Joining the Resistance: Lament and the Kingdom [Part 4]

J. Todd Billings
In previous posts, I have suggested that the question of suffering before God needs to remain an open question - a question that we, along with the Psalmists, bring before God in the midst of our grief, anger, and confusion. All of this relates to prayer. But it also relates to action - action in a world in which God is king, and yet we groan and wait for his kingdom to come in fullness.

When I was a seminary student, I had a friend who was a chaplain at a children's hospital. He was counseling a nurse who was facing what we might call "compassion burnout." She wanted to help people. Perhaps, like many today, she wanted to try to "change the world." But instead, she found herself going into one hospital room after another, providing care for young children with terminal illnesses. They were not likely to live more than a few years, at most. What good was this doing? Was this really "changing the world"?

My chaplain friend responded to the nurse's plight in a striking way: he suggested to her that, rather than serving only if she could "change the world," she should continue her service as an act of witness and protest. How do we respond to a world with dying children? That is not the way things are supposed to be. He said she should continue her compassionate action as a lament that witnesses that things in this fallen world are not the way they are supposed to be. In the words of Paul, we are in a "struggle" against "the powers of this dark world" (Eph. 6:12 NIV) that deal out alienation from God and neighbor, and deals out death. We struggle to "stand firm" (v. 13) and bear witness to Jesus Christ, the victor over sin, the devil, and the powers. His victory is secure, but his reign of peace and shalom has not fully come.

From this standpoint, the point of compassionate action is not to "change to world." It is to be faithful and to bear witness, in word and deed, to a different kingdom: that of King Jesus. As our lips say, "Thy kingdom come," we pray--and act--as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this "present evil age" (Gal. 1:4). As Karl Barth says, "The law of prayer is the law of action," for when we pray for God's name to be hallowed and God's kingdom to come, we "cannot come to terms and be satisfied with the status quo" [1]. We are to "revolt and fight" against "the disorder which inwardly and outwardly controls and penetrates and poisons and disrupts all human relations and interconnections" [2]. Christians have "a binding requirement to engage in a specific uprising," for in "sighing, calling, and crying 'Thy kingdom come,'" Christians enter into a "revolt against disorder" [3]. God's good creation is still good, but it has been corrupted and alienated--and God's reign has not reached its final culmination.

Compassionate Witness to the True King

Behind the common expression that God's kingdom is "now but not yet" are paradoxes that run deeply through God's self-revelation in Scripture. God is the only, true, sovereign King. Yet what we see around us--a world with cancer and death, sin and alienation--is not his consummated kingdom. The Triune God conquers sin and the devil in the sending of the Father's Son to live, to die, and to be raised again, all through the Spirit's power. Yet the creation still groans (Rom. 8). We are still in a battle, requiring the armor of God "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph. 6:12). God's present reign is a kingly, sovereign reign. Sin and the "powers and authority" only have temporary power through permission of the King. For in Paul's words, at "the end," when those who belong to Christ are raised, Christ will have "destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Cor. 15:24-26). Until then, we protest against God's enemies--death, sin, and the devil--as we bear witness to the present and future King, our God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Compassionate witness in the mode of lament and protest against sin, death, and the devil does not imply that the problem of evil has been answered. To the contrary, the question of suffering is approached as one that requires our practical response rather than a theoretical answer. Indeed, a theoretical answer to "why this suffering exists" can actually harden our hearts rather than lead us to compassionate action. While working in the homeless shelter for five years, I could have used scores of reasons to "explain away" the suffering I saw around me: we can't help them because they suffer from mental illness and addiction; we can't help them because they are too broken; we can't help them because they are too stubborn; we can't help them because no one will hire them for a job; we can't help them because they are not healthy enough to receive help. All of these reasons point one direction: the present state of the world--with homeless sufferers--is the way things must be. Indeed, perhaps some would say that since this is the way things are, it's the way that God the King wants them to be. But to claim this would be to answer the theodicy question in a way that excuses our indifference and apathy in response to the homeless and other sufferers around us [4]. It would be to miss the radical nature of the Christian faith that prays, "Thy kingdom come on earth," because although God is the sovereign King, his promised reign on earth is not yet fully present.

Trusting in More than Our Own Faith: God's Resurrection of Hope

I believe that prayers of lament are interconnected with acts of compassionate protest and witness. Yet, in the midst of my cancer journey, I've faced a temptation: it's not to deny God's goodness, but to say that I'm too weary and weak to trust that the new creation is coming. A hope and trust in God's promise is essential to maintaining a persistent prayer of lament and a life of compassionate protest in "this dark world" (Eph. 6:12 NIV)--protesting that this is not the way things are supposed to be. When a hopeful trust in God's promises is in short supply, it can feel like trying to run a race when you're short on oxygen: you slow down, you pant, you gasp for air. As strange as it sounds, the fact that the psalmist can bring anger, frustration, and protest to God is because the lament is rooted in hope If you don't hope that God is good and sovereign, you don't bother to bring your lament and thanksgiving to the Lord. Sometimes I feel too weak to hope, too tired and despairing to even lament.

My cancer is incurable, and stubborn. And others face stubbornness in their circumstances as well: the nurse discouraged by the stubbornness of childhood terminal illness; those working with people under the slavery of addiction; the Christian who prays for years that their loved one will come to faith in Christ. Why would God not respond to such prayerful petitions and the actions of witness that go along with them? Is the kingdom of Christ's peace really coming? How do we keep up the courage of asking, again and again, "Thy kingdom come?" Sometimes, I'm tired of "revolt," as Barth calls it. I'm tired of hoping.

When the psalmist cries out for rescue, "O guard my life, and deliver me" (Ps. 25:20), the poet is not just "trying to revive hope" as an act of self-help--he calls to God for deliverance. In reflecting on this Psalm, John Calvin suggests that we are to pray that God "would increase our hope when it is small, awaken it when it is dormant, confirm it when it is wavering, strengthen it when it is weak, and that he would even raise it up when it is overthrown" [5]. We don't hope in our own ability to keep on hoping. We hope in God, who can make dry bones of hopelessness live again (Ezek. 37)--the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead can surely resurrect my hope from the ashes; for we have something better to trust in than ourselves, better than our own heroic "faith." We have a God who does not forsake his work in us because it is, after all, his work and his covenantal promise to be our God.

J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is the author of several books, including the Christianity Today Book Award Winner Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation and the Gift. Part of this article is adapted - with generous permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group - from his book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos, 2015)


[1] Karl Barth, The Christian Life: Church Dogmatics, IV/4, Lecture Fragments, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), pp. 168, 173.

[2] Ibid, p. 211.

[3] Ibid., pp. 207, 212.

[4] For an overview of a growing body of literature by biblical scholars and theologians who see dangers in claiming a "theoretical' answer to the theodicy question rather than focusing on a practical response to evils around us, see Daniel Castelo, Theological Theodicy (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012), esp. pp. 1-30, 88-102.

[5] John Calvin, commentary on Psalm 25:20, CTS.