Jesus told the story of two men who built houses. One man built his house on the rock, the other built his house on the sand. When the rains came one house stood and one house fell. The obvious moral of the story was to be like the wise man and build your house on the rock of Jesus. What is obvious in the story but often gets overlooked is how both men experienced a storm beating against their house. Most often the story is told as a way to get the blessed life. Build your house upon Jesus and your life will be blessed and secure as Jesus is a foundation that cannot be shaken. Even the children’s song says that if we build our house upon Jesus the “blessings will come down.” And while it’s true that a life founded on Jesus does involve many blessings, many people assume that means life will be free of storms. Sure, we know life can’t be free of all trials. We aren’t naive, so we expect to experience some trials – kids who talk back, annoying co-workers, tension in your family. But those aren’t storms. We expect trials, but storms? Not if our lives are built on the rock.
Following Jesus doesn’t exempt us from experiencing the brutality of a broken world. And when the big storms come – the death of one far too young, an unfaithful spouse, cancer – so do the questions.
“Why did God allow this?”
“Where is God?”
“What did I do to deserve this?”
“Is God still in control?”
These are the questions that J. Todd Billings wrestled with as a young, talented theologian who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood. One would think that a Reformed theologian who subscribes to the sovereignty of God over all of life would readily accept his diagnosis without question as the will of God. After all, if God had ordained this to happen there should be no questions, and if there are, then one should work to accept this as God’s will and joyfully embrace what the Almighty has determined you should experience. Maybe, even, one would go the extreme of celebrating their plight since God counted them worthy of having cancer.
While that may be the caricature of everyone who ascribe to Reformed theology, it is far from reality. In Rejoicing in Lament, Billings makes the case for a return to the biblical practice of lament by allowing us to see his faith and theology in practice. Properly understood, lament is the crying out to God because of a deep trust in the promises of God. Lament only makes sense when we believe that God is sovereign and does act. It is a recognition that the world is not as it should be, and a plea for God to act according to the promises of his covenant. In this regard, in those moments of crisis when questions about God flood our minds, the questions reveal not a lack of faith but rather a deep hope in God’s hesed (steadfast love and faithfulness).
This is, perhaps, the most pastoral offering in Rejoicing in Lament. Less of a systematic theology and more of a biblical theology, the book roots our laments in the tradition of the psalmist and Jesus. By pointing to the psalms of lament, the prayers of Jesus, and the confessions of the church Billings shows us that crying out to God in pain and deep lament is not irreligious but is actually an act of faith and trust. As Billings says, “God hates evil, yet the world is in God’s governing hands to such an extent that we can lament and blame God when he wills to permit evil.”
I wonder if we have forgotten the importance of lament, or even how to lament? I wonder if we haven’t substituted faith in a God who has promised to redeem and restore the world for a kind of fatalism shrouded in God language? “This is God’s will,” we say in effort to provide ourselves with some comfort about a difficult situation. And it may be God’s will and we can find comfort in that. But our ultimate comfort is found in the ultimate will of God which is bringing about the restoration of all things. God’s will is for the death of all that is evil, the abolishment of suffering, the wiping of every tear from every eye. Ours is hope, not resignation. So we lament. We protest. We cling to our faith, which is nothing less than a fierce and tenacious grip on holding on to hope.
The most powerful aspect of Rejoicing in Lament is that it is not theology divorced from life. Billings reflections on lament, suffering, and the providence of God are in the midst of his story. With courage and vulnerability, he invites us into his questions, grief, and faith. This is theology at it’s best: incarnated. Embracing the mystery of the Bible regarding the paradoxes of God’s sovereignty and suffering, Billings reminds us that faith isn’t about making sense out of our story. Faith is trusting in God to make good on his promises.
Those who are suffering will not find trite platitudes about the “plans of God” or “reasons for suffering” in this book. In fact, Billings does little to answer the question of why a good God permits evil. As he points out in the book, this is actually the most biblical response one can make in the face of evil in the world. The Bible does not offer any answer to that question, other than to say it is not for us to know. This forces us to focus on what we do know: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. This is the foundation for our belief that God is good, and that in Christ God is rescuing and renewing creation from the suffering and corruption brought about by evil.
Head on over to the official website for a giveaway of a number of great books, including Rejoicing in Lament. You can also find links to other reviews of the book there as well.