J. Todd Billings
Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ
Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. Paperback $18.99
(*I received a review copy from Brazos Press and am not expected to give a positive review. The comments and opinions are my own.)
I’d like to thank Dr. Billings for writing this book about his faith and health. His honesty in his reflection shines bright. Billings shares a comment from a woman at his church after he was diagnosed with an incurable cancer: “God is bigger than cancer.” Her comment was one that began to remove what he calls “the fog”: a limited view of his future. The fog hindered his once wide-open view of the possibilities after receiving the diagnosis. Being there for things like his children’s growth, high school experience, and other milestones were shaken. He could no longer assume he would enjoy those events.
Billings shares how he wrestled with questions of existentialism and theology that awoke with the reality of disturbingly less than ideal “chances” of seeing his daughters’ futures. Why would God end his life and do this to his children? Affirming that God doesn’t owe us anything, Billings still believed that he shouldn’t receive such a diagnosis with “stoic fatalism” (10). He used several Scriptures to support that death ultimately stands in the way of YHWH being God over his people, and in the end it will be overcome (1 Cor 15:25-26; Rev 21:3). The Psalms, particularly those of lament, provided encouragement and support for him. Quoting Calvin’s preface to his Psalms commentary, Billings reflects that the Holy Spirit uses psalms of lament to draw us before the face of God amidst “all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated” (14).
I enjoyed Chapter 2 where Billings wrestled with the problem of evil. Billings’ reflections on the book of Job were insightful and helpful. He believes that we simply are not given an ultimate answer to the problem of evil. All the suffering Job experienced was not due to sin (Joh 9:2-3). When Job lays his case before God, God responds with four chapters of his freedom in “creating the world and the huge distance between God’s viewpoint and human understanding” (26). One thing we do know is that suffering requires a response from the people of God. Billings so eloquently states that “unjust suffering is a scandal, and we should cry out to God in our hearts with our compassionate action” (30). This reminds me that when one part of the body suffers, the healthy members gather round (1 Cor 12:26).
As Billings suffered through treatment and its’ painful side affects, he shares how he held onto and repeated prayers such as Psalms 27. His hope was centered on life with God, but there was “nothing automatic about trusting and hoping in God” (38). Attributing the insight to Augustine, Billings discusses that by praying the Psalms we come into alignment with the right way of looking at lament and the right things in which to be joyful. I resonated with this section on what is referred to as lectio divina; practiced as early as Origen and used by other church fathers such as Augustine and St. Ambrose. But even in Judaism, the Psalms were committed to memory and used in public worship. Billings’ appreciation for this has deeply historic roots. He refreshingly suggests that appreciation for the Psalms of lament have unfortunately not been used in our contemporary worship as much as they should. An overarching theme in all 150 Psalms is that of “loving faithfulness” (49). Billings draws the connection that lamenting Psalms bring our hearts before God in expectation of his loving, covenant faithfulness. It subsequently opens our eyes to see all the ways that God demonstrates his faithfulness.
It is because of this faithfulness, Billings illustrates in Chapter 4, that we question God when we experience suffering. It is because we believe that he is sovereign that we cry out to him. I thought this was helpful. Since we know all good things flow from the Lord, when good things are not flowing we naturally question why (59). I think one of the most important observations Billings makes is that Scripture teaches there are other agents acting against the will of God: “God is not the sole actor in the world” (62). We are in the midst of God making his enemies his footstool. Though Billings doesn’t make the connection in the book, I think this ties well with God’s sovereignty and our trust because we cannot comprehend all that is involved in God’s final victory over his enemies. Billings, however, illustrates that since God works through means such as other people (63), it can be prideful to assume that God always works in direct ways. God is not active in a way that leaves humanity inactive.
I also resonated with Billings’ discussion of when people die. Often others respond that God has called them home. This doesn’t properly illustrate what is truly happening. This phrase is especially used when the person who has died is young. An 8-year-old boy dying of cancer, for example, is hardly God’s ideal or his wishes for his creation. This person did not “slip through God’s fingers” somehow (66) or was not torn from his family for God’s own delight. We struggle with the powers of the darkness of this age (76). We trust in God’s goodness and through those terrible occurrences and in his wisdom that is beyond our understanding. “Hardened hearts become tender as we hope in God’s covenant promise” (77).
Billings discusses the problem of good in the next couple chapters. There are not only evils in the world, but also very good things that we enjoy. Who do we thank for this life we have been given? This creation we enjoy? How about our spouses? Children? If events are simply by chance or simply the way things are, such as the position some take toward the problem of evil, why is there so much that mankind wants to praise and celebrate? Who are we going to thank for the blessed and dear things such as watching our children giggle and blow bubbles, Billings asks for example (94). This was another helpful discussion in the book that I enjoyed.
I thought that Billings did a good job showing his perspective that death is a part of our story with God. It is another thing we walk through and experience in our relationship with God. Though some experiences with death, such as that occurs with cancer victims or accidents with young children, seem senseless, Billings reflects that “the gospel is good news that is big enough to incorporate and envelop our dying and death, even when it seems senseless” (107).
In the final chapters, Billings goes into detail about prayer and seeking quick fixes. Our requests for healing to be immediate and direct may not be in line with the timetable in which God operates (112). “The culmination of Christ’s kingdom in the end will make things right…but while Scripture testifies that God will make all things right…the Bible doesn’t promise that the resurrected in glory will know all the answers to our present questions” (187-188). Billings summarizes that the full restoration of God’s creation has not yet come, and while we experience tastes of the life to come we wait with groaning and protest against the enemies of that harmony.
Anyone interested in the subject matter of suffering, healing, the problem of evil, and how to navigate through the challenges that health concerns can call into question will find this book helpful. I gladly recommend it to the church.