Christ’s Fourth Word From the Cross: “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”
I sat on the cold floor in the psychiatric unit in the basement of a hospital. I had all my belongings taken from me and was left in a paper gown with some cheap disposable socks. There were other beds in the room I was sitting in, but they were empty and the door to the hall was open enough to let a little light in and let me hear the muffled talk at the nurse’s station. I couldn’t move. I crawled over to the bed and pulled a blanket off to cover my upper torso. I was frozen. And surely forsaken.
I had been institutionalized because I could no longer trust myself to look out for my own best interests. Under different circumstances I may have pulled off something drastic and final in the state my head was in. And so, I sat, cold, on the floor in the psychiatric unit wondering, in so many words: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I had been brought into the hospital on a gurney, with my hands and legs strapped down. I may have been the only one not to notice that I was yelling when I tried to talk, or that my eyes had become so red and bloodshot that you couldn’t blame the attendants for staring when I looked at them. If this was all part of the plan, the master planner can take a hike. If you told me that this was a necessary evil, so that the glory of God could shine through weakness I may have hit you.
I sat in silence. Forsaken and ready to die.
What would Jesus do? Now wasn’t the best time to ask me that question. Unless, instead of the dying part you noted that Jesus was praying a Psalm. Psalm 22 to be precise, and both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark relay the story to us of Jesus praying that Psalm on the cross at the hour of His death. Taken by itself it might seem to be quite the nihilistic prayer. “Thanks for nothing, God”, is the rough translation from Aramaic.
But as the story continues and the people ask each other what Jesus seems to be mumbling (“let’s see if Elijah is coming,” they said) we don’t need to assume Jesus stopped talking. After all, what He just said was only the first line of a Psalm—the book from which He quoted more from in His earthly ministry than any other. “Why have you forsaken me?” was certainly a plea from the depths of the souls of both Jesus and the Psalmist. But there’s more.
The Psalm, and presumably Jesus, went on:
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the one Israel praises.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
To you they cried out and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”
Besides the parallel to Jesus’ death and the mocking recorded there, this is no flippant Hail Mary prayer. Rather, He (and we) has ceased to be a man. He is mocked and forgotten. His enemies win. In defeat, in death, in ignominy. The Psalmist knows this, Jesus knows this, and we can verify, all too easily, the reality of suffering in this world. The Psalm ends:
future generations will be told about the Lord.
They will proclaim his righteousness,
declaring to a people yet unborn:
He has done it!
Imagine Jesus barely mouthing these last lines as the breath went out of His body. The incongruity is almost too much. We can affirm the first line of the Psalm, but what about the last? “He has done it”? Done what? If it is left ambiguous in the Psalm, in light of the Resurrection we know what “it” is. St. Paul writes:
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
As I lay in the psychiatric ward, tired and afraid I could not recite any Psalms. I was mad at the world and the god that had turned its back on me. But Jesus recited the Psalm for me. Amidst the chaos of death and institutions He said not only the first lines, but that last as well. He has done it. And while the stay on the psychiatric floor was temporary, the medications might be with me a long time, and the disease will follow me to my death.
But that’s not the end of the story. He has done it, outside the city walls on Golgotha at about three o’clock in the afternoon.
Daniel van Voorhis is the director of the League of Faithful Masks, scholar-in-residence and director of curriculum at 1517. After receiving his PhD in Modern history from the University of St. Andrews, Dr. van Voorhis spent 11 years teaching history and political thought at Concordia University, Irvine and was most recently the assistant Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.
This is a story of a historian turning his craft to the story about which he is most afraid: his own. This is a book about fighting the monsters of addiction, severe anxiety, depression, and crippling self-doubt.