Few words have the power to chill the soul as does cancer. Combined with terminal, the effect is both exponential and surreal.
It is trite to say that a cancer diagnosis will change your life. Hearing these words from a doctor is profoundly disorienting, more like an out-of-body experience than a medical judgment. Once the sentence is pronounced over us, like some strange and terrifying sacrament uttered by a priest, we are never the same.
At age 39, theologian J. Todd Billings was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer. In his remarkable book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos Press), he 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, someone whose landscape includes both “a narrowed future” and “a spacious place.” It is territory marked by fog and light, sorrow and joy. Billings wrote the book during various stages of his treatment, and its contours reflect the shape of a journey that isn’t over.
At the outset, Billings and his wife decided to be candid with those who asked about their experience. “There are risks with that kind of sharing, as cancer patients know,” Billings observes. “Our culture often suggests that we are ‘entitled’ to a long, fulfilling life, and if that doesn’t happen, there must be someone to sue, someone to blame.” Because Billings is both a theologian and an ordained minister, he looked to the Bible for markers to aid his journey through this strange land. The Book of Job helped him find his place in God’s story. The Psalms of lament provided the soundtrack for the journey. This stark combination provides a much needed dose of sobriety and depth, as anyone reeling from a cancer diagnosis will tend to be suspicious of the spiritual platitudes offered up by well-meaning believers as well as the victory dances of cancer survivors.
Billings is refreshing when he grapples with the cosmic questions that accompany suffering. “I recall how I did my best to search for a ‘cause’ for my multiple myeloma cancer shortly after my diagnosis,” he writes. “Intuitively, it was a pressing question. What did I do to ‘deserve’ this?” Billings rightly concludes that God’s response is often silence. “Our theodicy question—which demands to know the causal reason for ‘why’—is left unanswered.”
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. He read the Scriptures, prayed the Psalms (particularly those of lament), and reflected on the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but that I belong—in body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
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 is chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute. He is the author of The Surprising Grace of Disappointment: Finding Hope When God Seems to Fail Us (Moody Publishers).
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