Reviewed by Wyatt Graham
Death confronted Todd Billings in 2012. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer, multiple myeloma, causing him emotional and physical turmoil, but it gave him an opportunity to serve the church. From diagnosis, through each stage of the disease, chemotherapy and even quarantine, Billings wrote Rejoicing in Lament. In it he intertwines his cancer story “with the exploration of a much weightier story—the story of God’s saving action in and through Jesus Christ” (ix).
Billings relates the many ways people responded to his cancer, but one person particularly helped him think through his cancer experience. A fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome wrote him a note: “Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!” (1). Billings remarks, “She did not say, ‘God will cure you of this cancer,’ or ‘God will suffer with you.’” (1). He finds comfort not in a cure or in God’s co-suffering with him but in God being bigger than cancer, a theme that courses through the rest of the book.
Rejoicing in Lament guides readers through Billings’ journey of discovery, as he intertwines his story with God’s story. He discusses deep theological issues through ten chapters, spanning such topics as the problem of evil and God’s impassability. Yet these discussions are not abstract; rather, his reflection is raw and personal. God’s impassibility provides hope for Billings’ cancer-ravished body and comfort for his depressed emotional state.
Due to Billings’ openness and vulnerability in talking about his doubts and despairs, I will not follow a regular pattern of review that begins with the book’s contents and ends with a critical evaluation. Suffice it to say, Billings is an excellent writer and profound thinker. But more than that, reading Rejoicing in Lament is an experience that brings readers along with Billings to number their days and to meditate on the greatness of God, even while suffering and facing death itself. I would like to invite you to consider a number of beneficial passages from Billings’ book.
Lament as Trust
Billings pays special attention to the Psalms throughout his work as they witness to prayers of lament in the midst of turmoil. Psalm 13, for example, exemplifies a lament to God: “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God” (Ps 13:3). As Billings points out, Psalm 13 ends with trust in God: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Ps 13:5–6). Psalm 13 helped Billings to understand that lament expresses trust in God, and yet this trust comes not from God rescuing the Psalmist from his problems or curing Billings from cancer: “The final declaration of trust is not dependent on having one’s situation fixed or immediately ‘resolved.’ Indeed, trust in God’s promises underlies the whole of the psalms of lament” (45).
As a cancer patient, one may cry out to God and plead with him to fix everything, to cure one’s disease. But such cancer patients should also embrace the lament Psalms, which encourage one to trust God, even when sickness and turmoil remain.
Facing Our Mortality
One challenge to reading Billings’ book is that readers must come face-to-face with their own mortality: “You need to live as a mortal” (93). Billings bemoans a culture that all but ignores death. The church counters a death-denying culture by witnessing to human mortality: “For some young people, the church is one of the only places that they are exposed to death in a real, personal way” (99). In the church, a person makes relationships that last for life, even to the end of life. Yet the church bears witness to our mortality in another way—the symbol of baptism.
“As I write this, my stomach is covered with bruises—blue, yellow, red, black,” writes Billings (101). These bruises were self-inflicted, as Billings injected himself with medicine. His bruising represents an experience of the “reign of death” (cf. Rom 5:21), but it also promises hope through the symbol of baptism. Baptism reminds Christians that if they die with Christ, they will surely live with him too (cf. Rom 6:8–9). The sign of baptism provides hope for frail cancer-ridden bodies, and for everyone whose life is hid in Christ. Sometimes hope is all that is available to those who suffer, hope that God will raise them up to life.
As Billings reminds us, we cannot always know why we suffer or what will happen: “It’s not your job to tie up the loose ends. It’s not your job to make sense of everything. Your life is hid with Christ in God: Let it be your highest act of faith and faithfulness to leave it there! Leave the ambiguity of discipleship at the cross. Let God gather up the fragments. Let God finish the story” (109).
The classical doctrine of impassibility, which states that God does not experience emotions as humans do, sounds like it would bring no practical comfort at all. When Billings considers that impassibility speaks to God’s ability to control his passions, it seems ever more unlikely that such a doctrine could help a cancer patient, a suffering person. Human passions such as love and faithfulness often flicker at the slightest gust of wind. Not so with God.
Billings finds no comfort in the idea of a God just like us, whose passions ebb and flow as he experiences life. Instead, God is a being whose love always remains true and steadfast, providing a foundation of comfort a distressed soul (158).
Although God cannot experience suffering, the mystery of the incarnation draws him into our experience, through the human sufferings of Jesus Christ. Rather than a “vague abstraction” of God’s feeling our pain, God has concretely incarnated himself in the person of Jesus: “This God who takes on our suffering in Christ in order to heal it is steady in his love even when I am not” (167). In Jesus, the Triune God has experienced sufferings and the second member of the Trinity has even experienced human death. The impassible God has experienced every facet of our suffering in Christ, and, while being free from fickleness, God faithfully loves us even in the times when our love proves unsteady.
Rejoicing in Lament is one the best books that I have had the privilege to read and meditate on. Pastors, church leaders, those suffering, and any Christian who wants to learn how to suffer in Christ, or to walk alongside those who are suffering, should read Rejoicing in Lament. Billings guiders readers on a journey of sorrow, pain, and ultimately joy in a God who is bigger than cancer, bigger than any of our pains and bigger then any of our stories.
Wyatt Graham is a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.