Professor John Swinton of Aberdeen University wrote the beautiful and insightful book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. I will soon be interviewing John. In his book, John says how much he was taken by this video:
From my forthcoming book, God, What on Earth are You Doing?
How Should We Live in this World?
As mentioned earlier, a proper understanding of trusting God through suffering does not preclude enjoying the good things of God. We can and we should. Since God does not need us, our celebrations, our hobbies like golf or woodwork, and our love of travel, can be tangible demonstrations of trusting in God’s grace. Unfortunately, these good things can also become unhealthy diversions that keep us thinking about the most important issues of life. Even gifts from our gracious God can lead us astray. We must guard against “perishing inch by inch in play at little games.”
We live in a world with easy access (thanks to media) to the never ending news of injustice, suffering, and evil. How do we process this avalanche of sadness without going mad? Years ago, I heard theologian David Wells say that only God is able to handle all the suffering and evil in the world. We were not designed for the constant bombardment of bad news, so it would be wise to consider how much we ingest on a daily basis.
Perhaps we should take the popular option of doing what Voltaire prescribed many years ago: simply hunker down and only “tend our own gardens.” Tending to our own affairs does seem to be a good way to maintain some semblance of sanity.
Recently, I preached in various churches from the book of Lamentations. Towards the end of my sermon preparation I spent some time reflecting on the common responses people have to suffering. I’m sure there are others, but I came up with three “D words”: detachment, diversion, and depression. My wife later added desensitized which could easily fit as a characteristic of those who detach.
The idea of “detachment” from pain is gaining popularity in everything from business books to popular books on spirituality. Diversion is also something we’ve already addressed. Again, diversions in and of themselves can be welcome respites from the constant onslaught of grief, but it is unhealthy to never face your struggles. The response of depression is something many of us can identify with. We look at our broken world in all its chaotic mess and we despair. Another “D” came to my mind later with diminish, where we downplay how bad things are. I think those as well could be plugged under the detachment option.
Jesus provides us the perfect example of how to handle the devastation that comes from acute suffering. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’s “soul was deeply grieved, to the point of death.” (Matt. 26:38) Jesus was deeply troubled, yet willing to submit to the Father’s will. If it is okay for the Son of God to be so troubled, we too are given much space to cry out to our God. Being baffled by what God is up to and yet still trusting Him can coexist. In fact, these are signs of spiritual health. Lament underscores that we are not at peace with the brokenness of our world, but we can still experience “the peace that transcends human understanding.” (Phil. 4:7; J.B. Phillips New Testament) What good is peace anyways if we only experience it when circumstances are to our liking?
The glorious news is that the ultimate lament of all time was given by Jesus on the cross. I like to say that because Jesus gave the only upper case L, lament, we now can “lament with hope.” Our laments can come from deep within. These visceral cries are not just allowed by our great and gracious God. They were modeled by Him!
It may feel like our world is crumbling before us, but the worst possible lament was already offered by Jesus. His lament on our behalf gives us confidence that our weeping will not last forever. The older I get I find myself offering two laments on a regular basis: “God, you know how difficult it is to live in this world, right?” and “Please come back soon and make things right!” I’m comforted by the fact that I have the full freedom to offer these prayers of lament to God.
Tragically, the cynic’s posture is one many take. It is important to realize that all cynics share a common, but terribly misguided belief: they think they are omniscient. This may sound very strange to you. How in the world does a cynic think he is all knowing? Let me explain. A cynic has determined that he knows everything, and concluded that all indeed is bleak. Nothing or no one seems to be able to change his gloomy assessment. Here is where theology gets practical. Only God is all-knowing. He is the only one who is fully aware of all the pain and suffering that goes on in our world. As we saw, God’s Son gave the ultimate lament for sin. Sin is the reason for all the grief in our world. The irony is that things are actually worse in one sense than the cynic can appreciate for cynics rarely consider their own sin. Fortunately, this is not the end of the story. The cynic has missed a massive truth: God is the author of hope. Biblical hope does not mean our life will be smooth sailing. This is clear from our study of Habakkuk. We can find rest, however, in the hope-filled promise that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom. 8:18) Lest you are tempted into a cynic’s mode by saying these words are unrealistic, keep in mind who penned them. The apostle Paul experienced great suffering. He was no mere theoretician when it comes to pain.
Christians can stare honestly at the brokenness of the world, their world (!), yet be steadied by a God who offers real comfort in Jesus. My prayer is that this study brings greater wisdom, joy, and confidence in the only One who is worthy of our trust. May we be like Habakkuk who learned that nothing or no one can take away “the God of his salvation.”
 See for example, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic: 366 Mediations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (New York, NY: Random House, 2016) and various writings of the popular writer on spirituality, Anthony de Mello. A profound book demonstrating the impossibility of mixing Stoicism and Christianity is C. Kavin Rowe, One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016).
 For the suffering of Jesus, I am grateful for a conversation I had with our son, David.
HT: David Black’s blog
Dones are those who still believe in Jesus, but are finished with church. Here is one perspective followed by my own reflection on why Dones exist and are growing:
HT: Tim Challies
Lots of wisdom in three minutes: https://vimeo.com/35598949
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. He is an award-winning author of various books including Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/union-with-christ/327520.
Todd’s latest book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/rejoicing-in-lament/349560 framed this interview.
Moore: Please give our readers a sense of why Rejoicing in Lament is not the kind of book you thought you would ever write.
Billings: At age 39, married and with two children ages 1 and 3, a diagnosis of incurable cancer seemed unimaginable. I never imagined that I would write Rejoicing in Lament because it’s not how I imagined my life-story. Of course, throughout my life I’ve imagined all sorts of possibilities about my death. Reading novels and watching films can make you go there. But a cancer diagnosis is an odd way to enter into dying: it’s a bit like a death-sentence, but one that may come soon or relatively far down the road. It’s unpredictable.
After my diagnosis, my feeling was not of self-pity, as much as of lament. I lamented for my children in particular. My prayer was an adaptation of Psalm 102: Why, O Lord, would you take away their dad midcourse through their childhood? I’m incredibly grateful for the gift of life, and the goodness the Lord has lavished upon me in 40 years. I recognize that many people never live to 40. But my love for my family drove me to lament.
Lamenting with the Psalms led me down a path that I never expected to walk. The psalmists led me to ask questions like: “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14) What are we to make of apparently “senseless” suffering and death, in light of God’s promise? And ultimately: how do our stories of suffering — with all of the broken edges — fit into the story of God in Christ? These are not abstract questions, but ones that I asked with urgency in the early days of my diagnosis and they are the questions that guide the pages of Rejoicing in Lament.
Moore: From my own ministry and personal suffering I know that no two sufferers are identical in what best brings comfort. We all desire compassion and a confidence that there is “a bigger purpose,” but how that is all conveyed varies from person to person. For example, some people want to talk about things while too much talk exhausts others. To further complicate matters the same person can be encouraged one day by something, which another day brings discouragement, even anger. Help us to better navigate these tricky waters.
Billings: Each path of suffering is its own. For some, the suffering comes through a traumatic event. For others, it’s the dripping faucet of anxiety, eating away at one’s well-being day by day. So, we need to get over the idea that there is one “perfect thing to say” to anyone who is suffering, because the paths of suffering are diverse.
So, my general advice is this: Be present. Listen. Pray. And pray, specifically, with the Psalms. Don’t try to be the hero to someone who is suffering by trying to fix everything yourself. And don’t assume that the person just wants to weep or mourn. They may want to laugh. They may want to tell stories about good times, or make jokes. You won’t know if you set the agenda for the conversation and fail to be present and listen first. After my cancer diagnosis, my own feelings were beyond my own ability to express. I was incredibly grateful for each moment; and yet I was overwhelmed with the physical and emotional effects of the intensive chemotherapy. And yet simultaneously I was also lamenting for my family. Paul says we are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). I used to think that the rejoicing and the weeping are two different sets of people. But for many who are suffering, they are both at the same time.
Pray. We cannot handle a calamity on our own. Advice won’t fix a crisis. And talk can be cheap in the end. Praying on behalf of someone else is an incredible gift, bringing them before the Almighty even if they may feel too weak or overwhelmed to go there by themselves. And pray the Psalms. The Psalms keep us away from prayers that can sound cliché or sentimental to the sufferer. They are the real deal. They come before God in trust in a way that brings our whole, complex range of emotions into the presence of our gracious Lord.
Moore: You make it clear that we need to disabuse ourselves of thinking there is a satisfying answer to suffering this side of eternity. Job, of course, makes that case quite convincingly. In light of our limited understanding, how do we cultivate confidence that God truly is loving, kind, and has our best intentions in mind?
Billings: I work with the problem of suffering, or the problem of evil, in several chapters in the book. In sum, I think that scripture teaches that we should not give a theoretical answer to the problem. The answer lies beyond human wisdom. In saying that, I’m not saying, “the Bible addressed it, but didn’t come up with an answer.” No. I’m saying that as the Bible addresses the problem of evil (in the book of Job, for example), we are taught that we should not pretend we know God’s mind about why he would allow evil and suffering.
Instead of a theodicy, scripture gives us a prayer book. The Psalms shape our response to evil through laments, which focus our eyes upon God’s promise to make things right, even when things are a mess and through thanksgiving, which rightly recognizes that we are not “entitled” to good things, but the goods of creation and redemption come from the gracious hand of God. I think that we cultivate our confidence in God and his promise through prayer, through worship – feeding upon Christ by Word and Sacrament in community – and through compassionate service. As I say at one point in the book, “we should not pretend that we are the authors of history who can say what reasons could possibly justify this [evil]. We don’t know. But there is one thing that Christians know without a doubt: that suffering and evil require our compassionate response.”
Moore: Pardon the length of my thoughts here, but I think it is necessary for this one.
The best teaching I’ve heard on Job came from an agnostic Jewish scholar. He was perfectly fine leaving the loose ends hanging. Too many evangelical preachers I’ve heard like to underscore how it all worked out in the end for Job because he got his health back, lived a long life, and had ten more children. Those certainly are wonderful things that should not be diminished. Even the commentary in Job underscores that with the final line of “And Job died, an old man and full of days.” But mystery remains, right? Why did Job have to go through all of this suffering? Who is excited about losing their present children for a new batch? Not me. So it seems we Christians can presume we know a whole bunch more than we really do.
Billings: The book of Job should cut through our pretensions that the righteous do not suffer unjustly. (And of course, the life and death of Jesus should break through that pretension in an even more powerful way!) Even at the end of the narrative, Job has no idea of the “reasons” as to why God could allow this evil to befall him– and neither do the readers of Job receive a reason. But in many ways, that’s the point.
Postulating “God’s reasons” for allowing suffering is moving beyond human wisdom. It’s dangerous. It forgets that God is God and we are not. And in the midst of my own cancer journey, when people have said “this must be the reason God has allowed the cancer,” it has not encouraged my life of faith. We don’t know. We want to know. But we don’t know why the Almighty, good God has allowed suffering that appears senseless. To admit this is not a statement of unfaith – as the Psalmists remind us repeatedly – it’s a sign of trust to admit the limits of our understanding and to bring our questions and complaints to the Lord. In the words of the complaint of Psalm 73: “Such are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.” At the end of the Psalm, the psalmist declares in trust that the Lord will set things right. That is our trust and hope. But things are not yet right, and the Psalmist doesn’t know why.
Moore: Job’s friends were at their best when they silently sat with Job (Job 2:13). Unfortunately, they went from compassionate friends to presumptuous theologians. I tend to think that Job’s friends were more mature spiritually than many of today’s Christians. If I am remotely close in my assumption, then how can we be wise in the counsel we receive, especially during times of suffering, when we are the most vulnerable and impressionable?
Billings: Yes, at the beginning of Job, his friends show astonishing solidarity and wisdom: “They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (2:13) Things went downhill from there. I think that there is a place for talking with the suffering – especially for prayer, and the Psalms, as I noted above. But that’s after first being present to the sufferer and listening to them. Ultimately, the goal of our care of the suffering should not be the opportunity to share our clever theological ideas. The goal of our care of the suffering should be the same as the goal of all of the Psalms: to honestly bring who we are, with all of our confusion and turmoil, before the face of the Almighty.
Moore: Years ago, I read A Sacred Sorrow by Michael Card. One of my marginal notes reads, “American Christians know how to cry, but not lament.” In my estimation one of the most important truths you underscore is that Job’s repentance did not include repenting over his lament. Unpack that some for us.
Billings: In the book I draw upon Ellen Davis, Roland Murphy and others who translate Job 42:6 as a recanting of Job’s case before the Almighty, but not a repentance for lamenting. “I recant and relent, being but dust and ashes.” In the words of Carol Bechtel, in this act Job “admits that his own wisdom is limited; he bows to a God whose wisdom is limitless.”
The irony is that rather than rebuking Job for his lament, God twice declares that Job’s friends – who are trying to defend God – “have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7-8). God judges the friends for the presumption of speaking for God in a way that assumed Job was somehow to be blamed for his own suffering. Thanking God, lamenting to God – those are healthy human, creaturely things to do. Giving a theoretical theodicy which claims to know God’s reasons for suffering – that is sophistry based on a denial of our finitude and creatureliness. As I mention in the book, I think that there can be a place for a “defense” of the basic rationality of the Christian faith, showing how it can be rational to believe in a good, almighty God even if we don’t know the reasons for evil. But giving a theodicy proper which claims to actually know God’s reasons for allowing evil is dangerous – to our relationship with God and with others. Instead of joining Job’s friends, we can join the Psalmists in bringing grief and protest and joy and thanksgiving before the God of the universe.
Moore: Your book does not shrink from describing the raw realties of suffering. Like parallel train tracks, it also makes clear that we can truly trust God in the darkest places. Thanks Todd for writing both an honest and hopeful book!
Pray for Todd: I asked Todd how the Jesus Community could pray for him and here is what he shared: I would welcome anyone to join me in praying Psalm 27, praying that God would continue to graciously show his face to my family and me as we continue to struggle with the enemy of cancer, and I undergo chemotherapy treatments as I teach and write.
My interview with the author of Spurgeon’s Sorrows:
A story is told of Carlini, the Italian actor, who, being the subject of heavy depression of spirit, applied to a French physician and it was recommended he attend the Italian theater, and, said the physician, “If Carlini does not dispel your gloomy complaint, your case must be desperate, indeed.”
The physician was not a little surprised when his patient replied, “Alas, Sir, I am Carlini. And while I divert all Paris with mirth and make them almost die with laughter, I myself am dying with melancholy.”
How empty and insufficient are the amusements of the world! Even in their laughter their heart rejoices not. Miserable comforters are all those who would drown seriousness in wine and merriment.