My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
– Matthew 27:46
These words of Christ said on the cross are quite incredible. It is difficult to find another expression that more obviously shows Christ’s human nature, how profound is his tragedy, and how great is his self-sacrifice for our salvation. There is no other occasion that better illustrates how similar he is to us. By these words, he becomes the symbol of all people who are suffering.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” With these words, Christ is crying out on behalf of the Holocaust victims, on behalf of the victims of communist purges in Russia and elsewhere, on behalf of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on behalf of innocent civilians of Yemen who are dying because of the civil war, on behalf of the Christians who are persecuted in the Middle East, on behalf of the victims of the Armenian genocide.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Throughout history, human beings have justifiably asked this question, and they will continue to ask it. As long as the world exists, evil and suffering will exist, and so the human beings will continue screaming: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In reality, this issue is the most sensitive and painful one in the realm of man’s relationship with God. Limited human logic is not enough to find answers to all the questions it raises. In philosophy and theology, there is a division called theodicy, founded by the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz. Theodicy stems from the Greek words for “God’s judgement.” It deals with the question of why God permits the existence of evil. However, there is no complete answer. Questions of theodicy include:
- Why do some good human beings suffer while other evil ones are happy?
- Why do some good people die early because of sickness while other evil ones live a long time?
- How can we explain the evil that exists in the world with the fact that God is almighty and just?
Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia’s most prominent journalists, challenges faith thusly: “Maybe I can understand why good people are suffering, because although they are good, they may commit some mistakes or sins, but how can you explain the suffering of innocent children?” Now can you imagine that every day an estimated 30,000 children die because of the poverty, famine, and wars in the world? Thirty thousand innocent children every day. Truly it can be said, in the words of Armenian poet Vahan Tekeyan, “My God, how can I understand you?”
When such tragedies happen far from us, we can find some “explanation.” But the dilemma starts when we ourselves become a part of such tragedies. Then we can ask, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The person who can understand and feel a distant tragedy without being part of it is blessed. Christ is calling each of us to be such a person, to be sensitive to the pain of our brothers and sisters—and our enemies as well.
For my nation, Armenia, the genocide of 1915–1917 is the most painful issue. The first nation ever to adopt Christianity as a state religion in 301 AD, the nation that had a desire to be a part of the civilized world and was demanding its basic human rights, was annihilated. Where was God during the genocide? Why didn’t he take care of his people? Jews during the Holocaust asked similar questions, and a well-known conception of God suffering together with his people in the concentration camps began to develop.
Areknaz Zakarian of Philadelphia, who passed away several years ago, was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. Her daughter Mary Zakarian recounts a story about her mother’s faith in the face of atrocity:
In the spring of 1980 I interviewed survivors of the genocide in Philadelphia for the Armenian Assembly’s Oral History program in Washington, D.C. As I interviewed the survivors of the genocide, the image of my mother in prayer stayed with me, her eyes lifted toward the heavens, her hand making the sign of the cross. One day as she was praying, I asked how she could believe in a God who had allowed the bloodshed she had seen. In a moment of human failing I cried, “Where was He?” “Hush, my lamb,” she said, “he was right there with us. God was right there among the dead and the dying.” She continued to pray.
How impressive are the words of this simple and uneducated Armenian woman, who came to the same conclusion as intellectuals who conceived of a God suffering together with his people!
People who are able to view a tragedy from a distance may ask similar questions as Mary Zakarian’s. But those who are directly affected by a tragedy might speak and act in a different way. A person who feels that death is imminent also feels the imminence of passing into eternal life, so he or she is using a different form of judgment. We, who don’t have such experiences, think theoretically; but those who are part of such experiences think more correctly.
As a pastor, I have been a witness to such an experience. When I was serving in New York City I had the chance to know an Armenian woman named Janna who was working in the New York Armenian Home, an assisted-living community in Flushing, Queens. She was in her sixties. She became a widow early, and she was a survivor of the Armenian massacres in Baku, Azerbaijan. People used to call her “skorie pomash” (“ambulance” in Russian) because she was a very helpful and giving person. After coming to America and after her children were grown and married, it would seem that it was time for her to bear the fruit of her good works and her suffering. But she was diagnosed with cancer.
After I moved to Massachusetts, I was regularly in contact with her. One day I received a call from her daughter. I understood that there was no hope left and she was going to die. I went to the hospital to visit her. She had changed in a very bad way. It was difficult to see her in that condition, and therefore I myself was struggling with God. Then the words came out of my mouth: “God is with you.”
Janna turned away from me. I understood that she was struggling with God, and what I said was not the right thing to say at that time. When I visited her again several days before she passed away, I gave her the last communion and a neshkhar (the bread used in the Armenian Church for communion). I was very concerned with how she would pass from this world. Would she be upset with God or at peace with Him? During the funeral I was consoled, because I was told that during the last days of her life on earth, she was kissing the neshkhar, and she passed away in peace and harmony with God.
Anyone who is passing through the experience of death—in other words, one foot here and one foot there—has their eyes open. For this reason, most people pass away in peace. There are some exceptions. Those are those “who curse again the Holy Spirit,” who totally and finally cut off any relationship with God by their own free choice.
When human beings face injustice and difficulties, they may ask questions of God, and they may receive answers if they are able to open their eyes. If they can find the power and ability—and if, by the grace of God, they can overcome the limitations of human logic—they can look at their situation with their whole heart and soul. And this is not a dream, or an illusion, or a fake effort of religious propaganda. This is a fact and reality. Faith in eternal life and the resurrection is the answer to our questions. God himself suffered and is continuing to suffer with His own people.
It is said that Christianity is the religion of heart; it is said that Christianity is the most humanitarian religion, because Jesus Christ speaks not only from God’s side, but also from the human side: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And Jesus Christ answers: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor, with concerts in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Afterward, he was assigned to serve in the US. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician. A previous version of this article originally appeared on the Orthodox website Pravmir.com.