The news came broken. Car crash. Overturned convertible. Care flight to Denver. ER. ICU. Broken neck. My friend Kari’s life had been forever altered during a casual drive in the country. In all likelihood, she’d never use her arms or legs again. What does one say in times of such tragedy? Baffled visitors drifted in and out of her hospital room. Some assured her of God’s miraculous healing; others mentioned dreams they’d had of her walking. Some prayed while others wept.
I remained silent. What words would suffice? I was angry—angry that God would allow so much life to be taken from my friend. And yet I knew God’s promises of abundant life. Without words to articulate this tension, I stumbled in the fog, suspended between my anger, my great sorrow, and my knowledge and faith in God’s promises.
This very tension between lament and God’s promises is the subject of J. Todd Billings poignant new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. In September of 2012, Todd, a Reformed theologian at Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan, was diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 39. With the revelation came the questions, quick and acute: Why me? How long? Does God owe me a long life? What about my young children? Billings had spent the bulk of his years devoted to the study of God and the difficult questions of the Christian faith. Now, he returns to these questions, not with the detached observation of a systematic theologian, but with the urgency of a man confronted with his own mortality and deeply acquainted with sorrow.
In Rejoicing in Lament, Billings explores the tension between “a genuine lament and a genuine rejoicing in God’s promises—promises that, as expressed in the Psalms, are the basis for praise, trust, and also complaint and lament; promises that find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, and life … while abundant, cannot be measured by a lifespan” (p. 6). Throughout the book, Billings intertwines his cancer story “with a much weightier story—the story of God’s saving action in and through Jesus Christ” (p. ix), showing us how to genuinely lament before God all the while rejoicing in His promises.
Billings, a gifted thinker and writer, is an able guide through difficult terrain. In ten chapters, he points the way through the “fog of uncertainty” that settles around us when calamity strikes; he tackles the “problem of evil” and why bad things happen to good people. (Spoiler alert: Christians don’t have the answer.) Billings argues that because of Christ, we can follow the script of the Psalms, especially the Psalms of lament, and “openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are” (p. 43).
I wish I’d had Rejoicing in Lament with me in Kari’s hospital room to help me navigate through my sorrow and my faith in God’s Word. It would have better equipped me both to grieve and to help my friend. Whatever adversity you may be struggling with—an illness like Todd or a season of loss—you will find great comfort and clarity within it.