’t like it.
I once visited a Christian church where the preacher told a moving story of a time his toddler daughter injured herself and needed a painful and invasive medical procedure to heal properly. As one might expect, she was scared and angry. No matter what the father told her, she could not understand the purpose behind her suffering.
Rhetorically, the preacher asked, “Should I have made the medical team stop what they were doing?”
Of course not. Just because the girl didn’t like what was happening to her, didn’t mean it wasn’t for her best. In the same way, the preacher told us, God does only what is best for us, even if it feels like punishment.
That’s one possible explanation for why bad things happen in our lives. I have spoken with people who express that very idea and find it helpful. It enables them to to hold onto their belief in a loving God, even when their world is falling apart.
No Excuses for God
Not everyone derives solace from such a rationalization. They insist that just because our best efforts at repairing and healing are awkward and even abusive does not make them acceptable. Besides, is this powerful God so inept that She can only heal us by hurting us?
Perhaps, instead, God is less powerful than we think, or maybe the problem is that we have free will. If God allows us to make our own choices, then she can only watch sorrowfully when we choose badly. As a parent, I have had to do that, and it can be painful for me and for my child. I try to provide what support I can, so probably God does, too. Even if She cannot keep us from bleeding when we fall down, she can be there to ease our pain.
For the writer of Psalm 22, however, easing his pain is not good enough. He will not excuse God for abandoning him. He charges Him with breaking the covenant He made with Israel. This god of Israel is not just any god. For the psalmist, He is “My God.” He belongs to the writer. He made a promise to him.
As Walter Brueggeman states, God has “an obligation to the speaker,” and he has failed it.  God stands accused.
Praying to the One Abandons Us
Yet if this god has abandoned the writer, why does the writer pray to Him? It’s not as if the man feels well. He’s sick. He feels as if he has been “poured out like water”; his “bones are out of joint.” His heart has melted like wax; his mouth is dry. Taunted by his friends and family, he is vulnerable to his enemies and to the villains who circle round him, ready to take his clothes the moment he dies. To God, he cries out, “[Y]ou lay me in the dust of death” (Psalm 22:13-18). For many days and nights, he has endured God’s absence.
Yet Brueggeman points out that the psalmist does not let this abandonment define him. He still considers himself worthy enough to seek deliverance from God.  The man despairs, but he also hopes. According to David J. Cohen, the psalmist has an “inherent desire to believe that God can change the situation.”  He longs for that God he once praised and intends to praise again. After all, this man has belonged to God all his life:
Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you, even at my mother’s breast.
From birth I was cast on you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God. (9-10)
They have a relationship. If we have a lifelong relationship with someone, when we are hurt, we will give our beloved a chance to redeem herself. We remind her of her commitment to us, and we renew our commitment in our own heart. Therefore, when it seems God has turned away, the psalmist reminds Him of the covenant. The supplicant may feel abandoned, but he will not give up on his god.
God’s Need for Praise
Just in case God needs some nudging, the psalmist offers Him plenty of incentive to make things right for the battered and broken man of the psalm. Not only does he remind God of the covenant God made, but he tells God that He is the Holy One, He is trustworthy, and He is righteous. In the past, He responded to the needs of his people. Surely he will respond now.
If God still needs convincing, the psalmist offers to praise God. Capitalizing on what appears to be a divine vanity, he promises that if God saves him from his enemies:
I will declare your name to my people;
in the assembly I will praise you. (22)
Nations will kneel before God, He will be remembered to the “ends of the earth,” He will be feasted and worshiped, and “posterity will serve Him” (Psalm 22: 27-30).
As the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel explains, not only do we need God, but God needs us. Heschel writes, “In the phrase we need each other is embedded the concept of Israel’s power to diminish or enhance God’s might.”  In other words, if God wants praise, God would be wise to keep this man alive. Brueggeman calls this a “surprising motivation,” a kind of “bargaining chip.” 
When Jesus Was Forsaken
Yet when the psalmist suggests that God save him in exchange for worship and praise, perhaps he’s not so much using a “bargaining chip” as he is reminding the Holy One that the two of them are in a relationship. In relationships, we do not need praise so much as we need recognition and love. Just as we long to be seen, so does God. As we long to be cherished, so does God. Perhaps it is true, as Brueggeman says, that if God forsakes us, then God will also be forsaken.
In the Christian church, this Psalm 22 is often read on the Friday before Easter, the day when, according to the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus felt his own despair and abandonment. So broken was he, that he did not even bother to plead with God. All he could do was ask “Why?” But Jesus’ ability to ask this very question, Brueggeman tells us, was part of his deep faith.
In the Jewish tradition, one is called to hold God accountable. One is called to complain, to demand from God a response. “Like the faithful child of Israel that he is,” Brueggeman writes, “Jesus voices complaint about divine abandonment.”  To whom do you complain if you have no faith?
Yet also in fine Jewish tradition, Jesus understood that if God had abandoned him, leaving him to suffer and die, then this God to whom Jesus cried out would also be abandoned. If God’s children cannot honor and worship and pray to him, then it is as if God has no children. 
Staying in Relationship
When we betray one another, we damage the relationship. If we feel forsaken, we tend to turn away, forsaking the one who has hurt us. Feeling abandoned, I turned away from God for many years. Just as I lost God, so God lost me.
Psalm 22 reminds us that withdrawal is not the only answer. Although we cannot always trust another person to care enough about us to repent and reunite, hopefully we can trust God. If that force we consider holy and divine is not trustworthy, then in what way is it divine? It is, instead, a false idol.
So when we remind God of the importance of our relationship, God will respond. That is the promise of the psalm. As soon as the writer offers to praise God for saving him, the entire psalm changes. Instead of bemoaning his misery and crying out for help, the psalmist sings joyfully of God’s deliverance. His enemies have been vanquished. God has come through for him.
I think this is less about the promise of deliverance, though, and more about the promise of a steady and solid relationship.
Deliverance and the Promise of Relationship
Yes, the psalmist declares God has saved him:
For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help. (24)
But is this a literal description of what happened or a statement of hope? David J. Cohen calls this an “anticipatory” assertion, “an emerging hopeful vision of relief” that expresses gratitude for what might come to be. Although the hoped-for future has not yet come to pass, trust is renewed The writer can “rest in the confidence that God will act for and not against the distressed person.” 
Cohen suggests that the psalmist’s praise reflects a renewed and deeper partnership with God. By holding onto a desire to trust in God’s faithful action and to live as if that action were real, the writer returns to that connection with the divine that supported and fed him, no matter what the actual outcome. 
It’s About the Relationship
Even if God does literally deliver the writer of Psalm 22, Brueggeman reminds us that the “newness” that occurs at the end, this return to health and community, “is not automatic.” God is “a free agent who each time makes a free response to the cry of wretchedness.”  If the psalms of lament balance the misery of the sufferer with the gratitude of the healed, perhaps it is less a statement of what actually happens in our lives as a statement of willingness, hope, and the longing for relationship. Perhaps God will not heal our sores or take away our spouse’s cancer or keep us safe from harm, but God will be there. That is the help we receive, and it is enough to keep us going.
At least, that has been my experience. When I decided that perhaps God hadn’t lied to me, when I opened myself up to a renewed relationship, I felt no censure or bitterness. Instead, I felt welcomed, held, at peace.
Inasmuch as God exists, God is always there, ready to receive us whenever we return, no questions asked.
In faith and fondness,
- Brueggeman, Walter. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, ed. Brent A. Strawn, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 100.
- Ibid 23.
- Ibid 62.
- Ibid 101.
- Quoted by Kimelman, Reuven, “The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel,” First Things, December 2009, https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/12/the-theology-of-abraham-joshua-heschel, accessed 6/1/18.
- Brueggeman 90.
- Ibid 90.
- See Brueggeman p. 103.
- Cohen, David J.. Why o Lord? : Praying Our Sorrows, England: Authentic Media, 2013, 61.
- Ibid 62.
- Brueggeman 104.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens