Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ

J. Todd Billings. Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015. 224 pp. $18.99, paper.

No one wants to hear the “C” word from their doctor. Especially if you’re in your thirties, have a promising academic career ahead of you, and hold a great position as a full professor of theology at an American seminary. That was Todd Billings, until during a recent sabbatical he visited his doctor and learned that he has incurable blood cancer—multiple myeloma—a fatal disease. Imagine his shock and disorientation.

Billings’s diagnosis prompted deep reflection, which gave birth to his new book, Rejoicing in Lament. One of the great virtues of this book is the way Billings reflects biblically and theologically on issues that we will all have in a time of loss. These are not detached reflections; he wrote parts of this book while he was in the hospital.

Rejoicing in Lament tackles questions such as: How can God allow fatal illness (the problem of evil); what is God doing (the mystery of divine providence); why don’t I get to live out the years of my life (the issue of entitlement); is God punishing me (retribution theology); how does my experience relate to abundant life in Christ (the role of suffering); how should we pray in the face of a terminal disease (the question of healing); and in what way does God know my suffering (the impassibility of God). Along the way Billings challenges many of the half-truths we are tempted to believe, such as: God just wants me to be happy (moralistic therapeutic deism); God always wants us to be healed now (health and wealth theology); God is not in control (open theism); or God can’t do anything to prevent this (fatalism).

As the title suggests, Billings introduces us to the biblical importance of lament. The American church seems to have little place for lament in worship or as a vital part of the Christian life. Many Christians do not expect to suffer, and we attend worship services that only express victory. We prefer messages that are “positive and encouraging,” unaware that there is a significant place for lament in Scripture, including a book called Lamentations and many psalms of lament.

“In my own experience,” writes Billings, “full psalms of lament have rarely been used in corporate worship. …Particularly since my diagnosis, I feel this as a stinging loss. While psalms of thanksgiving are wonderful, they are rarer in the book of Psalms than psalms of lament. Cherry-picking only the praises from the Psalms tends to shape a church culture in which only positive emotions can be expressed before God in faith. Since my diagnosis with cancer, I’ve found that my fellow Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many do not know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death” (pp. 40-41).

Billings found strength by immersing himself in these lament psalms, which gave voice to his grief, anger, doubt, and questions. He notes that biblical lament properly voices protest before the Lord, but in a believing way. Psalms of lament signal that it is proper for us to bring our deepest hurts and anxieties to the Lord as we groan and wait for the consummation of his kingdom.

Another prominent theme in this book which brings hope to Billings is our union with Christ (the subject of a previous work by the author). If we are truly in Christ, he is in us and we are in him; we are never alone. We are united to him at all points of his work on our behalf. We share in the reality and benefits of his death, resurrection, and ascension. We will share in his glorious future at his return.

Billings explains how his treatment for cancer involved chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. To fight the cancer his body needed “strong medicine.” In a similar way, he writes, Christians “find our medicine in union—union with Christ. … For as ones who have been united to Christ, the Great Physician and the strong medicine himself, we receive ‘a new birth into a living hope,’ an ‘inheritance’ as God’s adopted children, ‘that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’” (1 Peter 1.3-4) (p. 148).

Union with Christ, Billings reminds us, also means that our lives are not our own (he explores the rich question and answer one of the Heidelberg Catechism to drive this point home.) Our stories have been incorporated into the great drama of God’s gracious work in the world in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

In times of suffering and uncertainty we are tempted to sink in our own stories. They dominate our thoughts. But in Christ, we have a bigger, weightier story to look to. God is bigger than cancer, he says, which also means God is bigger than his own cancer story. God doesn’t annihilate his cancer story, but he envelops and redefines it, and folds it into the story of the dying and rising Christ. This is what brings hope and why it is possible to rejoice in lament.

This book is a helpful resource for anyone who is on a similar unexpected journey, especially with cancer. It’s for those asking hard questions who want to find strength and wisdom from Scripture. It is also a valuable guide for caregivers—pastors, counselors, and those involved in shepherding people through crisis. Churches will benefit by reading this book before they confront those crises.

Don Sweeting
Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando