I’ve read many books and articles dealing with loss and the Christian faith. While some of these have addressed core questions, most offer glib advice and cliches. A notable exception is Jerry Sittser’s A Grace Revealed, which combines his own grief with his faith in a way that is both authentic and enlightening. Add to the list of essential works on grief and our faith, Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. Billings uses the Psalms as the basis for exploring his own diagnosis of multiple myeloma at the age of 39, and the result is a call to believers to embrace lament as part of their faith. Well, it says much more than that. Still, finding someone who shows how scripture gives us permission to mourn, rage, cry, and beg to our God, in the midst of the covenant relationship, is inspiring.
I’m not a theologian, so I’ll leave the deep theological arguments to those better equipped for such a discussion. I approach the book as a Christian father who lost the youngest of his four children to neuroblastoma cancer. A father who watched helplessly for nearly three years as the disease killed his little boy; a father seemingly helpless to help a family move forward after losing their son. Billings has my attention early on as he addresses the question of evil in the world. So much of what we think revolves around the question, how could this happen? How could God allow my little boy to die? How could God allow a young father to develop an incurable cancer? Any explanation of this that I have seen falls dreadfully short of a satisfactory answer. Personally, I expect no answer and have to come to see my lack of understanding as my inability to comprehend God. Billings, I was thrilled to see, agrees.
“…in my view the biblical ‘answer’ to the speculative problem of evil is this (drum roll, please): we don’t have an answer. It’s not that the Bible hasn’t addressed the question so that we as humans are left with a shoulder-shrugging ‘I don’t know.’ The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response–as in the book of Job–is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one. It should remain an open question, one that we continue to ask in prayer and in our lives in response to the world’s suffering”(21). [Although I will not go into detail here, Billing’s exploration of Job in Chap. 2 should not be missed].
Billings sees this question laid bare at my son’s funeral. Our priest, Billings writes, repeatedly said “God has called Oliver to himself,” and “God has chosen to call Oliver at this time.” Billings response to this is honest and insightful. “Wow. A part of my heart cried, ‘Surely not!’ …The priest was confessing that God is sovereign King even in the suffering and death of Oliver. There was sting to this–implicating God in the struggle with Oliver’s cancer and his death at a young age–but also a reassurance. The sting is the theodicy question as an open question. It hurts. The death of a child is not the way things are supposed to be–why did God allow this to happen? Yet the reassurance is that Oliver did not just slip through God’s fingers. In life and death, Oliver was in God’s hands…We trust in the goodness and power of the Almighty, even though the reasons for the suffering are beyond human wisdom”(66).
Note that Billings does not say we should joyfully accept it as “God’s will” or just say “trust in God.” Instead, he challenges us to continue to bring the question to God in prayer. We must not ignore the question, but faithfully approach God for understanding in the midst of suffering. Billings refuses to let us retreat to a fatalistic approach to life. “We protest, lament, and act with compassion even when we are overwhelmed with the magnitude of the problem”(76). We are called to compassionate action in the midst of an evil world. We do this not because we can change the world, but because our faith calls for action in the midst of evil. “As our lips say ‘They kingdom come,’ we pray–and act–as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this ‘present evil age’ (Gal. 1:4)”(76).
and my bones grow weak” (Ps. 31:9-10)
Billings says that since his diagnosis, “I’ve found that many Christians know how to rejoice about answered prayer and also how to petition God for help, but many don’t know what to do when I express sorrow and loss or talk about death”(41). This is difficult for people in general, but as Christians it shows the limits of our faith. Are we afraid to acknowledge our inability to respond to grief with anything but lament? As someone who struggled through his son’s illness and death, I didn’t want assurances of his happiness in Heaven or God’s love. It is precisely because I love and worship God that I can cry out to him, and I want others to join me in that lament. That is difficult to do, and prior to my son’s illness, I failed others in that area.
This is not a pessimistic theology. Billings wants us to celebrate all that God has given us through praise and rejoicing. The Psalmists balance their laments with songs of praise. But they still lament. “A theology of the cross is not a joyless path but one with tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament” (177). In a wonderful passage, Billings shows how his moments of joy (his wedding, the arrival of a child) sometimes highlight times of lament. “You need to live as a mortal” (93). In doing so, we more fully recognize God’s sovereignty in all areas of our life.
Again, this brings us back to the theodicy question, and Billings points us to Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane. Jesus prays for the cup of suffering to be taken away. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death”(Heb. 5:7). God could save Jesus, and he chooses not to. God could have saved my son’s life, but he did not. God could cure Todd, but still he suffers. What does this mean? “The problem is not God’s lack of power, nor a deficiency in God’s love. The denial of Jesus’ petition does not arise from a failure to ask for another way than the cross or a lack of faith in the God of power and love. Jesus presents his heart to the Father in Gethsemane as a way to bring his will into alignment with the God of power and love who wills and works in mysterious, hidden ways: through the cross” (127).
Those seeing God as a vending machine — insert the prayer and get what you paid for, are at a loss when their prayers are not answered as expected. Billings says such an approach misses the understanding of Christ crucified. “We can open our hearts before our loving Father in prayer, but as we pray, we pray on a path toward a particular end: ‘Thy will be done,’ like our Lord did in the garden”(128).
This book is important for many reasons, but what strikes me most is Billings call for an understanding of lament in our Christian faith. “Lamenting with the psalmists is a practice that is counter to our consumer culture. Lament fixes our eyes on God’s promises and brings the cries of confusion and pain–our own and those of others–before the covenant Lord” (177). What Billings has given us here is the ability to cry out to God in lament, and know that we do so with the voices of all those before us. The psalmists show a people groaning in pain, but doing so with an understanding of God’s promise.