Rejoicing in Lament

Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ

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About

At the age of thirty-nine, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable cancer. In the wake of that diagnosis, he began grappling with the hard theological questions we face in the midst of crisis: Why me? Why now? Where is God in all of this? This eloquently written book shares Billings's journey, struggle, and reflections on providence, lament, and life in Christ in light of his illness, moving beyond pat answers toward hope in God's promises. Theologically robust yet eminently practical, it engages the open questions, areas of mystery, and times of disorientation in the Christian life. Billings offers concrete examples through autobiography, cultural commentary, and stories from others, showing how our human stories of joy and grief can be incorporated into the larger biblical story of God's saving work in Christ.

Contents
1. Walking in the Fog: A Narrowed Future or a Spacious Place?
2. Sorting through the Questions: The Book of Job, the Problem of Evil, and the Limits of Human Wisdom
3. Lamenting in Trust: Praying with the Psalmist amid a Sea of Emotions
4. Lamenting to the Almighty: Discerning the Mystery of Divine Providence
5. Joining the Resistance: Lament and Compassionate Witness to the Present and Future King
6. Death in the Story of God and in the Church
7. Praying for Healing and Praying for the Kingdom
8. In the Valley: Toxins, Healing, and Strong Medicine for Sinners
9. The Light of Perfect Love in the Darkness: God's Impassible Love in Christ
10. "I Am Not My Own": Our Story Incorporated into Christ's


Endorsements

"J. Todd Billings has written a book that stands in a long line of distinguished books written out of deep suffering and reflection in faith and for the church. This book is informed--or better, formed--by the entire Bible, including those passages we often overlook. It is formed by the witness of the church, its history and struggles. It is formed by the mysterious, wrenching, and beautiful conversation between his own experience of incurable cancer and the Christian faith. Rejoicing in Lament is a profound witness to the gospel. I can hardly find words to express its intelligence, honesty, and richness."

Gerald L. Sittser, professor of theology, Whitworth University; author of A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed

"Good theology prepares us for suffering. Todd Billings has been giving us great theology for some years now. But in this book it is distilled through the rocky depths of an ongoing struggle with cancer. Every chapter brims with pools of insight, pointing us beyond platitudes to the God who has met us--and keeps on meeting us--in the Suffering and Risen Servant. This is a book not just for reading but for meditation and prayer."

Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology, Westminster Seminary California

"If you are looking for an abstract theological treatise on God's relation to human suffering, you will not find it here. In Rejoicing in Lament, Billings shares his intensely personal search for God's presence even in his own devastating illness. He responds to his unbidden suffering with a lament much like that of the psalmist. As a devout Christian, Billings seeks the blessings amid the curses of his disease. His Jacob-like struggle with the Lord ultimately blesses not only himself but also his family, colleagues, students, and readers. Rejoicing in Lament will touch and shape those who give pastoral care and will offer hope and meaning for all Christians who face great suffering."

Kathryn Greene-McCreight, associate chaplain, the Episcopal Church at Yale; author of Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness

"Courageous, revealing, sometimes raw--this book reminds us that lament is an act of faith and that faith is a communal treasure. Billings's testimony is that love is stronger than death. Unforgettable!"

Cornelius Plantinga Jr., author of Engaging God's World

"Weaving theological and scriptural reflection throughout the narrative of his struggle with cancer, Todd Billings gracefully models how to read one's life in light of Scripture and Scripture in light of one's life. Here there is no simplistic moralizing but a persistently questing witness to a God who is present in the midst of life-changing sorrow. To read with Todd is to join him in struggle and faith, doubt and hope, lament and praise."

Marianne Meye Thompson, George Eldon Ladd Professor of New Testament, Fuller Theological Seminary

"This profound and heartfelt book is hard to describe succinctly. It's an elegiac reflection on the pain illness and death bring to a family. A meditation on suffering guided by the cries of the Psalmist and the poetry of Job. An exposition of the importance of classical theism for the work of the pastor and the life of the believer. A critique of the trite sentimentality of so much of contemporary Christianity. A journal of the physical and mental effects of traumatic cancer treatment. Above all, it is a moving and deeply personal answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism, What is your only comfort in life and death? This book is for all Christians, for sooner or later we must all face the challenge of our own mortality."

Carl R. Trueman, Paul Woolley Professor of Church History, Westminster Theological Seminary


The Author

  1. J. Todd Billings

    J. Todd Billings

    J. Todd Billings (ThD, Harvard University Divinity School) is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several...

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Reviews

"Praying in 'the many keys of the Psalms,' Billings offers cries of anger and pain as an act of faith and trust. In entries from his online CarePages journal, he offers to family and friends theological reflections on his illness [multiple myeloma] and treatment, opening an intimate window into his faith journey. An exploration of complex, age-old questions about suffering and God's nature leads Billings to extol the beauty of mystery and the limits of human wisdom. . . . Along with disclosing his wrenching questions, fears, and hopes, Billings explores 'the ways in which God's story intersects with the cancer story.' His poignant insight into the role of lament in faithful Christian living makes this a work of both astute scholarship and powerful testimony."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"In his remarkable book . . . [Billings] presents an unflinching look at how life changes after a medical death sentence. In the same tradition as C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed and Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, Rejoicing in Lament is brave, honest, and probing. But this book has one important difference. Most writers in this genre look at death and dying through the eyes of a family member who survives. Billings surveys the same terrain, but through the lens of someone who is dying. . . . Billings is refreshing when he grapples with the cosmic questions that accompany suffering. . . . This does not mean that Billings strikes a note of uncertainty. He is a practicing Christian, in the best sense of the word. In his effort to understand the theological issues related to illness and death, Billings turned to the foundational texts of his faith, combining them with the elemental disciplines of the Christian life. . . . Rejoicing in Lament is both a comfort and a guide for all who labor along the same path as Billings does. It also provides insight to family members and friends of those suffering from cancer or other serious illnesses. Others will benefit from engagement with spiritual and theological reflection in the venerable tradition of ars moriendi (the art of dying). They will discover that we are all traveling in company with Billings--not as prisoners trudging through life under a grim sentence of death, but as pilgrims making our way to the house of God in the undiscovered country, singing Psalms of ascent."

John Koessler,

Christianity Today (5-star review)

"Buoyed by the psalmists, who trusted God in the midst of their anxiety, joy, anger, and suffering, Billings wrestles theologically with the daily realities and implications of his cancer diagnosis. His honest witness can help Christians avoid glibness or sentimentality in supporting those facing serious illness."

Amy Plantinga Pauw,

Christian Century

"One of the most compelling recent additions to the genre of theo-memoir is J. Todd Billings's Rejoicing in Lament. . . . In it this gifted Reformed theologian and married father of two young children graciously, gracefully weaves his struggles with being diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer at 39 together with probing biblical and theological reflection. . . . He chronicles his illness just enough to give us a sense of how awful it is, and then we witness his impressive theological commitment to situate his story within the much larger divine story. . . . Billings's courageous theo-memoir teaches us not only about living realistically and hopefully in the face of an incurable disease, but also about a contemporary theology of providence wide and deep enough to hold serious grief, anguish, hope, and trust. . . . [This book] required great courage to write, and it will leave any reader transformed."

Deanna A. Thompson,

Christian Century

"Rejoicing in Lament is a rich and balanced treatment of suffering, made personal and poignant by the author's suffering. It is a gift to the church, a word of grace dug out from deep suffering."

Peter Leithart,

First Things blog

"Billings's excellent new book . . . will go a long way in equipping us to endure and to minister to one another in more theologically grounded and helpful ways. . . . He isn't writing from a position of dispassionate analysis but rather from the cauldron, speaking openly and honestly of his experience. . . . Don't wait for a crisis to read this book--strengthen your faith now, even in a peaceful season, by building these truths into your soul. . . . Whether you are walking with someone who is suffering, you are suffering yourself, or you want to be prepared to suffer, Billings can lead and guide you to do so in a God-honoring way."

Ross Stern,

The Gospel Coalition

"As I read, I found not a distant theologian but a companion along the road of difficulties who was insisting on the full reality and paradoxes inherent in the hard parts of life. . . . The author managed to avoid sounding preachy, which is quite the feat for what's essentially a book on the theology of suffering. . . . The theological analysis was also helpful. As a scholar of communication, I was particularly pleased to see that this theology was one developed with a true listening ear, open to all the Bible had to say without reducing it or skewing it to one side or the other. That leads me to my favorite part of this book: its openness to paradox. . . . The depth of [the author's] theological reflections and training allowed me to trust his biblical analysis. . . . [Billings's] generous embrace of paradox opened space for the breadth of my own seemingly contradictory emotions. This book also is useful for helping others going through valleys. The author's honest yet kind assessments of the more or less helpful comments from his family and friends are useful in terms of assessing what to say and not to say to those who are experiencing suffering, and the book also makes a great gift to share with those who are going through trials. . . . [This is] one of the best books on faithful suffering I've read. Whether you're currently suffering or not, I encourage you to pick it up."

Deborah Leiter,

Perspectives Journal

"This is not a book to rush through and complete. It's a book that evokes empathy and awe, praise and lamentation. . . . Rejoicing in Lament is a robust, experiential, and deeply theological book of reflections on suffering and death. J. Todd Billings is suffering 'well,' and his authenticity, faith, and endurance point us back to the Triune God whose victory is love."

Trevin Wax,

Kingdom People blog (The Gospel Coalition)

"If I were a pastor, I would want my entire congregation to read [this book]. . . . This should be standard reading for all Christians, because all Christians walk alongside, and sometimes are, those who suffer. . . . What Todd offers us is a theologically rich book that can guide us through these topics with wisdom, sensitivity and depth. This book is such a gift to the church; it is a well-written book on a tough issue, where Todd's theological acumen comes through, but it comes through using his own suffering as the place to learn about God's activity among his people. This book is, truly, one of the most important pastoral texts of theology I've ever read."

Kyle Strobel,

Theology Forum blog

"One of the richest and wisest and most theologically profound books I've ever read on sickness, suffering, and death."

First Things

"Todd shares how he wrestled with [his] diagnosis in light of his Christian faith. It is intensely personal but also filled with important theological reflections drawn from Scripture and the church's historic confessions. . . . By all means, read this book. It speaks to a range of Christians--caretakers, counselors, and those experiencing cancer or loss. It witnesses to faith in the midst of deep lament."

Donald K. McKim,

Presbyterian Outlook

"With the kind of rich theological exposition that's become his trademark, Billings puts his theology to work, asking the tough questions in the face of deep physical and spiritual trials. Avoiding the thin and saccharine theology that comes all too easily from evangelicals in times of difficulty, Billings gives us a heartfelt reflection that takes the depths of suffering seriously, but even more so, Rejoicing in Lament looks to the expansive comfort and peace that can only be found in the presence of the Suffering Savior."

Mark McDowell,

Reformation 21

"What sets this book apart from other moving personal stories is the depth of Billings's theological reflection on his experience. There are many great testimonies of faith in suffering and many learned disquisitions on theologies of suffering but this book brings these strands together in a very personal but theologically rich exploration. . . . [Billings's] theological explorations are not simplistic nor slick, but bring insight and depth to our understanding of suffering and also of the Christian life by engaging with the big picture of Christian theology. . . . He seeks to make his ideas accessible to other sufferers and those who care for them. The writing is engaging and personal and the layout of the book is attractive. Along with its helpfulness for the intended audience, the book would make an ideal model for theological reflection for seminary students, and would be a valuable addition to the recommended books in any course on pastoral care."

Jill Firth,

Euangelion blog (Patheos)

"A beautiful, raw, and rich work that is hands-down the most important book I've read about pastoral care--even though the book is not explicitly written as a pastoral care guide. . . . Rejoicing in Lament offers a fresh perspective on prayer and lament that is sorely needed in the church. While wrestling with theological orthodoxy and what our beliefs about suffering say about our view of God, Todd Billings's book remains an accessible, helpful work for both the pastor seeking to come alongside those who are suffering, and for any Christian seeking to recover a biblical understanding of suffering and lament."

April Fiet,

At the Table with April Fiet blog

"Beautifully considered, carefully explored, and passionately articulated. . . . [Billings] has riveting excerpts of his personal journals offered as sidebars and pull quotes, making the book nearly multidimensional. It is a good, good read, if a bit demanding at times, and I cannot say enough about it for thoughtful readers. . . . I hope you get this book soon, reading it as a guide for your own struggles, or--if you are fortunate enough to not yet have had too many harsh waves surging over you--to read now while you can, to build a foundation for how best to cope, when that time comes. Rejoicing in Lament will offer very much for your life of discipleship."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog

"Billings is an excellent writer and profound thinker. But more than that, reading Rejoicing in Lament is an experience that brings readers along with Billings to number their days and to meditate on the greatness of God, even while suffering and facing death itself. . . . Rejoicing in Lament is one the best books that I have had the privilege to read and meditate on. Pastors, church leaders, those suffering, and any Christian who wants to learn how to suffer in Christ, or to walk alongside those who are suffering, should read Rejoicing in Lament."

Wyatt Graham,

Books at a Glance

"Students and pastors alike who are involved in questions dealing with human suffering will find Rejoicing in Lament a winning combination of autobiography and spiritual insight, tackling some of the biggest questions of faith and showing how the author emerged to some new realizations--and how fellow Christians can, as well. Poignant and analytical, it's an account that belongs in any Christian reading room."

California Bookwatch

"The most powerful aspect of Rejoicing in Lament is that it is not theology divorced from life. Billings reflections on lament, suffering, and the providence of God are in the midst of his story. With courage and vulnerability, he invites us into his questions, grief, and faith. This is theology at its best: incarnated."

Nate Pyle,

blog (natepyle.com)


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