The Wideness in God’s Mercy, V: Forgiving God
At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” —Mark 15:34
This morning I want to talk about forgiving God. Does that phrase make sense: forgiving God? In classical theism God is that being than which none greater can be conceived. God is the zenith of power, knowledge, wisdom, goodness, and mercy. By definition God cannot make mistakes.
Well the Bible doesn’t think it’s absurd to think about forgiving God. Do you know what the commonest type of psalm is in the Hebrew Psalter? At least a third and perhaps as many as 65 of the 150 psalms in the Hebrew Psalter are psalms of lament, psalms of complaint, songs voiced by the injured and the aggrieved, including Psalm 22, which we sang a moment ago and which organizes Mark’s passion narrative.
There’s even a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations, which is just a fancy way of saying “Complaint.” All these psalms which can be summed up simply: “God, what’s the deal with the raw deal you’ve given me? Why are you treating me so shabbily?”
Even Jesus had to forgive God. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani,” cries Jesus from the cross in a loud voice. They are among the only words of Jesus recorded for us in Aramaic, the language he actually spoke every day of his life. Perhaps those ugly Aramaic words have survived for 20 centuries because once having heard them, you could never unhear them, no matter how hard you tried.
Jesus is utterly alone in the world. His treasurer has betrayed him, his lieutenant has denied him, the police brutalized him, his enemies lie in court about him, the governor convicts him in kangaroo court, the entire city mocks him, his friends flee, and now he is dying all by himself. Even his best friend is gone. God is gone and Jesus is aggrieved. He wonders if he can forgive God.
My heart just aches for the three people who took their own lives last week after school shootings in Florida and Connecticut. Sydney Aiello graduated from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last June, a lively, outgoing cheerleader whose best friend Meadow Pollack died in the shooting last Valentine’s Day. Family and friends speculate that she suffered silently from survivor’s guilt and PTSD. Calvin Desir, a 16-year-old sophomore at Stoneman Douglas, also took his own life.
In Newtown, Jeremy Richman also took his own life. Jeremy’s six-year-old daughter Avielle was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. Alex Jones and his henchmen at Infowars call the Newtown shooting a hoax. They have been harassing the Sandy Hook survivors for six years—on the internet, on the phone lines, and on the street. Some of the parents of those schoolchildren who died have had to go into hiding. They’ve changed their email addresses and phone numbers and moved out of town and keep their location a secret.
Wolfgang Halbig is evil incarnate. He’s a retired school security officer in Florida, but he spends most of his retirement in Newtown, Connecticut, bullying the parents. He has raised $100,000 for the sole purpose of intimidating the parents of Sandy Hook students. He insists that Jeremy Richman’s daughter Avielle is still alive and living in Newtown with another family. Can you blame Jeremy for ending life in such a world?
One Newtown parent was so sick and tired of the harassment that he emailed Mr. Halbig and asked to sit down face-to-face to hash it out. A spokeswoman for Mr. Halbig responded: “Wolfgang does not wish to speak to you unless you dig up Noah’s body and prove to the world that you lost your son.”
I wonder if suicide is a way of giving up on the universe. I’m not judging them. I don’t even blame them. For some of us the world can be such a horrible place that it becomes unbearable. We can’t forgive God, or the universe, or whatever, so we feel compelled to leave it.
This is something of an aside but it’s important. A psychiatry professor at Columbia University encourages parents and siblings and friends to keep a close watch on our sad young people. She says, “Don’t wait for them to approach you. They don’t know how.” No one saw these three suicides coming. Everything seemed fine or at least as fine as it can be after you endure what they endured.
This Columbia Professor says, “We ought to monitor the moods of our loved ones just as carefully as we monitor blood pressure.” If you’re worried that someone you love is at risk, go home and search for “Columbia Protocol”.
Some people who feel as if they need to forgive God figure out how. They learn to heal their injuries, or at least to live with their scars, and get on with a life that hasn’t turned out the way they’d hoped. I’m reading a wonderful book. It’s called Love You Hard, by Abby Maslin, a fourth-grade teacher in Washington, D. C. “Love you hard,” it’s something Abby’s husband TC said to her from his hospital bed. He’d probably meant to say, “Love you lots,” or “Love you very much,” but TC struggles to find words. He has aphasia an impairment of language caused by injury to the brain.
Six years ago, when Abby and TC were 29 years old, TC was walking home from a Washington Nationals game late at night when three men accosted him and demanded his wallet and cellphone. TC gave them his wallet and cellphone but one of them took an aluminum baseball bat and hit TC in the head so hard it caved in his skull. He crawled to someone’s front porch and lay there alone for eight hours until a passerby found him.
TC was in the hospital for three months. When he came home he had the same mental capacity as his two-year-old son. Six years later TC is much better but he still struggles to find the right words. Once he told Abby he’d made bread from trash; he meant ‘from scratch.’ Sometimes he calls Abby his sister or his aunt. “Love you hard.”
Abby is very honest about how she’s coped with this trauma for the last six years. She says that in some way it would have been easier if TC had died of his injury. Not better but easier. If he’d died her grief would have been hard to bear but easy to understand. She still grieves for the man she married, the man he once was. She says that her grief is ‘ambiguous.’ When someone dies, you know how to be sad, but how do you grieve for a husband who is still alive? She finds it hard to reconcile these two conflicting emotions of gratitude and grief—gratitude that her husband is still alive but grief because he is not the person she married.
After the injury, a friend came up to Abby and said, “I’m sorry your life got ruined.” Abby says that comment hit her like a ton of bricks. She asked herself, “Is my life ruined?” Some days it feels that way. Some days, she says, I just gave up. I surrendered. “You win, universe,” she cried.
But then the next day she’s back at it, falling in love all over again with her new husband. Love you hard. Abby quotes Maya Angelou: “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise. Into the daybreak that’s wondrously clear, I rise.”
There is a story. It might be an apocryphal story; on the other hand, it might be true; it sounds like the Jews. One day at Auschwitz a group of Jews put God on trial. They charged God with cruelty and betrayal. My God, my God, why have you forsaken us? They could find no excuse for God, no extenuating circumstances, so they found God guilty and sentenced God to death. The Rabbi announced the verdict. Then he looked up and said, “The trial is over; it’s time for the evening prayer.” It was the Sabbath, so that’s what they did. They adjourned to their prayers.
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 38–42.
Elizabeth Williamson, “How Alex Jones and Infowars Helped a Florida Man Stalk Sandy Hook Families,” The New York Times, March 29, 2019.
Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, quoted by Patricia Mazzei, “After Two Apparent Student Suicides, Parkland Grieves Again,” The New York Times, March 24, 2019.
Keith L. Alexander, “The Gray Beyond: A Family Copes After Tragedy,” The Washington Post, July 27, 2013.
Abby Maslin’s Blog “I’m Sorry Your Life Got Ruined,” brainline.org, April 23, 2018.
Abby Maslin’s Blog “You Are Not a Burden,” brainline.org, June 25, 2018.
Related by Karen Armstrong, A History of God (New York: Knopf, 1993), p. 376.