By Justin Rossow
Of course, we know the big picture. We have the benefit of hindsight, and we know that the open tomb is just around the corner. Of course, Jesus—true God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, very God of Very God—isn’t bound by time: Jesus himself has been announcing both his own death and his bodily resurrection way before Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Of course, we know—and Jesus knows—that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1), that by his death he destroys death (Hebrews 2), that Jesus has authority both to lay down his life and to take it up again (John 10).
But I don’t think it felt like that to Jesus in the moment. And it certainly doesn’t always feel like that to people who belong to Jesus.
I have been told by some good, well-meaning Christians that God has never let them down, that they have never had more than they could handle, that their faith has never wavered and even their trials are sweet. On my good days, I accept this at face value and thank God that they have been blessed with an experience we have never been promised and could change (any minute now). On my bad days, I wonder who they are trying to fool and what they are hiding, maybe even from themselves. But on most days, I simply think that if God has never let you down, you’re either not paying attention or you’re not trying hard enough.
We have lots of promises from God, some temporal and some eternal. Whether God is faithful to the eternal promises will only be demonstrated in eternity; I trust Jesus is faithful, and some day, my faith will be sight.
But even before the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come, we are invited to know and trust God as Father, Shepherd, King, Refuge, Fortress, even Friend. You can see how, like a caring shepherd, God provides and protects and leads and guides.
Except when God doesn’t.
And that’s the problem of trying to live out what we know about God in the seemingly arbitrary experiences of life in a broken and fallen world.
You might know the big picture, that death is not the final word, that your sins will not keep you from God’s presence, that even though your world falls apart, you have a promise stronger than the world. At a macro level, you trust God’s promises; but why does it feel like God isn’t coming through in my day to day experience? What do you do when God fails to be your Father, Shepherd, King, Refuge, Fortress, or even Friend?
I think we can find the answer on Good Friday—not in seeing Jesus as the Lamb of God who destroys death and who will rise again in three short days, but in seeing Jesus, abandoned by God, and trusting anyway.
Jesus clearly has a promise from God. (Let’s think for a moment from below; that is, let’s acknowledge that Jesus is one with the Father, but set his divinity aside for a moment, just like Jesus did on the cross.) Jesus, from his own human perspective, knows he has been declared God’s own beloved Son. Jesus has received the Spirit, and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus has experienced God’s Kingdom breaking into the world. Jesus is confident that he is fulfilling his Father’s commands and abiding in his Father’s love (John 15). Jesus knows he is going to go through severe suffering, but he also knows the Father’s will is going to be done. Jesus is living out his trust in his Father’s love.
And then comes the cross.
At the cross, God’s promises seem to fail. We know the rest of the story, so we know they didn’t really fail. But the experience of God’s failure is all too real, even for Jesus.
“My God, my God—why have you abandoned me?” Jesus cries in anguish. The Mighty Fortress has failed to protect. The Friend has become an Enemy. Where is the Father now?
Jesus knows that Sunday is coming; but Friday is here, and here in force.
Do you know what that’s like?
It’s true: Jesus rescues us from our sin and from God’s judgment. We who were once far off and God’s enemies are now, by the power of the cross, brought near and adopted into the family: God’s beloved daughters; God’s beloved sons.
You have that promise. You know that promise. You can trust that promise.
And, as long as you still live in a broken and sinful world, you will still experience your own Good Fridays. You will still experience separation from God. As soon as you trust that God’s promises matter, not just for eternity, but for your everyday life, you will get to know what it means to feel let down by God.
What do you do when God fails to be your Father, Shepherd, King, Refuge, Fortress, or even Friend?
Look to the man on the cross.
In Jesus on the cross you see not only the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and beats death at its own game, you also see the Artist’s rending, the Architect’s blueprint, the Potter’s design for you and for your life of faith. You see the kind of trust the Spirit of the Living God is shaping and forming in you.
As the Spirit joins you to Jesus and conforms you more and more to the image of Christ, this is the faith the Spirit has in mind. You have been crucified with Christ and you no longer live, but Christ lives in you. The normal, ordinary, everyday life you now live in the body you live by faith in the Son of God, the same Son who felt abandoned by the Father when he needed God most.
When Jesus experiences the failure of God’s promises on Good Friday, what do we see him do? Although Jesus knows and trusts this isn’t the end of the story, it sure feels like it is; and Jesus let’s God know exactly what he’s feeling. Jesus isn’t afraid to look like he doesn’t trust God’s promises; he simply let’s God know that those promises don’t seem to be doing much good right now. “Why have you forsaken me? That’s not what you are supposed to do! That’s not what you promised!”
Jesus calls out to God even when God feels far away. How often do I hide my own experience of being let down by God, even from myself? It seems like my own personal failure in faith to feel like God has failed me in even the smallest detail.
If I feel abandoned in the ordinary details of my life, surely the promise of life and resurrection should be big enough to cheer me up and take away my pain, right? If I had enough faith, this wouldn’t seem so bad, right?
But Jesus doesn’t think like that. Easter Sunday does not eclipse the real suffering of the cross. If anything, it works the other way around: the impossibly large stone of the garden tomb has rolled in front of God’s promises and blotted out the sun.
Jesus isn’t ashamed to feel forsaken by God; and in his abandonment, Jesus turns to God.
That’s part of the response to suffering the Spirit is shaping in you. When it feels like God has let you down, the Spirit leads you back to God. The Spirit shapes the faithful prayer of Jesus on your lips, even when it feels like prayers are wasted and faith is futile: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Where are your promises now, God? What kind of Father are you?”
I’m somewhat threatened by that response, since that prayer can feel like I no longer trust or no longer believe, or that I have, by my own failure, lost sight of the big picture. But sometimes Good Friday does eclipse Easter in the life of God’s beloved sons and daughters. And when that happens, pouring out your fear and anger and hurt and disappointment and abandonment in prayer is a faithful response.
Go back and read Psalm 22—the Psalm of David that starts, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”—go back and read that whole psalm and you will find the very real experience of abandonment intertwined with trust and confidence in God in spite of the fact that God feels, for the moment, far away.
In Jesus on the cross, you see that kind of stubborn trust in God’s promises, even when they seem to fail. Even at the very end, Jesus addresses the God who feels like an enemy as Father. Even at the very end, Jesus entrusts himself to God, even though, for the moment, it feels like God is unable or unwilling to save. “Father,” Jesus prays at the very end, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Part of the foolishness and scandal of the cross is a trust in God as Father, even when all the Father’s promises have seemed to fail. And that’s the faith the Spirit of Jesus is shaping in you.
Please understand: I am not asking you to try harder to emulate the faith of Jesus on the cross. I am not telling you, in your moment of fear or doubt or pain, when the promise you thought you had from God has failed miserably and you feel not only let down but abandoned—in that Good Friday experience, I am not asking you to try harder to be like Jesus. I’m not even telling you to remember Easter. The Resurrection is just around the corner, and it will make all the difference in the world, but Friday’s here, and for now, Sunday feels like it may never arrive.
When you enter into your own Good Friday experience, look to the man on the cross. Hear his cry, “Why?” Lean in to hear him pray, “Father…” And know that the Spirit who lives in you is shaping your faith to look like that.
Don’t try harder; look for the Spirit to work. Don’t hide from your experience of God’s failure; let God know exactly what you are experiencing. Don’t abandon the God who seems to have abandoned you; commit your life to your Heavenly Father even when that seems like an empty thing to do.
If you’ve never had an experience where it seemed like God’s promises failed you, thank God for that grace. If you have only ever trusted God for your eternal salvation and never thought to trust God to be your Father, Shepherd, King, Refuge, Fortress, or even Friend for the needs and concerns of your everyday life, there is a world of joy and dependence I would invite you to explore.
But know this: trusting God’s promises in your everyday life comes with a risk. Sometimes those promises feel like they fail. You don’t have to be afraid of that experience, or hide that experience (from yourself or from God). Easter is strong enough to defeat each and every one of your Good Fridays.
But even Good Friday has its own kind of beauty and hope. On Good Friday we see the kind of faith the Spirit is shaping in us, a faith that calls out to God in abandonment and trusts in God even when God’s promises don’t feel true.
This side of eternity, God will let you down. And even if you know that’s not the real truth, it will feel like the real truth at times. You don’t have to run to the eternal every time your Friday is an abject failure. Even when it feels like God has retreated from your regular week to sit on a distant throne outside of time and beyond suffering, you have the image of Jesus on the cross, abandoned in real time and yet trusting in real time, too.
Sunday’s coming; but right now, Friday’s here. There is hope for the future; and even in the present, the Spirit is shaping the prayers of Jesus in you.
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
There is more to the story. But for Good Friday, that’s enough.