Rejoicing in Lament

Article by   February 2015
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J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. $14.99/£11.99

Much of life in a fallen world consists of navigating through the fog of tragedy and suffering. Any pastor who has spent more than a month or two in any given parish will come up against the broken gears of the cycle of life. Illness strikes the healthy, death comes to take the young, and all too often it seems that curse falls upon the way of the righteous. At times like these, in a church culture that has all-but-lost the Psalmic language of lament, it can be difficult to avoid falling into trite speech more hollow than even explicit silence. And sometimes temporary silence is initially the best path. Yet the hearts and the minds of the afflicted need answers. They need a comfort grounded in the deep, glorious truth of the gospel.

That's what Todd Billings has given us in his recent offering Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. At the age of 39, Billings was happily married, father of two young children, and beginning a promising career as young Reformed theologian turning heads with rich, careful theological scholarship (Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, The Word of God for the People of God, Union with Christ). Then he was diagnosed with advanced, incurable blood cancer, and the bottom dropped out. The future that once looked so clear--marriage, watching his children graduate, scholarship--immediately fogged over with the pronouncement that he could no longer look forward to the "median" life-span that that most of us blithely assume we're owed (p.7).

In the midst of his own struggles with pain, suffering, and the agony of uncertainty, Billings has produced a profound meditation on the hope of the Christian life in light of the realities of the gospel. Rejoicing in Lament is rather unique in that it occupies a middle range in terms of its approach and appeal. It is not a strictly academic work, and yet Billings is a top-shelf theologian, so it's not just a pop-book either. It is top-shelf theology that has been lived in and communicated with an eye toward the sufferer in the pew, with Billings interspersing the story of his cancer battle--diagnosis, treatment, future prospects--within the broader story of God's saving action in Christ.

So what is Billings' response to the suffering and evil of cancer? In many ways, it is an expanded exploration of the truth of Heidelberg Catechism's first question and answer:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong--body and soul, in life and in death-- to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

After beginning his story and setting the course of the book (1), Billings devotes thoughtful chapters to evil and the limits of human wisdom (2), regaining the wisdom of the practice of lament to our covenant God (3-5), death's place in the story of God's people (6), prayer and healing (7), the need for the strong medicine of the gospel (8), the importance of God's own impassible life (9), and understanding our lives as caught up Christ's (10).

Clearly some themes dominate and suffuse the whole. Unsurprisingly, given the title, the theme of "lament" and correspondingly the literature of the Psalms plays a pivotal role in orienting the discussion. And this is one dimension that will likely be helpfully disorienting for the average American reader. One of Billings' laments is that the Church has largely lost the language and sensibilities of the Psalms with its rhythm of "praise, petition, and lament", through disuse (p.12). Yet in the Psalms, as Calvin discovered long ago, our Triune God has given us a "companion for the journey" which is an "anatomy of all parts of the soul", capable of training our emotions to deal with the various twists and turns in the road. The Church, pastors and worship leaders especially, ought to give careful rereading to these themes. They are invaluable, both for recovering an indispensable portion of corporate worship, as well as pastoral counsel to the sick and grieving.

Speaking of Calvin, given Billings' own background as a Calvin scholar focused on the theme of union with Christ, it is also unsurprising that the Genevan Reformer's wisdom is present throughout the whole. This fits, of course, for a number of reasons, the first of all, simply being how deeply Billings roots our comfort in the reality of the gift of our union with Christ, the deep medicine for the soul. Or again, one of Billing's aims is to disrupt our comfortable, Western, Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic framework that leaves us ill-prepared to deal with the reality of tragedy in this life (p.86), and few voices are more apt to do so than Calvin. Finally, given his focus on the Psalms, it doesn't hurt that Calvin produced four volumes of insightful commentaries on them.

Another focus of the book that is particularly helpful is the way it deals with questions. And this should be the case, given its focus on lament. Billings deploys the insight of Job in order to rob us of our most superficial questions, situating us rightly before the Lord as ones who ask with humility before the One who is unfathomably wise. At the same time, he does not shut down the question of the sufferer. "How long will you hide your face from me?" (Ps. 13:1) is the cry of a worshipper who righteously laments in trust to his covenant Lord (p.42).  Beyond these dimensions, he actually deals with a number of the practical questions that haunt actual people in the pews. For instance, in chapter 7 he takes up questions such as, "Should I pray to God for healing? If I pray and he doesn't answer with healing or transformation, what does that mean? Does God work through miraculous means, or is that beyond our current hope? Is it a lack of faith to pray only for normal healing through the ordinary means?"

A couple of chapters of particular theological interest were his defense of the doctrine of permission, and his chapter on impassibility. First, in his chapter on providence, after surveying relevant biblical material, Billings does the often neglected of articulating the carefully-developed categories of divine preservation, governance, and concursus as a way of staving off the dead-ends of Open-theistic denials of providence, or monocausal fatalism (pp.62-73). With a proper doctrine of concursus and primary and secondary causality in place, he argues that the Reformed tradition's (represented by the Belgic Confession, Canons of Dordt, and Westminster) deployment of the distinction between God's active and permissive will preserves a necessary biblical mystery. It is essential to our confession that God ordains all that comes to pass for good, but (sometimes unknowable) reasons, yet is not the author of sin, though he freely permits it. None of this will be new to the theologically-trained reader, but unfortunately this kind of precision is not often exhibited in more popular resources on the subject of suffering. I'm quite grateful to know there is a book I can hand someone whose author treats the issues with pastoral care.

Next, in one surprising chapter, Billings draws on the contemporary retrieval of the doctrine of impassibility--that God, in himself, is not subject to passions or suffering--in order to argue this is actually essential to the comfort for those weighed down with grief.  This is atypical, of course, because one of the most common charges against the doctrine is that it presents us with a cold, impassive God who is unmoved by our grief and suffering, and that only the passible, suffering God can help. Instead, Billings says, it is the impassible, unchanging love of God that drives him to become incarnate so that he who cannot suffer in himself, might suffer in Christ, our sympathetic high priest, in order to end our suffering. God does not become man in order to relieve his own, internal, existential angst, but to save us from the sting of death and hell. As Billings, puts it, "Personally, I don't have the luxury of feeling sorry for God or settling for a God less than the biblical God of deliverance" (p.158).

I could go on, at length about the strengths of this work. I will simply say, though, when I was walking through my own, relatively minor, health struggles post-seminary, by the grace of God I stumbled on the first question and answer of the catechism. Its deep comfort rooted in a biblical, historic Reformed view of providence and sovereignty, was a bulwark for me in the storm, and a light in the foggy darkness. I know that for those sufferers who happen upon Rejoicing in Lament will find the same, and an able guide for the journey. 

Derek Rishmawy is a Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church. He received his B.A. in philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Biblical studies at Azusa Pacific University. He blogs regularly at derekzrishmawy.com

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