Wrestling with Incurable Cancer

J. Todd Billings is a theology professor who was diagnosed with an incurable cancer in the fall of 2012 at age 39. His book, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ, is a collection of his theological and personal reflections in light of his terminal disease.

Whether one likes it or not, cancer puts one’s life in a fish bowl for public viewing. One must learn how to respond to many well-meaning yet potentially offensive statements from others. Billings shows how to interact in such circumstances with grace and truth as well as how to think theologically about very practical issues.

He begins by writing of the unintended blessing of the “narrowed focus” that comes with cancer. Where once his future seemed vast and open, it is now limited and narrow. However, this has helped him prioritize what’s important. His disease has caused him to see each day as a gift. He laments those who feel “entitled” to a long, fulfilling life. Death is an ever-present reality – and this is true for all. Since no one knows the day of his or her death, Billings finds consolation in the biblical promises of eternal life in the presence of God. He writes, “God has not promised to spare us from earthly death. But he has conquered it in Christ – death does not have the power to separate us from his love” (12).

He finds it hard when others say to him, “God will heal you” because his cancer is incurable. Full healing is not possible at this point, only remission for a time. Instead of “God will heal you” Billings finds consolation in the saying, “God is bigger than cancer” which is true, and always true. Whether in life or death, we are always in God’s hands.

Billings also rejects those who assume his cancer remains because of his lack of faith. A cursory examination of the Bible reveals that many with faith are unhealed and, conversely, some are healed apart from any clear expression of faith. Just because God is able to do something does not mean God will. “God was able to save Jesus from death on a cross at Golgotha. But God did not do it” (126). “When we assume that God only wills healing and joy rather than suffering in our lives now, we have forgotten the cross of Christ” (127).

Billings shares a response from a friend that he considers a fine example of the right combination of grief and faith: “Thanks so much for taking the time to talk tonight… I wanted to apologize because what I wanted to say didn’t manage to come out. It’s beautiful just how much better the little girl from your church was able to articulate it. God is bigger than cancer. It’s true. And also, perhaps less faithfully… I hate this for you more than anything. I hate this for your family. I want you to beat the heck out of it. Forgive us all for the stupid things we say and don’t say. I am praying tonight for you and Rachel” (19-20).

During his treatment, Billings began to pray through the Psalms, and this discipline bears much fruit in his life. He writes of the variety and depth of emotional expressions in the psalms. He particularly focuses on the “lament psalms” – songs of grief, mourning, and protest. He writes, “In praying with the psalmist, I often notice how praise, petition, and lament are tightly woven together” (46). “Even the most shocking psalms expressing outrage, fear, and despair are doing so before God — and that is praise” (49). In the end, bringing all one’s doubts, fears, and laments to God is an expression of hope: “As strange as it sounds, the fact that the psalmist can bring anger, frustration, and protest to God is rooted in hope: if you don’t hope that God is good and sovereign, you don’t bother to bring your lament and thanksgiving to the Lord” (89).

Billings also wrestles with questions concerning God’s will and human suffering. After an extensive treatment of the Book of Job, he concludes that it is not meant to provide us with a theodicy – a complete justification of God’s will and ways, particularly in light of tragedy and suffering – but rather, to reveal to us that God’s will is beyond fathoming. Our human limitations prevent us from fully comprehending all God’s ways. However, this does not prevent us from trusting God. Billings writes, “I believe that in Christ God is renewing the whole of creation from the alienation, suffering, and evil that corrupts it. But the speculative theodicy question—of ‘why’ our loving and powerful God has permitted tragedy—is ultimately ‘unanswerable in this life’ for ‘only God can answer, and God has not answered (yet).’ The book of Job certainly gives examples of wrong human answers to the problem of evil and suffering. But more than that, it insists that answering the theoretical problem of evil is actually beyond the limits of human wisdom” (21-22). In the end, Job realizes how little he knows and is applauded by God for recognizing it. Meanwhile, Job’s friends fail to realize how little they know and continue to spout inadequate answers.

He concludes, “ultimately, we need to admit that we don’t know God’s reasons for permitting evil. It is beyond the realm of human knowledge, and that is part of our creaturely condition” (30). However, “there is one thing that Christians know without a doubt: that suffering and evil require our compassionate response” (30).

By compassionately responding to others’ suffering we witness of Christ’s kingdom, but we are not a substitute for Christ! Though we sing that “we are Christ’s hands and feet” we are still not Christ. When it comes to cancer, “we can’t take on [others’] cancer… We can show love. We can mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. But as we do all of this, we can do nothing higher than to be a witness to the King of the coming kingdom. Even on our ‘best days’ we are not the very presence of Christ to the world—in ourselves, we are not the deep medicine that the world needs” (141).

Billings invites us, in light of human limitations, to reject the language of “changing the world” which is impossible, but rather, to embrace the biblical language of witness. If we hope to “change the world” we will inevitably be discouraged, but if we strive to faithfully witness of God’s kingdom, we can shine light in the darkness. “From this standpoint, the point of compassionate action is not to ‘change the world.’ It is to be faithful and to bear witness in word and deed to a different kingdom: that of King Jesus (76).”

Billings celebrates the gift of the faith community in all matters from birth to death: “It’s a marvelous gift that the church who baptizes and celebrates new life in Christ also does funerals, mourns with the dying, and celebrates the promise of resurrection in Christ” (99). “From one standpoint, the church is a gathering of sinners who are both old and young, healthy and sick, growing and dying. But, by God’s promise, the church is also people who move through birth, health, dying, and even death on a journey to resurrection because they belong to Jesus Christ. For the end of the story of God, and of the church, is not death but resurrection” (101).

In the end, Billings writes, “I am giving thanks and praising God but also still lamenting” (173). I think this response is as honest and faithful as one can get.

I highly recommend Billings book as a helpful example of how theology can inform and instruct in the most difficult of circumstances. The material is heightened by the fact that it does not arise from speculation and theory but from the eye of the storm. Some of the sections are more dense and difficult than others, particularly the discussion of divine impassibility and its relationship to human suffering. For those familiar with the “technical jargon” it is fascinating, but for the average layperson, these sections may be difficult to navigate. I suggest simply reading past what is difficult, because the bulk of the book is so extremely enlightening and helpful.

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