Theologian finds joy amid incurable cancer diagnosis
In a classroom in Holland, Michigan, a 39-year-old man in a bowtie stands to deliver a lecture. Peeking out from behind his glasses, he surveys the eager students who have come expecting a lecture on theology. Instead, he tells them that he has just been diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer. J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod research professor of Reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and author of several award-winning books such as The Word of God for The People of God and Union With Christ. After being diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2012, Billings and his wife decided to be open with others about his condition. But they didn't know what they would learn through the process. The knowledge that he faces a "narrowed future" has raised fresh theological questions about life, death, and faith for Billings and taught him how to rejoice in the face of possible death. He has recorded his thoughts in a critically-acclaimed book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling With Incurable Cancer and Life With Christ. Here we discuss what he has learned and hopes to teach others in the time he has left.
RNS: How did being diagnosed with multiple myeloma raise new theological questions for you?
TB: The suffering that cancer brings can seem senseless. In the course of my chemo, hospital time and treatment, I knew other cancer patients who were beaten down by their cancer to the point of death. Why would God allow cancer to crush their God-given body? Where is hope for the families, and for the patients themselves? [tweetable]The suffering of cancer raises raw questions about God, life, and death.[/tweetable] In this context, theological clichés are not enough. So, with new urgency, I dug deeply into Scripture: the Psalms, Job, the gospels, and Paul. How are we to respond to apparently senseless suffering? How can we affirm that God is King when children lose a parent to a mysterious disease? What does it mean to pray “thy Kingdom come” in a world that is a mess?
In exploring these questions, I found that an important part of my Christian vocabulary had been missing: lament.
RNS: How do you define lament and how is it related to praise?
TB: Biblical lament brings our grief and protest before the Lord in tenacious hope in God’s covenant promises. Nearly all Psalms of lament end in a declaration of trust and praise, after addressing God and bringing grief and protest to God.
Psalm 13 depicts this typical conclusion: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.” Of course, it starts out with protest: “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Yet even complaints like these are rooted in trust, hope, and ultimately praise. The Psalmist has his eyes on God’s promises. God has promised to remember his people – so why does it now seem like God is forgetting? God has promised to show his face to his people – so why does his face now seem hidden? Because the psalmists take God at his word, they lament and wrestle with God when his word does not seem to be coming to pass.
RNS: Speaking of the Psalms, you recall that John Calvin called them "an anatomy of all the parts of the soul." What's the best way to utilize the Psalms in times of lament?