April 13, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Lamentations 5:19-20 (NRSV)
But you, O LORD, reign forever;
your throne endures to all generations.
Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
The Bible reveals that faithful people cry out to God with the all-too-familiar prayer: “Why?” The book of Lamentations asks, “Why have you forgotten us completely?” Jesus himself asks from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The biblical witness gives us the freedom to ask in our time of suffering and uncertainty: “Why, God? Why?” We may not receive from the Lord the answer we desire. But we can be reassured of God’s faithfulness, even when we don’t understand God’s actions.
Today’s devotion is part of the series Lamentations in Lent.
For 151 verses, except for a brief respite in chapter 3, the writer of Lamentations has poured out his sorrow. Judah has fallen to the Babylonians. Jerusalem has been destroyed and the temple decimated. The people have suffered terribly, with many taken into exile. The root cause of this agony has been Judah’s persistent rejection of God and his ways. Thus, God’s judgment is just. His people are getting what they brought on themselves.
Not once in the first 151 verses of Lamentations does the writer question God’s justice or sovereignty. But, finally, in verse 152, the third from the last in the book, the author cries out, “Why have you forgotten us completely? Why have you forsaken us these many days?” (Lamentations 5:20). God is right to judge his people. Their suffering is deserved. But why must it last so long? Why hasn’t the Lord intervened on behalf of his people? Why such an extended season of hardship?
When we go through times of suffering, it’s natural for us to cry out to the Lord in this way. We want to know why God isn’t helping us, why God has apparently abandoned us, why God fails to heed our cries for mercy. Why? Why? Why? The example of Lamentations 5:20 suggests that we should feel free to challenge God in this way. It’s appropriate to ask God “Why?”
Perhaps the most profound and powerful “Why?” prayer in the Bible comes from Jesus as he is being crucified. We read in Mark 15:34, “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 gives us the actual Aramaic words spoken by Jesus, translated into Greek, which we read in English. But Jesus didn’t make up this prayer. Rather, he got it from the opening verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (22:1). From the biblical psalm Jesus found words to express his own agonizing wondering: Why have you forsaken me?
We have no evidence that Jesus received a heavenly answer to his “Why” question. Similarly, the writer of Lamentations doesn’t supply God’s answer to his similar question: “Why have you forsaken us these many days?” Scripture gives us ample freedom to ask God “Why?” But unfortunately God often chooses not to answer this question, at least not in the moment. Our experience tends to reflect this frustrating situation. We cry out “Why?” but God doesn’t answer, at least not in the ways and the times in which we want God to answer. (It is not uncommon, however, for people to look back upon their lives and understand what God was doing even in times of suffering and perplexity.)
The stunning Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life tells the story of a family dealing with the death of a beloved member. The question of “Why?” runs throughout the film. But this question never receives the kind of answer we might expect. Instead, the core of the film depicts the creation of the universe, thus illustrating the biblical passage with which the movie opens, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth . . . . When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4,7).
When Jesus cried out on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” he didn’t receive an answer from heaven, at least not insofar as we know. But his quotation from Psalm 22 suggests that Jesus’s trust in his Heavenly Father remained solid even as he suffered and wondered. That psalm, which opens with a painful “Why?” question, transitions into an expression of faith. Verses 4-5 read:
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
But then it circles back to expressions of lament:
But I am a worm,
and not human;
scorned by others,
and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads (22:6-7).
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots (22:17-18).
Then the psalm writer cries out for God’s help and deliverance (22:19-21).
At this point Psalm 22 takes a surprising turn. It calls people to praise and glorify God (22:23). Why? “For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (22:24). The psalm writer anticipates God’s deliverance and offers praise “in the great congregation” (22:25). The psalm concludes on this hopeful note:
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it (22:30-31).
Jesus surely knew, not only the first verse of Psalm 22, but also the whole psalm. His cry using the opening verse was surely authentic, a desperate asking of the “Why?” question. But, by quoting from this particular psalm, Jesus was also expressed his conviction of God’s faithfulness. The same God to whom we cry out “Why?” is the God who will not hide his face from us, the God who graciously saves us in God’s own time and according to God’s own wisdom.
Have you ever cried out “Why?” to God? What response did you get? How did you respond to that response?
Are you wondering right now why God is doing something in your life, or failing to do something you would like God to do? If so, are you willing to talk with God about it?
Read all of Psalm 22, especially in light of Jesus’s quotation of this Psalm from the cross. Be open to what God wants to say to you through this portion of Scripture.
Gracious God, thank for the freedom to cry out to you in prayer. Thank you for the example of Lamentations 5:20, which encourages us to ask you “Why?”
Sometimes, Lord, you answer this question in a way we can understand. Sometimes, we see an answer, but only much later. Often, though, you don’t answer us in the way we would prefer. Instead, you remind us of who you are, your greatness and power as revealed in creation. You remind us of your love and grace, revealed in Jesus Christ. You reassure us without explaining the “why” of your actions.
O God, I trust that you do what is best, even when I don’t understand and don’t like it. So, help me, Lord, to live with my limitations, to trust you when I can’t fathom you, and to sustain my hope in you. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Best of Daily Reflections: The Tension of Faithful Prayer
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.