When God Stopped Being “Abba”
The Significance of the Father Forsaking the Son
Have you ever been overwhelmed by sorrow? Can you remember a time when you heard news that was so terrifying or so painful that you found yourself overwhelmed with mind-numbing, soul-searing, heart-rending pain? Have you ever been emotionally ambushed by an experience or encounter that left you feeling completely alone and isolated? While those questions may qualify as rhetorical, there is another related but different question that does not: Did God, the Father, really abandon His Son when He was on the cross? And why does it matter?
The short answers are “yes” and “because we need to take sin seriously,” “because it says a great deal about the very nature of God,” and “because Christ’s affinity with and love for us is boundless.” First, we need to understand the meaning of Jesus’ words “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”
In speaking those words, Jesus is quoting Psalm 22. Amazingly, in the midst of the greatest pain of His life, Jesus’ heart turns to God’s word. The question centers around the nature of the “forsakenness” that Jesus experienced. Did the Father actually separate Himself from the Son at that moment? Was the mystery of the bond of the Trinity fractured in that instant? Was the eternal community of Father, Son and Spirit somehow ruptured, even for a moment? No. God can never stop being God, and God has always and will always exist as three, in one. 2 things shed light on what Jesus actually experienced that day on the cross; the Psalm itself and the actual words that Jesus used.
Just before his crucifixion, Jesus cried out to the Father. Matthew 26:39 records, "Going a little farther, He fell with His face to the ground and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as You will." The word Jesus used for Father was “Abba,” a term of endearment, which we might translate “papa” or “daddy.” As His life ebbed away, Christ again "called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46) Again, Jesus used the word “Abba.” But in quoting Psalm 22, Christ used the more generic name for God, “El.” “El” is the sovereign God, the judge and ruler of all the earth. So what is Jesus saying in juxtaposing these 2 different addresses?
The forsakenness that Jesus experienced was not because His Father was not there, but because He WAS there, as the just Judge of the universe. The Father was pouring out His just wrath upon all the sin that had defamed Him—past, present, and future sin—and in His role as Judge he drained the cup of His wrath to the dregs on the head of His Son. The anguish and the overwhelming sense of isolation that Jesus experienced cannot be imagined. He was desperately in need of succor. In His anguish, Jesus cried out "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtheni?" But He was doing more than just quoting a passage. He understood that the Psalm itself defined his forsakenness.
Like Jesus, the psalmist experienced the absence of the presence of God. "O God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but I find no rest...All who see me mock me; they wag their heads...they say "He trusts in the Lord, let Him deliver him...for trouble is near, and there is none to help...But you O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me...!" But no help comes! There is no answer! “Abba” is far off! There is no deliverance, no salvation, only silence.
It is precisely in this sense that Jesus experienced being forsaken. Think back to those moments when you felt alone or isolated, when you felt the crushing weight of the consequences of sin, in your life or the lives of others. Now magnify that a million fold and you will still not come close to feeling what our Savior felt in that moment. What would compel both the Father and the Son to bear such a burden? What would animate the God of all creation to be "pleased" in bruising His Son (Isaiah 53:10), and what would keep Jesus on the cross under the weight of the sins of mankind, when He could just as easily have stepped down?
For the sake of glorifying His own name in loving sinners and reconciling them to Himself, for the sake of the joy that was set before Him, for the sake of Their great love, the Father forsook and the Son was forsaken. The greatness and grievous nature of our sin, is only eclipsed by the greatness and the gravity of God's great love for us, and that is captured perfectly in this mystifying and stunning moment when the Father turned His back on His Son. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinner, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).
The pain experienced by BOTH Father and Son at that moment ought to drive us to our knees in worship. Let the significance of that moment, when “Abba” released His grip on the Son, and “El” unleashed His just fury against sin seep into your heart. In that moment, it was not nails that pinned Christ to the cross, it was obedience and love. In that moment, the triune God never stopped being God, but the fullness of His glory and love were put on display in a way that will never be repeated. Stand in awe. Marvel. Be afraid. But above all, be filled, with the very presence of the God who IS love, and let that love abide in you and ooze from every pore of your body (I John 4:7-15). For the sake of His forsakenness, the Son guarantees that you and I will never be forsaken again. For the sake of His forsakenness, we can be confident that our cries of “Abba” will never fall on deaf ears.