HT: Tim Challies
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.
Psalm 46:10 is a wonderful verse, but take some time to meditate on the entire chapter AND BE ENCOURAGED!
46 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
6 The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Tom Morris (picture above) is a former professor of philosophy at Notre Dame. Tom now travels the country speaking to business groups on the wisdom of the ancients. I have corresponded with Tom over the years. He is a terrific guy with a generous heart.
Here is Tom’s post on the importance of putting others first:
I’ve met two famous authors on airplanes, and their differences taught me a big life lesson.
I’ve traveled a lot for twenty years, sometimes flying on as many as 400 planes a year. I’ve met a lot of interesting people along the way, from every walk of life, and have had amazing seat-mate conversations with famous athletes, actors, producers, CEOs, trust fund kids, and thousands of people working in almost every job you can imagine. If they want to talk, we talk. And sometimes, four hours can pass like twenty minutes. But if they want to sleep or read or work, or maybe watch the latest blockbuster, I always have my own stuff to do, as well. And yet, I advise trying to start up a conversation, or giving one a chance. What you can learn as a result is truly life-enhancing, as you likely may know from your own experience.
Last night, as I tried to get to sleep, I found myself recalling two famous Christian authors I met some time ago on two different airplanes. One spent all our time together on telling me how great he was; the other, on telling me how great I was.
The first guy made sure that I and everyone around us knew how many books he had published, and how wild about his sales his publisher was, how spectacularly well his books were doing at Barnes and Noble, in particular, and on various bestseller lists, even regaling us with monthly sales figures and details about store placements in the big chains. Within fifteen minutes, I knew that he was number one seller in several categories, and how he could command the big stores to do his will in ways customarily thought impossible. I learned that he addressed huge multitudes and regularly signed books until his hand almost fell off.
The other guy, I had met briefly when I was a college student, many decades ago, when I had attended one of his talks, and he was already a pretty famous speaker and writer at the time. Over the years, he had continued to build a following. When I recognized him and said hello to him on the plane, he stared at me for a second and then said, “I remember you from your college days.” I said, “Really?” I was shocked. He must have met a million people along the way. He said, “I’ve been following your work as a philosopher and hold it in high value. I’m really proud of you.” I was astonished that he remembered this southern kid he once met long ago, and that he had actually noticed what I had been doing with my life. I was floored. And, of course, gratified. I hardly knew what to say. He then wanted to know more about my life since we had first met.
Lest you try to guess identities, I should quickly point out that neither of these guys was or is a pastor at a mega church. But both have sold a lot of books. Of course, I can give you exact sales numbers for only one of them. The lesson for me was simple. I was deeply alienated by the guy cared so much about his own success and deeply touched by the man who cared so much about me. And I’m pretty sure my reactions were entirely normal. Let’s always try to remember that, Ok? Let’s be like the guy who was in the end more eager to ask than to tell, who cared about other people more than his own eminence.
A little success can blow us up like hot air balloons. We have to be careful about it. I could tell you more stories about this same contrast of attitudes in other famous people I’ve met along the way, but then … I’d start sounding like the wrong guy. So, instead, let me ask about you.