TheCry of Dereliction

The pandemic has been tough on everyone. Whether or not you’ve had Covid, whether or not you’ve lost friends or relatives to this dreadful plague, it has been tough. We have an excuse, if we need an excuse, to be struggling simply to get through the days. I’ve been fine, physically, as have most people I know (though one or two have suffered unbelievably); but there’s been this sort of ‘existential threat’ hanging over me (and everyone else) for almost two years. So, if you or I are feeling a bit low at times that is, you know, excusable…

It’s okay to not be okay.

During one of my ‘not okay’ moments, I fell to thinking about Christ’s ‘cry of dereliction’ - uttered on the cross:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

Traditionally, in evangelical circles, the view is that Jesus taking on humanity’s sin makes him ‘unacceptable’ to a God who cannot abide sin and hates sinners, so the Father turns His back on Jesus, and that’s what the ‘cry of dereliction’ is all about. That doesn’t make logical sense, when you think about the nature of the Trinity... I don’t think the Trinity is ‘breakable’, but what that ‘standard’ view of the crucifixion implies is that the love shared between the persons of the Trinity is weaker than the alienation caused by sin.

There is little evidence that I can see for the view that God can’t bear ‘to be in the same place as’ sin... If that was truly the case, then Jesus (assuming he is divine) could not have come to dwell among us whilst remaining God. The idea actually originates, as a lot of faulty theological ideas do, in the pages of the bible. In Isaiah 59:2, the prophet says:

But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.

And that’s almost certainly where we get it from. But, as is so often the case, we get it wrong because we’ve ripped an idea out of its wider scriptural context. Here we simply need to read further on in the same chapter in order to see that the theology we’ve created around God not being able to abide sin is just plain wrong:

The LORD looked and was displeased
that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm achieved salvation for him,
and his own righteousness sustained him.
Isaiah 59:15b-16

So there we go - GodHimself sees that ‘our iniquities’ have separated us from Him, so He reaches out with ‘his own arm’ (which I guess may well be a prophecy about Jesus’ incarnation?), and sorts it out - far from being unable to do anything because our sin stops Him drawing close to us.

In Psalm 22 (the first verse of which Jesus is quoting in the ‘cry of dereliction’), we readthat:

For he has not despised or scorned
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help

 Psalm 22:24

So the idea that God abandoned Jesus on the cross is arrant nonsense - this psalm tells us that God does not turn away from His son when his son is on the cross, so why do we persist in both believing it and preaching it?

I think what we’re witnessing in the cry of dereliction is Christ carrying the agony of mankind’s collective alienation from God, and realising the enormity of the ‘chasm’ we experience from our side - He enters into our alienation in co-suffering love; and overcomes the alienation by His faith in the Father’s love.

Restating this idea in a different way - rather than the standard evangelical view of the atonement, I think the relationship between God and man is broken from our point of view rather than from his: we rejected Him but He did not reject us… That’s a story interwoven right through the bible - God’s persistence in trying to get us to turn back to Him and to be His friends.

Brad Jersak, pastor, theologian, author and all-round 'good egg', devised a way of presenting the gospel which he refers to as ‘The Gospel in Chairs’. Through it he explains this whole business of alienation, and of how the ‘standard’ understanding and presentation of the gospel is in error, way better than I ever could. It’s well worth a watch if you have a spare half hour.

God loves me; however wretched I am, or however wretched I feel; He loves me even if no-one else seems to, or even if I don’t feel it (or perhaps especially if I don’t feel it!). He’s after me because He loves me; He’s not going to abandon me - he’s the shepherd who’s lost a sheep out of the flock - he’s not going to stop looking until He finds that sheep - me, you, anyone (see Matthew 15:4-7). And it doesn’t matter how hard I try to get away - sooner or later (in my experience, much sooner) he ‘catches up’.

I think some of my best insights happen when I’m at my lowest - odd that - or perhaps not - is that maybe when God draws closest? Anyway, someone was rabbiting on about praying for revival, and how this pandemic was such a great time for sharing the gospel because people were depressed and vulnerable. It wasn’t nice - it was as though they thought God might have sent the pandemic to make people turn back to him. I am incapable of believing that God wills evil to befall us - it doesn’t seem 'in character' at all for a God whose nature is supposed to be love. And I fell to thinking about ‘revival’... And ‘expectations’.

You know how the Jews in the first century were hoping for a messiah, who would come in, drive out the hated Romans and physically set Israel free? Instead God gave them something even better, but they were so blinded by the expectations they’d put on God, and how much they’d invested in ‘their’ chosen or expected ‘solution to the Roman problem’ that they utterly failed to see it. Even once they’d been told, his disciples quite clearly didn’t really understand (at least until afterwards, when understanding seems finally to have dawned) that Jesus wasn’t here to fulfil their dreams of liberation in the way they expected.

What if, as I suspect, all this deconstruction/reconstruction of people’s faith, this progressing/progressive/emerging church movement is actually the revival a lot of earnest evangelicals have been praying for, but because it doesn’t fit their expectations, they can’t (or don’t want to?) see it for what it is?

We, in the evangelical church, desperately need to rethink our theology - unless we do, the ‘slide’ into irrelevance and obscurity will continue (if it doesn’t accelerate). People are turned off by the gospel as it is usually preached - nowadays it’s probably better at making atheists than converts. That gospel is based, as we have begun to see above, on quite shaky biblical foundations; a far more attractive, far more Christlike, gospel is out there, just waiting for us to realise and to adopt it as our own.

“We were learning at last that it’s the “kindness of God that leads to repentance” (Rom. 2:4), and that it is only “the grace of God that teaches us to say no to ungodliness” (Titus 2:11-12).

What the church at large needed more than anything - and what the world was more than ready for - is a More Christlike God and, by extension, a More Christlike Church (because we mimic what we worship).” From ‘A More Christlike God’ by Brad Jersak

That gospel truly is good news for everyone.

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022