There he was, my grandfather, lying in the hospital bed. His body ravaged by cancer and there wasn’t anything we could do about it. Seeing what cancer can do, albeit second-hand, made me realize that, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers…when he blows on them, and they wither” (Isaiah 40:23-24). Of all who know the ravages of cancer I believe J. Todd Billings tells it best in his new volume, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ.
In this story of cancer and life in Christ, J. Todd Billings shares the most personal and intimate details of his struggles through incurable cancer. He does this through a sampling of his CarePages site and his studies in the Scriptures. Here he candidly reveals his wrestling with God and the seemingly insurmountable question of why God would allow bad things to happen to those who love him. In light of his struggles Billings tells us, “At times I would cry out in grief to God; along with this, I would lament in protest to God for the sake of my young children. At times I responded in gratitude for–and awe of–all of the gifts that God had already given, even if my life were not to be extended much longer. God is faithful to his promises, and his loving gifts each day are lavish and amazing–and I sometimes sensed that deeply” (21).
The most touching portion of this text that stuck out to me was his understanding, as far as that can go, of the mystery of the providence of God. Even the most brilliant mind must come to the conclusion that we simply don’t know what God has planned for those who love him. He has not left that door open for us. When God’s people face the narrow path of God’s providence and do so in full faith that God is a covenant keeping God, we do not swerve to the left or the right–even if that means we must walk the very hard path of suffering.
“It is precisely out of trust that God is sovereign that the psalmist repeatedly brings laments and petitions to the Lord. Thus the psalms of lament are not like the grumbling of the Israelites in the wilderness, who displayed a lack of faith in God’s promises. Because of their faith in God’s sovereignty, the psalmists have high expectations of God; because they take God’s promises seriously, they lament and protest when it seems that God is not keeping his promises” (58).
J. Todd Billings has done something for the Christian that we dare not dispense with too quickly. He has given us an inside glimpse into the life of the suffering saint. He has shown us what it’s like to honestly wrestle with God in the midst of a culture that says along with Jobs wife, “Just curse God and die”. He shows us that the providence of God, though clouded in mystery, can be fully trusted. Through a look at the attributes of God and his character toward those whom he loves, we can take God at his word and fully stand on his promises.
I feel Billings’ pain, I can sense that his family is hurting, yet trusting. I join with Billings and echo his prayer at the end of this volume, “Christ is our life now in hiddenness. And Christ will be our life then in open glory. It will be clear to all that God is bigger than cancer and all of our other calamities. Thus whether we find ourselves in the darkness of the present time or the glorious light of the coming age, this good news is enough to bring us through; ‘That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ;”. Amen and Amen!