Earlier this week I gave a public lecture on the subject of living with cancer. One of the observations I made was that God has used my experience with leukemia to help me appreciate His word more fully. In God’s providence, I had just started working through the book of Psalms in my regular Bible reading when I was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer about two years ago. The first book of the Psalter contains many psalms of lament in which the psalmist is crying out to God for help, often in a state of anguish. I had read those psalms many times before and, frankly, did not find them particularly meaningful. Yes, there are powerful references to the suffering of Christ in those psalms. Those psalms could lead me to praise Jesus for taking on my shame. Still, there was something extremely powerful about those psalms that I never understood until I read them in the days following my diagnosis.
For the first time in my life, I was able to read and sing those psalms as my own, and they ministered to me in a totally unexpected way. I felt something of what the psalmist felt. I traveled with the psalmist from grief to hope. I found a comfort for my anxious soul like nothing I had experienced in God’s word before. Our grief can often turn into complaining. What a blessing it is that God has given us the proper words for expressing our grief – not in a hopeless despair but in a way that stems from faith and that leads to hope.
Given this personal experience, I have been very gratified to read J. Todd Billings’ recent book entitled, “Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ” (Brazos Press, 2015). Billings is a professor at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI. At age 39 he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, another incurable blood cancer. Billings’ book is, in part, a very helpful analysis of how the psalms of lament are constructed and how they work in the life of a believer. In Christ our lament can lead us to praise a God who suffers with us and for us and who has given Himself to redeem us. Having already learned some of this experientially, I found his treatment of the topic refreshing. If you or a loved one is dealing with cancer or some other crisis, I think this book is well worth reading.
“Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I am weak; O LORD, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled; But You, O LORD – how long? Return, O LORD, deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies’ sake! I am weary with my groaning; All night I make my bed swim; I drench my couch with my tears. The LORD has heard my supplication; The LORD will receive my prayer.” (Psalm 6:2-4, 6, 9, NKJV)