Saturday, April 21, 2018

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

Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in ChristRejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ by J. Todd Billings

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Profound theological reflections on biblical lament by a man who, sadly and gladly, has had to practice what he preaches.

In 2012, Todd Billings was diagnosed with stage 3 (out of 3) multiple myeloma and told he needed to start chemotherapy the next week. Todd was only 39 and had a wife and two very small children. Immediately, Todd went through intensely aggressive treatment to reach a first remission and then began continual lifelong retesting for the almost inevitable return of the cancer. Todd Billings has entered into deep suffering.

Todd Billings is also a theologian. A professor at Western Theological Seminary and author of several award-winning books on theology, Billings knows his Bible as well as systematic and historical theology. Rejoicing in Lament is the searchingly beautiful result of Billings’ suffering and theology coming together in profound harmony.

This book would be good even if you only got one of those two sides of Todd Billings. He’s a very good writer who draws you into his experience. When he was diagnosed, he began a blog about what he was going through and his thoughts about it. Many of the entries are sprinkled throughout the book. You feel his stinging pain. You wrestle with mortality. You ask the puzzling questions with him. You exult when the treatment works or when he reaches a new insight. It’s a very personal book. And yet he’s never overly dramatic or maudlin.

And the theology is top shelf. He explores the often ignored “sad” parts of Scripture–psalms of lament, the book of Job, the suffering of Jesus in the Gospels. His discussion partners are varied and rich–Calvin, the Heidelberg Catechism, Athanasius, Bonhoeffer, Plantinga, Dostoevsky, Brueggemann, Volf, Wright, Augustine, Aquinas, Barth, Lewis, Trueman, Vanhoozer, Luther, Kapic, Nazianzus, and Owen to name just a few with recognizable last names. He wrestles with theodicy, bitter providence, sickness, sin, the curse, negative emotions, death, and the nature of God. And yet it never feels like an academic exercise or textbook.

I don’t think I would have appreciated this book as I did, if I hadn’t gone through a scary illness myself with my perforated colon and abdominal surgery in 2015. I could easily identify with many of his thoughts on living as mortal creature before God. His feelings, his fears, his grief. For example in chapter 9, Billings writes:

Sometimes suffering feels like a free fall rather than a swing down to the valley on a rope that will bring me back up to safety. My doctors were delighted at my body’s response to the transplant, and I was giving thanks to God. I was thankful to be alive. I knew that many others (with cancer or other trials) have had much rockier roads than my own, and that in a matter of months I would be returning to ‘the land of the living.’ But to my own surprise, much of my deepest grieving came after this good news. I recall lying on my bed in the cancer lodge, crying aloud, when the thought came to my mind: my life would never be the same...As I thought about returning to my ‘normal life.’ I felt more alienated than ever. How was I to respond to ordinary questions like ‘How are you?’ and ‘How have you been?’ How was I to look toward the future–for my family, for my vocation? ‘My eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call on you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you’ (Ps. 88:9). I feared for my children, that they would lose their father midcourse in their childhood. The good news about my transplant didn’t take this fear away” (pgs. 149-150).
I had all of the same feelings and thoughts as I recovered from my surgery and it was compounded by the death of a dear friend. I appreciated how Billings didn’t ignore or deny or stuff these feelings and thoughts into a dark box in the corner of his psyche, but brought them out into the light of day and into the presence of God. Billings never pretends that there are any easy answers, but he also never gives in to despair or unbelief.

In fact, pulsing through (not over or around) all of the lamentation in this book is a true joy. Billings doesn’t offer any syrupy or saccharine sweetness, but he does offer a trustworthy God who is redeeming sinners remaking the whole world new. He presents Jesus who went before us in suffering–a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He reminds us that God is unchanging and perfect yet perfectly approachable with all of our fickleness, feebleness, and anguish. He holds out a God whose grace is sufficient even when we don’t have healing or answers. He prods us by both good theology and living example to say, “I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” What could be better than that?

I’ve dedicated myself to reading really good books this year, but I don’t expect to read a more profound, personal, and theologically rich book in 2018. Highly recommended.

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