I remember when I first heard that Todd Billings had incurable cancer. Before I led my class in prayer, I told them that besides being a wonderful man with a young family, Todd was one of the good ones, a blessing to the church that we could not afford to lose. We need him! Todd is humble and God-centered enough to disagree with that last part. But then he went ahead and wrote, Rejoicing in Lament, which kind of makes my point.
I won’t try to capture the rich, pastoral theology that Todd delivers in this book. After all, I’d like you to go read it for yourself, and pass it on to others who are facing their mortality. Here are seven takeaways for me:
- Worship with the people you want to bury you. This was just one of the insights that comes from a mind sharpened by the thought of impending death. Todd wisely says that when looking for a church, don’t go for the glitz and sizzle. Find a group of people you would want to attend your funeral and look after your family when you’re gone. Then join them.
- Life in a fallen world is messy. Todd often reminds us that we cannot make sense of cancer. There is no answer as to why God allowed him to get it. We’re better off not trying to know. Here’s what we do know: God is still sovereign over all, and our lives are in his hands. Todd begins and ends by citing what seems to be his life verse, and a good one at that: “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1).
- Impending death brings courage and clarity. Todd already possessed these before his diagnosis, but I was struck by how often Todd wrote that he didn’t have patience for theologies, such as open theism or Moltmann’s necessarily suffering God, that couldn’t help him in his time of need. The presence of death frees us to say it like it is. If we believe we’re going to die, we should follow Todd’s example.
- Impending death inspires prayer. In many ways Todd’s book is about prayer. He spends a lot of time in the psalms, especially the laments, which make up one third of them all. In light of that, Todd wonders why we don’t use them more in our worship services. Shouldn’t our prayers reflect what we find in Scripture? I noticed from Todd’s story that learning we are going to die dramatically improves our prayer life. Well, guess what? It’s likely that we all will die, so pray away!
- We respond to this messy, fallen world with the paradox of praise. This is the main theme of the book. Todd laments because of sin and death, yet he rejoices in the hope that Jesus has conquered it. Even his lament is a sign of praise and hope, for it assumes that God remains sovereign and good. He wouldn’t cry out if he thought this fallen world is the way things are supposed to be.
- There is no right way to minister to a person who is dying. We need to stop trying to say “the right thing” to make the person feel better. There is no perfect answer, in part because the person himself is experiencing a seesaw of emotions. At times Todd was feeling hopeful and trust welling up in God, while at other times he was near despair and wondering why him. Even when told that his cancer was in remission, Todd still felt a deep sadness. While people would congratulate him on the great news, Todd realized that he could never go back to his old life. He had entered a new normal, with regular checkups, “maintenance chemotherapy,” and the expectation that the cancer would eventually return. Todd expects to die decades earlier than he otherwise would. Even if he beats the odds and lives to his ripe old age, he would have done so with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head. No wonder there’s no telling how he’ll feel, or what he most needs to hear. Well, there is one thing.
- We must find ourselves in Christ. The sufferer may be unpredictably alternating between grief and hope, but one thing remains constant. Who we are is who we are in Jesus. When Todd was too weak to manufacture hope for his future, he simply hid in Christ. He put his trust in Christ, not his own efforts to be a “prayer warrior” or champion of faith. This point is what I’d expect from the man who wrote Union With Christ. It is encouraging to see Todd embrace the truths he so eloquently shared there.
I most appreciated Todd’s statement that Jesus is the pioneer of suffering, for his cross is the climax of the biblical laments (p. 154-56). This truth has encouraged me the most when writing about death and the problem of evil. We do not know the answer why Todd or any of us will contract cancer and die prematurely. But we do know that no one has suffered more from evil than God himself, in the person of his only Son. We cannot solve the problem of evil, but we know where the answer lies. And that is enough, for Todd and for you and me.
One day God will ask you, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Read Rejoicing in Lament, and take it to heart, and you’ll be ready.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of Rejoicing in Lament to participate in this blog tour. Even if I hadn’t, I would still tell you to get this book.