The Table Podcast
Rejoicing in Lament: J. Todd Billings on Life with Christ and Terminal Cancer
"An abundant life in Christ is not measured in years."
“My first theological thought was: ‘God does not owe me a long life.'” Our guest today is a theologian living with terminal cancer. Dr. J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod research professor of reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. In 2012, Billings was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer. Billings and his wife had young children, just three years old and one year old. He was working hard on a book, he was on sabbatical. Things were going well and then they weren’t. In this podcast episode, Billings speaks frankly and vulnerably about his diagnosis and illness, his thoughts and feelings about death, and the broader theological and cultural implications of dying.
- 0:00—Begin interview
- 2:25—J. Todd Billings’s story and cancer diagnosis
- 7:40—Praying for healing and praying the Psalms
- 8:42—”An abundant life in Christ is not measured in years.”
- 12:07—A reading from Psalm 102
- 13:00—Theological thoughts on facing death
- 16:42—Prayer as complaint
- 27:52—San Francisco’s prohibition of burials and removal of cemeteries
- 29:19—How contemporary society talks about death
- 33:32—Ars moriendi, the art of dying well
- 34:00—Reference to Martin Luther: “You should think of death frequently.”
- 37:40—Reflecting on beauty in facing death
- 48:50—Denying our creaturely limitations
- 51:28—Grace vs. loss
- 53:28—What is hope?
- 54:45—End interview, credits
Quotes From J. Todd Billings
- “My first theological thought was God does not owe me a long life.”
- “In many ways, the prayer of lament is one of the most faithful prayers that we can give in witness to Jesus Christ, because not only Christians but non‑Christians realize that the world around us is a mess in so many ways.”
- “If we’re followers of the crucified and risen Lord I think we have to believe in that strength that comes, not in spite of weakness but in weakness.”
- “A part of me did not want to take risks. I kind of wanted to huddle up. I’ve had enough pain. I don’t want to take risks. That self‑protective sensibility can become our master. That is not compatible with Jesus Christ as our master.”
- “Ultimately, even though it’s hard to say, my ultimate hope is not that I can see my kids graduate from high school. My hope is that Jesus Christ, who is Lord, will make all things right and will renew the whole creation on the last day. The hope that I taste by the Spirit is the joy that I have is a foretaste as one who belongs to Christ.”
- “An abundant life in Christ is not measured in years.”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music is by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Production Assistance by Laura Crane
- Special thanks to J. Todd Billings. Follow him on Twitter
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
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Evan Rosa: “The Table Audio” is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Dr. J. Todd Billings: Theology that has energy is one that takes the core convictions of the Christian faith so seriously. Jesus Christ is Lord, but the world is a mess. Not only Christians, but non‑Christians, realize that the world around us is a mess in so many ways. It has stinging wounds.
A prayer of lament says, “In this act of prayer, this world is not the way it’s supposed to be. It does so in trust. Trusting God enough to wrestle [laughs] with Him and saying, ‘My God, why have You forsaken me?'”
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to The Table Audio, a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
My guest today is a theologian living with terminal cancer. Dr. J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod research professor of reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary. That’s in Holland, Michigan. He’s an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America.
In 2012, Billings was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, multiple myeloma. Incidentally, both Billings and poet Christian Wiman were both diagnosed with this same cancer. Both when they were 39 years old.
This diagnosis was obviously a life changer. Billings and his wife had young children, just three years old and one year old. He was working hard on a book, he was on sabbatical. Things were going well and then they weren’t.
The story and theology of this diagnosis is recounted in his 2015 theological memoir, “Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ.” In this podcast episode, we speak frankly about his diagnosis and illness, his thoughts and feeling about death, and the broader theological and cultural implications about dying.
I wonder if you could just take us through the past five years or so of your life and just explore how this very life‑changing experience has been for you? How do you tell your story?
Dr. Billings: It was in 2012 that I had just become a full professor. My wife and I had been trying to have children for a while. We had adopted a little girl and then she was able to bear a son.
We were coming to our 10th wedding anniversary. It felt like the beginning of something new. It was right at that time that I was diagnosed with an incurable cancer, a terminal cancer. I still remember being in the doctor’s office. I was working on a doc manuscript. I didn’t really know why the doctor called me in. Circling words, I’m going to rewrite this sentence, that sort of thing.
Evan: We’ve seen your work.
Dr. Billings: I was on sabbatical. I take sabbatical seriously. I do a lot of work…
Dr. Billings: …on my writing when I’m on sabbatical. He said it was cancer and explained some. I remember when I got the referral, and the nurse said the type of cancer. She whispered it into the phone. This gave me a sense. She didn’t want anybody else to hear the type of cancer.
This is not good. The odd thing about a cancer like this is that I’m still learning every day what it means to have this cancer. It’s not just back in 2012, where I found out what it is and within a few weeks, I understand what it means.
I’m still learning every day what it means because there’s daily pain, daily fatigue. I’m on ongoing chemotherapy. What does that mean for me as a father, as a husband? I don’t know. I’m learning but it’s something that keeps on speaking about what that means.
We did decide early on to share with our community, our church, with the seminary, just exactly what was happening. I had about two weeks before we made that public announcement. It just felt so hypocritical. I would see someone in the hallway. They would ask, “How you’re doing?” I would say, “Fine,” and it would be a total lie.
There’s a cost though that cancer patients bear when they share. You just have to realize that a lot of the responses that people give will have more to do with their own anxiety about illness and death than about you. You just have to accept that.
Evan: It really adds this extra layer though, because what you are also asked to accept is your own mortality, your own illness. Then you go out into a world that is incapable of hearing as a response to, “How are you doing?” [laughs] They’re incapable of hearing that, and then all of their baggage is laid upon you in a conversation. That seems unfair.
Dr. Billings: Yeah, it is unfair. When cancer patients have the choice of either keeping it to themselves and having this dissonance in sharing how they actually are or sharing and developing just kind of thick skin. [laughs] It’s interesting. One of the most common things is, when someone finds out that you have cancer, is the free association.
They’ll say, “Oh, my sister‑in‑law just died of cancer.” Or, “My father‑in‑law just found this cancer treatment that just has done wonders for him.” At that moment, as a cancer patient, I just let it be about them because neither of those are really helpful to me.
Evan: When people have responded well, how has that been for you? I’m hoping you’re encountering people that do respond well. [laughs]
Dr. Billings: We have, and I’ve been so grateful for that. Two things immediately come to mind. One is, to actually listen first to the patient. If you want to pray for the person, actually listen to what they want to be prayed for. It’s very common for patients with a serious illness to get prayed for in ways that don’t even make sense to them because they know more about their disease.
For example, for me sometimes I would be prayed that my cancer would be cured. Now, I completely believe that the God who put my flesh and bones together can bring healing, but on the other hand, with my type of cancer, even if there is no cancer in my body that they can detect even with an MRI, I would still be on chemotherapy for the rest of my life.
Because doctors expect and are quite sure that it’s going to come back. There is a loss either way and often the prayers ended up feeling like, “OK, let’s undo this whole process so that Todd’s life will be exactly like it was before.”
Evan: And maybe, so that his life will be exactly like ours.
Dr. Billings: Right. It goes back to the trajectory of the middle‑class life, so that he can have grandchildren and retire. As opposed to, an abundant life in Christ is not measured in years and does not necessarily fit this trajectory, but there are some who have come alongside and have listened first about how to pray.
I’ve also found it super helpful just to have, especially in those first few months and when I was in the hospital, to have people pray the psalms with me. I didn’t really want neat and tidy theological explanations, but I wanted the psalms which bring anguish and…
Evan: Anger, lament.
Dr. Billings: As well as anger and joy. There is joyful moments, there is funny moments in the hospital. All of those are brought before the Lord in the psalms. The second thing that I had thought of was just the willingness to lament with the person. It was really some in our Christian community who started to fully lament before I was able to because I started chemotherapy so quickly.
There were certainly tears and lament as I was starting but basically I was just trying to hold things together. I was on these high dosages of steroids in trying to manage all the side effects of chemotherapy, trying to keep my family together ‑‑ a one‑year‑old, three‑year‑old.
Evan: One and three at that time.
Dr. Billings: In some sense, I didn’t always have energy to lament. I remember one student who said, “I’m praying Psalm 102 for you.” Then I would read over Psalm 102. It’s like, “Wow!” This is my prayer even when I don’t have the energy to pray it.
This student is praying on my behalf. I had others who were lamenting [laughs] on my behalf and sometimes praying, when I physically just didn’t know if I could focus even to pray. Even faith and prayer themselves are not just individual. There are certain times when we need others to pray on our behalf, and even to certain extent, believe on our behalf.
I had trust in God in those dark moments, but it wasn’t always able to be manifested in much more than help. The more fulsome trust was able to gather strength from others as well.
Evan: A reading from Psalm 102. “Hear my prayer, Lord. Let my cry for help come to You. Do not hide Your face from me when I am in distress. Turn Your ear to me when I call. Answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke, my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass. I forget to eat my food. In my distress, I groan aloud. I’m reduced to skin and bones. I’m like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins, I lay awake. I have become like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long, my enemies taunt me. Those who rail against me, use my name as a curse. For I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears. Because of Your great wrath, for You have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow. I wither away like grass. In the course of my life, He broke my strength. He cut short my days. So, I said, ‘Do not take me away, my God, in the midst of my days, your years go on through all generations.’
In the beginning, You laid the foundations of the earth and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish but You remain. They will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing, You will change them and they will be discarded. But You remain the same, and Your years will never end.
The children of Your servants will live in Your presence and their descendants be established before You.”
What was your first religious thought, coming out of this experience of being told that you have a terminal cancer?
Dr. Billings: My first theological thought was God does not owe me a long life. I’m grateful for my life. I’ve lived more years than I deserved. I’m grateful for that. There was also a plea with that, and the plea was really for the sake of my wife and kids.
We had just gone through this long process to adopt this beautiful girl from Ethiopia. My cry was, “Lord, why would You give us this amazing gift, in this daughter, in this son, just to take away their dad, when they’re still kids? Why would you do that?”
For me, it was not so much. I immediately thought of the Book of Job. The Lord were saying, “Where were you at the foundations of the world?” I know that I have no plea, whatsoever, to save it. God owes me anymore breaths. Every breath that I have is pure gift. I’m grateful for that.
At the same time, the lament side had to do more with how would my death…what would that do to my family, and the loss and the ripple effects there.
That drew me to the psalms and psalms of lament, which really start with God’s promise, and then say, “Lord, why have You hidden your face? You’ve promised to show Your face. Why have You hidden Your face?” On the basis of God’s promise, complain to God. I did find myself complaining to God, especially of my family.
Evan: Todd, what do you think of complaint as prayer? This motive, honestly, [laughs] when we talk to our children, “Stop complaining. Be grateful for what you have.” Gift, but this simultaneous, again, like we’re standing in the satisfaction, in puzzlement.
How do you make sense of complaint as a mode prayer?
Dr. Billings: On the level of Christian life, this is one of the great challenges, especially middle‑class Western Christians. This is something that many African American churches have done much better than primarily White churches, with the whole tradition of African American spirituals and lament there.
So much of our Christian life is based around us in our needs and as sort of…
Evan: It’s incredible.
Dr. Billings: …getting God to do what God is supposed to do for us.
Evan: Which is so backwards.
Dr. Billings: Then so much of our worship is very positive in that mode. We’re going to empower people and help people live better lives and so forth.
Evan: Make people feel good.
Dr. Billings: Yeah. Make people feel good about themselves and the world.
Evan: That your present experience is never one of being able to have to answer the question of, “How are you doing?” with, “Not well.”
Dr. Billings: Exactly. In contrast to that, the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible have more lament psalms than any other type of psalm. Over a third of the psalms are lament psalms, and they complain. There are some pastors who want to sugarcoat it and say, “Well, no they’re not really complaints.” No, these are complaints. In fact, these are accusations against God oftentimes.
Now, there is in scripture an unfaithful way to complain. Like, the Children of Israel in the wilderness. When they complain and turn to other gods, that is sinful. That can be a temptation for us as well. What the psalmist does is it complains and turns to the true God. It turns to God’s promises, like the promise that God will shine his face upon us, and it inverts them into a complaint.
“God, why have you hidden your face from me?” What you end up with is a prayer that doesn’t really fit with much of our view of prayer right now where I want God to just do certain things for me. This is a prayer that brings ourselves before God helpless.
It’s when things don’t make sense, it’s when we are angry, it’s when we may even feel betrayed, not only by others but by God, these are the emotions that have been vanquished from the sanctuary, but these are the emotions of the psalm of lament.
We should pray these psalms not just because they reflect our emotions, actually, I think they give more of a pathway for us to bring these emotions that we have before the Lord. All of us have times when we think about our enemies and…
Even if we don’t want to say, we’re going to sugarcoat it, “I don’t think bad thoughts about any other people because I’m a Christian,” or whatever. All of us struggle with thoughts of anger and with enmity and so forth. The question is, are you going to bring it before the Lord with the psalmist? Is this going to be part of your encounter with the divine Lord?
Or are you going to say, this is just not part of my Christian life, I’m going to push it away? There are all sorts of problems with just pushing it away. In many ways, the prayer of lament is one of the most faithful prayers that we can give in witness to Jesus Christ, because not only Christians but non‑Christians realize that the world around us is a mess in so many ways.
It has stinging wounds, and a prayer of lament says, “In this act of prayer, this world is not the way it’s supposed to be, but it does so in trust. Trusting God enough to wrestle with him in saying, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you forsaken us?'”
You have to trust God in order to pray that. [laughs] Jesus had to trust the Father in order to pray that. If you don’t trust God, you don’t bring your anger before him.
Evan: That’s right. When you think about it, the analog of our human relationships, those relationships where there is freedom to be disappointed, or frustrated, or angry, and complain, when the complaint is aiming at being a truthful complaint where it’s…I love how you say it. It inverts the promise.
It requires this kind of openness and trusting relationship. It might be the most difficult and maybe most faithful form of prayer. Have you ever thought about that? What it calls you to is the kind of vulnerability with God to dare.
Dr. Billings: Yeah, it’s bold. Martin Luther quipped that was his favorite verse in the whole Bible, the first verse of Psalm 22 that Jesus quotes, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Evan: Oh, he says it’s his favorite verse? [laughs]
Dr. Billings: His favorite verse in the whole Bible.
Evan: [laughs] Does he say why? It’s got [inaudible 23:37] to do with this. That’s so fascinating.
Dr. Billings: Because Luther experienced such anguish in his life, and anguish even about his standing before God. The fact that Jesus himself laments and takes this anguish on in his person means that we can lament and we can have anguish before God, but it’s not ultimate, it’s not final.
Jesus takes on our suffering and death in order to vanquish it of the suffering and death of its ultimate power. Luther has a number of reasons, but that’s certainly one of them.
Evan: Definitely that seems like this important theme of the kinship of Jesus in the human experience of encountering suffering.
Dr. Billings: Jesus weeps when Lazarus has died. Even though he presumably knows that Lazarus is going to be raised again. [laughs]
Evan: And he’s got an idea about how he’s going to do it. [laughs]
Dr. Billings: Yeah, exactly. Yet today, so many Christians think that they shouldn’t weep, or that they shouldn’t grieve before God, or that when somebody has a serious illness to do anything other than to pray for complete healing is a lack of faith.
Evan: It’s considered like almost a moral character flaw as well, one of being weak.
Dr. Billings: If we’re followers of the crucified and risen Lord I think we have to believe in that strength that comes, not in spite of weakness but in weakness.
Evan: After a short break, Todd Billings and I discuss the fear of death, the art of dying well, denying human creatureliness and finitude, and what it’s like to live with an illness that will someday end your life. Stay with us.
Evan: Oh, my listening friends, thank you for listening to The Table Audio. This, as you might know, is our last episode of season two. Fear not, even now we’re putting finishing touches on season three. In the meantime, you’ll have more than enough to peruse at your leisure over on our YouTube channel and website.
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Head over to our home page, cct.biola.edu, and sign up for The Table and add some wisdom to your inbox. Now, back for the second half of my conversation with theologian Todd Billings.
Recently, my eight‑year‑old daughter has been asking about death. She’s been scared of it, and when I ask her about why, her answers are very thoughtful and honest. I love this about her. She says, it’s more about separation from life and her family and friends, and just missing not being alive.
Well, I agree. Being alive is a great good, and we’re meant to live and thrive here and now. It’s not about the pain for her, it’s not about the mystery of exactly what will happen to her at that point. The fear is common, one of the first things I tell her is, you’re not alone. The fact is, across the human species, across culture and individual experience, we’re terrified to die.
Evan: By 1901, the City of San Francisco voted to prohibit burials within city limits, and around 12 years later even the existing cemeteries had been removed, citing them as “A public nuisance, and a menace, and a detriment to the health and welfare of city dwellers.” By 1940, a truly massive project of disinterment and exhumation would be underway.
This little know anecdote is a fascinating story in its own right, and if you’re curious about the political and moral implications, I’d suggest a 2007 “First Things” essay by Joseph Bottum called “Death and Politics.” For now, let’s just note, that’s an extreme effort by modern Americans to rid themselves of death.
To hide it from ourselves, not to be reminded of our mortality. It’s just an exercise in futility that just serves to reveal our obsession with appearing to be well and impervious to illness and frailty. We keep ourselves, our bodies, our homes, our cities, our species, squeaky clean. Remove the mess on the outside and pretend like we’ll never die.
Perhaps an apt metaphor here is the whitewashed tomb. Externally beautiful but on the inside full of death and bones.
In this second half of the conversation, Todd and I discuss the human fear of death and illness. Ars moriendi, or the art of dying well. The temptation to die, our creatureliness, and his personal feelings about loss and hope as he now lives with terminal cancer.
What do you make of this kind of absence in contemporary life? We don’t want to talk about death, or we don’t talk about it well, or we think about death only in terms of heaven.
Dr. Billings: Death in terms of what we read about in news headlines or things like that, which is always, for most of it it’s other people dying. It’s death where we get to argue about who is responsible and politicize it but not necessarily confront the fact that we are dying, each of us is dying.
How that dying and death takes place just often doesn’t make sense in terms of this narrative, especially the middle‑class narrative of what we think we deserve in terms of our life trajectories. It’s this major cultural shift from the middle of the 20th century, most deaths taking place in homes, like you said, which are now squeaky clean. [laughs]
Children being exposed to the dying and to death as these deaths took place in homes. Now, the vast majority of death’s taking place in institutions, hospitals, nursing homes, and so forth.
I notice that, acutely, when I was thinking through, “How do I share with my children, in an age‑appropriate way, about my diagnosis?” but also, “Were my children around those who are dying? Where am I around those who are dying or close to death?”
In most of our businesses, even at the seminary, I’m not around folks that much. Most of the context of the kids, they weren’t really around. It was only our congregation, only the church where they were around those who were dying. It’s struck me that this is a unexpected gift of the church, especially of the multi‑generational church.
I have friends who are pastors in churches that don’t have older members. That’s actually a weakness that they have to wrestle with because the church is one of the only places in our cultural space right now where you can be celebrating the birth of a baby on the same day that you are walking with people in their final days, before they die.
Oftentimes, it is a missed opportunity though for the church because of the way that…if you look at whether we’re using hymnals or various worship songs, we do not reflect the themes of the Book of Psalms.
We reflect some of the themes. We cherry‑pick the psalms, but we have not welcomed the fullness of what John Calvin calls the anatomy of the human soul, which you can see through the psalms. We have not welcomes that into the sanctuary.
Evan: One artifact of the human soul, so tempting to deny, is that it will one day be separated from the body. Medieval Christians surrounded by death, plague, the violence of war, we wondered, “Can this be done well? Could there be an ars moriendi, an art of dying well?”
Of course, we have a contemporary word for dying well, fully loaded with bio‑ethical debate about human dignity at the edges of life, euthanasia, literally meaning good death, eu thanatos. I asked Todd, from his perspective and experience of terminal illness, about the art of dying and what it means to live and die well.
Dr. Billings: I think that at the center of it is approaching our whole lives as a life lived before the face of the Lord and in the presence of the Lord so that it’s not shaped by other gods or other priorities.
When Martin Luther, for example, gives advice for those preparing to die, a lot of his advice is actually for those who are a long ways away from death. You don’t know exactly, of course, when you will die, but if you are younger, he says you should think of death frequently.
You should remind yourself of death frequently because the tendency, as Psalm 90, for example, talks about, is that we act like our days are forever. We live our days as if we don’t have these mortal limitations, when it is God, alone, who is everlasting. For Luther, remembering our death on a daily level is a way to prod us into facing the fact that we are creatures before the living God.
In our culture, there is so much that makes us think that we are not creatures. We are not limited in this way. It certainly fits with avoidance of death, like you gave, with the San Francisco Cemetery, but also just the way in which we often think of our lives as having limitless options.
For example, when people make serious commitments…I know a number of college students who, after graduating from college, they take their first job, or maybe they’re thinking about getting married. There’s a real crisis because they’ve been told their whole life that they can do anything, or they can do so many different things.
To choose one direction is a kind of death to the many options. To choose one’s spouse is a death to possibilities that they haven’t even met yet. That death is actually part of our finitude and mortality, but we have a culture that celebrates keeping your options open and not living as a mortal in that way.
That’s some of why, back to Luther, he thinks we should use remembering our mortality as a spiritual exercise to bring us before God. When you come closer to your death, if it is a more natural death process, Luther says, “Don’t fixate on death. Focus on God’s promise.” He says there’s a temptation for those who are in their last chapter of life to just fixate and focus upon death.
Since the whole point of this is to be God‑focused in your life, that can become an idol. He says, “Center on God’s promise in that moment,” because when you’re dying, you’re not as much under the illusion that you’re a mortal. You have, in a sense, a different spiritual need at that point.
There’s different approaches to the art of dying, but Luther’s is one that I’ve been thinking through a lot and find very helpful in some ways.
Evan: To speak of dying as an art, it seems to suggest that there’s beauty there, that there’s this aesthetic quality to a creature that dies well. Would you reflect on that? Again, I’m just reminded that all of us [laughs] are in this.
Dr. Billings: Yeah, exactly.
Evan: To speak of your experience, you’ve simply been diagnosed with an earlier death.
Dr. Billings: Mm‑hmm.
Evan: What is your experience with beauty and looking out in the world and seeing the beautiful?
Dr. Billings: It is beautiful the way in which God shows His power through weakness. Often, when someone is dying, you have people gather around and think that they are going to minister to the person who is dying.
I’ve seen so often that the person who is dying just bears witness to Jesus Christ, both in their hope, at times, in their lament. God likes to do this sort of thing, not in terms of making people die but in terms of working in the surprising places.
Evan: It’s subversive, in a way.
Dr. Billings: Right. We’ve seen members of the community minister to somebody.
Evan: The living comfort at dying. It’s the other way around.
Dr. Billings: Right. For example, a friend who is a church planter, he was telling to me about how he had one older member of his congregation who was dying. It was that sort of relationship. She was longing. Her body was decaying. It was breaking down. She was longing to be with Christ and longing for that resurrected body.
That was so different from the experience of the rest of the congregation that was so focused on the kingdom of God now and, “How are we going to live better lives?” It was an…
Evan: Your best life now.
Dr. Billings: Your best life now. It was an act of witness and, almost, of confrontation for her to say, “Yeah, I’m longing for what is to come. I’m grateful for life, but I’m longing for what is to come.” I think that, on the one hand, God can and does work through that even though death is still an enemy.
Until the fullness of the new creation and there is death no more, death is an enemy. Yet, God works through it as the crucified Lord.
Evan: That’s in a sense in which the sting of death is removed?
Dr. Billings: The ultimate sting of death is not removed until the fullness of the new creation with new bodies that will not decay. One thing I worry about is in bookstores and so forth, there’s this huge preoccupation with…it says heaven, but basically people who have…
Evan: New to the experience…
Dr. Billings: …died and come back or giving glimpses of heaven.
Evan: That’s right.
Dr. Billings: However one evaluates that, theologically, you can say, “This is not a new creation that they are tasting. This is not the final heaven that they are tasting. The final heaven will be embodied, will be social. It will be the new Jerusalem.
Even if one’s willing to say…I’m a little bit more cautious about this, but that they are getting glimpses of the intermediate state. So many Christians think that you die, and then you go to heaven which is where you’ll always be.
Evan: Some celestial shore. [laughs]
Dr. Billings: Yeah. There’s a lament until that final day. Even in the Book of Revelation, the souls of the martyrs and those [inaudible 31:41] are lamenting until the final judgment, when God sets things right in Jesus Christ.
Evan: Which suggest this longer narrative arc. Then we’re prone to talk about…
Dr. Billings: Right. It’s not just a personal fulfillment of all of my wishes. “I love golf. I’m going to have a lot of golf.”
Evan: Or an instantaneous acquisition of knowledge. Some people think that upon death, that, all of a sudden, every mystery will be made clear, which seems…
Dr. Billings: There’s a sense in which when we’ll be with Christ and be in Christ, in the conscious presence of Christ and, yet, waiting for this final consummation.
Evan: I wanted to, at least, ask the stuff about death anxiety and terror management as you’ve come to think of it and process through the concept of your own death. Death is taboo in so many ways.
There are all sorts of psychological theories. There is [inaudible 42:54] , but there is some existentialist‑thinking, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, talks about this a little bit, that there’s this anxiety and fear at a very basic level that emerges early. Psychologists find that children as early as five years old are aware and afraid of death.
There are some thinking that all sorts of presence of wrong, of injustice, of evil and mistreatment of others, and hatred, and murder, and war, that all these are flowing from this deep fear of our own death. I wonder what do you make of this. How should a Christian think about terror management, the anxiety that emerges from considering one’s own death?
Dr. Billings: There is a power in those explanations. It’s in a place where it seems like it could be completely sanitized from death, where you just have Chicken McNuggets rather than ever actually having to kill a chicken and have any connection to the death that takes place as part of our normal life.
It’s in the places where we’ve pushed death very far out that, in some ways, can be very particularly prone to having a driving force for certain aspects of culture being the denial of death. Now, what I mean by that is whenever we think about heroes and certain type of heroisms, whether it’s a Silicon Valley hero who builds a big company, makes a foundation, they want to be remembered.
Dr. Billings: Legacy, the legacy of institutions or whether it’s a family that is part of a church that has some kids from the wrong side of the neighborhood who start coming to the youth group, and they say, “These kids from the other side of the tracks are using dirty language. They’re the wrong sort of kids. I’m going to protect my kids from them.”
Evan: There is a huge sense of parental anxiety about the death of their children.
Dr. Billings: Yeah. It’s not just about the final act of death, but it’s much more about this act of control, that we’re going to control our children to go on this trajectory that we have set out. We are going to try to control the future by…if we’re very successful in Silicon Valley to set up a foundation, certainly, politically speaking, there’s all sorts of heroes that come that have power.
Evan: There are heroes that conquer death in their own way. The control is over death. It’s like getting back at death with a legacy, getting back at death with power or some kind of…
Dr. Billings: Making the nation great or something like that. Now, on the one hand, I think that the fear of death is both normal and natural as Christians. I don’t think that we should completely push the fear of death out of our life.
As a very nice book by Richard Beck points out that, “The problem is this, that the fear of death can become our master.” The fear of death can keep us from loving our neighbor, loving others, bearing witness to Christ in the way that we should. Our primary calling is to be ones whose whole life, body and soul, and life and death belong to Jesus Christ.
When we have this clinging to our lives, trying to push any signs of death away, whether it’s not letting our kids play with or not welcoming as a church those kids from the wrong side of the track. I’ve seen again and again when someone retires from a company or an institution, they want to hire their protÈgÈ so that that can continue on. Some of these may be…
Evan: Were just all sorts of vicarious living through one’s children, even.
Dr. Billings: Some of the challenge is the way that it can interrupt our calling and disrupt our calling. Our primary calling as Christians is not to try to live to be 80 and to nurture kids who do that and live the American dream. Our primary calling as Christians is to be witnesses to Jesus Christ in the way that the Lord of life and death is in charge of, and we are not.
It affects how we pray. It affects the sorts of risks that we take and the ones that we don’t take. It’s difficult for me, especially after my time in the hospital with the cancer treatment. A part of me did not want to take risks. I kind of wanted to huddle up. I’ve had enough pain. I don’t want to take risks. That self‑protective sensibility can become our master. That is not compatible with Jesus Christ as our master.
Evan: This seems to have been a trend for a long time in the history of human existence, to want to relinquish or deny our creatureliness. In that, there’s this temptation to think about, even if we come to accept it, in some ways, we still try to get around it in many ways.
Dr. Billings: It’s not a one‑time thing. It’s not like you can point to, “Oh, January 21st, 2011, I accepted my creatureliness.” It’s a daily struggle as we have a daily struggle to live in to our new identity in Christ as opposed to living by the old self. Part of the old self is the one that says, “The world belongs to us. All the options are ours. You’re in control.”
That’s a lie, actually. Even if it’s the punch line of all sorts of Disney movies, it’s a lot.
Evan: It’s the kind of pride of life that has been human idolatry since the fall, this idea that we are masters of our faith and the captain of the ship. I suppose in angling toward some concluding thoughts, what does limitation mean to you?
Dr. Billings: I struggle with, certainly, my creaturely limitations like all centers but then also with some of my additional limitations as a cancer patient. I often find it out the hard way in terms of I have fatigue, and pain, and other things related to my treatment. At times, I’ll push too hard, and then I’ll pay for it.
If you have a chronic illness, that’s very different from an acute illness. In acute illness, like you get sick with an injury, sometimes, you can push through, but with the chronic illness, when you try to push through like that, your body, it makes it worse. Than has been a hard lesson for me to learn. I know others has as well.
I’m discovering how limitations are both a loss and a grace. On the one hand, it is a loss. It is a point of lament. It’s not because I think that I should be almighty, but I have to say no to good things. I have to say no to good possibilities. There are times where I just physically can’t be fully present to people when I want to be. I can’t will it to happen.
Yet there are gifts in it. Even the gifts of my limitations. Having to ask for help a lot reminds me that I’m not autonomous. It can be a way to chip away at that idol of my own autonomy, my own pride.
There are gifts in those limitations, both in accepting those creature limitations, even just the process of becoming married and being committed to this one person. From a worldly standpoint, it seem crazy in some sense.
Evan: One choice and that choice looks like death. [laughs]
Dr. Billings: Right. Until death do us part, but there’s a freedom in embracing that limitation. There’s been a freedom and a joy in my marriage in that. At times, there’s a grace and a freedom in the limitations, but I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say that there’s a loss, too.
It’s not just that I have to give up on all of my trivial hobbies or things like that and what is left in my life is this golden missional moments. I have to say no to good things. There are times where I feel like I fail others, because I physically cannot be who I want to be. There is a loss and a grace.
Evan: What is hope to you?
Dr. Billings: Hope is a hope in trusting Gods promise, and Gods promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ. My hope is not that my cancer goes in particular way. Ultimately, even though it’s hard to say, my ultimate hope is not that I can see my kids graduate from high school.
My hope is that Jesus Christ, who is Lord, will make all things right and will renew the whole creation on the last day. The hope that I taste by the Spirit is the joy that I have is a foretaste as one who belongs to Christ.
It is the crucified and risen Christ who acts by the Spirit in just surprising ways. Who uses the weak, and uses persons with disabilities, and uses the despised to bear witness to Himself when all of our control mechanisms would think that other people would be the one who should bear witness to the Lord of the universe. My hope is in the crucified and risen Lord.
Evan: The Table Audio is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, which sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation. Theme music is by the [inaudible 54:43] . Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group. More info at narrativogroup.com. Edited and mixed by TJ Hester.
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Thanks again for listening my friends. We’ll be back for season three of The Table Audio in January 2019. It’s the future