J. Todd Billings — An Interview (by David Moore)

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.

Todd’s latest book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ  framed this interview.   David George Moore conducted the interview.  Dave blogs at www.twocities.org.

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 realities 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. 

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