Question: “Matt, you talk about God forgiving us, and that’s beautiful, but what about when you have trouble forgiving God?”
When I was serving at a church in Omaha, NE I had the pleasure of getting to know a church member named Mike. Mike and his wife, Kim, were two of the most committed, loving people in the whole congregation. I was given the role of pastoring the Saturday night worship venue at the church, and they were there faithfully serving however they were needed most. Mike was extremely gifted running our sound system, and actually ran his own recording studio out of his home. Kim was our hospitality team leader and took great pride in making our church a warm and welcoming place.
The following year, tragedy struck when my wife and I both learned that Kim had discovered Mike unconscious, collapsed on the floor of their bedroom. He was rushed to the hospital, whereupon it was discovered that he’d had a heart attack, which had taken a significant toll on his brain. That began months of suffering for he and all his loved ones, which included my wife, Nyssa, and I.
We believed in the promises of prayer. Jesus himself said, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24, ESV). So we prayed. We prayed fervently for Mike. We saw his health improve, but then the next time we heard news things were worse than they’d ever been. We continued to ask God to have mercy; to send healing. Trusting in his promises, we even fasted believing that perhaps by doing so God might attend to our prayer.
But then the unthinkable happened. Mike died. This child of God and loyal volunteer of the church had been taken from us, and we were left wondering, “Why? How could God do this?”
Questions like this always leave us feeling a bit hollow because there never seems to be a very satisfying answer. Indeed, I believe no satisfying answer or explanation exists for stories like this, and even if some explanation was available that made logical sense, what good would that do anyway? As a result, we can’t help but feel like we’ve been wronged by God. If he’s truly all-powerful and gracious and good, why didn’t he do something? It’s moments like this that it feels hard–even impossible–to forgive God.
Biblical authors have actually given voice to that same feeling. These questions appear quite frequently in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1,2)
But I, O Lord, cry to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?
Why do you hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:13,14)
Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? (Psalm 10:1)
There it is right in holy writ: the painful question “Why?” Like us, these poets cry out to God because they see something that simply doesn’t make sense with what they know about His character. They see evil people prosper and good people suffer. They see injustice taking place on the earth and wonder whether the King of kings is even paying attention. They experience pain and suffering in their own life and want to know why God seems to have forgotten them.
Invariably, as dark as each Psalm begins, they each conclude in light–striking a chord of hope in God. They end with confidence that despite appearances and circumstances God is still God and he’s still paying attention and he still cares. They all end that way except for one, Psalm 88, which ends like this:
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dreadful assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
they close in on me together.
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;
my companions have become darkness. (Psalm 88:16-18)
The end. That’s it. No hope. No resolution. No silver lining. In this Psalm, everything doesn’t turn out “okay.” In fact, nothing about the poet’s situation is remotely okay. He feels that–for whatever reason–God is angry with him. It’s so intense that it feels like he’s drowning in his anger and rejection as if in a flood. Moreover, not only does it feel like God is his enemy, but his personal relationships have been shipwrecked as well. Neither his beloved–his spouse–nor his friend are on his side.
And perhaps it is here that many of us resonate most. Our situation is a Psalm 88 situation. We feel wronged by God. He appears and acts as an enemy and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. God and all his grace and goodness has forsaken us. He is Deus absconditus–the Hidden God. So when we find ourselves in a Psalm 88 situation, what hope–what comfort–is there?
The hiddenness of God is no comfort at all. That aspect of him only terrifies us more, and drives us even more into despair. However, God has revealed Himself in a way that can bring hope and comfort, and, perhaps, allow us to “forgive” him. He reveals himself in the person of Jesus. In Jesus, God became man and in doing so, he took on our cause so intimately and personally that he willingly subjected himself to all manner of suffering. He even subjected himself to death–death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).
Because of Jesus, our God is not one who aloof from our suffering, questions, and doubt. Instead He experienced these intensely human realities Himself. He was, as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “…despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:3). Jesus experienced betrayal and abandonment by those whom he loved. He was tried unjustly at a kangaroo court led by a cabal of his enemies, and condemned to death. He felt physical pain on a level altogether unknown by most of us, and since he was crucified naked (despite artistic portrayals) he also suffered sexual abuse.
However, the capstone of it all was the cry of dereliction that echoed off the walls of Jerusalem:
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Matthew 27:46)
On the cross, Jesus experienced his Psalm 88 moment. He was abandoned and left to die. No hope. No resolution. No glorious evasion of death or angelic deliverance from the cross. Just blood, asphyxiation, wrath against the world’s sins, and abandonment on a cosmic scale.
However, Jesus still came out the other side victorious. The abuse he suffered, the abandonment he experienced, and even his own death did not have the last word. Three days later, he rose from the dead still bearing the nail scars in his hands and feet as a trophy and testament to his victory.
Therefore, when your world collapses around you–when you have your Psalm 88 moment–please know that while no one else may know what you’re going through, your God does. More than anyone else on earth, Jesus, the Son of God, can look you in the eyes and say with utmost sincerity, “I get it.” When you feel pain, God feels it too. When you are hurt, he hurts with you. Truly, if there’s anyone that can get us to the place where we can forgive God and let him off the hook for our pain, it’s Jesus. When you crawl out from the rubble and wreckage of your life, and you look to Him and ask, “Why didn’t you do something?” Jesus will reach down to help you up with a nail scarred hand. And then you will remember: He did.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”