In the past few days I have been involved in a number of heart-breaking situations.
Cancer, unemployment, painful anniversaries and sudden, tragic bereavement have been among the experiences of some of those with whom I have talked as a church minister.
Perhaps you or someone you know is currently walking though a dark time too. If so, it may well feel quite natural to ask the heartfelt, agonised question: 'Where on earth is God in all this?'
When talking to people who are suffering, I sometimes say something like: 'The Christian faith does have some profound things to say about pain and evil.' And that is true – it does. However, I then continue: 'But at the moment, the most important thing for us is that at the heart of the Christian faith is a God who in Jesus has experienced human suffering, like us.'
It's in looking to the cross of Christ that we can begin to find comfort in our bleakest moments, even when we do not have all of the answers to all of our questions. What do we see when we do this?
1. Physical darkness. As Jesus is crucified, gospel writer Mark tells us 'darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon'. The Old Testament helps us understand that this obliteration of the sun – however it came about – represents both lament and divine judgement.
But at its very simplest it is also true that in his moment of most extreme suffering, Christ was in physical darkness. Some of those we know and love may experience the physical darkness of blindness, or the emotional darkness of depression. Whatever form that darkness takes, God in Christ knows what it is like; he really does.
2. Emotional agony. At three o'clock, Mark reports, Jesus 'cried out with a loud voice' some words from an Old Testament psalm. This was not a man muttering prayers under his breath in a formulaic or superstitious way. This was a man in absolute emotional torment giving gut-wrenching voice to his deepest feelings.
I used to think that when it comes to sharing how we feel with God, it was 'okay to confide but not to complain'. But then I read Psalm 142 which opens with King David in a cave declaring: 'I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out before him my complaint; before him I tell my trouble.' So it seems to me that as the psalmist and Jesus himself speak with full emotional frankness to the Lord, we can too – especially in the darkest times.
3. Spiritual alienation. Jesus cries out, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' He feels like God is nowhere to be seen, and has no sense of his presence. The rest of the Bible tells us this was because he was taking upon himself the weight of all our human sin, and so for the first time in his human existence was cut off from God.
It's striking how some commentators almost lessen Jesus' experience here. One reputable reference work says: 'Jesus utters the opening words of Psalm 22... Yet the following verses of Psalm 22 also anticipate divine intervention on his behalf. Jesus knows why he is experiencing God-forsakenness, just as he knows his death will not be the end of his story.' Well, maybe. But Mark doesn't seek to convey that here. Rather, he reports the agony of Jesus' spiritual alienation.
And we too can cry out in the same words that Jesus did. It's true, of course, that Christ's feelings of being forsaken were unique, since he was suffering for our sins in a way we will never have to do. But as one writer has put it, 'as it was with the great Head of the church, so it may be in a modified sense with his members... They too, sometimes from illness, sometimes from affliction, sometimes from God's sovereign will to draw them nearer to himself, may be constrained to cry: My God My God, why have you forsaken me?'
So when you feel forsaken by God, don't worry too much about having all the answers to your questions. And when those we love suffer, it's probably not the greatest time to attempt a theological explanation of pain. Instead, look to the cross. See a God who in Jesus has experienced human suffering. He really does understand. Hear again and use his cry of honest agony. And finally, remember: the cross is not the end of the story.
David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex, England. Find him on Twitter @Baker_David_A The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly series.