A few weeks ago I was talking with a friend and he was lamenting about how he feels distant from God. He confessed, “I know the Bible says God will never leave or forsake us, but He departed from Israel a number of times. He even forsook Jesus on the Cross.”
Whoa, there is a lot to consider in that statement. There are many reasons that we may feel that way. Undoubtedly, my friend is not the only one that has considered this.
I have also felt this. There was a time that I was convinced that God had abandoned me. In 2008, shortly after moving to Wyoming, my now ex-wife told me she wanted a divorce.
Her decision came out of nowhere. She wasted no time in leaving. I was devastated, angry and hurt. I could not understand why God “let” this happen. I did not feel I deserved this. I believed I was a good Christian. I was in church more than the average attender. In that moment I felt forsaken. My family was not nearby and I did not have close friends. God never seemed further away than He did during that time in my life.
However, God is merciful. In His Grace He quickly made Himself visible through different events and by bringing specific people into my life. It was not long before I was able to see I did not feel the distance because He left me, but because I had turned my back on Him.
I realized I had not wanted God involved in the selfish and hurtful decisions I was making in my life and marriage. It was easier to turn and pretend that God was not there. In hindsight, I am able to see how He pursued me.
I want to share some of what I have learned regarding God’s promise to not forsake us.
Free Will, Not Forsaken
Over the centuries a popular debate in the church has been the doctrine of free will. To oversimplify it, one side of the argument is that we get to choose everything we do, including whether we choose God. The other side of the debate suggests that we are predestined in our decision to follow God, which eliminates much of our free will. I’m not going to go any deeper with this topic at this time, but if you are interested, Robin Schumacher wrote a great article for The Christian Post on free will.
I would suggest that believing God has forsaken us, in any circumstance, is a poor indicator for whether He actually has. It is more an indicator of what we have chosen. Schumacher makes this point, “Our desires and our nature/character determine our choices, but we are never forced to act contrary to that nature/character so in that respect, we freely express ourselves through the choices we make.”
In that context, when I believed God had abandoned me, I was feeling the reality of the distance from Him which I had created. God was still present and actively pursuing me. I was the one making choices that put distance between us.
Schumacher continues by saying, “But where God is concerned, our sinful desire freely rejects God until He chooses to regenerate the dead, sinful nature in us and draw us to Himself. Once that happens, and we are set free from sin’s control, we are truly free indeed!”
To that end, the grief and frustration that I felt because of that distance was because God, in His gracious and merciful pursuit of me, was regenerating my dead, sinful nature and drawing me to Himself.
But what about the Christian who is already actively following Christ? What about when she or he feels forsaken? My belief is those moments are a reflection and result of our desire and nature to be drawn to the world.
Any feeling of being forsaken is the pain of distance, from God, that we create when we allow our desires and nature to move us toward the world and away from God. That feeling is a result of our soul longing for closeness to God and is the premise of God’s promise to “Draw near to [Him], and He will draw near to you.”
Forsaken to Keep His Promise
If it’s true that God never leaves us, and any distance we feel is a byproduct of the choices we make, why is it that Jesus was forsaken by God while He was on the Cross? It was so God could keep his promise.
The Cross of Jesus accomplished everything we needed with regard to our total reconciliation and redemption. Isaiah 53 tells us that all of our shortcomings and brokenness are made whole in the work Jesus did on the Cross. It is in the trial, whipping, crucifixion, death that Jesus faced and defeated all the things that would ever affect us. It is in His work that we are healed, acknowledged, forgiven, made new, made righteous, receive justice and are reconciled to the heart of God. But it is also in that work that the ability to never again be separated from God, should we seek after and follow Him, was granted to us.
Prior to His death on the Cross, Jesus “cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)” Jesus was reciting Psalms 22, and in doing so confirmed that God forsook Him at that moment. Why? Biblical scholars have much to say about that and we could dive deep into their commentaries. However, let’s consider this as simply as possible, because I believe the Gospel, in and of itself, is simple.
It is because He took our place. In the same way in which He took our place in paying for our sin, so we would not have to pay, He accepted separation from God so we would not have to experience that.
Jesus was forsaken by God, while on the Cross, so that He could keep the promise He made in Matthew 28:20b, that He is “with you always, to the end of the age.” In Hebrews 13:5 God promises “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Jesus forsaken by God allows that promise to stand for all eternity.
God never leaves us. Jesus experienced this so we would never again know the infinite dread of being separated from our Father. When we begin to feel abandoned, take heart in knowing that it is your soul responding to the wooing of God to draw near to Him.
So gather with other Believers. Seek God together through prayer and scripture. Hide in your prayer closet and sit silent before Him. But know that He will never leave or forsake you.