Does the Father turn his back on the Son?

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On the Cross, Jesus cried out these words

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Matthew 27:46

It’s a quote from the first line of Psalm 22.  Stuart Townend in his hymn, “How Deep the Father’s Love for us picks up on the quote with the poetic line “…The Father turns his face away.”   

Does God the Father abandon The Son, does he turn his back on him?  This has been the cause of significant confusion and controversy.  Some have suggested that we shouldn’t sing song lines like Townend’s. At this time of year, I start to get comments appearing on my social media feed, reminding me that God doesn’t abandon or turn his back on Jesus, there isn’t a schism in the Trinity and we should read the whole of the Psalm not just the first line.

There are some things to agree with there.  First of all, theologically, it is crucial to emphasise that there cannot be a split between the Father and the Son. There are two reasons for this. First, we would lose a significant and crucial aspect of the one God in three person’s identity.  Secondly, it might suggest that the Son suffered against his own will when in fact, we see the Triune God united in purpose from eternity.

Secondly, yes, we need to read the Psalm in its entirety. There’s  New Testament practice of quoting snippets of Psalms and prophecies where we are probably meant to see the quote as signposting the whole thing. The Psalm speaks of the suffering experiencing that sense of being abandoned, of being under God’s judgement. It then moves to a plea for God to act and finishes with the triumph of salvation which glorifies God. 

However, at the same time, we can be quick to point one another to the rest of the Psalm and so gloss over the verse that Jesus quotes.  Yes, the verse is part of a whole Psalm but don’t forget that it is part of that Psalm and it is the specific bit that Jesus chooses to quote.  We should pause to chew it over, the mediate it and to grasp its implications.

You see, I think we tend to gloss over Scriptures that get under the skin and that’s a loss to us.  I think similarly of how we need to pay attention to the uncomfortable words in Isaiah 53:10

“It was the Lord’s will to crush him.”

I’ve written about that verse here. 

It’s important, given the whole of Psalm 22, that we don’t think in terms of God turning his back on Jesus. That language suggests that he wants nothing to do with him, that he deserts him, gives up on him in a kind of permanent departure. That’s not what God is like and not how he treats his children.

However, it’s important to remember that, when we look at the Old Testament, there were points when God’s people experienced judgement, when they were handed over to their enemies. You might argue that they were abandoned to the consequences of their sin.  There will of course come a day when those who do not repent and put their trust in Jesus experience such a judgement and it will be permanent.

I think we need to treat seriously that on the Cross, Jesus truly took on our sin, guilt and judgement with all that this means. So, the language of being abandoned or forsaken by the Father matters and should not be glossed over.  This is an expression of the Father and Son’s incredible love for us. This was not about God being incapable of coping or of walking out.  It’s an expression of everything that bearing the penalty for sin meant. I also think that lyrical lines such as “The Father turns his face away” are acceptable poetic expressions of this.

We do well to dwell on the challenging bits of the crucifixion account. Yes, Sunday is coming, but let’s not rush Friday.

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