I love recommending books. One of the main reasons, I suppose, is that I read a lot. But more than that, I have been incredibly blessed by key books suggested to me at important times in my life. As an author myself, I am amazed to hear when someone around the world reads something I wrote years earlier, and that my words somehow spoke deeply to them. But rarely do I say what I am about to about a book. If I were a pastor, I would want my entire congregation to read J. Todd Billings’ new book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Brazos Press, 2015). It is just that good, and just that pastorally important.
There are several things that make this book unique, not the least of which is that Todd really understands the key theological issues behind hard questions. More than that though, this is a book that wrestled through life with God in the toughest times, from someone who has had to walk through those times. Todd was diagnosed with incurable cancer, multiple myeloma to be exact, and has had to walk through the difficult questions that arise when life takes such a hard turn. There is so much to say about why this book is so great, but let me focus on the two key reasons I would want (and do want) everyone in my church to read it.
First, Todd addresses the unfortunate things Christians say to each other when things go wrong. Throughout the book we are given glimpses into the heart of someone who is facing death, and having Christians say the exact opposite of what he needed to hear, and, equally important, what is theologically accurate. You may think the latter is less serious, but it isn’t. Theological accuracy is especially important in times of trial. We need to be attuned to the kind of God we have – the reality of God with us – and the nature of the Christian life with this God. It is in times of trial that our vision of the Christian life is exposed for what it really is. And on a more personal note, I have watched Todd walk through this cancer from afar, and have been so blessed by his posture in the midst of it all. Here is someone who speaks with such incredible depth about life with God in the midst of suffering, that this should be standard reading for all Christians, because all Christians walk alongside, and sometimes are, those who suffer.
The second point of emphasis is Todd’s discussion of Lament. Lament is one of the lost arts of the Christian life. When confronted with evil and suffering, we often turn to a Stoic response, thinking that faithfulness entails suppressing our emotions, or we simply try to “solve” the problem of suffering to get God off the hook. Rarely, I think, do we become interested in solving the problem of suffering when we are in the midst of it. There, in that place, we turn our sights on God, often wondering why he isn’t showing up, or, perhaps, why he is doing this to us. Todd does a wonderful job of unraveling the issues related to suffering and suggesting another way forward (a much better way, in my mind). In lament, what we are offered is a way to cry out to God by following the example of the Psalmists who train us in this way of prayer. Rather than just complaining, lament is grounded in hope. Lament is fueled by hope in God, and a deep trust of his faithfulness and promises. One of the hidden realities of lament is that it gives us the freedom to hate what God hates, to name evil as evil, rather than, as we often do, put up with evil because we think a sovereign God must be enacting it. This is one of the many subtle lies that Todd exorcises in this book, but it is also, in my mind, one of the most important.
At the heart of our response to God in suffering is our view of God, and our view of how God relates to his creation. We often fall victim to superficial views on both of these points, and when we are hit with suffering our faith takes a blow that many don’t recover from. The reason I want our churches to read this book is that we need to be a people who can come alongside the suffering with real pastoral care. Too often people are told false things about God’s action, or are told that they can demand healing, or if only they had enough faith God would heal them. Too often we add spiritual and emotional abuse on top of suffering because we haven’t bothered to think well of these things. What Todd offers us is a theologically rich book that can guide us through these topics with wisdom, sensitivity and depth. This book is such a gift to the church; it is a well-written book on a tough issue, where Todd’s theological acumen comes through, but it comes through using his own suffering as the place to learn about God’s activity among his people. This book is, truly, one of the most important pastoral texts of theology I’ve ever read. We need to be a people who can care for those in pain. We need to understand the God of the psalmists who prods us to lift our suffering to him in lament. Read this book, you will not regret it.
To hear from Todd himself about the book, click here to see some videos.
To read more on the book, click here.