Last time I wrote about community. Why is community important? Well, for one really big reason, we need each other because we were designed by God for connection, relationship, and love. Sadly, sin often messes things up. I recently chatted with a young woman who was really discouraged over a relationship that hadn’t worked out. I wish I could say that is a rarity, but it is not. We suffer the loss of relationships in so many ways, and they always hurt (If they stop hurting, then something even worse has happened inside). However, despite the pain, there is hope and love, and it all centers on Jesus.
I recently watched The Passion of the Christ for a second time. For a believer, it is impossible not to be moved by what Jesus endured to purchase our salvation. The most obvious suffering is the physical abuse and torture, capped by the horrific agony of the crucifixion itself. Less apparent but of even greater torment was the abandonment Jesus experienced, first by his followers and friends, and finally by the Father when Jesus uttered in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Nothing we humans go through will ever match what he went through, although our ordeals may last longer, even though his words echo the words of the Psalmist describing both human experience and this ultimate sacrifice.
The people to whom I have been closest have been friends. I love my blood kin—mom, brothers, nieces and nephews, especially, and extended family, but I’ve never really been close to most of them, personally or spiritually. I somewhat envy those whose best friend is a brother or sister or perhaps a mom or dad—a conjunction of compatibility and godly parenting, I presume (since I don’t believe in luck). Since I never married, I’ve never had that sort of closeness with a spouse, although I have had several lady friends over the years (once a fiancé). I never really had a close friend growing up, and that made friendship an even greater interest for me, as I became an adult.
I always thought it would be great to have an “alter ego,” “another I,” who was like me or with whom I was so perfectly compatible that we would become and remain fast friends for a lifetime (I note that some see this phrase in not so positive a light). As time and circumstances changed, those few friends that I thought might be growing that way, moved on. A few were really tough experiences, instances of abandonment that, I suppose, everyone experiences, at one time or another. To lose a friend is painful, and it has led me to consider all the ways in which people abandon, forsake, betray, or simply lose other people—some deserved, some undeserved, and some merely circumstantial. As I did, I also considered Jesus’ experience and God’s long-standing promise never to abandon or forsake us. That also suggests that we, as believers, need to embrace each other to bring love and faithfulness into the lives of those who’ve been hurt by loss; this is critical if we are to create the blessings of true community.
Relationships are undeniably important to us. God created us for relationship with himself and with other humans. God noted that being alone was not good for Adam, despite the relationship he already had with God. Tragically, his relationship with Eve, made to be his perfect companion, was damaged, almost immediately, by the choices each made. When God confronted them, they each tried to blame someone else—Adam blamed Eve, and Eve the serpent. Can you imagine the conversations between them after getting evicted from the Garden? Even then, in those perfect circumstances, self-doubt and personal failure led to broken relationships, between the first humans and between them and their Creator. Their choices made matters more difficult for those who followed.
Children normally enjoy good relationships with their parents and siblings; at adolescence, they begin to seek significant relationships with peers, both same gender friendships and dating relationships. In the secular culture, teens are encouraged to prefer these over their regard for parents and teachers, even though, historically, respect for one’s elders was the norm (a value still honored in many other cultures). Nevertheless, through all of this, one thing is abundantly clear: relationships are important. Watch almost any teenager, and it will be obvious!
Sadly, fallen humans have retained the ability to abandon, forsake, and betray even their spouse and closest friends. In a twisted attempt to serve their own interests, prideful, self-focused men and women often betray their own needs and wishes. Parents neglect and abuse their children. Spouses betray and abuse the one they once loved dearly. Friends forsake and abandon friends, and sometimes become their worst enemies.
The disappointment of broken friendships begins in grade school. I recall kids in my classes talking about this person or that, wondering what they thought, telling stories of what someone had said, sad or happy with from what they learned. I children still have such conversations, and they continue through their school years and into adulthood. In Christian families, schools, and congregations, some learn to deal more openly and directly with each other, but being a believer is no guarantee against fears, doubts, or lost relationships nor protection from the convoluted ways people deal painfully with others.
Children also lose friends because our society is so mobile. I had many friends in my first school, but they stayed behind when our family moved into a new school system as I began third grade. I left a rural school to attend a small town school where many of the kids were friends from the community. I never made friends as well, or as easily, at the new school. Many have had far worse experiences in schools where rigidly defined cliques do not welcome strangers. Some become isolated, lonely, and even angry, some lashing out at those who refuse to welcome, accept, or befriend them. Nor were those childhood friends I was to lose circumstantially; good friends from college and later seminary are scattered across the country, many completely out of touch.
Some children learn early the sadness of loss through death. The loss of a parent, grandparent, or even a pet can devastate a child; and, of course, grief only deepens, the longer and dearer the relationship has been. It is not unusual for a child to regard the death as abandonment, even though few choose to die (except for suicides). A surviving spouse, after decades of love and intimacy, sometimes follows their loved one in death after only a short time; such is the depth of their grief. Most of us who have lost a grandparent, parent, spouse, or child know that, to some extent, that the emptiness is never filled, even though life does go on and the pain lessens with time.
Divorce may be the worst kind of loss. To have married and become one with a person, believing that first blush of love would last for a lifetime, and then to experience the disillusionment of love lost or the betrayal of adultery, create the ultimate kind of heartache and bitterness. To have love turn to hatred or apathy is, in a sense, worse than losing a loved one to death. I recall a classmate at a reunion asking if I had ever married; when I said I had not, he replied, “Just as well.” That was his feeling, having lost a wife through divorce; ironically I learned he was the one who destroyed his marriage. No matter the fault, divorce produces grief, anger, sadness, disappointed hope, bitterness, and resentment. The dead are gone, but the estranged linger to haunt our lives worse than any ghost.
Nearly as devastating is to have a friend become an enemy. I took part in an attempt to deal with a broken business partnership between two men who had been close friends. They began their business, as any good friends might, believing that they would find nothing but success and accomplishment. In a remarkably short time, a relatively minor disagreement, as it appeared to me, became a horrible split that eventually had a ripple effect into their families, church, and community. The financial impact was the least of their loss; they lost the companionship and trust that only close friends could appreciate.
The sad reality is that I have more stories, true accounts of unbelievably awful things that have taken place in the lives of believers, incidents of betrayal, vindictiveness, abandonment, and abuse. I did a funeral for a man whose daughter hated him so much that the family feared an incident at the service. A pastor told me of having his son stricken by illness or injury, I’ve forgotten which, and receiving a note from a former member who said it served him right. One young man asked me what I thought of a mother who just left her children and never tried to contact them or explain why. A woman, married with a family of her own, made every effort to accept the mother who abandoned her back into her life as an adult, but she didn’t know how to handle that same mother when she tried to interfere with how she was rearing her own children; but then who would? As painful as my own personal experiences of loss have been and still are, they pale next to many others of which I am personally aware.
Indeed, human history is one of untold numbers of broken and lost relationships, some even leading to war or generations-long feuds.. Does God understand our pain? When we see that Jesus was “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” we know that he does. Every kind of broken relationship—grief, betrayal, abandonment, and vindictiveness—he not only understands; he experienced them all, culminating in the worst experience in all of human history. On a cross, abandoned by his friends, betrayed by one and denied by another, accused and convicted by those he loved and came to help, and finally forsaken by the father at the moment of his greatest suffering, Jesus knows and understands what it means to be betrayed, forsaken, and alone.
His experience on the cross, in turn, makes his subsequent promise all the more compelling: “I will be with you always.” I have often marveled at our use of the phrase, “God-forsaken” to refer to some remote desert or a place like Siberia. Psalm 139 says plainly that we cannot be “God-forsaken,” even if we try to escape him: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (verses 11-12).
Where is the greatest comfort? Is it in knowing Jesus understands when we endure the suffering of loss, abandonment, or betrayal? Is it in the assurance that, however alone or abandoned we feel, we are never alone because he is there with us? Could it be in those moments, when we feel as if there is no one who cares, that he remains our loving friend and savior? When he carries us, as one old poem suggests?
I realize that, for each of us, those terrible times of broken relationships, lost friends, dreadful loss, and questions without answers, the hurt and emotional suffering linger. We can’t sleep, find it difficult to work, struggle to concentrate, and find our thoughts dwelling on those we have loved, who we had thought loved us, and whom we miss desparately. It is likely we pray for restoration, reconciliation, and even resurrection. Sometimes we are angry, and at other times we would repent a thousand times to win back a lost sister or brother. We blame them, we blame ourselves, and we blame God; we fear we have failed in our human duty and in our obligations as God’s children. Through all those moments, Jesus is close at hand, knowing full well how we feel, sympathizing as one who has been there, and offering his love, even though we may find it hard to accept.
We would prefer more than acceptance, but this fallen world, much of which rejects Christ, produces all these sorts of relational brokenness and suffering. Perhaps one blessing comes in turning things around in our rapport with Jesus. Not only does he understand our pain, but we may begin truly to understand his; and in understanding, we may gain an even greater awareness of the price he paid for our salvation and healing. In these days of Lent, as we reflect on the Cross, that’s not a bad thing to gain.
Most of us would never choose such pain–not our and surely not his. Given the chance, many of us would choose to avoid the pain, perhaps at the loss of more important things–self-respect, dignity, sexual purity–and many do. Yet, he chose to suffer that he might understand, redeem, and love us as no friend ever has or ever will, this side of eternity. When we struggle to accept our losses, then is the time when most we need to recognize and accept the love he offers a love given at a terrible price and rendered the more precious for that very price. Abandoned we may be, but we are never forgotten, never friendless, and never, never alone!