In This Chapter
A Quick Dip1
Eli/Eloi: In this prayer, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying Eli (speaking Hebrew), Mark quotes Jesus as saying Eloi (speaking Aramaic). Both words mean God and come from the Hebrew word El, meaning the strong One, the One in front of, the Leader, the Lord. This all-powerful Leader is the object of fear and reverence, and so is also known as the revered One. The original Hebrew root word contains a strong visual image: literally, it means to stretch out or to reach out after. Thus the El is the One whom people strive to reach.2
Lama/lamma/why: Again, Matthew quotes Jesus speaking Hebrew (lama) and Mark quotes the Aramaic (lamma). Both words translate as why, but these original languages do more than ask a question; they also contain a plea or protest against something which someone has done or is about to do. To demand, “Lama?” is to register an objection with someone (as the psalmist does in Psalm 22).3 So in this prayer, we discover that Jesus is not asking for a cause/effect explanation (e.g., “Why did the lights go out?”). Instead, Jesus is protesting an action (God’s) as we would when we would ask, “Why did you treat her like that?” This important nuance is not captured in the Greek; perhaps this is why Matthew and Mark took the pains to include the Hebrew/Aramaic here for their readers.
Sabachthani/abandoned: This Aramaic word means to leave or to leave alone. It comes from the Hebrew root word meaning to forsake or abandon. The Greek word translated as abandoned similarly means to desert or to leave behind, especially in a time of great danger. Please note that here in the Greek, abandoned is another aorist verb which, we remember, refers to a one-time event and not a continuing action.
- What has been the darkest moment in your life? Did you call out to God at that moment? If so, what did you say?
- Why does Jesus call God El in this prayer instead of Abba?
- Exactly what action is Jesus protesting when he cries, “Why?”
- Did God really abandon Jesus on the cross?
- Did God answer Jesus’ prayer? If so, when and how?
- Is it okay for us to question God?
I have a painful memory of a particular Saturday that the passing years will never be able to erase. My cousin Ronda came home from running errands on that afternoon to find that her baby, eight-month-old Anna, had been seized by a sudden illness. Lethargic and refusing to take any fluids, the baby began spitting up and soon appeared dehydrated. Ronda called the doctor, who instructed her to bring Anna to the emergency room for immediate treatment. The family got into the truck and headed down the curvy country road. Preoccupied with trying to keep the baby from choking if she spit up again, Ronda did not see the car that came speeding around a curve. The shout from Anna’s father was drowned out by the screech of metal as the family was struck head-on. After the impact, Ronda said that she looked down at Anna and thought with relief, “Thank goodness, she’s sleeping.” But the baby wasn’t sleeping. The impact of the crash had killed her.
I also clearly remember Anna’s funeral. The church was overflowing, and all of us — including the preacher — had just one question racing through our hearts and minds: Why? Why did this happen? Why did God allow this to happen? It was perhaps the most difficult service a minister could ever be called upon to perform, and as I listened to that preacher struggle with his own feelings of grief and anguish, I realized that he was not going to be able to provide us with a satisfactory answer to that one question: Why?
In times of personal darkness, we all ask God the same question: Why? Why did you do this to me? Why did you let that illness take my spouse away from me? Why did you let my friend die in that house fire? Why didn’t you stop that child from walking into school and shooting my son? Why did I contract AIDS? Why is my parent suffering from Alzheimer’s? Why?
In Jesus’ darkest hour, we hear the same question. On that Black Friday morning at 9:00 a. m., Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to a cross. Six agonizing hours later, Jesus’ life force was almost extinguished. Death was near. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” In Matthew and Mark, these are Jesus’ last words, his agonizing cry as his torturous pain reaches its brutal climax. In these Gospels, Jesus’ last words are a prayer — a prayer that both questions and protests God’s actions in the midst of terrible suffering.
The Right Question
It is part of human nature to ask why whenever tragedy occurs. Somehow knowing the reason or purpose behind a particular event is extremely important to us. I suppose we think that if we can understand a painful event in our lives, it will somehow feel less painful. Yet this is not the case. In the aftermath of little Anna’s tragic death, we learned why the accident had occurred: A young man who suffered from diabetes was working at a shop not far from Anna’s house. After departing from work that afternoon, some type of emergency — possibly an oncoming insulin attack — caused him to turn around and race back toward his shop at breakneck speed. Losing control of his car, the young man crossed the yellow line and killed both himself and Anna. Yes, we eventually learned why the accident occurred: someone in urgent haste lost control of a deadly machine. Yet in the end, understanding that why brought absolutely no comfort to Anna’s family and friends.
So what does this mean? That we should not ask why? That we should not question God? On the contrary, Jesus asked why; Jesus questioned God with his last breath. However, if we look carefully, we will discover that Jesus’ question — Jesus’ why — is very different from all of those whys we mentioned above. Look closely at Jesus’ words. Jesus does not ask, “Why am I suffering like this?” or “Why do I have to die this awful death?” or “Why won’t you save me?” Jesus does not question the circumstances which surround him. He does not focus on his physical pain and suffering. His question is not, “Why is this happening to me?” but instead, “Why have you abandoned me?” No, Jesus’ question focuses not on his physical circumstances but on his spiritual relationship with God. We see Jesus hanging on a cross. He is in great pain, and he feels completely deserted. He chooses to question not the pain but the desertion. Jesus’ greatest darkness lies not in the crucifixion but in God’s abandonment.
In our greatest moments of darkness, we feel pain — physical or emotional — and, like Jesus, we also feel abandoned. We have a choice; we can question the pain, “Why did this happen?” or we can question the feeling of abandonment, “Why has God left me? Where is my God?” As we have already noted, understanding why something happened will not heal our pain or our sense of brokenness. However, understanding where God is in the midst of crisis and tragedy — finding the answer to that question will change everything.
Perhaps this discussion is making you feel a little uncomfortable. Perhaps you are saying, “Wait a minute, I believe in a loving, caring God. I don’t like this talk about God abandoning people.” Others (including myself) would agree. There is a popular saying in modern Christian culture that goes something like this: “If you feel far away from God, guess who moved?” I do not know the origin of this saying, but it expresses a deep truth about God’s faithfulness to us. Sin may lead us astray, but God does not move; God’s love for us is constant and unchanging. This is one of our basic beliefs. Yet at the cross, we hear Jesus protest, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew words all point to the same understanding. Jesus says that God has left him, abandoned him, forsaken him, deserted him in a time of great danger. “But,” we may object, “Jesus is God’s Son. Would God really do that? Maybe in all of the pain and suffering, Jesus became confused. Maybe Jesus just felt like God had deserted him. Maybe Jesus got it wrong. Or did God really forsake his only Son?”
Scripture’s answer to our question is clear. Jesus was not confused nor mistaken. At the cross, God did abandon Jesus. God moved away. Jesus was sinless. Jesus was obedient. Through all of the trials, through all of the temptations, Jesus remained steadfast. He never budged from his Father’s side, from his Father’s will. Jesus followed God’s purpose even when it led him to a cross, and once he was there — breathing his last — God left him. Abandoned. Deserted. Forsaken. Alone. Jesus screams, “Why?” And death extinguishes a perfect life.
It is clear in both Matthew and Mark that God did not answer Jesus’ final question at the cross. There was no voice from heaven, no angel sent to bring comfort. There was only a shriek of death, then silence. Three days of silence.
Yet we know that in his own perfect time, God did answer this prayer. On Easter morning and in the years that followed, the apostles themselves received and recorded God’s answer to that anguished question. Why did God abandon his Son? “So that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, in order that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24).
It is true; he bore our sins. When we look at Jesus hanging on the cross, we can plainly see all of the suffering caused by the sinfulness and brokenness of our fallen world. We witness the physical suffering that sin causes when we watch Jesus’ blood flow from his wounds. We observe the emotional suffering that sin produces as we watch Jesus endure the mocking and scorn from those gathered around him. However, it is Jesus’ last prayer, his cry of abandonment, that points us to the most devastating consequence of sin: the spiritual suffering which we ourselves must also endure every time our sin separates us from our God.
When Jesus took on our sins in his own body, he took on all of our sins; he suffered all of the consequences. Not just the physical pain, not just the emotional torment, but even the spiritual separation. You see, Jesus could not have felt the depth of humanity’s brokenness unless he also experienced that separation. And the only way for Jesus — who was perfectly obedient — to be separated from his Father’s goodness was for God to move. So, for the first time in all eternity, God moved away from righteousness and allowed the darkness of sin to swallow up the Light of goodness. And for the first time in his existence, Jesus suffered what you and I experience every time we sin: the darkness that seeks to destroy our relationship with God. When we hear Jesus scream, “Why have you deserted me?” the truth pierces our heart, and suddenly we realize that God’s movement away from Jesus is really God’s movement toward us in the midst of our darkness and suffering. And within that movement we must come to understand that Jesus’ question, “Why have you abandoned me?” can never be our question. In all of human history, God has never moved away from humanity. Instead, God deserted his own goodness — his own Son — and moved to save a lost and fallen race.
Jesus’ last prayer points to so many things. For instance, this is the only prayer in which Jesus does not address God as Abba, Daddy. The broken relationship, the sense of abandonment, leads Jesus to call out instead, “Eli, Eli — my God, my God.” In his darkness and pain, Jesus — like the Psalmist — uses the ancient Hebrew word for God: El. As we noted in “A Quick Dip,” El refers to the strong One, the One in front of, the One whom people strive to reach. In this awful moment, Jesus turns his face toward heaven and reaches up for the One who is stronger than any force in the universe.
Sitting at Anna’s funeral with my heart completely enveloped in the darkness of grief, this was the moment when I finally received my first glimmer of comfort and strength: not from the preacher’s attempt to explain the reason behind Anna’s death, but from his call for us to bow our heads in prayer. In the midst of my heartfelt loss and overwhelming sadness, when I joined together with my fellow-mourners to pray — to call out to God, to reach up for the strong One — I discovered that my Leader, my Lord, my El was standing right there beside me, waiting patiently to begin leading me ever so gently on the long journey out of that dark valley and into the distant light of a new day.
Clearly, this is what each of us must do whenever we face personal crisis and loss. Instead of asking pointless questions about our circumstances — “Why me? Why me?” or “What if? What if?” — we should instead reach up and ask, “Where are you, my God, my Leader, my Strength?” Because if we will just ask, then we will discover that God is where he has always been — with us — ready to wash away the pain of our brokenness and to cover us with the balm of his healing and wholeness.
One last note, and it is an important one because it contains Jesus’ invitation to us. If we look carefully, we will discover that within Jesus’ prayer of protest there is also a gesture of hope. After all, if Jesus can call out to God then there must still be some hope that God can hear. And we can see that hope even more clearly when we look at the word abandoned. In the Greek, this is an aorist verb, and we have learned that the aorist refers to a single event rather than a continuing action. Even as he is dying, even as he cries out in protest, Jesus himself understands that God’s abandonment is only temporary. It is but a single snap-shot existing merely for a moment in time. It is not an enduring action. Here we see Jesus’ hope — no, his confidence — that the cross is not God’s final answer. Jesus knows that God will move again.
And on Easter morning, God moved. God moved Jesus from death to resurrection, from darkness to light, from despair to salvation. And in the midst of our own personal darkness, if you and I can hold on to enough hope to call out to God, to focus on the relationship instead of the pain, then we too will possess the confidence to profess that our sorrow is not God’s final answer. God will move again.
Jesus’ invitation to us is clear. At life’s darkest moments, he urges us to reach up — to reach up with hope to the strong One who abandoned what he loved the most so that he could always be with us. Jesus wants us to understand, to believe, to trust that our El, our Leader, our Lord, our Abba will never abandon us. He will always be with us. Always. That is our hope. It is our promise. It is our truth.
Chapter 10 Footnotes
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.
2 Frances Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1907), 41–42.
3 BDB, 554.