At age 39, J. Todd Billings was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable form of cancer. A respected theologian, Billings was accustomed to wrestling with some of the hardest questions we can ask about God, goodness, and the evil and brokenness in this world. Yet in light of his diagnosis, these questions took on a new urgency. From the start, he and his wife decided to face this publicly for the sake of others in the church who were struggling with similar questions, and he was gracious enough to accept an invitation to share some of his story with the readers of In Touch Magazine.
Tell me a little about your diagnosis and how you unexpectedly came face to face with sorrow and lament.
I had just celebrated my 10th anniversary with my wife, and we had a lively 1-year-old and 3-year-old at home. My doctor called me into his office, but I didn't think much of it. I was feeling good overall—he had just run a number of tests to see why I kept on getting pneumonia. Then he hesitated and said an unexpected word: cancer. But “don't die until you're dead," he advised. Eventually, I found out that the cancer had already given me lesions in my hip, skull, and arm.
Our greatest grief was for our children. For my stage of the cancer, the median lifespan is five to seven years. I wondered: Why would God take away the father of my children at such a young age? What are the chances that I could live long enough to see my daughter enter high school? I joined the psalmist in lament: “O my God, do not take me away in the midst of my days, Your years are throughout all generations” (Ps. 102:24).
What does it mean for us to lament? How might the church incorporate lament into our prayers, teaching, and even worship?
Lament has been a staple for prayer and worship for Israel and the church throughout its life. In many parts of the world, it still is. In the American context, the black church has been crucial in keeping lament alive. But many Christians today have lost sight of its value. Laments—not thanksgiving—are the most common type of psalm. These are frequently referenced in the New Testament and prayed by Jesus Himself. But somehow, many Christians today think that they need to be happy and “victorious” all of the time. They may even associate lament with doubt leading to unbelief.
Laments—not thanksgiving—are the most common type of psalm.
Counter to this trend, I suggest that we should know the psalms by heart—through praying, memorizing, and singing. We should pray them both as individuals and as congregations. They give us words for prayer when our own words are not adequate.
What role have the psalms played in your life since your diagnosis?
The psalms have been my guide and close companion in prayer. They provide a path for coming before the Lord with all that we are—with our questions, with our grief, with our joy, with our anger. All of the psalms have one thing in common: They focus our trust upon God’s covenant promises. Some psalms rejoice, recalling God's mighty deeds and the evidence of His faithfulness. Other psalms lament, complaining to God about the mess that their writers are in. But it is not “grumbling” like the children of Israel in the wilderness. It is lament: bringing grief and anger before God on the basis of His own promise. Why has God hidden His face when He has promised to show His face? Asking the question before God is a sign of faith, of trust, of hope that one day God will set things right.
How have you asked your family, friends, and church community to pray for the healing of your cancer, knowing that there is no known cure?
God takes our own stories of suffering and loss and incorporates them into His redemptive story in Christ. We’re not the central actors: God Himself is.
I deeply appreciate the prayers that we have received. God receives them, and God is fully trustworthy. However, sometimes the prayers have left me feeling alienated. When people pray for a “quick-fix cure,” I’m honestly not sure what they are praying for. With my disease, even if all signs of it go away, I would still be on chemotherapy for the rest of my life. Praying for someone with incurable cancer is like praying for someone who has lost a limb: Yes, pray for healing; yet, also combine these petitions with lament. Otherwise, rather than praying as a brother or sister in Christ who bears another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), we can trample on each other’s losses.
You have said that God’s story is bigger than your cancer story. What does this mean for you?
This is the central theme of my recent book, Rejoicing in Lament. The theme itself came from a homemade card that I received less than a week after my diagnosis. In it, a 15-year-old girl in my church, who has Down syndrome, wrote, “Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”
She didn’t say, “God will cure you of your cancer,” or “God will provide a quick fix.” She wasn’t denying the loss, but she testified to a God who is greater: the God made known in Jesus Christ, who shows us that “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5).
I’ve come to see how God takes our own stories of suffering and loss and incorporates them into His redemptive story in Christ. You and I are not the central actors: God Himself is. But we have been brought into our parts of the drama as believers united to Christ, filled with the Spirit. Thus, even when our suffering seems senseless, we witness to Christ—who has walked before us in our suffering, and has removed death’s ultimate sting. Because of Christ, suffering and death will not have the final word.
Todd Billings is a professor of theology at Western Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015)—a theological reflection on providence and lament in light of his cancer diagnosis. He lives in Holland, Michigan, with his wife and their two young children.