The words of Psalm 102 stung, but they were nevertheless my prayer. The Lord “has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.’”
My wife and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary and were the proud parents of lively 1- and 3-year-olds. But then I was diagnosed with cancer. A lethal cancer. An incurable cancer.
The psalms of lament soon became a companion to myself and others traveling that journey with me—as all of our emotions of grief, anger, and alienation were brought before the Lord. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). After discovering that the cancer had already burned away the inside of my hip, skull, and arm, I heard and prayed the laments of the psalmist in a new way. “For my days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace” (Ps. 102:3).
Where is God in all of this? Was this part of God’s plan? As a Reformed pastor and professor, my instinct was to turn both to Scripture and the Reformed confessions for guidance. When I announced my diagnosis to my congregation and my colleagues at the seminary, I first quoted the beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 1: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” The scriptural truth in these words is enough to put everything in perspective, to be with me through my dying breath. We are not our own. We act like we are, but we are not. In life and death, we have one promise to trust: that we belong to the God who has united us to himself in Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit, and we find our life in him.
Asking the Questions
But what was I to think about the sentence further along in that same question and answer? “He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.” I heard this in a new way in this season: within a week of diagnosis I began chemotherapy in order to prepare for a stem cell transplant. As part of the transplant, I would receive an intensive chemotherapy derived from mustard gas. My hair would drop out—left on the pillow like shag from an old carpet. I wanted to ask the Heidelberg: what about these hairs—is it God’s will for these hairs to fall from my head? Is it God’s will for me to have cancer, leaving my young children without a father and my wife without a husband? How could it be? My wife and I had prayed for years for children before they came as wonderful gifts. Why would God answer those prayers, just to take away their dad?
In the psalms I found that I was not alone in asking these agonizing questions. In fact, I discovered that the most widespread type of psalm is that of lament. Psalms of lament bring the psalmists’ anger, confusion, and complaint before God. Indeed, they dare to question God, wondering whether God is to blame for the calamity:
“I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate” (Ps. 13:13-15).
In the midst of these laments, the psalmists testify that God is King. “You, O Lord, are enthroned forever; your name endures to all generations.” But it’s precisely because the psalmists trust in God as King that they wrestle with God and his covenant promises. When disaster hits, it does not feel or look like God the King is ordaining what is right. Thus the psalmists protest: “Why do you cast me off?”
Where is God in the mess of a debilitating, lethal disease? At times, I just wanted an answer. Maybe I did something wrong to deserve the cancer—the punishment of some sin in my life. Maybe it was out of God’s control. Maybe God was only capable of “suffering along with me.”
Yet as I prayed and lived with the psalms, it was clear these “answers” were not ways forward. Most of those who wrote psalms of lament did not see the calamity as a direct result of their sin. And the laments of the psalmists would have been nonsensical if they did not believe that God was almighty. If God were not capable of doing anything about the crisis, then why cry out to God, “Why do you cast me off?” Why blame the Lord as one who is sovereign, one who “has broken my strength in midcourse,” who has “shortened my days”?
On the other hand, others insisted that all of this was somehow part of “God’s perfect plan.” Building upon a misinterpretation of documents like the Heidelberg, with its strong doctrine of God’s sovereignty, this misappropriation of Reformed doctrine is a symptom of never learning how to lament. “It was ordained by God,” some said with a stoic face. “There’s nothing that could have been done.” Or, as we sometimes hear at funerals, “It was her time.” Really? Doesn’t God hate evil?
Joining the psalmist in lament provides a way beyond these two dead-end possibilities. With the psalmists we declare that God is King, God is sovereign. But that does not lead to a stoic fatalism. No. Because of this trust in God’s kingship, we wrestle with the Almighty when his covenant promises do not appear to be coming to pass.
Yes, God is King, but the psalmists wait in lament until God’s kingship is uncontested. And they rejoice when anticipating God’s judgment, God’s setting things right: “Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness” (Ps. 96:13).
As those who belong to Jesus Christ, the King of kings, we are still waiting. His kingdom has already come, but it is still not yet—it is not yet uncontested in “this dark world” (Eph. 6:12). That’s why Jesus commands us to declare, “Thy kingdom come.” That’s why the creation itself “groans,” and the Spirit cries out in “wordless groans” until the kingdom has come (Rom. 8:22, 26). That’s why we cry out to our ascended, kingly Lord: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
A Way Forward
How does this fit with a Reformed confession about providence and the declaration that “not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven?” My way forward came through meditating again on Scripture and receiving the affirmation in the Heidelberg Catechism in light of the more detailed exposition in the Belgic Confession. Three months after my diagnosis, in a CarePages posting I reflected upon this passage from Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg and its source text in Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” Here’s what I wrote in that post:
In Matthew 10, Jesus is speaking about sending his followers out as witnesses, warning them that they will face opposition and persecution (vv. 16-23). Yet they need not fear (vv. 26–28); they are not sent out on their own but with the blessing of God’s provision and presence. Thus, the powerful passage about Providence in verses 29-31 above is not in the context of assuring Christians that they will have an easy life, or that they are entitled to bypass pain or suffering. Rather, Christ assures us that we need not fear opposition to our witness to him, because Christ will finally win out. Moreover, on a more intimate level, neither a sparrow nor a hair “will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” The NRSV is quite literal in its rendering here—some other translations try to unpack the phrase a bit more with “outside your Father’s care” or “without your Father’s will,” “consent,” or “knowledge.” The passages from Matthew and the Heidelberg Catechism point to a providential care that is both reassuring and mysterious. Was it the Father’s “will” that I undergo intensive chemo treatment? Did the Father just “consent” to this, given our fallen world in which people get cancer? Or did the Father just “know” that this would take place?
Personally, I find a distinction from another confession, the Belgic, to be illuminating here: it speaks about the distinction between God’s active will from the beginning of creation and God’s permissive will, given the mess of sin that we are in (Belgic Confession, article 13). The distinction doesn’t explain away the mystery, but it gives a way to speak about cancer and the stem cell transplant: that it is not God’s “will” from the foundations of the earth—yet, given our fallen situation, it is still within God’s hands, still within God’s “permission” in some sense, for God can and does use even evils like cancer toward his own good ends.
In the distinction that I noted, the Belgic Confession states that calamity does not just happen to slip through the fingers of God (chance) and God is not the author of evil or sin. For “nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father, who watches over us with fatherly care, sustaining all creatures under his lordship, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father. In this thought we rest, knowing that God holds in check the devils and all our enemies, who cannot hurt us without divine permission and will.”
The Belgic Confession openly admits that this leaves us with a mystery. But it is a luminous mystery giving assurance of God’s care from his Word, even when we don’t know the reason he has allowed this crisis. For “we do not wish to inquire with undue curiosity into what God does that surpasses human understanding and is beyond our ability to comprehend. But in all humility and reverence we adore the just judgments of God, which are hidden from us, being content to be Christ’s disciples, so as to learn only what God shows us in the Word, without going beyond those limits.” The Belgic Confession notes that God discloses his will for Christ’s disciples in his Word: in God’s law and promise, fulfilled in Jesus Christ, we’ve been given a new identity, we know whom to trust, we know the path that our affections and action should take as followers of Christ.
We should not speculate about why God has allowed a disaster in nature to occur at a particular moment, or why God has allowed me to have cancer at this particular time. We don’t know. But we can put our trust in God’s own Word—a trust that manifests itself in lament and thanksgiving, petition and praise.
When disaster hits, the sovereign God is present and active, even when things seem out of control. Yet this is a truth that we cannot embody in abstractions or easy clichés: we embody it by joining with the suffering in praying with the psalmists—joining the Spirit and Jesus Christ in hopeful lament. This is God’s world, but it’s also not the way things are supposed to be. In hope, we look forward to when God’s loving and perfect rule in Christ will come in its fullness. But until then, we both hope and lament. When we come to the suffering, we should not act like Job’s friends who falsely presume to know God’s reasons—“It’s just the way that God wanted it to be,” or “God’s just suffering along with you—he can’t do anything about it.” No. God is almighty and loving, and yet terrible things happen. We don’t know why. But we do know where to direct our trust: toward God’s own promises, for we are not our own, but by God’s promise and action—in life and in death, we belong to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
- Are personal tragedies like illness, job loss, and the death of loved ones part of God’s plan? How does Reformed theology help us answer this question?
- Where is God when tragedy strikes? What did the psalmists who wrote psalms of lament believe?
- “The sovereign God is present and active, even when things seem out of control,” says the author. How do we live out this reality when we or someone we love is experiencing a crisis?
- How do we reconcile the “luminous mystery” of God’s loving care with the tragedies God allows to befall us?
- Read Heidelberg Catechism Question and Answer 1 alongside Psalm 13. Which would you find more helpful in navigating a tragedy? Why?
About the Author
J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich., and an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America. His most recent book is Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ (Brazos 2015).