Todd Billings’ other writings are already well recognized as the works of a thoughtful, intelligent, pastorally-sensitive, and orthodox theologian. Both his Union with Christ and Calvin, Participation, and the Gift are award winners and his book, The Word of God for the People of God, is my personal favorite introduction to our shared interest in the theological interpretation of Scripture.
So another book from Todd is always welcome. But Rejoicing in Lament is not just another book. It is a theological memoir that chronicles his journey over the last couple of years in his battle with an incurable bone cancer. I call it a “theological memoir” because it is deeply personal and brutally honest about his struggles, fears, and insights gained, while also providing a rich theological exploration of lament and the problem of evil. On the memoir side I learned about Todd as a man and Christian brother; on the theological side I learned much from what is one of the best treatments of theodicy and lament that I’ve ever read. (Eleonore Stump’s Wandering in the Darkness is up there too.)
Rather than providing a detailed, chapter-by-chapter review of the book, here are some highlights and points of insight that particularly struck me as I read the book:
- The pervasive use of the Psalms as the Christian’s prayer book
I have become increasingly aware in recent years of how central the psalter has always been for Christians. Those of us involved in studying the history of interpretation, especially pre-modern, find the Psalms as the constant companion of the believer. Todd’s whole book shows how in the midst of suffering and joy he stands in line with this great tradition and habit.
- Related, the Psalms and the permission to lament
Over the last five years as I have gotten more connected to the suffering and loss and grief in my own life I have learned how essential it is to lament. I was given permission to do so by a dear mentor and friend as part of my therapeutic journey. When turning to the Psalms we find that lament is not only permitted there, but in reality proves to be the major theme of the psalter. This is not something that has been overcome or superseded by the Gospel or the New Covenant. Rather, the Christian is the one who above all people in the world knows suffering and should be longing for God to come and put and end to the grief and pain of the world (“Happy are those who mourn…”). After all, the great and guiding Christian prayer has at its core the desire for God to restore his just reign upon the earth, vanquishing all evil and suffering (“Your name be honored, your kingdom come, your will be done – on earth as they already are in heaven”).
Todd’s book thoughtfully explores the significance of lamenting in the Christian journey. He rightly laments the loss of lamenting in the modern Christian community; as a result our life of Christian discipleship is often stunted and disconnected from our full human experience.
If you want to understand the beauty and power of lament in the Christian journey then you’ll definitely want to pick up this book.
- The Bible and the Problem of Evil
The single greatest theological problem of the Bible is certainly the POE,
simply stated as the dilemma of how God can be both fully good and fully sovereign while there is still evil in the world. That is the ontological version of it. The ethical or practical version of the POE concerns how God can be both fully good and fully sovereign and yet evil things still happen for which he is not culpable.
Refreshingly, Todd offers no trite answers here and avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of open theism on the one hand or a “suck it up, God is sovereign” view on the other. He humbly but boldly asserts what is certainly true – the Bible doesn’t really give any ultimate answer to the POE. “The Bible has addressed the question, and God’s response – as in the book of Job – is that humans don’t have an answer to the problem of evil, and we shouldn’t claim that we have one.” (21) We can rightly believe that in Christ God is renewing the whole creation but the speculative theodicy question – why our loving and powerful God would permit tragedies – is ultimately unanswerable in this life for only God himself can answer this. (22)
In this Todd is not being flippant or apathetically resigned – no one who is facing the suffering and loss that he is can be written off in these ways – but rather, he is modeling what the Scriptures themselves model in the Psalms and Job: learning to sit in the ashes while still hoping in God through tears.
- The Biblical Mystery of Concursus
As part of Todd’s varied discussion of the POE he introduces a very helpful classical doctrinal formulation called “concursus,” defined as “the simultaneity of divine and human agency in specific actions and events.” Contra deism, fatalism, or open theism, the classical Christian doctrine of concursus is willing to allow the mystery of both God’s sovereign actions and human’s responsible contingent acts. Who really sent Joseph into Egypt in slavery? Concursus enables us to say fully that both God and Joseph’s brothers were responsible actors. “A creaturely action can have the providential power of God as a primary cause, yet the creature still has agency that moves freely.” (68)
Todd’s clear and straightforward discussion of this idea is very satisfying and beneficial.
- Lament as Protest and Resistance
The idea that I think will most stick with me from the book is that of lament as protest and resistance. Those who give themselves to serve others and help to eliminate some bits of the great suffering in the world know all too well that the task is overwhelming and will sooner or later cause even the heartiest, most compassionate soul to burn out. When one considers the pervasiveness and suffering of sex trafficking or homelessness or violent religious persecution in the Middle East it is very difficult to avoid becoming hopeless. Those among us who are especially deep-feeling sorts, such as our artists, often struggle to believe in the God of the Bible in light of this.
Todd recommends that rather than giving up or throwing our hands up and rejecting the biblical God, we need to embrace our laments as right and powerful forms of protest that this is not the way things should be. The Christian of all people should join the resistance against the evil in the world. Through our God-directed lamenting and compassionate acts we serve as witnesses to the coming kingdom. This is beautiful and powerful and life-giving.
On a personal note, my wife and I found great courage from this hither-to-never-considered way of approaching the reality of suffering in the world.
- Divine Impassibility
Finally, I am thankful for Todd’s excellent discussion of the doctrine of divine impassibility in chapter 9. I realized to my embarrassment that once again I had only a sophomoric understanding of this classic doctrine and its importance. Indeed, from my limited understanding I have recently been wondering about this doctrine because I mistakenly understood it to mean that God is emotional-less, something Holy Scripture does not seem to allow. But Todd points out that classically, God’s impassibility means he lacks “passions,” understood in this context not as emotions in general but as “disordered affections that could make his loving being and action ebb and flow.” (159)
We would be mistaken (as I was) to think of this doctrine as depicting God as apathetic and unresponsive. The biblical witness belies this understanding. Instead, the point is that God can and does fully enter our suffering (and joy), but does so in a way that is always perfectly commensurate with his perfect and whole being. God has all the affections/emotions that we do but does so analogically because his perfection of being is not like the shifting shadows of our fickle existence.
The point of this doctrine in the context of suffering is that God does know and sympathize with our weaknesses and suffering; he is not distant and apathetic nor surprised at what we encounter, even in our darkest night of the soul. Jesus’ himself cried out with the greatest despair, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”
Once again, I am thankful to have Todd’s thoughtful and theologically sophisticated wisdom as a guide to help me understand our God faithfully.
Overall, obviously I am glad to recommend this book. It is probably too theologically thick and long for the average lay Christian struggling with cancer (it’s not a “gift book” nor is it intended to be). But is a very good length and level for the more zealous congregant and certainly pastors. I can also imagine this book being read in a chapter-by-chapter format in a small group setting if the leader has some theological training that would enable good facilitation.
It would be terribly trite and insensitive to suggest that somehow Todd’s and his family’s suffering is any way explained or justified by it resulting in the production of this book for others. I am not suggesting that. But, along with Todd, by faith I can proclaim that in a mystery beyond our understanding, we can simultaneously protest against his suffering and also express our trust and praise in God for doing all things well. This book is a gift to me as I am sure it will be to many others. Lord, hear our prayer…
The site dedicated to Todd’s book, including reviews by many others can be found here.