Rejoicing in lament

Todd Stern’s review of Rejoicing in Lament by J. Todd Billings. This review first appeared on The Gospel Coalition website on 18 March 2015.

rejoicingWhen Christians are confronted with significant tragedy, we are often reminded of Paul’s words to the church at Philippi: “Do not be anxious about anything. . . . [There is] a peace that passes all understanding. . . . I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:6, 7, 13). While all this is wonderfully true, less often do we hear the line that immediately follows: “It was good of you to share in my troubles” (Phil. 4:14).

Dealing with our own troubles and sharing in those of others are among the most challenging aspects of the Christian life. It isn’t always easy to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Foolish and insensitive things get said by well-meaning folks. J. Todd Billings’s excellent new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, will go a long way in equipping us to endure and to minister to one another in more theologically grounded and helpful ways.

How does Billings, professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, accomplish this task?

Writing from the Cauldron

If you’ve ever heard the harrowing words, “You have cancer,” you will quickly realize that Billings has “street cred.” He isn’t writing from a position of dispassionate analysis but rather from the cauldron, speaking openly and honestly of his experience of being diagnosed at age 39 with Myeloma, a rare and incurable cancer. Throughout Rejoicing in Lament he references his CarePages, an online journal for sharing with others the progression in his own thinking as he moves from the immediate upheaval surrounding the initial diagnosis to dealing with the “new normal.”

It is instructive how well reasoned even his early entries are. Even though Billings may have been surprised by the diagnosis, he was already well versed in truth, which enabled him to find solace and comfort in the only place it can truly be found—at the foot of the cross and in the pages of the Bible. Don’t wait for a crisis to read this book—strengthen your faith now, even in a peaceful season, by building these truths into your soul.

Praying the Psalms

Billings provides excellent instruction on praying the Psalms—particularly the psalms of lament—with all the honesty, struggle, and emotion of the Spirit-breathed writers themselves. He deals with these in detail throughout the book, teaching us how to fight our fears with faith and the language of Scripture. This discipline frees us to be honest and calls us to reflect on God’s wonderful promises, even when we can’t fully understand all that’s happening to us.

Billings helpfully explains that, as with Job, God does not owe us an explanation for why he allows severe trials. There is mystery here, yet we can rely on the truth that only he fully understands our suffering. We waste precious energy when we seek answers that only reside in the secret places of the Most High (Deut. 29:29).

Helping the Church

Billings also offers practical instruction for the church in chapters 6 and 7, “Death in the Story of God and in the Church” and “Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom.” These chapters are particularly accessible and illuminating. The church is the place to run to rather than avoid when experiencing suffering. Sometimes we want to “grieve in private” or don’t want others to “see our pain,” but that can be profoundly counterproductive.

I hadn’t considered Billings’s point that the church is the one place where we celebrate birth, baptism, marriage, and death—a point that reinforced to me the importance of faithful perseverance in the church from cradle to grave.

Two Small Cautions

Lay readers (like me) should know in advance that Billings is an accomplished theologian and academician. As a result, some of the book’s language may be less accessible to the typical person wrestling with a trial of this magnitude. I’d counsel readers to stick with it, however, because there’s much gold to be mined in these pages.

A challenge in writing a book so tightly interwoven with the author’s experience is that he can share what he experienced and how he handled it, yet the reader’s experience may differ. While there may be certain commonalities in all Christian suffering, changing just one variable in a trial can make a world of difference experientially. Therefore, there cannot be a “one size fits all” approach. Questions that surface for some won’t rise for others. New and different questions may demand fresh and distinct responses.

I, too, have been diagnosed with incurable cancer. Even as I write this review, my chemo regimen is changing after 34 rounds because the tumors are continuing to grow. Additionally, today is the six-month anniversary of my wife’s death from her incurable cancer. I don’t have exactly the same struggles or questions as Billings: the “why” question hasn’t bothered me as deeply; I haven’t really experienced anger at God; and I find peace in the certain knowledge that he’s promised to “never leave us or forsake us” (Deut. 31:6, 8; Heb. 13:5). Billings implies at times that this sort of response is dangerously close to blind stoicism—but it might just be how God has prepared me to endure this trial. We all experience and respond to affliction in slightly different ways, and that’s okay.

Caught Up into His Story

All Christians can agree with Billings when he writes:

Even when we feel left in the dark, even when suffering and death seem senseless, we are empowered by the Spirit to groan, lament, and yet rejoice. God’s promise is trustworthy, and this same Spirit has united us to Christ, through whom we are able to call out to the Father as adopted children. We rejoice, we lament. In all of this, our own stories are not preserved in a pristine way; we are displaced (“I am not my own”) and incorporated into a much larger story—God’s story in Christ. (p170)

That message of truth needs to be heard loud and clear throughout the church, and Billings brings it home in a brilliant and powerful way. Whether you are walking with someone who is suffering, you are suffering yourself, or you want to be prepared to suffer, Billings can lead and guide you to do so in a God-honoring way.

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