Sharing Life and Death
Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.
They were words that controlled us, like an electric fence to wandering minds and quaking bodies. The pastor repeated them to us frequently—at each hospital visit and in every triumphant prayer for healing within an oncology ward that seemed only to delve out the certainty of loss and the overthrow of control. His confident battle cry was so certain, so instructive: We will not fathom defeat; we will not even think about death. In the name of Jesus, we will see the evidence of healing though it is yet unseen. Despite a theology that under normal circumstances would have been bold enough to voice some very serious objections, I so badly wanted my dad to be well... So badly that we never spoke of his wishes for the funeral we would plan only weeks later.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. They are the words of the ancient writer of Hebrews, though the way we used them during those short weeks with an aggressive cancer never actually considered this. It was a verse we treated as if it pertained only to us, jarred loose from its story and author and community. Once loose, we used it as a tool to jar my dad from his own flesh, from his pained and embodied life as a creature in his final days. We were after a miracle that would erase life as it had become, a healing that would restore us back to life before cancer. We used the verse, distorted into an individualized half-truth, to keep ourselves from considering anything more.
Sadly, the God many of these prayers envisioned was more like a slot machine than a sovereign, each prayer a spin that tried to muster hope against all odds, fearfully, as if dad's life depended on the very quality of our mustering. While I don't doubt the charitable intentions of those prayers—or the firm belief in a God who heals—I am saddened by the selfishness I didn't want to see as I uttered them. The words we clung to were far more about the survivors than the dying one we loved or the abundant life we professed together in the crucified Christ—even in our own deaths. We clung to this creature-denying posture at the expense of a Christ-embodying posture, a posture that could have been both a sharing of my dad's pain and a sharing of life and death with the one who holds both our lives and our deaths.
What might this shared experience in the body of Christ have actually looked like? Tragically and beautifully, it is coming into focus in the life of a friend. In October of 2012, at the age of 39, Christian theologian Todd Billings was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare and incurable blood cancer.(1) The sense of loss in his story is enough to send some us desperately after those confidently spoken, individualized half truths, like those we held in our own cancer story. Billings has not been a stranger to such prayers uttered on his behalf. But he wrenchingly embodies another way.
In the fog of days following his initial diagnosis, through a bone marrow transplant and quarantine to a drastically new “normal” and a chemo regimen he will be on for the rest of his life, he realized he needed a language that didn't dodge the hard theological and existential questions, a language that could bring all he is experiencing before God and to help him share it with others. He found himself sharing the language of lament with the writers of Scripture, who are honest and angry, grief-stricken and laid low by their own losses—and are yet able as creatures to bring these encounters before God in a way that does not "diminish the material, embodied nature of my life as a creature, my life as one who has been united to the resurrected Christ but is still groaning for the new creation."(2)
For the Christian and anyone who will accept it, this is the difficult, beautiful way of the cross: We die and live in and through the crucified Lord. We pray for Christ's cross-shaped kingdom to come. We live in fellowship with a Triune God whose story of restoration incorporates brokenness, even and ultimately, his own. Alternative ways might be easier but they are not Christ's. Writes Billings, "[C]onfidently spoken half truths can never reach beyond half truth because they are unwilling to face the biblical paradoxes inherent in orthodox Christianity. Such half truths have always been a temptation because they present a path that is less formidable than fully belonging 'body and soul, in life and in death—to Jesus Christ.'"(3)
In dire contrast, this proclamation that "I am not my own, but I belong—body and soul, in life and death—to Jesus Christ" is a shared confession and language that changes dramatically the space in which friends and family, students and colleagues, fellow Christians and even strangers are invited to stand as fellow creatures. So even as we pray for a miracle, Billings is honest about the loss, which gradually sets in and alters expectations of the future: the sudden sense of decades stolen, the new reality of life with an incurable illness. He is honest that the loss is not only his own: it is agonizingly a loss for his wife and their two young children. It is a loss for his friends and his community of faith. Admission of the loss itself may seem simple, but anyone who has ever experienced loss will recognize it as an invitation to break through the temptation for easy answers, to wrestle honestly with a fellow mortal in pain and the mystery of Christ crucified, who offers a truth big enough to hold us all.
Todd Billings sees his cancer story in a story bigger than his own, though yet unseen, and in this bigger story, he has been able to invite his own communities to share more deeply the paradox of an adopted life in Christ and the reign of death around us as we wait for the fullness of that adoption with certainty. "God's story does not annihilate my cancer story," he writes, "but it does envelop and redefine it. Indeed, it asks for my story to be folded into the dying and rising of Christ as one who belongs to him."(4) This is no pat-answer; it is neither a denial of the dark reality of cancer nor the God who heals. It is the hopeful way of life and death with the only one able to hold them both, the true sharing of which is perhaps more miraculous than even our most desperate prayers can imagine.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) J. Todd Billings shares his story in Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2015).
(2) Ibid., 118.
(3) Ibid., 171, quoting the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 1.