It’s every parent’s nightmare. An unexpected phone call, an unexpected funeral burying your own child. How do we react in the days and months and years ahead?
On November 3rd, 2020, Tim Challies received just such a call. He received the shocking news that his son Nick had died. During those days, months, and year of loss, Tim began to write. And the content of that writing is what we’re going to talk about in this episode. We’re going to talk about his most recent book, Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God.
Resources From This Podcast
Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God, by Tim Challies
Challies.com, Tim Challies blog
Topics Covered In This Week’s Podcast
02:45 The origin of Seasons of Sorrow
05:51 Subjecting feelings to doctrine while walking through suffering
11:25 God’s goodness
14:55 My Manifesto
20:22 The ministry of sorrow, and stewarding sorrow
25:46 Psalm 23 in times of grief
30:44 Anger with God
32:54 My Anchor Holds
36:59 Detaching from the world and longing for heaven
39:33 God, give me sons
42:21 To work and to weep
44:22 Grieving as a family
I’m Chap Bettis and you’re listening to The Disciple-Making Parent, where we seek to equip parents and churches to pass the gospel to their children.
It’s every parent’s nightmare. An unexpected phone call, an unexpected funeral. Burying your own child. How do we react in the days and months and years ahead?
Hi, my name is Chap Bettis and I’m the author of The Disciple-Making Parent. On November 3rd, 2020, Tim Challies received just such a call. He received the shocking news that his son Nick had died. A 20-year-old student and seemingly in good health, he had been participating in a school activity with his fiancée, sister, and friends. When he fell unconscious and collapsed to the ground, no one could revive him.
Well, as Tim likes to say, he doesn’t know what he thinks until he writes. And so during those days, months and year of loss, Tim began to write. And the content of that writing is what we’re going to talk about in this episode. We’re going to talk about his most recent book, Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss, and the Comfort of God, and I would encourage you: take off your shoes because we’re on holy ground.
Well, Tim is a well-known blogger, speaker, and author of numerous books. He blogs at challies.com. He’s been married to Aileen for 23 years and lives in Toronto, Canada.
I believe this conversation in book or audio book- actually, I would recommend the audio book over the book, just because you get to hear Tim read it- but I believe it’s going to help anyone who has suffered serious loss. And it can help pastors and others shepherd those who’ve gone through deep waters.
Before we start, though, I want to remind you that we give away the audio book of The Disciple-Making Parent absolutely free. We’re on a mission to equip parents to pass the gospel to their children, and The Disciple-Making Parent book is at the centerpiece of our ministry. It’s been endorsed by Al Mohler, Marty Machowski, and a number of others. You can have the audiobook for free. Just simply visit the disciplemakingparent.com/freeaudiobook. That’s one word: thedisciplemakingparent.com/freeaudiobook. But for now, let’s think about walking through seasons of deep sorrow and loss.
Chap: Well, it’s a joy to have Tim Challies on the podcast today. So welcome, Tim. Thanks for coming on.
Tim: Sure. Thanks for having me.
Chap: Well, on the one hand, I’m sorry to be talking about this book. I know it was born out of the loss of losing Nick in 2020. And yet I’m really thankful because I believe it is a gift to the church and I just want us to talk about that and help parents who need to process things as well. So the book is divided into four parts: fall, winter, spring, and summer. And I thought that was just really helpful, just brilliant there, thinking about the seasons of sorrow. Talk just a little bit about that. Tell us the details of Nick’s death, if you don’t mind, and then also just the seasons of sorrow, and how that tied in, in your own heart.
Tim: Sure, yeah. Um, Nick was a seminary student, newly engaged, doing well, living down in Louisville, Kentucky where he was going to seminary, Bible college, doing both at the same time, working toward a concurrent degree that would get him his Bachelor’s degree and his Master’s degree at once. And he was looking forward very much to coming back to Canada. He has a real heart for this country and wanted to come back here and to minister here.
And then one day the Lord simply just took him. He was out with the other students on his hall. He was an assistant resident advisor organizing some activities and just very suddenly collapsed and was gone. Nobody could revive him. And so obviously that came as a massive shock to our family. There was no advance warning. We never would’ve imagined anything like this could happen.
In the days that followed, I found myself writing, which is how I respond to pretty much everything. In the great highs and the great lows of life, I write as my way of processing things. And I started writing: writing for the sake of people who wanted to know what’s going on, writing for the sake of my own meditation, just working things through. And as you said, it eventually turned into a book. I wasn’t aware I was writing a book for many months, but over time it just seemed to make sense to take all this writing and turn it into that.
And it was framed around the seasons for a number of reasons. Number one, because this unfolded in real time. It’s written in real time. And so Nick died in November and then we progress through the seasons. The book ends exactly one year later on the first anniversary of his death. The seasons also have some symbolic value, at least here in Canada. Fall is the season of death, and then winter is the season of coldness, of darkness. And then we get into spring with new growth, and summer- Well, we all love summer, don’t we? For good reasons. And then third, seasons are just those times in life, stages in life we pass through. We often talk about seasons: This is a season of suffering, or a season of joy. And so I framed the book that way and I think it helped provide some sort of flow, narrative structure to the book.
Chap: It was very, very, very helpful. I highly recommend the audio book, even perhaps over the print version. I know you process things, but just to hear your voice and just identify with you so much.
I think you said this at the end in the extra material of the audio book, but I was thinking of it as I was listening. I believe you said the phrase, “We subjected our feelings to our doctrine,” and I feel like as I’m listening in real time to you go through those seasons, you’ve taken this good teaching that we have benefited from and you’re just squeezing your sorrow through that and you’re processing. And that’s what we’re watching.
And you said in chapter two what I’ve heard you say before: “I don’t know what I think until I write it.” One of the things you said in chapter two is, “I don’t even know what to feel about my faith, my God; what am I supposed to do? How can I orient myself when everything is so dim, so dull, and so dark?” How did you handle those days? What helped you walk through those days? Just talk a little bit about that.
Tim: In any time of deep suffering, deep sorrow, I’ve heard somebody recently say, “our faith gets renovated.” It can get torn down or thrown away all together, but I think as Christians who truly love the Lord and are being kept in his hand, our faith ends up getting renovated, which is we have to reevaluate what we believe. We have to reevaluate, even to some degree, who God is. We grow in our knowledge of who God is and how he acts in this world.
And that was very much the case for us. I was raised in a very theologically-minded tradition, which I’m so grateful for, raised around creeds and catechisms and all these wonderful things and really had established a pretty good understanding of who God is and how he acts in this world. But I still wouldn’t have imagined that just in a moment, in an instant, that God would take my son, that he would be gone.
And so in that time, I had to really consider, Okay, this is what I’m feeling, or this is maybe what I want to feel, but what is true? What do I know to be true? What does the Bible tell me is true? And then how is that going to shape my emotions? Because I think in our times of deep suffering, we were very prone to do the opposite, to redraw our convictions according to what we feel.
But I felt very strongly in that time that I needed to begin not with what I was feeling, but with what I knew to be true. And the core trues that anchored me were God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness: that God is in control over all the things in this world. So whatever that means, it means this didn’t surprise God, this didn’t happen outside the knowledge of God, or even outside the will of God. And then the second is that God is good. That God isn’t out to hurt me or hurt Nick. He isn’t out to just harm us in some way. He doesn’t do things arbitrarily. He’s good. He has a plan. This matters. This is meaningful.
And those two truths, I think, really anchored me and, kept me from reinterpreting my faith according to what I was so tempted to feel or what I was feeling.
Chap: That’s really good. I had not heard the analogy of renovation, but I think maybe if we’re going to go with that, to say that knowledge has been the steel beam. So when the hurricane blows through and you have to do the renovation, you’re not just saying, Oh, we’ll start from scratch and this means the whole house before meant nothing. It’s No, we’re going to rebuild, but these are good anchors. Well, let’s talk about that chapter.
Tim: I want say just how important it is to have your doctrine in place before times of sorrow, times of suffering. So if you’re going to experience some deep loss, when a wave of persecution comes, it is so important to have your doctrine in place before then. You don’t want to be asking those big questions at the time when your heart is broken or at the time when you’re deeply suffering. Establish that in advance. So in times of peace, prepare for war, right? In times when things are good, prepare for when things won’t be good. God promises this life will be one of sorrow, one of suffering. So it’s so important to truly understand who God is, to study who he is, to have our theology, our doctrine, in place. That matters just so much and I’m so thankful to have, in large part, done that. That’s not to say there wasn’t some renovation, not some things that needed to be sharpened, but you know, using that renovation analogy, we renovate to make things better, not worse, too, and so our faith is renovated. We come to a more accurate understanding of who God is, but it’s perhaps painful getting there.
Chap: Yeah, that’s great. The psalmist says “It was good for me to be afflicted that I might learn your decrees.” And I can think of many times where verses have popped out that I’d read many times, but the pain and the minor affliction compared to yours made those verses pop out and I’m saying, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought of God that way or understood God to be that way, understood the verse to be that way.”
Well, I thought just chapter seven was gold. God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. Tell a little bit just about that story. And then I have several quotations from that chapter here and I’d love you just to comment on them. They were just so helpful. “If Nick’s death was not a lapse in God’s sovereignty, it was also not a lapse in God’s goodness. If there’s no moment that God stopped being sovereign, there’s no moment that God stopped being good.” Just powerful, powerful writing.
Tim: Thank you. I drew that chapter from, uh, a church I went to formerly where we would do that little prompt-and-response, where the pastor would say, “God is good,” and we would say “All the time,” and he would say, “All the time,” and we would say, “God is good.” And so as I express in that chapter, something like that could become a little trite in time, or it can threaten to anyway. So I think at the time I would sometimes think, “Oh, do we have to do this again?”
But those simple truths are so, so important and some of the simplest truths are the ones that sustain us in our darkest moments. Truths like “God is good,” that is so important to know and then to really believe, to believe in our heart of hearts in the times when we suffer. In that little quote you read, so I know that in that time, God didn’t stop being good. God can’t not be good. And so what happened wasn’t an expression of his disfavor toward me. It wasn’t an expression of his anger toward me. It wasn’t an expression of his lack of goodness toward me in some way or toward Nick, toward my family. In some way, God was good even in Nick’s death. God was good even in the aftermath of Nick’s death because God can’t not be good.
Chap: Well, I think what you’re doing is putting those together. I think often, especially people in our tribes will tend to say, “Well, God is sovereign, God is sovereign,” but the parenthesis is, but he’s not good. And it’s because it’s not expressly stated, then we’re left with this feeling that, Oh, well, he was in control, but he’s doing harm to me. So I just thought that was just really helpful.
Tim: In our tribe we talk a lot about sovereignty, but we tend to talk about God’s sovereignty specifically related to salvation, related to election, which is well and good. God is sovereign in election. We affirm that. That matters a lot. The question is, are we going to continue to hold to his sovereignty when it does something we don’t like? So we love it when God’s sovereignty is expressed in saving a wretch like me. But what happens when God’s sovereignty is expressed in taking a pretty good kid like Nick? Will I still believe that God is sovereign? Will I still rejoice in his sovereignty when it seems, in a sense, like it’s now turned against me rather than for me? And I think that’s a question we’re called to wrestle with in our suffering.
Chap: That’s helpful. That’s helpful. I heard someone say, “God is God and God is good.” And he was putting together the same thing you’re doing. And that was very helpful.
Well, chapter nine has “My Manifesto.” Talk a little bit about that. What prompted it ,and, uh, it looked like from the type setting that that was from your blog that was included in the book. But yeah, just talk a little bit about what prompted it. What is your manifesto?
Tim: Yeah. In the early days, I knew there would be temptations that would come along the way, and I knew as well that his was going to be a long road God was calling us to walk. Grief doesn’t go away in weeks or months. This is something I’ll be carrying for the rest of my life. I’ll never stop loving Nick. I’ll never stop longing to see Nick. I’ll never, never lose the sorrow of having lost him. I know that’ll be with me, and I knew there would be temptations along the way: temptations to get wrapped up in self-pity, temptations to maybe lash out at God, temptations to maybe just sink into despair. To think that there’s no meaning, no purpose, no possible goodness in all of this. And as I thought about that, I decided to write up a bit of a manifesto, something that would guide my sufferings, my sorrow, something I could turn back to along the way and in a sense hold myself accountable to.
And that ended up becoming I guess chapter nine- I’m not sure which chapter is which, but that was something I wrote in the early days in rough form, and sort of shaped throughout the first few months until it was in a form I was content with. And it has been very precious to me, something I can turn back to and I’ve seen God just extend his grace and extend his favor and his kindness to me in I think exactly those ways.
Chap: I think what I appreciated about it was, here you’re suffering great loss and pain, and yet there is- maybe defiance is too strong of a word- but there is determination where you’re saying, “This is what I will do.” I just thought it was really helpful. I want to read one line in that and I’m wondering if you will comment. I’m sure you’ve now come to know other people who’ve also had loss like this and I have too. And I found this line really helpful. I think you may have had it in two different places: “I will forever be scarred, but it will not be my identity.” And then I think in another chapter, you wrote, “The loss has scarred me, but it does not define me.” Can you talk just a little bit about what was behind that and perhaps, I think I’ve seen the temptation to have a loss like this define people for the rest of their lives.
Tim: Mm-hmm. Yeah. I think my fear in that moment was, having known people who had suffered some kind of a loss or gone through some sort of pain and suffering and sorrow, and that had essentially become their identity. And so it’s the first thing that’s on their lips. It’s the story they always need to tell. It’s the thing that explains everything else about them, the key that sort of unlocks them. And I wanted to ensure that the loss of my son didn’t become my identity in that sense. Something, almost a form of idolatry, if you will, something I could use to excuse bad behavior or something I could use to excuse why I had essentially dropped out of the race, which is a big temptation. And you know, for a time, of course, in the early days, we’re sidelined for a time in so many ways, our brains aren’t working right, our emotions are out of whack. There’s a time where we just need to wisely step out. But there does come a time when you’ve got to get back in the race and press on toward the prize. And I just wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to use that as a thing that would define me, and again, the thing that I would possibly use to explain poor behavior.
I don’t think that’s been a particular temptation to me yet. But again, I know I’ve got a long way to go there. Lord willing he gives me an average lifespan. That’s 40, 45 years I could be carrying this. And I just want to make sure that I continue to love him, continue to serve him, continue to find joy in life. And I can, because God’s given me faith. He’s saved Nick, he’s saved me. This light, momentary affliction will be superseded by this eternal weight of glory. And so I don’t need to despair. I don’t need to drop out.
Chap: Well, thanks. That’s helpful. It’s hard. I haven’t gone through anything like you have, but I have seen some people who’ve gone through loss and have felt that it became their identity and just trying to pastor them through that. And then once something has settled on someone’s identity, then you can’t attack it, or they feel attacked if you bring it up.
Well, in two different places you added words to the word “sorrow” that I don’t think we usually think of. One was “the ministry of sorrow” and then the other was “stewarding sorrow.” What do you mean by that? You write about the call to faithful suffering, to let sorrow do its work. Talk a little bit about that. I think if you survey, I don’t even want say the average person, I would say the average leader in the Christian Church, they would never put those words together- the “ministry of sorrow” or. . .
Tim: Yeah, let’s go back to God’s sovereignty and to say that God is in control, that is king over this world. Sovereignty is the word of kingship, of rule. So God is sovereign over this world, which means nothing is happening outside of his will, outside of his plan. And it means that God is purposeful in what’s unfolding in this world. And so when we understand that, we can understand that God is up to something even in our sorrow. We’re always tempted to think it’s meaningless, that it’s purposeless, that it’s just an empty void of suffering. But we have to believe that God is up to something and part of what God is up to in our sorrows, I’m sure, is equipping us to serve others in their sorrows.
Aileen and I and our girls benefited a lot from people who had suffered in this way and who reached out to us. Perfect strangers who came alongside us and said, “We’ve been here and let us tell you about our experience and let us pray for you in ways we know to pray” and so on. And so God comforted us in our sorrows by people who had previously experienced very similar sorrows. I became really assured that God wanted to equip us to minister to others.
Now, I want to be careful that when we think ministry and the Christian Church, we tend to think is something very formal, sort of capital-M Ministry. You know, I’m going to register with the government, I’m going to start taking charitable donations, all of that. But I’m thinking of primarily local level, local church, neighborhood type things, which is where God does his greatest work, where each of us are definitely called to the people around us, the local church. Right there primarily to be able to serve people who are enduring some kind of loss in the local church. I think God has better equipped us now to be people who can reach out to serve them, who know what to say, what not to say, who can bring specific scriptures to bear, and who can just share our experience and say, “We can attest, God will bring you through this. There is, there is light on the other side of this. You will learn to laugh again. You will learn to find joy again.”
In terms of stewardship, as God calls us to suffer, what is he calling us to do in our suffering? I think he’s calling us to accept it as something that’s within his will to submit ourselves to God in it, and then to faithfully carry it, to faithfully steward it, looking forward to his “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Chap: That’s really good. Two kind of follow ups going two different ways. I’ll ask you one and then I’ll ask you the other one. You tell the story about this couple coming up to you- it was the day of Nick’s wedding, right? or would’ve been Nick’s wedding- at the cemetery. Just tell that story as encouragement of how someone who’s been there ministered grace to you.
Tim: There’s lots of hard days that follow a loss and often those are birthdays or anniversaries or holidays. But one that kind of snuck up on us was the date that Nick would’ve been married. He was engaged to Ryn, they had set the date of their wedding, and when that day came, we were just so, so sad, Aileen and I. We just realized this was something we would never have. We would never have a son who was married, we’d never get to meet Nick’s children and so on. And so there was just this deep, deep sorrow on that day.
And so we went to the cemetery as we do on our hardest times. And we were just standing there weeping together, just so brokenhearted, so dismayed at our loss, and heard a voice. Somebody called my name and I turned around and there was this couple there who had been reading the blog. They’re familiar with my ministry, and told us that their son was buried just a few rows over. He had died a couple years prior. They were just a little ahead of us on the road of grief, and they just prayed for us, ministered to us on that day, in that moment. And it was just such an occasion where we knew God was caring for us. And Aileen’s often said since then, that was the first time she knew that God was really, really caring for us. The first time she knew that it was going to be okay just because of how surprisingly God reached out through his people in that moment.
And so often, God’s care, through word, spirit, people, so often through people, God equipping his people to minister to us.
Chap: I’m again getting choked up as I’m listening to that story and I did, I remember, as I was listening to the audio book there, just. . .
Was there a verse or verses that you particularly clung onto, that were helpful? That came out of that answer just a few minutes ago, but I’m wondering if there are specific verses that you went back to again and again.
Tim: Yeah, there were. I think Psalm 23 was as much as anything the one that really guided me. And that’s because it had always been precious to me. And like every other Christian kid, I was made to memorize it once upon a time and know several musical versions of it. And the part that’s always struck me when I preached it, it’s always been something I’ve drawn out, but was never more important to me are never more clear to me than in Nick’s death, that when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, this isn’t the wandering sheep of Jesus’s parable that wandered off and got itself into trouble. This is the shepherd leading his sheep through the dark valley, protecting them in that valley, and then eventually leading them out to the far side where they can again rest in his peace. And so I was so thankful to know that the God who was leading us in would lead us through and lead us out, and that he was with us. And so he had led us in, he was going to lead us out. And so Psalm 23 was just such a blessing, such a comfort to me as it has been to generation after generation after generation of God’s people.
Chap: That’s great. Yeah. I remember reading that and thinking, Yeah, I hadn’t really thought of it that way.Yes, the Shepherd has led us down that path. You talk about praying, “Thy will be done,” and just handling anxiety, letting your daughter leave. What insights did you gain from that? Just having to literally pray, “Thy will be done as I go forward with other people. I love?”
Tim: You know what? It occurred to me along the way that we’ve got to be careful what we pray because God might take us at our word. And so we can pray very flippantly, I think, and say things like, God, your will be done, or God use me however you please, just use me to bring glory to your name. And then sometimes God says, “All right, if that’s what you said, then let’s do it.” And you know, after the initial days we got through the Christmas season, then at same time for Abby to go back down to school. Abby had been there when Nick passed away, she was a student at the same school. And it came time to send her back to school. And man, that was an opportunity for fear to arise, fear to build up in our hearts.
We had to decide at that time, Were we going to be ruled by fear? Because trust me, you just want to hold your people close. You don’t want to let anyone go. Or were we going to just say, You know what, we keep saying God is good. We keep saying God is up to something good. Are we then going to continue to trust him? And by praying “Thy will be done,” that was our form of trust in God: to say, We are really going to commit to believing that you know better than we do. So whether you bring Abby home or not, we’re going to trust that you are doing good, and just trust honestly that we can’t run this world better than God does. It’s always the temptation that arises, you know, Well, if only God did it this way, this world would be a better place. But we’re trusting God, that this is his world. He can run it better than we do, better than we possibly could. So we entrust our loved ones to his care.
Chap: That’s really good. I think I’ve seen that as another temptation of people who’ve suffered serious loss- just fear, I’m not going to let go. I’m going to try and control the environment.
Tim: Well, again, we come to this point where we realized God is a really, really powerful. God didn’t come along and say, “Hey, just wondering, would you mind if I took your son?” or “I’m going to give you warning,” or, you know, “Can I ask your permission?” He just took, just in a moment, Nick was gone. No warning, nothing that could have prepared it for us. So we realized that this God of ours is really, really powerful and most of us are used to having his power displayed in ways we love. You know, we provides us things we love, we have all we need to live comfortable lives. And then suddenly his sovereignty, His providence is directed towards something we really don’t love, and we realize This God is strong and he’s powerful, and he really is up to something that’s beyond my comprehension. So am I going to trust him or am I going to turn on him? Am I going to run to him or run from him? We grapple with these things in our sorrows.
Chap: That’s good. Well, talk about that- it’s in the extra episode or the bonus chapter of the audiobook, about being angry at God. So sometimes there’s a form of teaching out there that says, You’ve experienced loss. You should be angry. And who’s this directed to? It should be directed towards God. He took your son. And you rejected that, I think very appropriately. But talk us through that.
Tim: We live in the age of authenticity where we think it’s really good to be authentic and to just let your inner self fly out and be displayed. And one of the ways Christians have responded to that, I think, is to call upon other Christians to respond to things they don’t like by raging at God and by shaking their fists at God or just telling God what they really think of what happened. And I want to affirm that we’re not impassive people, we’re not stoics. God doesn’t call us to be stoics, but to be Christians. So we don’t have to pretend like these things don’t hurt and we can and should weep when we experience great sorrows.
But on the other hand, if we truly believe in these things we’ve been talking about- God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness- then how can we rage against God or charge him with wrong? How could we possibly believe that God has somehow done something sinful or something less than absolutely perfect and wonderful and good? Really, the question is, are we going to put ourselves in the place of God and say, My knowledge must be greater than his, or My goodness must be greater than his? Or are we going to really submit ourselves to God and say, No, I may not like what God has done. It may not bring immediate joy to my heart.There’s a difference between the what you feel when God gives you a child and God takes a child, and that’s well and good. But to rage at God, to shake our fist at God could, only ever only ever be sinful.
Chap: I think that’s helpful. I think we need to be reminded of that.
Well, another extra chapter- I want to sell people on the audiobook because I went to look for some quotes in the hardcover and I’m like, “Oh, they’re not here.” So the chapter on “My Anchor Holds.” You know, I wonder if modern Christians were singing, “My hope is built on nothing less,” “When darkness seems to hide his face, I rest on his unchanging grace. In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil,” and I think we just sing that. We just we don’t really know, that doesn’t connect to anything. But you spent a whole chapter really talking about that imagery and how it was helpful. So just relay that to us.
Tim: When we go through difficult times, we need something to stabilize us. Otherwise we’re just blown and tossed by the wind. And the image in that song is of the songwriter anchoring his himself to a rock, essentially like a ship being anchored to a rock and not being able to be blown away, then, not being tossed by the wind in the same sense because it’s firmly held. And as Christians, we put our faith in God, and he is the rock. He is the one to whom we’ve anchored our faith. If he’s not true, all of this is a waste of time. If he’s not real, this is all just nonsense. But we find in our sorrows, we’ve anchored ourselves to that one person, that one being who really can hold us tight, hold us fast, and keep us from being moved, being destroyed. And there’s just such comfort.
And you know, that hymn and others, we are so well served by hymns, especially in other songs as well, that we can sing in our sorrows and that give us the words we need. Generations of Christians know what it is to suffer and they’ve left us books, they’ve left us songs, and there’s such a rich treasury to be found and then drawn upon. We talked earlier about knowing your doctrine. Know your songs, know your hymns as well. They can really, really steady you and anchor you and help you, give you words to sing and pour out your heart in those difficult times.
Chap: Yeah, that’s good. And specifically you brought out, I was thinking of how a ship gets tested, but it needs to test the anchor. And what tests that anchor? And I think you said in the chapter there, your life had been pretty easy. God’s circumstances had lined up pretty well with yours, and so I’ve anchored my hope in Christ. But will that hold when the hurricane comes?
Tim: Yeah, and I think one of the reasons God allows people to pass through suffering, pass through sorrow, is so they can attest that your faith can hold because many of us wonder and many of us doubt. I had wondered, could my faith hold up to a great shock? And you and I were recently at a conference together and Joni Erickson Tada was one of the speakers. And what has her ministry been over the years as much as the ministry of confidence? If she can do it, we can do it! Because God’s not more present to her. But you know, she suffered deeply for many years and her faith has stayed strong and her heart has remained joyful. And what a blessing she is to all of us then to be able to say, Okay, God’s promises are true and we can see those promises reflected in her face. We can hear them every time she sings for joy on the stage or whether we’re interacting with her personally. She just can’t help but sing her joy. And what a blessing that God gave her to the church as a gift. And yeah, she’s had to endure great sorrow along the way. But I’ve heard her say she counts it worth it, and certainly from an eternal perspective, that too, even that would be light and momentary.
Chap: Well, following up on that, just thinking about how what you see from her, and you write about this in yourself, that it detaches you from this world and it makes you long for heaven. And I was just reading for devotions Ephesians 1 and in the second part of that chapter where he talks about he’s praying the eyes of our heart will be opened so we’ll know the hope that we’re called to, the inheritance. And yet I feel myself, I’m just pulled down. What is my hope? It’s a year, It’s 5 years. It’s 10 years. So can you just talk a little bit about- can we say goodness?- that has come out of this in terms of your own personal walk, where you’re longing more for heaven and a little less attached to this world?
Tim: God does have his ways of prying our fingers off this world. And let’s be honest, this world has many joys in it. There’s a lot that truly delights our hearts, and that’s God’s gift to us, God’s grace poured out toward us, and we ought to be truly thankful for those things. I guess the trouble comes when life is just really good. We can get pretty anchored to those things and we can stop longing for something better. We can fool ourselves into thinking, Man, I can just stay here. I’ll be happy forever. And through circumstances, through suffering, through lots of different things, God begins to pry our fingers off this world, and one of the ways he does that is by sending on ahead the people we love. The people we’ve loved so much in this world and want to continue to see. And so by taking Nick, I think God has really oriented my heart toward heaven, just eradicating, at least for now, any fear of death that I must might have once had and just giving me a deep longing to be in heaven.
And you know, I talk in the book about maybe the slight tension between, as I look forward to heaven, there’s, there’s Jesus and there’s Nick, and those things shouldn’t be equal. And yet I say, Well, God gave me a great love for my son and God took my son, so I’m not going to lament. Will I need to see my son? I’ll leave God to sort that out. God knows I love him. God knows I love my son. I’ll leave him to sort it out But what joy there is in heaven. You know, shortly. Nick went to heaven, my dad went to heaven. And over time more and more of our people are uprooted from here and sent on ahead there. And I think our hearts began more and more to go with them.
Chap: Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. Well, related to that, you had a chapter in which you record a prayer, “God, give me Sons.” First of all, you lost a child, you lost your oldest child, but you lost your only son. And that’s got to be just deep, deep sorrow upon sorrow. But out of that praying, “God, give me more sons.” So what were you thinking in that? I think that’s a great prayer. I started praying that way after reading your chapter.
Tim: I loved, absolutely loved, being a father to a son. It was truly just one of the great joys of my life, and Nick made it easy as well. In terms of just being- he was the oldest kid, he was maybe a little more responsible than he otherwise might have been, but also just one of those kids who loved to please his parents, loved to honor the Lord. He was just an easy kid. He made it easy to be proud of him in that way.
So having him taken from me was just excruciating on that level as well. Not just the personal loss, but also the loss of this relationship. I loved being a father to a son, and I just felt in the aftermath of that just that deep void, but also thinking about the apostle Paul and all the sons he had. No physical sons, but still many sons that he loved and really spoke of with great affection and just started praying that in some way, somehow God would allow me to continue to fulfill that paternal role, that fatherly role that’s so important to me. And since then, he’s provided a son-in-law. One of my daughters was recently married and that’s been lovely. I love getting to know Nathan and relating to him, so I’m very thankful for that. But also sensing maybe there’s a little bit more to it as well, and I don’t know what that looks like. But I’m just eager to see how the Lord may answer that prayer as I continue to pray it and continue to be available to his purposes.
Chap: Well, I think that’s a good prayer for really any middle-aged man in terms of saying who, who are the close relationships. And in many ways, uh, I know I’ve talked with some people who were doing a parenting seminar and they said, almost to a man, in their couples’ study, everyone had difficult relationships with their father. So really in some ways we have an unfathered generation. So I think that’s just a great prayer for any middle-aged or older man.
At the very end, you talked about the final first. And you said this, which I just thought was really helpful: To work and to weep: that’s what constitutes life this side of glory. How’s that guided you, and how did you sort of come to that conclusion?
Tim: I think I said earlier that I didn’t want to drop out of the race, and I wanted to accept this from God as something meaningful, something purposeful, something that was part of his plan for me and for my family not to regard it, then, only as negative, but also as something God was calling me to, something to steward faithfully. And so that’s the work. God has called me, I think, to take this sorrow and press on. And of course, all the other responsibilities in life don’t go away just because I’ve suffered the loss of my son. And so there’s lots of work to be done. God hasn’t called me out of this world yet.
On the other hand, there’s lots of weeping to be done. Life is hard. Life is sad. I’ve experienced a number of losses, the two I just mentioned, my father and my son, and I dare say there’s probably many more to come. I was just reading earlier in a book about, as you get older and you realize your friend group is getting smaller and smaller, not because your friends have betrayed you, but just they’ve gone to be with Jesus as well. And so lots more loss to come. Lots more weeping to do. And so this picture of hand to the plow. God calls us to put your hands to the plow and just serve. On the other hand, you’re going to need one hand to be drying your tears as you go because life is genuinely sad. So working, weeping, making our way toward the kingdom and just longing to be there, longing for the end of our sorrows.
Chap: That’s really good. That’s really helpful. I think that’s just such a wise and mature perspective. Anything else that you learned that you wish others to know, that you wish we had talked about?
Tim: You know, I’ve thought a lot about grieving as a family. You know, family obviously is pretty important to you. We talk a lot about complementarianism, so here’s another area where our tribe speaks quite a lot and maybe in just in certain ways or towards certain ends.
But I was really struck by the complementary of grief, how a dad grieves like a dad or a husband like a husband, and how a mom/wife grieves like a mom/wife. How we grieve in very different ways. And I was very thankful that, shortly after Nick died, a man reached out to me and just provided a long letter that I sort of took as my manual through grief. And he expressed in there how in all likelihood, he said, you’ll probably be sort of back to normal in, let’s say, six months or so. Your wife is probably going to take something like 18 months to 2 years before she’s feeling normal again, where she’s emotionally more stable, where emotional stability returns, your ability to function in the way and at the capacity she did before returns and all of that.
The trouble is going to come in that period between where one of you is basically functioning the way you used to and the other isn’t there yet. Because you’ll each have temptations then. So she’ll be tempted to say, “Well, I guess you didn’t really love them if you’ve gotten over it so quickly.” Or something along those lines. And I’ll be tempted to say, “Can you just hurry up? It’s time to move on.” And so he urged real patience and kindness and forbearance in that time. And so I think I’ve seen God’s wisdom in complementarianism, not just in the good times in marriage, not just in the sexual relationship, in not just all these things we tend to speak about, not just in roles, but also in grief, God’s wisdom displayed there. And then making sure I’m not trying to supersede his wisdom by cajoling my wife into grieving like a man essentially, which would be the temptation.
Chap: That’s really helpful and just a nice Tim Challies’ kind rebuke for me for not thinking about the family because obviously, yes, that’s very important.
Oh, then let me ask one more question, which would be, what do you think you’ve learned shepherding your wife through that time? One thing you just mentioned, but were there other lessons as well that if you were to say to a husband, Here’s how to care for your wife and children during this.
Tim: Yeah, when you’re most broken is when you’re most needed. And so as the man, I think again, complementarianism, God has given you an ability to press on even in your grief in a way that perhaps your wife couldn’t or your daughters couldn’t. It’s when you’re absolutely brokenhearted, you’re at your absolute worst. This is the very time that your wife and your children are going to need you the most, so you don’t get to just drop out. If they can’t depend on you, who can they depend on? If you can’t lead them through this, then who’s going to lead them? And so, you know, you may not be at your best and you may have to reach out to friends to help you with who knows what. Turn to a friend and say, I don’t trust myself to make good decisions now.
So before I make any decision that’s more than, two days or $50, I’m going to talk to you about it. Just because you can do bizarre things. But to just know that, yes, your heart is absolutely shattered, but you’re still a husband, you’re still a father, and God has called you to those roles for this moment, for this reason.
So serve all the more right now. You’re absolutely needed in this time. That’s very, very difficult. But God gives strength and he gives wisdom and he gives grace.
Chap: Oh, that’s very good. Keep providing, keep pastoring, keep protecting, even in your brokenness.
Tim: Especially in your openness, right? You just have to, you just have to.
Chap: Well, Tim, thank you. Thanks for taking the time. I just think this is going to be so helpful. I think there’s many applications, even just in lesser degrees of sorrow. I have prayed for you, will keep praying for you. So keep pressing. Thank you.
Tim: Well, thank you. And, yeah, I think there’s just something to be said for you focusing so much on family, so much on parenting. What do you do when family starts to fall apart or starts to diminish and parenting is leading your children out of this world or watching your children out of the world? I think this is talked about too little, so I’m thankful that you did.
Chap: You’ve been listening to The Disciple-Making Parent Podcast. For more information about the book, The Disciple-Making Parent, visit thedisciplemakingparent.com