Rejoicing in LamentThe title alone of J. Todd Billings new book is intriguing.
I mean, there are plenty of books on lament. And plenty of books on praise. And even quite a few on praise and lament. But rejoicing or praising in lament? That is quite different.
Billings is a professor of theology whose work I have long admired. His writing is always orthodox, always classically Reformed, and always ultimately grounded in the biblical text. And this book does not disappoint on any of these criteria. Unlike his previous books, however, this short volume arises out of Billings own experience of loss. You see, in the fall of 2012 Billings was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable and fatal cancer.
If you think that this book is just another self-help book for dealing with the tragic events of life, think again. Rejoicing in Lament is theology done in the crucible of suffering. No simplistic solutions are offered, no easy clichés, no Bible verses flung out like final answers to the problem of cancer.
Rather, Billings invites his readers into his life – from his agonizing questions to his deeply personal theological reflections drawn from his CarePages. If you are not already convinced that this book is worth your time, several highlights are worth calling attention to.
Billings clearly understands lament. He neither downplays nor overemphasizes the role of lament in the Christian life. He notes that lament can involve everything from grieving to protest. He emphasizes the importance of acknowledging pain and suffering in our lives and in the world. Worship that does not recognize the brokenness of our world is not complete. Lament is an important word in the life of faith.
Yet Billings also recognizes that lament is not the only word, not even in the throes of suffering. “In lament,” Billings writes “we are confused, angry, and grieving people. But we are not just that.” (43) Our identity in Christ is more than confusion and disorientation. Ultimately, asserts Billings, the psalms of lament are psalms of hope. In fact, Billings goes so far as to suggest that lament is itself a form of praise because of the element of faith that lament entails. Billings notes that “Praise, petition, and lament in the Psalms are all tightly woven together in prayers that help us recognize and rest in God’s promises.” (47)
Although the book leans in the direction of biblical theology, Billings skills as a systematic theologian are also on display. Billings deals brilliantly and humbly with topics like the problem of evil, prayer, and the impassibility of God, all in relation to the overarching issue of suffering and lament. In fact, his description of impassibility is one of the most clear, accurate renderings of that traditional attribute of God of any I have read in recent years. He sweeps away the misconceptions and caricatures of this important doctrine, demonstrating its weight and importance for a proper understanding God’s relationship to human suffering today.
In some ways, the title of this book says it all. Throughout, Billings opens the door not just to abstract ideas of rejoicing in lament, but to his ongoing experience of doing just that.
To hear Billings himself discuss this important book, please go to: