by Daniel Harrell
Nobel prize winning economist Richard Thaler tells of a time early on in his teaching career when he managed to get most of his students in class angry at him. It was not because of anything he said. The students’ anger ignited over a difficult midterm exam he’d made difficult on purpose to distinguish star students from those who just couldn’t get the material.
Thaler’s exam accomplished his goal—he attained a clear separation of the wheat from the chaff. But what infuriated the students was not their failure, but their success—more specifically, the smart kids were mad because success meant an average score of 72 points out of a possible 100. Even though 72 was a good score given the degree of difficulty, the wheaties couldn’t stand to be so numerically lowly, even though the average score had absolutely no effect on the distribution of grades. Thaler tried to explain, but all the students could see was the number.
As a young professor worried about keeping his job, but not wanting to make his exams easier, Dr. Thaler came up with a simple but ingenious solution: on his next exam, instead of 100 points, he would make the total possible score 137. This way, the average score would be a cheery 96 instead of the disappointing 72. Though no one’s actual grade was affected by this change, the students were ecstatic. Thaler himself was nonplussed. For the sake of full disclosure, Thaler printed his design in bold type on his syllabus: “Exams will have a total of 137 points rather than the usual 100. This scoring system has no effect on the grade you get in the course, but it seems to make you happier.” And it did.
Modern society and human personality make reality so hard to swallow. The outrageous academic bribery and fraud scandal all over the news last week—parents forking over fortunes so their otherwise unremarkable kids could get accepted to prestigious colleges—is just an extreme example. In the arena of serious illness, our reality-avoidant culture presses constantly for positive stories about overcoming infirmity and winning the battle. Bad enough that serious illness or personal tragedy and other experiences of loss and failure acutely unravel our lives, piling on is the pressure to keep up encouraging appearances, affirming somehow that everything will eventually work out so as not to be to much of a burden to the happy and well.
Compounding the pressure is an expectation that the sick and sorrowful become warriors who rise up and fight the demons of disease and adversity. But who has that energy? With cancer, to be a warrior is to be at war against your own body. Cancer is not an outside intruder but mutiny within your own cells. Chemo requires killing yourself to survive. When healthy, death defying risk for the sake of conquest can be invigorating—think of Marie’s example from last Sunday about the rock climber who free-soloed El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope. But when you’re seriously sick or in trouble, sometimes you’d rather just let go of the ledge and get it over with. You get exhausted just looking at the mountain.
As a pastor with a distorted Messiah complex, I’ve likely annoyed countless sufferers by trying to fix their sadness, no doubt citing all varieties of Bible verses out of context to help lighten the load or hold out for a miracle, more for my sake sometimes than for theirs—a cheery 96 instead of a true 72. I’d rather save people from suffering that sit with them in it. Carry another’s cross and you could get crushed by its weight. I’m sure these sufferers I visited told me I was being so helpful and even said “thank you so much” and “you’re a great pastor” just to get me to get out of their room.
I do not discount the miraculous power of God. In our case I desperately crave it. Neither do I discount the power of positivity and the energy that comes with a warrior mode—it is invigorating. But with most serious suffering, whatever its cause, positivity and warfare aren’t enough. There’s another kind of power that comes with simply being company in sorrow and a companion in grief. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus mourned his own doom on his way to the cross, all he wanted was for his friends to stay awake with him for one hour. But the disciples needed their sleep.
Psalm 22 is a personal lament by a person severely distressed, except the problem isn’t their sickness or personal trauma. It’s the silence from God juxtaposed against the loud derision from bystanders whose helplessness in the face of the suffering has turned to hatred. The sufferer can sense it: “All who see me mock me; they sneer at me, they shake their heads.” The sufferer is not yet dead and already the bystanders divvy up the clothes and are checking the will.
“I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. I am poured out like water, my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd, you lay me in the dust of death”—I observed on Ash Wednesday how this language sounds like what you witness in the chemo infusion room. On CaringBridge I described one patient getting chemo who was asked by the nurse how she planned to get home. Chemo devastates the body and requires a lot of rest and medication to recover. The nurse was taken aback when the patient said she was taking the bus. Did she have no one to call to help her get home more easily? Or maybe she did and found that they couldn’t. Or maybe they needed their sleep.
We read Psalm 22 during Lent and Good Friday because in Matthew and Mark, the words from verse 1 were among Jesus’ last on the cross. Mark doesn’t record Jesus saying anything else. Skeptics will always wonder what kind of fatherly God would ever forsake an only child to suffer like this. On the other hand, the popular writer Christian Wiman, who has cancer, says that it’s these godforsaken words that made him a believer because it means Jesus is with us at our worst. Theologian Willie James Jennings writes of Jesus descends into the hell of human affliction—where there is no possibility of digging a deeper hole or of grasping more nothingness. Jesus meets us in this deepest and darkest place so that our descending won’t be ultimately terminal.
Marie observed last Sunday how Psalm 22 sways to and fro like a ship seeking calm in a storm. But rather than abandoned and adrift, Psalm 22 keeps a course. It tacks from lament to prayer and eventually to the glad shore of gratitude.
Why then does Jesus only quote the first verse? Maybe it’s because Psalm 22 is so long. More likely, in Mark’s gospel surely, there was nothing else to say. Confronted by the grim prognosis for my wife’s kind of cancer, “no words” has been a frequent refrain in response. What can you say in the face of the statistics that doesn’t sound insensitive or cliché? Is this why God stays so silent? Silence can be golden—“please just sit by my side and don’t try to fix.” But silence has its own limits. I remember interning as a seminarian with a pastor whose practice was to sit alongside patients in the hospital and never say a word—creating enormous stress for the patient to pick up the slack. Who’s ever heard of a minister who has nothing to say?
As a devout Jew, Jesus would have spent every Sabbath of his life in the synagogue where the Psalms would have been prayed in the normal course of worship. In Christian monasteries and liturgical churches—Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran—the Psalms are prayed in rotation and Psalm 22 shows up regularly. And even in low Protestant churches like ours, chances are you’ll hear Psalm 22 at least every Lent (and this year seven times during Lent counting Ash Wednesday ad Good Friday).
Jesus would have heard and recited Psalm 22 over and over from his childhood, the same way we rehearse the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, or learn John 3:16 or John 11 or Romans 8 or 1 Corinthians 13. You know the words even if you don’t need them now, but when your time comes these words are the ones you’ll want to both hear and to speak when there’s nothing else to say. “God so loved the world.” “I am the resurrection and the life.” “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.” “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “Thy kingdom come.”
And yes, even “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Why does Jesus pray these words and not others? Hang on a cross in despair at death’s door, and you recite what you know and what you’ve learned and what has proven to be real. Not a cheery 96. But the true 72.
Jesus speaks the first verse, but I guarantee you he knew the rest. The Psalm tacks from lament to prayerful supplication: “O LORD do not be far away. O my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the clutches of the dog!” Note how the prayer is not for healing, but for God to come close and for deliverance from scoffers. The Psalm then tacks again in verse 21, somewhat unexpectedly. So unexpectedly, in fact, that most English translations conclude it must be a scribal error and don’t print it. I added the line to the reading we did together this morning on the screens. Did you catch it?
Out of nowhere, like a sudden gust of wind, the Psalmist unexpectedly exclaims “You have answered me!” even though nothing visibly changes. Jesus still dies on the cross. “Why have you forsaken me?” may have been Jesus’ last words, but they were not the last word. Jesus does not die alone and he doesn’t stay dead. Many who scoffed were forgiven and ended up as believers themselves.
The Psalm ship tacks one more time from supplication to thanksgiving. What began as solitary desolation ends with a congregational invitation to praise the Lord: “God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried out. Dominion belongs to the LORD, before God shall all bow who go down to the dust, those who cannot preserve their lives.” The final answer to this prayer isn’t salvation from suffering or healing from disease or deliverance from our crosses. The answer is God with us in Christ. Jesus meets us in our deepest and darkest places so that our descending won’t be ultimately terminal. Psalm 22 begins as a prayer of lament, but it concludes as a prayer packed with hope and full of resurrection.
Hope has become as impoverished virtue, diminished too often as something more akin to wishful thinking. We diminish hope, I think, because it so often disappoints and embitters. Biblical hope by definition is “constantly and intensely vulnerable.” Author Marilyn Robinson writes how hope “implies a felt lack, an absence and yearning.” GK Chesterton added, “As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude. It is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all Christian virtues, hope is as unreasonable as it is indispensable.”
In Jesus’ parable the father of the prodigal son hopes for his son’s return. Nothing in the parable suggests the father has any grounds for confidence that his son will return, certainly nothing we know about the young man’s character or any affection he has for his family. The father’s hope is based solely on his love for his son. “Love never fails, the Scripture tells us. But only by hope can we trust this. What will be fully realized can only be imagined because we experience hope as absence. We have a vision of love—as well as justice, truth, honor, beauty and virtue—not that we’ve attained by reason or science, or learned from experience, or because of the evidence found in history. What we feel is the lack and the absence—the yearning and the longing—the true hope that urges and ushers us onward. “Blessed are you who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for you shall be filled.” “Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted.” “Amen and come quickly, Lord Jesus.”
At the end of his life with Stage 4 cancer, Paul Kalanithi, a surgeon and author of the bestselling memoir When Breath Becomes Air, was remembered by his spouse as one who looked death in the eye with his integrity intact. “Paul faced each stage of his illness with grace—not with bravado or a misguided faith the he would overcome or beat cancer, but with an authenticity that allowed him to grieve the loss of the future he had planned and forge a new one.” He could do this, she says, because of the love of his family and community, and because he’d rehearsed it in church, immersed in the sacred rhythms of Lent and Easter, death and life, practicing for that day we all eventually face when we return to the dust and faith becomes sight and we see face to face.
Hope onward from Psalm 22 and you come to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not lack.” It’s another one of those handful of passages that even Christians who’ve not been to church for a long time want spoken at their bedsides. Even in lament, we can cry out “God why have you forsaken me?” as an act of genuine faith and true hope. Jesus said it so we can say it too.