J. Todd Billings is no stranger to long-time readers of Kingdom People. I endorsed his book Union with Christ, interviewed him about that crucial doctrine. and I’ve linked to his articles over the years.
In September 2012, Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer diagnosis. His book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ comes to us from the furnace of affliction, written during months of treatment, operations, hospitalization, and even quarantine. Todd describes the origin of the book:
After my diagnosis, I prayerfully immersed myself in Scripture, especially the Psalms. New biblical and theological questions were becoming urgent… I decided to honestly take on the tough theological and existential questions rather than dodge them. They are the questions that I live with. And frequently, they are the questions that other Christians who have experienced loss live with as well.
I am reading Rejoicing in Lament slowly. This is not a book to rush through and complete. It’s a book that evokes empathy and awe, praise and lamentation. To give you a taste of the book, allow me to offer a few quotes from the first chapter.
Bigger than Cancer
Rejoicing in Lament begins with a fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome telling Todd, “God is bigger than cancer!”
“She did not say, ‘God will cure you of this cancer,’ or ‘God will suffer with you.’ God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama – like a story that closes in the sky, envelops my whole world so that nothing else could creep in. But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger.
Understanding that God’s story is bigger does not mean that the cancer diagnosis becomes any less painful or traumatic. Recognizing that God is not a debtor to anyone and that every day is a gift, not something we earn, Todd says:
Scripture does not say God owes us a long life. But paradoxically, this does not mean that we accept suffering and death with a stoic fatalism. Instead, God’s people lament.
Death and Love
Death is an enemy whose force is more powerfully perceived when it strikes us down in our prime, in an accident, or in childhood. But even when death comes to the elderly person after years of struggle, or almost as a relief after years of suffering through cancer (as was the case for my father-in-law), it is still ugly.
Beautiful is the saint who dies with hope in Christ. Ugly is the death is that stops his breath. Majestic is the Savior who breathes new life into the dead.
God has not promised to spare us from earthly death. But he has conquered it in Christ – death does not have the power to separate us from his love. In the meantime, death’s power and its limited reign are cause for lament, for complaint, for protest to the God of life.
Turning to the Psalms
Where do we turn for biblically-informed, hope-filled lament? The psalms, of course. Todd writes:
The Psalms have been my daily companion for years, but since the diagnosis, they have taken on special power. They give moments of orientation – to the promises of our Great God, our rock and our fortress. And they also cry out to God in disorientation – in pain, in confusion, in distress – as well as in joy. The cancer journey so far has already had a lot of ups and downs. And the Psalms are meeting me in those different places – or rather, God is meeting me through the Psalms.
It’s not the psalms themselves that provide comfort and expression of lament, but reading them in light of Christ:
In and through and by Jesus Christ, with whom Christians have been united by the Holy Spirit, we can praise, lament, petition, and discover that the story of our loss is not the only, or most important, story that encloses our lives. We discover that this spacious place – of living in Christ – is wide and deep enough for us to petition, to rejoice, and also join our laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf.
Where do the psalms take us? Into the throne room of our great God, speaking His inspired words of lament and praise back to the King:
As we come to sense our role in this drama, we find that it is a path of lament and rejoicing, protest and praise, rooted in trust in the Triune God, the central actor; we can walk on this path even while the fog is thick. For God is bigger than cancer. God is bigger than death.
Rejoicing in Lament is a robust, experiential and deeply theological book of reflections on suffering and death. J. Todd Billings is suffering “well,” and his authenticity, faith, and endurance point us back to the Triune God whose victory is love.