Forums
Featuring guest J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings | Good Servant, Tyrannical Master

Todd Billings shares his depth of thought on healing, medicine and chronic disease, which is informed by his own experiences with cancer.


Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
2 Comments
2 Comments
Iv pole on blue background

Todd Billings shares his depth of thought on healing, medicine and chronic disease, which is informed by his own experiences with cancer.

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on July 07, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Medicine is an amazing gift from God. But there are limits to what medicine can do, and when we forget those limits, we forget that God is acting both when bodies are healed and when bodies deteriorate. Todd Billings shares his depth of thought on healing, medicine and chronic disease, which is informed by his own experiences with cancer. 


Additional Resources


Transcript

Billings:

Our human condition is such that, you know, all of us eventually will lose our health and our wealth. I mean, it may be a little bit depressing to say it this way, but all of us will follow the path of job eventually, when we lose these things, lose our capacities. But that is precisely why faith relates to our embodied life and to all of our life and it’s not just adequate to see faith as one of those things that you know, kind of like pain relievers, just there to make us happy. We’re on a much deeper journey than that. We’re on a pathway of discipleship that will involve suffering that we can’t fix.

I am Todd Billings, and I am the Girod Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Introduction

Stump: 

Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump and at the controls but also with a microphone is Colin Hoogerwerf.  

Hoogerwerf: 

Hey everybody.

Stump: 

I usually introduce these episodes, saying something about what I thought of the interview, but you must have some thoughts too?

Hoogerwerf: 

I do have some thoughts on occasion. And we were talking the other day, and realized how much these interviews connect with the conversations we have around the office and with other interviews we’re working on, and we thought it would be worth sharing a little bit more context about the interviews before we play them. We’ll still keep the intros on the short side, and maybe we won’t do it every episode, but for now, here we are. 

Stump: 

Yes, so this one with Todd Billings arose from a couple of different points of contact we’ve had with him.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, I’ve known of Todd Billings for a while now. Maybe partly because the seminary he works at shares a campus with Hope College where I went to school. But more recently I read his book, The End of the Christian Life while I was thinking about the Creation Groans series which just finished last week. 

Stump: 

You might need to say more about why that book was connected to a series about creation care.

Hoogerwerf: 

Well I think we live in a society that has spent the last many centuries making death almost completely invisible to our everyday lives. And as I was thinking about the environmental crisis and the loss of a lot of life on earth I thought there might be some wisdom to be gained from better understanding of how to deal with human mortality and death. And I did find a lot of wisdom in that book, though we don’t quite get into that connection in this interview. 

Stump: 

Yes, that’s perhaps a topic to explore in another interview with him at some point.

Hoogerwerf: 

This current interview went in a slightly different direction because of some contact you’ve had recently with Dr. Billings.

Stump: 

Yes, I attended a conference in May where he spoke on the topic of healing. The session was so powerful, because it was not just theoretical or disinterested speculation. Todd himself has cancer and will probably be undergoing chemotherapy for the rest of his life. That adds a pretty powerful dimension to what he has to say.

Hoogerwerf: 

You and I have occasionally had our conversations come around to end of life issues and it seems like you have always been a little, I dont know, squeamish about this topic 

Stump: 

No, it’s not squeamishness, that would mean I don’t want to think about it.

Colin. 

What is it then?

Stump: 

It’s more like an obsession… I think about death a lot.

Hoogerwerf: 

And what exactly do you think about it?

Stump: 

Well, I don’t like the thought of dying. But it’s not that I fear death. I guess I’m curious about it. Going to sleep every night, I reflect a little bit on passing out of consciousness and how strange it is that one moment I’m aware of being here and now, and then that just stops. And I wonder about whether that’s how it works when we die. And because of my faith commitments I certainly have hopes about what happens next. But I’ve always found curious the tension I see between what we say we believe as Christians, and the way we actually act with regard to death.

Hoogerwerf: 

Yeah, explain that a little more. 

Stump: 

Well, Billings noted that religious people have a much higher rate of asking for extreme interventions to prolong life than do non-religious people. If we really believed in heaven and the resurrection, would we go to such extremes to keep this earthly life going?

Hoogerwerf: 

Are you saying we don’t really believe that?

Stump: 

I’m just saying there’s a tension there. Just like the old Loretta Lynn song, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Hoogerwerf: 

Hmm. Well you’ll get into that more in the conversation. This topic always has a chance of being a bit depressing, but Dr. Billings proves that this really can be a hopeful conversation and he really helps to build a strong theology around healing and medicine and also around the limits to medicine, which is another focus in the episode.

Stump: 

With that, let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Well Todd Billings, welcome to the podcast. I’m very glad to talk to you.

Billings:

Good to be with you.

Stump:

So you’re a theology professor. And I’d like to hear some of how that came to be. And I’m always interested in the deep history of such things. So go back even to your childhood, if you were what kind of family do you come from? What kind of things were you interested in as a kid?

Billings:

Yeah, thanks, Jim. I don’t think I really knew what a theology professor was when I was a kid. But I was certainly interested in God and interested in faith. And I grew up in Kansas, in a Baptist church, I would say, kind of a generically evangelical context there, and became passionate about my faith, partly through different mission trips around different parts of the world. And growing up, we would also host missionaries at our house quite a bit. My parents were medical missionaries, before I was born, my brothers were around. And then they settled in Kansas. And so I always had a sense of exciting and interesting things happening in the church, globally. And then I spent, when I was 12, we went back to where my parents had been medical missionaries in the Congo for two months. And then, in the next few years, I went on other full summer missions trips, and that definitely opened up my imagination for faith and also raised a lot of theological questions. And it was in college, I actually started as and finished college as a philosophy major. And I was trying to discern my direction. But while I was at college, I had a six month internship in Uganda working with the Anglican church there in community development. And it just struck me that there were both exciting and troubling and puzzling things happening in that context.

Stump:

Like what? What do you mean?

Billings:

Well, on the one hand, it was a mostly Muslim area, and it was subsistence level farming. And in our community development, I was working with a completely Ugandan group of Christians who were seeking to, like, make it possible to grow rice, and have more possible things that you can grow so it’s not just subsistence level. I mean, it was in my area around 50%, you know, mortality rate for kids under five. And so it was, on the one hand, a holistic witness to the good news. And yet, it was also extremely puzzling how to embody discipleship in that context, how to fit with the kind of competition to get Western investment into different parts of the country, because Western countries tend to invest in the most educated parts of the developing world. So they were developed, they were investing a lot in Uganda, but not in my part. And so, seeing how, in some ways, even an earlier dictator was fairly popular in that region of Uganda because he actually built a hospital and he got some things done, and then in the more democratic form there of government, because the people weren’t as educated, they really didn’t have much of a voice.

Stump:

Well, perhaps another time, I’d like to talk to you about Africa and world missions in general, I think that would be pretty interesting. But let’s push a little further here into your own story. And the main topic of discussion for us. You and I met in person for the first time just a few weeks ago at a conference where you gave a paper about healing and chronic illness and the church’s response. And it was a really powerful session. Undoubtedly, because it wasn’t just academic or theoretical, right. This is a big aspect of your life right now. So I don’t want to sensationalize or exploit this. But if you’re comfortable sharing about your cancer, I think it would help to give some context for the rest of our conversation here. So how did this come about? What were the first signs? When were you diagnosed?

Billings:

Yeah, I’m happy to share about that. And it’s, I’ve shared about it publicly and written about it. And so yeah, happy to do that. So it was, I was diagnosed with this blood cancer, multiple myeloma, when I was in when I was in my late 30s, in 2012. And the main thing that they had sensed was wrong was that I kept on getting sick all the time. And especially pneumonia. I got pneumonia repeatedly, and had to be hospitalized several times. And my doctor thought this is just not fitting together. And after some, testing, they found out that it was, that it is cancer. And it’s a cancer that is much, much more common for folks in their 70s and 80s. And so it really wasn’t what they were expecting to see. On the one hand, it’s one that I’m really grateful because there have been some much more effective treatments developed in the last few decades. So I mean, that’s, it was almost 10 years ago that I was diagnosed, and that would have been almost unheard of a few decades ago for me to live that long after.

Stump:

Is it standard chemotherapy or is there a different treatment?

Billings:

It’s a specialized one. So especially with I mean, I was stage three out of three stages. And once they knew what to look for, they could see all the bone lesions and things like that. But it’s a specialized chemotherapy that really is only for this cancer. And I’m finding that you know, a lot of cancers are very, very specific in terms of actual therapy that helps, which makes the idea of a search for a cure for cancer a little bit fuzzy about what that would mean, since it’s really kind of a big tent for all sorts of different things. But in my situation, I had about nine months of pretty intensive chemotherapy and steroid treatment, and then had a stem cell transplant, was in the hospital for about a month, and then isolation or quarantine—I don’t have to explain that to people now—for about three to four months. Because basically, you go down to where you have zero white counts, you don’t have an immune system, and then it builds up again. And then I’ve been on a lower dose of chemotherapy since then, and relevant to this whole discussion is that with myeloma, there’s not a cure, and the doctors expect it to come back. And you know, I’ve had a really long, what they call partial remission, where I still have a cancer level that they can see, but we’ve been able to keep it low. So it’s not harming my body right now. But it’s not—it has no impact on future prognosis. 

Stump:

In terms of whether it recurs?

Billings:

Yeah, Wether it recurs. And so you know, it in general, like, if it comes back and comes back strong, most patients I’ve known that that’s the case die within 12 months. If it comes back less strong, there are some different chemotherapies, again, that are very specific for this cancer that may be able to push it down.

Stump:

So the way things are right now, what’s the impact on life on lifestyle? What are you able to do in terms of work, family, church?

Billings:

Yeah. So at this point, I actually don’t even have to go to the hospital for infusions. I had to continue that for a while. My chemotherapy is oral. So through a pill, and then I have a whole bunch of other pills I take to counteract some of the side effects of this chemotherapy. But the most, the biggest side effects of the chemo, in addition to causing secondary cancers, and that’s basically every chemotherapy has that as a significant side effect, but the day to day side effects are heavy fatigue, and chronic pain. So yeah, that’s just a part of life. So I’m able to work two-thirds time and have to schedule my day so that I have a big, like, hour and a half nap in the afternoon and with awareness of like, my mental alertness, what I do in the day, but I’m really, really grateful. I mean, I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful, when my kids were one and three when I was diagnosed, and they’re now 11 and 12, and grateful to be able to be with them. But it’s also not at all like it’s over, like the cancer is over. 

Stump:

Almost all of us will be affected by chronic illness at some point, whether that’s ourselves or somebody very close to us. For those of us who aren’t there yet, what should we know about chronic illness, the experience that we probably don’t know right now?

Billings:

Yeah. I think that when it comes to chronic illness, some of what we need to know is that medicine is amazing in many ways and is a gift from God to be celebrated. And yet, it’s good at certain things and not good at others. And it can be a good servant, but it’s a tyrannical master. And so, in chronic illness, you’re going to face things where, like, a lot of our medical advance has been how to keep you alive, or how to prevent infectious diseases, you know, through vaccines, and so forth. But when it comes to chronic pain, for example, we have pain relievers, which also, I think, are a gift. But you know, many forms of chronic pain aren’t really touched very well by the pain relievers and specifically, some of the chronic pain caused from the nerve damage of cancer treatment, and people have diabetes experienced this as well, in neuropathy, a pain reliever just doesn’t touch it in the same way. And so the idea that a pill or even the medical system is going to solve it and so you can be comfortable and happy is just not the case. 

Our human condition is such that, you know, all of us eventually will lose our health and our wealth. You know, I mean, it may be a little bit depressing to say it this way, but all of us will follow the path of Job like, eventually when we lose these things, lose our capacities. But that is precisely why faith relates to our embodied life and to all of our life and it’s not just adequate to see faith as one of those things that you know, kind of like pain relievers, just is there to make us happy. We’re on a much deeper journey than that. We’re on a pathway of discipleship that will involve suffering that we can’t fix and pain sometimes that doesn’t go away. And strangely, as I’ve worked with others in the cancer community, and in my own journey with chronic pain, I found that some of the most effective ways to treat chronic pain are deeply counterintuitive. It involves actually getting in touch with those, getting in touch with the pain itself, like being attentive to those body parts that are in pain, actually, in a sense, accepting, embracing that pain. And so your whole system comes down and the pain comes to not bother you quite as much. Like it’s so counterintuitive to how we are conditioned in Medical Society in a consumer society. And I say that as someone who loves medicine, my dad and my brother are both medical doctors. But there’s just, there’s limits to what medicine can and should do. 

Stump:

I’d like to come back to medicine in a little bit after we go through a little bit more theology, because I think there’s some interesting lenses to shine on to look through and to see that. So cancer in general is a disease for which we humans have some responsibility, right? For example, we’ve done things to our environment that make the development of cancers more likely in some populations. And sometimes that’s unintentionally and sometimes not so much. But cancer isn’t entirely on us, right? There are clear indications that cancer was part of our world long before humans were around to sin. And there’s a number of malignant cancers that have been found in dinosaur fossils, for example. How do you square that with your theology? Where does cancer fit in God’s world?

Billings:

Yeah. Well, I think that, you know, on the one hand, like you said, at times, there are cancers that relate to human action, human responsibility, and in clear ways. But with a cancer like my own that has no known environmental cause, it kind of pushes people to the God question even more quickly, I think. I know, I remember saying to another cancer patient, I just wish that there was some cause that I knew of, even if I was to blame, like that would be so much better than like, why is this? But I think that it’s precisely in that kind of context that can remind us what it means to be embodied creatures who are blessed with life as a gift, with each breath as a gift, and yet also crying out to God asking, you know, God, why have you hidden your face from me, as well.

The psalmists, I think are fixated on the promise of God and the covenant promise that God would shine his face upon his people, would dwell among his people. And in the dwelling place of God, the temple, there’s no signs of death, there’s no signs of pain. I mean, there’s sacrificial sense in our system, but what I’m speaking about in terms of is like in the Holy of Holies, in the symbolism, there, it’s like a little Eden, in a sense. So, I think that, as strange as it may sound, the good news part of the good news of the Christian faith is that we are put in a place in relation to suffering and even evil, that we don’t understand that we can both live in gratitude and in a lament, that expresses itself in a compassionate response to suffering. So in the book I wrote after my diagnosis, and after the first year of treatment, Rejoicing in Lament, spent a lot of time with the lament Psalms. And I think that all the Psalms, including the lament Psalms, are really infused with hope, but they’re not infused with the type of hope that we are conditioned to have where like, in certain parts of the Western world where like, God owes us a, you know, life lived into our 80s where,and a retirement with a 401k. And I mean, often how we pray for people, we pray for them to, you know, get fixed and so that they can return to this life that somehow we think or assume that God owes them. And with the Psalms of lament, it’s both taking God on His promise, taking God up on his promise and saying, “you know, God, I’m not in a place to say that God is wicked or unfaithful, I’m talking to God and you know, I’m lamenting to God, you know, in with a Psalm of lament, and yet still bringing before the Lord the promises and asking for an aching for the renewal of creation and you know the promised fulfillment of God’s promises.” Yeah. 

Stump:

I mentioned that you gave this paper about healing at the conference we were at a couple of weeks ago, too. And there you also gave discussion about hope from the New Testament as it relates the physical illness and that it isn’t just this hope to be miraculously healed in the here and now. Can you unpack that a little bit more in the New Testament sense, you talked about?

Billings:

Yeah. So I mean, too, it’s a notion of healing in the New Testament, is never really just a bodily fixing, in the sense of like, you know, you, like my son broke his arm a couple of weeks ago. And so went in, got a cast. And as he continues to grow, we’re, you know, hoping that the arm is basically fixed. In the New Testament, it involves the whole person, certainly includes their body, but also the social community, the religious community. So, and it involves, ultimately, and most importantly, an encounter with Jesus. And so with the woman, for example, who touches Jesus and is healed of her hemorrhaging. There’s a biochemical element to that, which is really important. I mean, she has been suffering physically, but she was also, we know from the context would have been excluded from Temple worship, would have been excluded from the various cultural, she would have been ritually unclean all the time. And so there’s this wholeness that she is brought back into. But it’s a wholeness through this encounter with Jesus. He doesn’t want to be just—Jesus talks to her and, you know, he recognized her and she needs to, you know, recognize him and makes this confession of him. And so he’s not like a medical machine or something, to fix our bodily ails as if they, as if fixing those in themselves is the point. But even in the New Testament terminology there, it could be translated, when Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you”, it could be “healed you” or “saved you.” I mean, the soza, the term is the same term. And so there’s a very holistic sense to this. But then it also interfaces with a New Testament sense of hope, where when hope is spoken of in the New Testament, it’s almost always in reference to the resurrection, the final resurrection. And there’s, it often has a reference also to the Spirit because the spirit is both a foretaste and a guarantee of the final resurrection because the resurrection of Jesus. But there’s this, what I said in the paper, you know, eschatological weight, so sort of weighted toward the coming age, when the resurrection isn’t just an individual event, but a great cosmic event when the whole of creation will be judged and set right and then brought into full fellowship with God through Jesus. So.

Stump:

So your faith has healed you or your faith has saved you, that’s consistent then with the person not being physically put back to rights as you’re talking about. And so you’ve also claimed, though, that in this New Testament understanding that ill Christians may have a deeper identity as a witness to the Gospel, you said, bodies that are frail and crumbling from illness can be supremely fitting vessels for testimony to Christ. How is this? And how have perhaps you experienced this personally?

Billings:

Yeah. I think that we tend to have a pretty simple storyline, as Christians, whether we accept it or reject it, we tend to think healing as kind of a one time thing where you’re ill with something, God heals you, and then you’re, you know, back to normal or, you know, back the way things should be. Some Christians, you know, think that’s with medicines and without, but often have that storyline. In fact, as came up earlier, in our conversation, the vast majority of us will struggle with chronic illness, illness that doesn’t go away. And certainly before we die, we certainly will. And in a New Testament account, there’s both the omission, and then there is the positive account, in terms of what’s not included. We, when there is a miraculous healing, even the raising of Lazarus from the dead, sometimes we get the idea, oh, well, that’s when God is acting when something like that happens, right? Not when there’s a deterioration of the body. But I mean, the fact is, Lazarus started deteriorating, right after he was alive again, like all of us are dying. That’s a resurrected body is a body that’s no longer dying, like we are. We are not there yet. Jesus Christ alone is the resurrected one is the first fruit of the new creation. And so I think we actually have over too high of expectations for healing in some sense, not in the sense of necessarily, you know, the likelihood, though, often we, we make that mistake, but that if we’re healed, then that’s just everything this is, you know, that’s the highest thing that we could ask for, in a sense. But Paul himself, as he reflects on this, and Paul certainly has a positive theology of healing and his account of the gifts of the Spirit and role in the church.

Stump:

But also had a thorn in his flesh of some sort, right?

Billings:

Yeah, he had a thorn in his flesh, as well. Very profound reflections on that in Second Corinthians, that, you know, it’s these jars of clay and Paul is using a temple image here of a breakable jar. It’s through these jars of play that the power of God shows so that it’s—shows that it’s from God and not from us that in our weakness, his power is shown. And in chapter four, he goes, he says, “we who are alive are always been given over to death for Jesus his sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.” And so you have this precisely in the crumbling of even illness and incapacity, we have God’s glory in the face of Christ being displayed. And that’s a really counterintuitive idea for I think Christians across the spectrum today.

Stump:

Can I ask again here, whether you can give any personal account of that? Ways that you have seen God particularly manifested in your own life because of your cancer?

Billings:

Yeah, absolutely. I think that one of the, I think that a common human tendency is to live like we will live forever. And we have indications from the Psalms, that, you know, people had this tendency at times in the ancient world. And so the Psalmists reminded themselves that our life is but a breath in relation to God. But particularly in our modern world, our instinct is to think that death is something that just applies to other people. And so that the daily reminders of mortality and our limits, even through daily chronic pain, which I would certainly would never cultivate, but the fact that it’s there is a reminder that I’m small, that the world is not my oyster, that in spite of all of the, you know, personalized preferences that come to me through a cell phone, I’m not the center of the universe. And this is actually deeply refreshing. I think, in the Christian life, where, if you look at, you know, advertisements for Christian College, it’s like, no, come learn how to change the world and transform the world. And I think that’s actually deeply toxic. Like, we need to embrace the fact that we are small. And that’s not a fatalistic thing in the sense of making you passive, but it can make you both celebrate and put your energy into that which matters most. And I discuss parts of this in my most recent book, The End of the Christian Life, and of reviving the Christian practice of just daily remembering that you are mortal. It’s a practice that, you know, the monks in the Benedictine monasteries were required to do daily and that, you know, Protestants and Puritans like Jonathan Edwards still daily. It’s a practice that sounds morbid, but it’s actually very life giving when approached in the right sort of way, because it’s, you’rein relation to God, the bigness of God, the Everlasting one, and so much of our lives, and I would say, many, many aspects of social cultural oppression come from us, pretending and living in denial of our mortal limits. We have all sorts of cultural practices and liturgies that engage us in activities to try to convince ourselves that yeah, death is something that happens to other people. And we are not our best selves when, when we are in the midst of those.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hey Language of God listeners. If you enjoy the conversations you hear on the podcast, we just wanted to let you know about our website, biologos.org, which has articles, videos, personal stories, and curated resources for pastors, students, and educators. And we’ve recently launched a new animated video series called insights. These short videos tell stories and explore many of the questions at the heart of the faith and science conversation. You can find them at biologos dot org slash insights or there’s a link in the shownotes. All right, back to the show!

Interview Part Two

Stump:

You have not doubted that there are times of exceptional action by God that brings about instantaneous healing. But you had a line in the paper that really struck me which was, “while surprising healings could build trust in God’s ongoing work and Providence in daily life, I fear that the opposite is often the case.” Can you explain your thinking there a little bit? How might too many miracles undermine our trust in God?

Billings:

Yeah. I think that both in the New Testament and today miracles, or what some theologians since would call special divine providence, is something that God is free to do and actually does do. But it is the exception rather than the most common thing that happens. And even in, you know, parts of the world, you know, for my time in Africa, certainly those things happen, but within the course of a person’s life, a family’s life, the miracle is the exception. I mean, that’s why it stands out as a miracle. And some of the temptation is that if there’s a dramatic miracle, people want to recreate it, and expect it to happen again, and make it normative. So that, you know, this is when God is really at work, when there is this dramatic visible change. But I’ve seen so many circumstances, within the cancer community and certainly within my own life, where that is just, it’s deeply alienating. I mean, the same people who experience what they saw as a miracle from God, you know, don’t receive the same miracle when their son, you know, is struggling with a similar illness few years later and dies, but they expect it to be the same. They expect it to be the norm. And I think that there’s a number of things going on. But one of them is a misconstrual, I think of even what we pray for when we pray for healing. I think that often we pray as if we know the mind of God, we know that God wants healing, and we’re just going to do everything we can so that God will give this healing now, because we really know that that’s what God is up to. I mean, how could God not want healing? Right?

My own sense is that absolutely, yes, we should pray for healing. But it should be part of praying for daily bread, and the Lord’s Prayer. In the words of Karl Barth who has a short section on healing in the dogmatics, he talks about healing, bodily healing, as strength to live. That’s a lot. That’s good. But it’s not everything. It’s not, like, what we really most deeply long for isn’t our healing now, or even our healing in the age to come, it’s Christ Himself, and the return of Christ and the making right of all things that have been broken that are out of order. And, of course, within a Christian perspective, we do trust that healing ultimately, will and can happen personally and on this cosmic level. But I think we’re so afraid of thinking that if we say that, somehow God’s hand is in or amidst this process of illness and suffering, we want to keep God’s hands clean. And then we also often want to think about what God desires in terms of Revelation where there is no crying and weeping and we want to extract a little bit of that, and give that to us now.

Stump:

Yeah, I’d like to push further in that direction because there’s a real tension there for me. And with some of these theological reflections in mind now maybe let’s bring back the science and the medicine into the conversation which often comes into play when we talk about the Kingdom of God and the here and now. So if a few episodes back, I was talking with Tish Harrison Warren and noted her observation, or maybe she was quoting somebody else, that for all the healing Jesus did in his earthly ministry, he barely made a dent in the number of lepers that were around in his day. Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be the point of what he came to do. But then I also note that today through medical science, we’ve made a pretty big dent in the number of lepers. And maybe there are other diseases that would make this point even stronger, right diseases that we have eradicated through science. So given how you’ve been talking about healing, as this physical healing is not necessarily the point of what God has come to do through Jesus in the here and now. To what extent can we talk about scientific treatment and cures as healing and what I’m really pushing at here is whether there’s something different theologically about desiring and pursuing a miraculous healing versus desiring and pursuing a medical cure. Does that question make sense?

Billings:

Yeah on the one hand, I want to say I think, you know, like similar to what I said in the paper, medicine was actually one of the most common callings in early Christianity. And, you know, hospital was like, in many ways invented in the fourth century Christian context. And Calvin has this really strong theology of medicine where you’re actually sinning against the spirit if you don’t use medicine. And there’s medicine available, because this is part of the gift of creation that God has intended. But on the other hand, wanting to distinguish between the healing, scientific, like, the way in which science can help bring healing, like in terms of leprosy, as distinct from enhancement, that is trying to bring us away from our flesh and blood bodies, you know, toward more transhumanists or that sort of thing. So I probably have too many thoughts going on there. 

Stump:

You can keep them coming. Because the tension I’m trying to point out here is I hear your theology of saying, look, the point isn’t for us to be made physically whole all the time in the here and now. And yet, we often point to the medical sciences as legitimately pursuing the healing ministry of Christ, the kingdom of God, which Jesus announced as being among us now includes the claims that the blind will see in the lane were wrong. And we often say those who are pursuing these medical careers are actively working toward that sort of embodiment of the Kingdom of God and the here and now when they’re healing people when they’re helping the blind to see and the lame to walk and so on. So the tension is, is it different? Is there a theological difference for me if I’m somebody seeking healing, to pursue that, from the medical sciences, as opposed to asking for a miraculous healing is where I hear you saying, the latter, asking for a miraculous healing, or at least expecting a miraculous healing seems to be a little bit out of the bounds of proper biblical theology. Whereas does asking for medical treatment and the doctors to pursue the healing that they have uncovered through medical science, that is a legitimate expectation for me in the here and now.

Billings:

Yeah. It’s not only appropriate, but it’s a good thing for us to seek out healing from the medical community and from medical understandings of science. This is part of the goodness and wonder of God’s creation. That it has an order and structure that no matter whether one is a Christian or not, it can be closely studied and observed. And we can develop treatments and medicines that can help us on our path, can you know, help bind our wounds, so to speak. And this is a long, long Christian calling. It’s one that in the first centuries of Christianity from the records we have, becoming a physician becoming a doctor was one of the most common Christian vocations. I’m a a little bit more nervous than your question might imply, though, about directly connecting this to the kingdom of God in the sense of, like, if we’re going to a part of the world that needs a vaccine. For a disease, we should definitely go to that part of the world and spread that vaccine. But it’s not as if we’re just like spreading the kingdom of God. I think this is an aspect of our neighborly love and of seeing the reflection of the image of God and those other parts of our Earth and caring for them and caring for them. And for ourselves, and our own bodies in the midst of that. So in the sense, I mean, maybe it’s because I come from a family of, where my dad is a medical doctor, my brother, I have a very high view of medicine. But I also have a view that gives it distinct limits, I think that if we over expect from medicine, it can have pretty bad consequences as well. And medicine can be a help, and a tool that God uses in healing for the strength to live. But there are things that it can’t do, it can’t help us to die well. It can’t help us, in some sense, to live in discipleship to live a life of virtue.

Stump:

Well, we need to wind things down here give you a chance to rest and have your nap today. But I’d like to ask just in closing here, how we in the church particularly can best respond to and care for people with chronic illness. And I want to be careful in doing this. And, by comparison, we’ve done a number of episodes about race. And as a member of the privileged majority race, I always want to get some advice about how we can do better. But I’m also painfully aware that this can sound like I’m putting the burden of fixing me and my incompetence on to my African American brothers and sisters, as though they need one more burden to carry, right. So here too, with you, then I don’t want to add to the burdens you carry, by asking you also to be responsible for sorting out the problems that people like me have with properly caring for and even relating to people with chronic illness. But I also don’t entirely trust my own intuitions about this. So maybe instead of asking you to fix us, could you maybe just share some examples of ways or of things that you’ve found helpful and encouraging. And maybe even the opposite things people like me do that aren’t particularly helpful, even if well intentioned sometimes? 

Billings:

Yeah. I think that with—some of the healthy ways to relate to people is to continue to relate to them as brothers and sisters in the body of Christ whose life has not stopped. It is not their life is not just waiting around, until they are fixed by some, you know, external category, but they’re actually on the one hand, they have special needs, that they’ll let you know about, “oh, it’s hard to deal with this pain,” or, you know, “I’m fearful about the future” or whatever that may be. But in the midst of it, they’re called to the wholeness of the Christian life, called to a life of love and joy and of cultivating patience in the midst of adversity, and forgiveness, and, and so forth. And I think we actually often have some of that temptation can be to have too low of expectations, in some sense, for those with chronic illness in particular. It’s in what I mean by chronic here as illness that isn’t going away, but isn’t necessarily, you know, degenerating super fast, it’s just sort of stable. And, but difficult. And what we tend to be very good at in the church is when there’s an acute event, whether a diagnosis or an accident, you know, will show up at that person’s door and provide a lot of food and support and so on. But in the case of chronic illness, and in a different way, in different forms of degenerative illness this is part of the long haul. And so the support needs to continue in a way where the person is both called to the whole Christian life and can be recognized as a witness to the Gospel, even in the midst of their struggles with illness. And so you know, prayers for healing are one of those areas that it’s kind of tricky. Because on the one hand, both people with chronic and degenerative illness, we want healing. We don’t think this is the way we were created. This is not an issue of biodiversity from our standpoint. So it’s very different from like, I have family members who have autism. And we view that as, you know, just part of the there are some ways in which we, they may need some special help, but it’s part of the goodness of God’s diversity 

Stump:

Normal, the normal range of experience,

Billings:

Right, and, you know, it’s largely needing to adapt to what our culture views as normal, and, you know, find a place, an authentic place within that, and to relate to that. But this is something where we’re both aching and longing for healing, and yet to keep on praying with the person for healing in a way that is expecting some dramatic response in a way that may not fit with even what the illness is. It’s really disheartening. And I know, in my own case, you know, even if my cancer numbers were zero, the doctors would expect the cancer to come back, I would need to stay on my chemotherapy, I would need to continue on this path that I’m currently on. And so sometimes, I think, when folks have prayed for me, they’re doing it more for themselves than for me, in the sense that, you know, they’re troubled by this and to deal with their own internal trouble, they, you know, pray for me that everything gets fixed and think that they’ve done what they can do, and so that they can move on. But if we’re to both bear one another’s burdens, and to learn from one another, as different members and parts of the body of Christ, I think we have a path of walking together and being open to the real surprises along the way. And the ways in which God’s power is displayed in the midst of our weakness. And if we don’t look to people with chronic and degenerative illness as even potentially giving us gifts, then I think it can be pretty condescending. We, as a family, one thing we did after my cancer diagnosis was got to know a lot of the older people in our church who, you know, we knew them a little bit, but we hadn’t really visited them, and some of the folks in nursing home, but we started to really build those relationships. And some of it was concretely I wanted my kids to know people who are dying. But also along the way, they had amazing gifts to offer my kids and to offer me and you know, there are a few things more humanizing, then going to another person, you know, even if the person is, you know, having trouble being in the moment and dealing with all sorts of capacities and so forth, but we have something to learn from them they can give to us. And that’s both deeply humanizing to them. And I think it’s part of the detox that we need in our cultural moment. That is so preoccupied with us being at the center of universe and me, the consumer, me the, you know, me who’s has the right political perspective, I’m at the center of the universe. We need to detox from this. And I think that precisely in learning from some of those whose bodies are crumbling, in the midst of that crumbling can provide some of the refreshment and Christ that we need.

Stump:

Thanks so much for sharing with us, Todd, and your wisdom and insight on this has been a gift to me, and I’m sure to our listeners in all of this. That’s just super helpful.

Billings:

Thanks, Jim. Good to be with you.

Stump:

So we like to end these episodes by asking what books you’ve been reading or listening to lately.

Billings:

Oh, yeah. I read pretty, pretty widely. Yeah, so my most recent fiction has been Clara and the Sun. Which I’ve really loved. And then I’m most of the way through, in terms of nonfiction, and I’m not including my scholarly research here, like kind of considered that separate. But Andy Crouch’s, The Life We’re Looking For, which I found to be just breathtaking on technology and faith, and just really, really well done. And then and then just recently finished a book I grew up in Kansas, and it’s a book called White Hot Hate, by Dick Lehr about really troubling but interesting, and the overall circumstances plot to bomb Muslim community in Garden City, Kansas. And it’s, I think I was taken to it because I both know these places. And also I was just struck that on the one hand, it was these, it was this horrific plot. And yet it was also Kansans, from a similar cultural context, who brought down the plot and on also Kansans who were welcoming the Muslim community and having all sorts of celebrations of the Somali Muslims in the area before any of this took place. And so just has me reflecting a lot on both how the Christian faith can be distorted and how it can be a profound gift in our polarized context too.

Stump:

Very good. Well, I hope we can talk again sometime, Todd. It’s been a pleasure.

Billings:

Yeah, thanks so much.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings

Dr. J. Todd Billings is the Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland MI. An ordained minister in the Reformed Church of America, he received with M.Div from Fuller Seminary and his Th.D. from Harvard. His books include, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Free us to Truly Live, Remembrance, Communion and Hope, and Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer and Life in Christ. 


2 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation