On Lament and the Cross

In the Mormon tradition of my youth, being a faithful person was supposed to bring happiness—no matter what was going on. To be a believer meant that you possessed a special knowledge of God’s plan of happiness that other people weren’t fortunate enough to understand. The best way to share your knowledge was to develop a sparkle in your eye and a spring in your step that made others wonder what was so “different” about you.

This expectation of happiness-as-example embedded itself deeply in the cultural discourse. Testimonies in church often followed a structure that emphasized this point: a believer was faced with a trial—maybe an illness, a job loss, or more rarely, a veiled allusion to some sort of personal shortcoming—but when they remembered that the gospel was about happiness, they saw virtue in their suffering and adjusted their attitude. I’ve heard more people than I can count express gratitude for their trials and most painful experiences as learning opportunities for growth.

On the one hand, this instilled a dogged, almost defiant, resilience among the people, one that was perpetually optimistic and forward-looking. It was almost as if everyone had agreed to say together, “We will be happy, dammit!” (although Mormons would almost certainly say “dang it”)—something that allowed us to persevere, like our pioneer ancestors did, whatever the odds.

On the other hand, there is a spiritual cost to feeling as though you must always put your best foot forward. In the face of real tragedy, it can create disconnection from one’s own experiences and emotions, a denial of what is really there, and perhaps a defensive blindness to the suffering and trauma of others.

Lament is an alternative response to suffering that is at once faithful and productive, bringing us deeper into relationship with God. It is about connecting authentically to our own feelings and giving them expression. In a week in which I have been thinking about both lament and the crucifixion, it strikes me that perhaps the cross is God’s response to faithful lament—an answer to the pain and suffering of our broken world.

I was first introduced to the concept of lament only a couple of years ago. The pastor in a congregation that shares our church building set up a box outside the sanctuary that said, LAMENTS WELCOME. The sign had further instruction to write one’s complaints to God about pain, suffering, injustice, and tragedy, and to call God to account for not having fixed things already. I had never before seen such a practice. I had no idea it was even “allowed.” It struck me as profoundly liberating and I reflected on it for weeks afterward.

Lament is for when we are hopeless, powerless, and in desperate need of relief—yet no relief seems forthcoming. In her book Getting Involved with God, Ellen Davis says that lament is for “people who have experienced irreparable losses—and learned to live with them. People who have hoped for miracles—and not seen them. People who are still waiting for relief, for God’s definitive act of deliverance, who are still praying and sometimes cannot remember why” (163).

I was raised to believe that becoming angry with God and demanding that God live up to God’s promises was faithless and blasphemous in some way, but now I see it as a way to further engage in relationship with God. By turning toward God, even in our pain, we create a connection, a conversation. As Davis puts it, “The one who was on the brink of annhiliation, discarded by God, who felt insubstantial as smoke, shadow, dried-up grass—now she finds a voice, a standing place in the presence of the God whose years are forever” (163).

Lament is deeply connected to the heart of the Christian faith. Davis further notes that lament is about pursuing the existential question of whether “God’s eternity and my frailty [can] ever meet ‘in real time’” (162). It seems to me that the cross is the place where God answers that question in the affirmative, as God’s eternity and human frailty do meet in the very body of the incarnate God.

In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone addresses this issue, too. Few groups have more cause for lament than Black Americans. Cone acknowledges that the question of why people suffer has animated him throughout his life as a Black American and Christian seeking justice, and as a person who experienced personal tragedy with the loss of his wife to breast cancer at age 36 (153). In the cross, Cone sees a meeting point between the finite and the infinite—the very question that Davis says lament poses. “The transcendent and the immanent, heaven and earth, must be held together in critical, dialectical tension. … Nowhere is that paradox, that ‘inscrutability,’ more evident than in the cross” (Cone 156).

Lament is pleading for things to be different, for the world to be transformed; the cross is the place where the “reversal of expectations and conventional values” (Cone 157) takes place. It is, perhaps, God’s answer to lament—an answer of solidarity and of entering into suffering with us. To claim that the cross, an apparatus of torture and humiliation, is in fact the symbol of salvation for the entire human race is to declare a profoundly different kind of salvation than the “plan of happiness” I was raised with. It is a salvation that does not bypass suffering, but enters into it deeply in order to transform it. This is not the stuff of determined smiles through gritted teeth, but full-throated, devastated acknowledgement of just how broken our world can be.

In lament, we are free to weep, to cry out, to name our suffering and agony, to beg God for relief. On the cross, God joins us in our weeping, our crying out, our suffering and agony, in order to bring relief.  It is a strange kind of hope, both brutal and frail, but it is that very frailty that pulls us into relationship with God. As Davis says, “That frailty…creates the need and the desire to see God’s power at work…in Christ Jesus for ever and ever—Him in whom frail humanity and eternal Godhead are fully met and joined, never to be parted, not even by death on a cross” (167).

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