You have not given me into the hands of the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place. – Psalm 31:8
Perhaps in our strongest moments, in our moments of triumph and success, we can pray this verse along with the psalmist in gratitude. But, what about when the world seems to be falling in on us? How can we pray? How can we rejoice when we are suffering?
From the very beginning of his book Rejoicing in Lament, J. Todd Billings tackles this question head on: “One thing about the experience of being diagnosed with cancer is that it feels like a narrowing, a tightening, rather than a ‘spacious place’ to dwell” (p. 5)
In the midst of this narrowing and tightening, into the “fog” of uncertainty about the future, a young girl in Billings’ church made the simple, but profound claim that “God is bigger than cancer.” And it is precisely this simple claim that gives rise to a beautiful, raw, and rich work that is hands-down the most important book I’ve read about pastoral care – even though the book is not explicitly written as a pastoral care guide.
Rejoicing in Lament is written during various stages of Billings’ cancer journey, beginning with the fog and disorientation of diagnosis, and continuing through stem cell transplant and time following the transplant. Each chapter wrestles with who God is, in all of God’s paradoxes, mysteries, and expansiveness, and relates these truths about God to the particular stages and experiences of living with incurable cancer. And while the book comes specifically from the standpoint of one living with cancer, it is a book that I would recommend to anyone.
As someone who grew up in the church, I remember hearing often about the importance of reining in one’s emotions, especially feelings of anger. And if anger was ever directed towards God, that was worst of all. How can someone navigate loss, grief, and suffering when anger is off limits? In my experience, both as a Christian on my own journey and as a pastor who works with grieving and suffering people, the shame that often accompanies those healthy and normal feelings of anger can be destructive and isolating.
The exclusion of feelings of grief, loss, and anger from the Christian journey has even infiltrated the way we worship. Billings notes that, “Lectionaries often delete the raw cries of lament or anger or confusion in the Psalms.” And while the preacher might feel appreciative of having these texts skipped over – they are difficult to preach on! – the absence of these texts from our worship has contributed to the belief that somehow these emotions are not real or God-honoring. Billings continues, “Somehow, expressions of deep grief and loss have been evacuated from the sanctuary” (p. 40-41).
For the Christian wrestling with struggles, difficulty, pain, and loss, the words of these psalms of lament can give voice to the very real anguish we are experiencing. Rather than viewing our expressions of anger and lament as being distrusting of God, Billings challenges Christians to view these expressions of emotion as rooted in deep trust of God and God’s promises. Though it might seem strange, “prayers of lament in a biblical pattern are actually a form of praise to God and an expression of trust in his promises” (p. 45).
Because if we did not trust in God’s promises, we would have no cause for anger towards God. If we did not trust that God’s promises were true, that God is a loving God, a compassionate God, a God who holds his children close, when struggles and pain entered in, we would not feel able to cry out to God, “Where is your love? Where is your compassion? Why are you so far away from me?”
Rejoicing in Lament offers a fresh perspective on prayer and lament that is sorely needed in the church. While wrestling with theological orthodoxy and what our beliefs about suffering say about our view of God, Todd Billings’ book remains an accessible, helpful work for both the pastor seeking to come alongside those who are suffering, and for any Christian seeking to recover a biblical understanding of suffering and lament.
During the duration of the “blog tour” for J. Todd Billings’ incredible work Rejoicing in Lament, you have the opportunity to enter a giveaway with a five-book package. You can enter once a day. Follow this link for the giveaway and for more information, and check out other reviews and posts about Rejoicing in Lament here as the “blog tour” continues.