Lament as Compassionate Protest

Christians don’t lament well. I am more convinced of this all the time. We know how to complain Printbut not so much how to lament. We lack the training in it for certain, but even when we try we can’t muster any energy for it without guilt. Guilt because we think we should have a cheerier disposition as evidence of our faith. Everything will be okay because God’s “in control”, right? We suspect that lament shows a lack of faith.

Guilt is not our only hang-up. I once spoke to a group of university students about Christian responses to evil, and I suggested that our first response is silence, followed by lament. I couldn’t read everyone’s response, the evening crowd had swelled beyond the capacity of the recital hall, but follow-up conversations showed another hindrance to lament: the perception of inactivity. Lament seemed too inactive, too passive for my advocacy-minded students. Where is the courage in lament? Where is the resistance? Where is the protest?

Todd Billings’ new book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ  (Brazos: 2015) is a desperately-needed primer on the language of lament as a feature of Christian life. It arose from Todd’s journey through his diagnosis and treatment of incurable cancer, and it has much to say to any of us painfully aware that things in our world are not as they should be. If its not cancer, then it is surely something else; none of us are immune from pain. How do we lament without guilt and without passivity?

Other reviewers in this blog tour have overviewed the book (read those here). I will focus more narrowly on Todd’s portrayal of lament as “compassionate protest”.

Lament names the world as it stands: broken, yet in the process of renewal as the kingdom of God expands within it. New Testament lament is found on the lips of Jesus, “May your kingdom come.” It is not a throw-away line. Praying “may your kingdom come” identifies – without flinching or hesitation – how things really are. There are dark, incomplete places in our midst in which your kingdom does not seem present; so we cry for the kingdom and in doing so lament its apparent absence. Children are sold into sex-slavery – “may your Kingdom come.” Totalitarian governments slaughter their own people – “may your kingdom come.” The earth groans under the weight of our misuse of it – “may your kingdom come.” Cancer ravages our bodies – “may your kingdom come.”

Passivity and inactivity could not be farther from such kingdom-oriented lament. It names our broken world in the same breath that it cries out for renewal and liberation. Such lament calls for action, and not only for God’s action but for mine. It calls for leaping into the wake of new creation as participants in Christ’s kingdom drama! “As our lips say, “Thy kingdom come,” Todd explains, “we pray―we act―as revolutionaries who protest against the darkness in this “present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Lament of this sort propels us into the fray even as it calls on God to remain faithful to his promises.

Our restless prayers of lament go hand in hand with compassionate protest until Christ’s kingdom has fully come…Until then, we protest against God’s enemies―death, sin, and the devil―as we bear witness to the present and future King, our God―Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We need to learn this language of lament. We need to learn it for the sake of our wrestles with pain, and for the sake of our companionship with others in pain. We have to learn the ways of unflinchingly naming our brokenness, our groaning, even as we unflinchingly call God to account. “God, remain faithful to your promise of renewal; may your Kingdom come!”

Todd would be the first to say that his language for lament isn’t his own. He learned it in the same place that we can, even if our journey doesn’t include cancer. In the Psalms we find the pattern for lamenting as our true selves. There we find the deep pattern of Jesus’ own prayers. He writes,

In lament we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that. We have been given the script of the Psalms for playing our part in the drama: we are confused, angry, and grieving people who have been given the privilege of crying out to the Lord as his covenant people. Indeed, we are actors who have been clothed with Christ by the Spirit in the theater of God’s drama. Because of this, we can openly admit our confusion, anger, and grief without worrying that it will be the last word about who we are.”

Thank you Todd for reminding us, with the vision of this book and the testimony of your life, that lament isn’t cause for guilt, nor is it passive. Your book is a gift to the church. May we, like you, fall in step with the Psalmist: “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8).

Rejoicing in Lament

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.Print

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.

When your friends write books

In the last month three friends have given me a copy of their most recently written book. Just moments ago, my friend and colleague Tom Bergler handed me his book, From Here to Maturity: Overcoming the Juvenilization of American Christianity. My response matched the one I had with my other two friends: “Wow, thank you so much; I can’t wait to read it!” But alas, I am deep in the weeds of my semester and probably won’t be able to touch any of these great books until Christmas recess. Still, I thought it would be fun to highlight them here, and after the New Year I hope to blog about each.

Following on the heals of his acclaimed The Juvenilization of From here to MaturityAmerican Christianity, Tom’s new book is a hands on guide for helping individuals and faith communities to grow in Christian maturity. Tom suggests that spiritual maturity, what he calls “basic competence in the Christian life”, is not only desirable but attainable, and throughout the book he offers a wealth of practical, research-based guidance for effectively fostering spiritual maturity in Christian believers and congregations. The problem with much North American Christianity, which he so carefully and effectively outlined in his previous book as “juvenilization”, is here addressed and accompanied with steps toward maturity.

Matt Heard is a long-time friend (way, way back), and his new book, Life with a Capital L: Life with a Capital LEmbracing your God-given Humanity, is a fantastically accessible and robust portrayal of life with Christ as redeemed humanity – full, true, authentic humanity in all its messy and beautiful physicalness. Talk of “spirituality”, the buzz word of contemporary religion, often has the effect of downplaying God’s commitment to physical reality, thus Matt writes, “When God brings me to life by his Spirit, the purpose is to enable me to be reborn into a new way of being human – a return to my original purpose of appreciating and living out the privilege and responsibility of being part of the Creator’s creation. My spirituality isn’t something to be developed in a vacuum; its not an isolated compartment of my life but a central part of being human. An engaged and healthy spirituality should breed an engaged and healthy humanity.”

Beloved DustKyle Strobel, my coeditor on Sanctified by Grace, just sent me his book, Beloved Dust: Drawing Close to God by Discovering the Truth About Yourself. It is a beautifully written book, and timely. Not unlike the beginning of Calvin’s Institutes, Kyle and his coauthor Jamin Goggin show the basic importance of grounding self-understanding in God’s understanding of us: “We live on borrowed breath. We are alive in the most profound sense of the word – filled with the very breath that spoke creation in being. Within this tension is a status that is regal but lowly, significant but insignificant, unique but ordinary. God looks upon humanity’s frame of dust and says, “I formed you, I love you, and I delight in you.” You are beloved dust.” “This vulnerable position,” they continue, “is, paradoxically, where life is found. Life is not found in hiding from God, in showing God that you are good or convincing him or others that you are valuable. Life is found in real, honest, and vulnerable relationship with the God who calls you his beloved.”

Virtuous Minds

Summer is over when faculty meetings begin! Today my division held our yearly colloquium, and with that (regardless of what the calendar says) Virtuous Mindsmy summer ended. Don’t get me wrong, our meeting is always an excellent time for reconnecting and learning from each other. I heard papers on a delightfully diverse range of topics: Open Theism, Karl Barth’s aesthetics, Paul’s journey’s in Asia, “blindness” in the Gospel of Mark, ministerial support strategies, and a tantalizing preview of Tom Bergler’s new book.

The subject for the morning discussion was Philip Dow’s Virtuous Minds. Released by IVPAcademic earlier this summer, it hits its target audience of parents, high school students, and educators dead on. Specifically parents and teachers of  high school students (and those students themselves) will find much for them here. College educators will want more detail and depth, fair enough. But they (we) are not his intended audience. That being said, Dow’s book provoked a vigorous and lively discussion about intellectual virtue at Huntington University. I also think every one of our freshman should read this book.

From my experience, intellectual tenacity and courage are the two virtues most embattled in our educational system in America. Dow’s concise definitions for both don’t say everything that needs to be said, but they at least get the conversation started: Continue reading

Holy War in the Bible (a review)

Guest Post: Dr. John Noble (Huntington University)

To the credit of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School,thomas_holy-war-in-bible the concern of two seminary students over “Old Testament divine war imagery in light of Christ’s call to peace” became a colloquium, which developed into a collection of fourteen essays published by IVP, Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an OId Testament Problem . Here I examine a few of the articles that most sparked my interest.

“Joshua and the Crusades”

Douglas Earl argues—I think persuasively—against Roland Bainton’s attribution of the Book of Joshua as a primary narrative for the mobilizing rhetoric of the Crusades (Maccabees apparently had a larger role). But he pushes the argument too far with his citation of the interpretation of selected passages from a codex of the crusader-era Bible Moralisée. Since the passages make ecclesiastical references without explicit mention of crusades, it signifies “that Joshua was read more in terms of the typology of the church than as a manifesto for conquest or crusade” (25).

Must the situation be either/or? Can the manifesto for conquest or crusade not be cast in terms of the typology of the church? After all, the idea of crusade is an important theme of the work, and a dear cause to the French royal family for whom this particular codex is thought to have been produced.

More fundamentally, Earl’s judgment that “there is no straight line that one can draw from Joshua, through the crusades, to more recent examples of colonialism and religiously legitimized militarism” (43) may be true, strictly speaking. But such a statement obfuscates, in my view, the very real legacy of conquest and other biblically justified violence that checkers Western expansion. Continue reading

Formed for the Glory of God (chapter 3)

This summer has been an intense time of writing as my book on theologies of retrieval draws to a close. It has left me with little time for other sorts of reading, but I have managed to fit some recreational texts into my summer schedule: Dante’s Divine Comedy (Ciardi’s translation is beautiful), the Reformation Commentary on Philippians and Colossians, Augustine’s Enchiridion (why had I never read this before?), and of course Kyle’s great new book on Jonathan Edwards’ vision of the Christian life.

Formed for the Glory of God is a fantastic read! You can see my previous posts on the first couple chapters here and here. Chapter 3 sets up the second half of the book on spiritual disciplines by treating the role of “affection” in Edwards’ thought. Kyle explains it as the development of our “taste” for glory: Formed for the Glory of God

The Spirit of God works within one’s heart to give them a divine taste – a taste of the ways of God. It is this vein that the psalmist would say, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth” (Ps. 119:103). Without it, people cannot recognize God and his way as beautiful, “no more than a man without the sense of tasting can conceive of the sweet taste of honey, or a man without the sense of hearing can conceive of the melody of a tune, or a man born blind can have a notion of the beauty of the rainbow’ (Religious Affections, 208). The disciples were given a divine taste, and so they sought to satisfy their longing by following Christ. […]

Tasting and seeing that the Lord is good entails having the whole of one’s heart made alive to God in Christ by the Holy Spirit – it is communion with the three-personed God. Tasting and seeing are the kinds of things that beget more tasting and seeing. Tasting and seeing beget desire. It is this desire that turns the Christian more and more fully to her Lord who is beautiful and glorious. It is a journey we will continue for eternity (pp. 62, 64).

You can’t miss what Kyle accomplishes in following Edwards’ moves through the first half of the book. This is a God-centered vision of the Christian life that fully engages the human person in all our dimensions. The tradition is littered with imbalanced accounts, either swaying heavily toward the affective or the intellectual or the volitional. On any such portrayal we end up with Christianities of feeling, of the mind, or of action (look around today and you see examples of all three). Following the lead of Edwards, however, Continue reading

Formed for the Glory of God (Chapter 2)

The theme of beauty continues throughout chapter 2, as it does here in the following excerpt on the beginning of the Christian Life, conversion:

Think about the most beautiful sight you have ever seen – the Imageimmense presence of a mountain, or maybe the setting sun glimmering off of the ocean. You see it clearly and know you see it correctly (in other words, your sight is “true”). But that is not all that is going on. You grasp what you see as beautiful, and in a real sense your heart inclines to it. Some feel a quickening of their heartbeat, and others, maybe a shortness of breath. Deep beauty moves us. Edwards uses this as an example of the Spirit’s work in the hearts of people in conversion. He tells us this divine light “assimilates the nature of the divine nature, and changes the soul into an image of the same glory that is beheld.” This sight weans us from the world and raises our eyes to heavenly things. This contradicts what many people think about Edwards. Edwards is often touted as a preacher of hellfire seeking to turn people to God through fear. Rather, for Edwards, the fear of God cannot turn someone to God. Only a sight of the beauty of God can save. As Edwards claims, we are not weaned from the world by affliction or through fear, but are only weaned off of the world by the sight of something better. In Christ, God has revealed what is better. Once we see the beauty of Christ our inner clocks are set to the pace of the heavenly time.

The destination for the Christian is a sight and experience of God in eternity. It is, ultimately, life with God. God knows and loves himself infinitely, enjoys and delights in his own life fully for eternity, and now calls us into that life. This life is characterized as God’s beauty (pp. 48-49)