Book Review. Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings

billingsRejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings (2015)

ISBN. 978-1-58743-358-0 (201 pages)

Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He has become my friend (at least in electronic fashion) over these past many years, and someone I look up to in regard to cultivating my development as a budding theologian; and beyond that in my development as a person who loves Jesus deeply–Todd is a person that can be looked to for that, and more as a brother in Christ.

Todd and I share something in common: he and I both have been diagnosed with rare and typically terminal and aggressive cancers; as Todd labels them “incurable” (mine is in that category as well). In 2012, at the young age of thirty-nine Todd was diagnosed with what is called Multiple Myeloma, a blood cancer for which there is no cure. As a result he underwent immediate treatment involving chemo-therapy, and ultimately a stem cell transplant. By God’s grace Todd’s treatment protocol has put his cancer into remission; the prognosis remains open, and he continues to go through what they call a maintenance protocol to attempt to keep his cancer at bay (hopefully from coming back at all).

As a result and in response to his cancer diagnosis Todd set up a Carepages account–a blog format available particularly for those struggling through some sort of life crisis, usually health related–here he would reflect periodically about his treatments, his progress, and in particular about how he was processing all of this (as a Christian theologian) through the lens of Christ and within the matrix of that relationship that he has personally with the Triune God. As things developed, and the treatments have worked for Todd, he found the strength and time to take his Carepages blog posts to the next level and place them into a book format where he talks about the Christian concept of ‘Lament.’ The following will be a brief review of his book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. I also wanted to say thank you to Trinity McFadden at Brazos Press for sending me a complimentary copy of Billings’ book at his request.

The first chapter–Walking in the Fog: A Narrowed Future or a Spacious Place?–Todd discusses how his future plans, in light of his cancer diagnosis, began to narrow. I would imagine–I know this was true for me when I received my diagnosis–that this experience is rather universal for those diagnosed with cancer. And yet Billings is clear that while his future plans became a future limited to living from day to day, he indeed still had and has a future hope that kept things open; indeed, it was lament itself where the future opened up as Todd’s gaze was able to turn from his immediate circumstances and upward to God in Christ. Billings writes:

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, rejoice, and also join are laments to those of Jesus Christ, who intercedes on our behalf (see Rom. 8:24). Jesus is no stranger to lament…. (p. 15).

And with this frame Todd Billings proceeds into the rest of his book to develop his theme of lament within the context of his cancer diagnosis, and his way into it as he sought to process it through the lens of Christ’s life.

Chapter two–Sorting through the Questions: The Book of Job, the Problem of Evil, and the Limits of Human Wisdom–does exactly what the title suggests: it engages with the problem of evil, and in particular taps into the book of Job to ponder the exploratory wisdom that this literature provides for the sufferer. I think this paragraph captures the gist of what this chapter works through:

Job is a powerful book that pushes us to reframe our urgent questions–identifying which questions are dead ends and which ones we should keep asking. Reading Job as part of the biblical canon along with the book of Psalms, there is no doubt that we ought to bring both praise and protest, trust and grief, before our God. Job brings all of these before God–including his raw grief and protest in the face of suffering. He laments in grief and protest against God. Later in the book, God testifies that it is Job who has “spoken of me what is right” rather than his friends who refrain from lament (Job 42:7). In the end, after presenting his case to God that the Almighty has been unjust, Job hears God’s response and is brought to the point of recanting his case. But Job does not confess lament as a sin against God, for it is not. Rather he comes to recognize the limits of human wisdom before the awesome face of the sovereign Lord: “I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes” (Job 42:6 NJPS). In his relenting, Job “admits that his own wisdom is limited; he bows to a God whose wisdom is limitless.” (p. 22)

Billings’ engagement with Job resonates with me, and my own cancer experience. I remember when I was in the thralls of my cancer, in the thralls of my chemo treatment that I had someone tell me (online) that I was in sin because I had expressed (online at my blog) that I was, at points, angry with my God and Father; that I didn’t understand why he was allowing this to happen to me, a thirty-five year old (at the time) young man with a wife and two young children. I didn’t understand why he would let me be diagnosed with an “incurable” cancer, and allow me to suffer in deep and unbelievable ways; painful ways, with fear of death crouching around the corner. This would-be counselor of mine told me that I was questioning the sovereignty of God when I expressed such ‘anger’ towards God–even though my “anger” was framed within the category of ‘lament’ and wonder at what God was doing; the reality was, was that I was still crying out to God, because I trusted him with my life. This is what so resonated with me about this particular chapter that Todd wrote in reference to his own struggle through these deep issues and types of wonderings. The conclusion that Todd comes to in this chapter, and the conclusion I came to was ultimately that God did not have to give me an exacting answer to my wonder, but he has given us something better: Himself!

You will have to read the rest of the book to experience the blessing of insight that it offers for cancer sufferers as they attempt to live in their cancer through Christ; you will realize that as you read it it is not just for cancer sufferers, but all sufferers (and thus all human beings). Just to keep things going, and to whet your appetite, here are the rest of the titles that make up the rest of the book:

  1. Lamenting in Trust: Praying with the Psalmist amid a Sea of Emotions 36
  2. Lamenting to the Almighty: Discerning the Mystery of the Divine Providence 55
  3. Joining the Resistance: Lament and Compassionate Witness to the Present and Future King 75
  4. Death in the Story of God and in the Church 93
  5. Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom 111
  6. In the Valley: Toxins, Healing, and Strong Medicine for Sinners 131
  7. The Light of Perfect Love in the Darkness: God’s Impassible Love in Christ 149
  8. “I Am Not My Own”: Our Story Incorporated into Christ’s 169

As you can see, just by the chapter titles, this book engages with a host of rich issues in relation to lament and understanding how to suffer as a Christian in the everlasting arms of a faithful and loving God. On that note I would be remiss not to mention one of the driving frames of Todd’s whole book; it is something that he started his Carepages entries off with from early on in his cancer process, and it is something that I think captures best the gist of the whole book in tone and character. Todd, from early on in his process, Reformed and Confessional theologian that he is turned to one of the richest Reformed catechisms available: The Heidelberg Catechism. Todd turned to the reality that this catechism confesses as a source of comfort, and I think we can all benefit from it in the same way.

Question 1. What is thy only comfort in life and death?

Answer: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ;  who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins,  and delivered me from all the power of the devil;  and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head;  yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation,  and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life,  and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him.

The sentiment expressed in ‘Question 1. & Answer’ encapsulates the whole gist of what Todd Billings develops throughout the pages of his book. In fact as you finish the book you will see that the very last clause of the book is indeed Billings quoting the ‘Answer’ to ‘Question 1’ from the Heidelberg Catechism; it serves as his anthem and confession before God, that as he walks through the shadow of death he intends to do so with this as his deep down resolve in, before and from Christ–a resolve that we would all do well to ask the Lord to allow us to walk with, even when faced in intense ways with our mortality.

General Impression

As a fellow sojourner with Todd, one who has also walked in this particular shadowy valley, I can say that Billings’ book is what the soul thirsts for; even if it doesn’t know it, in the moment. When I was in the heat of my cancer, not knowing what the outcome was going to be, whether I was actually going to live or die, having Todd’s book at hand might not have had the impact that it has had upon me now (as someone who has currently survived my “incurable cancer”). In other words, as a sufferer, depending on what stage you are at, and what level of lucidity you have at the moment (because of your treatments, or even your fears), Billings’ book may or may not have the capacity to penetrate your heart. But even if it doesn’t now, it will later.

Nevertheless, if you are suffering with cancer, or are a family member or friend of someone who is, I would implore you to take Todd’s book up and read. It is a rich theological resource for those who are suffering, especially from the ills of cancer; and its pages are full of hooks where you can hang so many of your wandering questions in the season you are facing, personally, or as a family member or friend of someone who might be facing cancer (or other sufferings). As Todd made clear over and again, ultimately, when we suffer through things like cancer, and we are filled with questions, or even just voids where we are just groping, or just sitting there in absolute unbelief and shock with the reality of what is happening, we can cry out to God who might not answer us in the way we would like him to, but he will hear our cry and he will meet us in the cry.

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