What do you do when you or a loved one are diagnosed with incurable cancer? It is bad enough to have to face cancer at any age, but what if you or they are young? J. Todd Billings was thirty nine years old when he was told that he had a cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma. Two years later after enduring a bone marrow transplant and chemo-therapy (which he will be on the rest of his life), he has written a record of his reflections on his illness, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ. He is uniquely qualified because he teaches Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan and has an earned doctorate in theology from Harvard University.
He begins and ends his moving testimony with the Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and in 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.”
He began to chronicle his experience and reflections on Carepages, a blog site for those who want to update family and friends as they struggle with illness, and includes some of them in his text. One of his biggest concerns was the effect his illness and premature death would have on his two young children.
He embraces the Psalms as companions for his journey, especially the laments. “The Psalms have been my daily companion for years, but since the diagnosis, they have taken on special power.”
He sorts through his many questions using as a resources the book of Job, and explores the problem of evil, and the limits of human wisdom. Many of his fellow Christians did not know what to do when he expressed sorrow or loss or talk about death. We do praise and thanksgiving better than lament and grief. The prayer support of his church was welcome but he had a problem with people praying for ‘complete healing’ or a ‘cure’ when he knows that his cancer is incurable. The oncologist had insisted that it may go into remission but “it will come back.” He believes in healing but is also aware of God working through the medical team. There is a helpful section on how we should pray for healing. We don’t need all the details of the medical condition and treatment to pray effectively. We are not instructing God what to do. The path of true salvation is through the Cross. We should not seek to bypass the Cross to come to Glory.
He explores the two dangerous extremes: Fatalism and Deism (that the World is not in the Hands of God) and the distinction between the active and permissive will of God. This discussion of the doctrine of Providence is precious since it is in the context, not of abstract theorizing but of his personal experience.
Doubt and depression are also dealt with honestly as he faces the reality of death and dying. He criticizes the trend on modern worship to distraction and diversion from death and dying. “Praise bands and songs of triumph seem designed in form and content to distract worshippers from life’s more difficult realities.”
The wishes of friends that they he do well and look better, and “When will you be back to your old life?” set him back with their denial of the reality of his condition. He was not feeling better each day. He sometimes felt worse. He would never return to his old life.
This is a serious book but it is not depressing because it is infused with the Gospel hope and the love of Christ. This man may have his life cut short by cancer (they give him ten years!!!) but already he has used his affliction to bless others through this memoir and theological meditation on suffering.