The Scream, painted in 1893 during a time of intense personal pain, has always haunted me. There is something haunting in the face of the painting’s subject, something sos evocative about the open mouth and hands held over the ears.
Some psychologists conclude that, over his lifetime, Munch experienced bipolar disorder with psychosis. This particular painting was inspired by a visual hallucination in which he perceived the sky turning to blood. As everything crunched together in his imagination, terror struck him: he is quoted as having said,
“I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.”
Munsch’s experience and his artistic representation of that experience both serve humanity, allowing us to see into the kind of pain others may feel. Though we often hide it well, each of us experiences various kinds of loss and hurt. It may not come in the form of a visual hallucination, but it may more often come in the form of loneliness, isolation, distrust, hopelessness, or lack of self-worth.
We moderns are not the first to experience deep pain and alienation from ourselves, others, and God. Elijah, an ancient prophet, and Jesus, who we Christians understand and believe to be the incarnate Son of God, both experienced deep pain and rejection both from other people and from God.
In I Kings 19, Elijah is running for his life, terrified of an evil queen and complicit king, feeling unguarded and alone. He cries out from his soul,
“I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors [I Kings 19:4b].”**
That’s heavy stuff. It’s along the lines of suicidal ideation, to be sure, though thankfully he voices his anguish to God [a safe place if there ever was one!]. He’s ready to die, alone, afraid, and exhausted from the depths of his soul to his physical body and psychological center. He is absolutely spent, desiring death, yet courageously-and surprisingly-places this desire in God’s hands.
We’ll take a look at how God responds later.
Right now, let’s zoom forward quite a few centuries and check out a dark moment Jesus has right before his arrest, trial, torture, crucifixion, and burial.
He’s with close friends, praying before, quite literally, all hell would soon break loose and come tempt the world into believing evil is the larger power in the cosmos. In his darkest hour, he wants the support of friends to pray with him:
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me [Mt. 26:38].”
Jesus is pretty low, from my read. Overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death sounds like spiritual and mental breakdown. Was it an acute bout of anxiety-a panic attack? I don’t presume to know, I’m just an observer reading the text and wondering out loud.
Soon, he asks for relief from God:
…he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will [Mt. 26:39].”
So let’s hop back to Elijah, who had just told God he’s ready to die. How does God respond? The response is immediate, timely, fitting. God gives Elijah a snack and lets him continue his much-needed nap:
…an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again [I Kings 19:5b].
Elijah wanted to die, but God wanted him to live.
Instead of death, he gets a nap and a snack.
And that’s not all.
A few chapters later, instead of experiencing the death he once wished for, Elijah is either the only or is one of just two people [Enoch being the other, but it is less clear] who are taken directly to be with God:
As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind [2 Kings 2:11].
Ironically, after begging God for death, Elijah never dies.
Now let’s move back to Jesus, who we left praying in Gethsemane. He gets very different treatment than our Old Testament friend, Elijah. God is silent, allowing his own son to suffer at an overwhelming juncture:
- He doesn’t get a nap, but his friends fall asleep on him [twice], failing to pray when Jesus most needed spiritual support.
- He doesn’t get a snack, just some gross vinegar wine whilst bleeding out on the cross.
- He doesn’t even hear a word from God, at least not one that’s recorded in our text. He is utterly alone for his final hours, dying alone with only a few friends left to honor him at his final hour.
God does not take the cup from Jesus, spare him this crushing, torturous aspect of his earthly ministry, and we don’t even know if there was any consolation offered to him from anyone, save the sympathy of Pilate and his wife, both Romans. And Pilate’s sympathy certainly didn’t stop him from enabling the religious leaders in their mission to kill this man claiming to represent a kingdom not of this world.
But Jesus is raised from the dead.
God was at work despite the total despair Jesus felt at the end of his life.
There is so much to learn here, but here are some things that stick out:
- Like both Elijah and Jesus, our laments [and yes, any emotion including anger, joy, jealousy, yeah-anything] is always safe with God, and better expressed and externalized than repressed and hidden.
- God doesn’t always answer in the way we desire, but we do know our advocate before God, Jesus, has experienced unanswered prayer-and the pain native to humanity. Jesus identifies with our pain but also knows the supreme joy that comes with being “the firstborn over all creation” [Colossians 1:15]. He has seen torture, loss of friends, and an excruciating death-but also the triumph of new life and victory over evil.
The resounding joy Jesus experienced as the firstborn over all creation means he knows what it’s like to move through human life, death and through death into new, full, whole and transformed life.
And, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, we get to follow him on this life-giving and hope-filled path.
*Heller RH: Edvard Munch: The Scream. New York, Viking Press, 1972, p. 109)
**All biblical quotes are from the New International Version.