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A conversation with Tim Challies


WORLD Radio - A conversation with Tim Challies

The pain of loss and the comfort of God

Photo credit: challis.com bio

WS: Tim, welcome to the program, I must say that I found your book, Seasons of  Sorrow, enormously helpful, nourishing in many ways. So, first off, just thank you for the book.

TC: Oh, you're very welcome. And thank you for having me.

WS: And I've got to tell you that the first question that I have for you, Tim, was mostly answered, as I read the book, because I did, as I said, find the book so nourishing and so helpful, and such a beautiful thing. And I could understand why, in God's providence, he would have you write that book because it ministered to me, and I can see that it would minister to the church. However, I gotta tell you that whenever I've picked up the book, my first question was, why and how could you write such a book? And yet you did choose to write it. Can you say more about why?

TC: Yeah, I mean, to be fair, I didn't set out to write a book, way through my grief. And writing is the way I process things. It's the way I think it's really my my form of self counseling. I don't really know what I think or what I believe until I write about it. And so as I as I was processing things, as we were in during those early days, I found myself writing is just this outpouring of what was going on in my mind, what was how, how this had changed my relationship with God, how this had changed my understanding of how this world works, and all of these things. It wasn't until probably six months in or something that I thought, 'Oh, this could be a book.' In fact, I would have resisted that earlier on, it would have seemed almost exploitive, or something. But no, I mean, in the very early days, I was also writing just to be able to provide information - you have to remember this was very early in the COVID 19 pandemic, and the borders were closed, and Nick passed away in America, we live in Canada. So there's a lot of information I had to create just to, to help people understand what was going on. So,, but yeah, it wasn't until quite a ways in that I realized I was writing a book.

WS: Yeah, you know, Tim, we have a an expression here in the south of the United States, I don't know if y'all have a similar expression in the south of Canada, southern part of Canada, where you live, but that expression is Paying for your raisin', or some variation of that. And it kind of means that whenever you're an adult and a parent, you have to endure your children doing or saying some of the same things that you said and did when you were a kid. But now, of course, as a parent, you experienced that in a very different way. And I guess that's where the expression that you're paying for your raisin' comes from, is because you now have additional knowledge, I thought of that expression, whenever I read an anecdote early in the book, and that is, whenever you and Nick, as a young child were watching, I think it was a movie, and one of the characters died. And Nick asked you a really tough question. Why did he have to die? Can you say more about that story?

TC: Yeah, this, this happened very early on in Nick's life, he was probably around five, six years old, somewhere around there. And we were just watching the movie together and a character died. And that was, I think my first engagement with Nick and every parent has this discussion with their child at some point about death, and why death exists in the world and what we ought to do to respond to death, knowing that this is a reality that each one of us will face. And so we talked about the reality that that death exists and where death came from. And, of course, it was my assumption at that time that I would precede Nick into death, that he would be the one who was bidding farewell to me, it never would have occurred to me that it might have been the the other way around. And so I'd begin the book there as a sort of flashback to this very poignant moment, 20 years or 15 years before the rest of the events in the book.

WS: Yeah, and I guess I want to ask you now, how did you find your - at least your remembrance of your answer to Nick, then how did it hold up?

TC: Yeah, I think it held up well, except that you would be the first to face death. But no, I think I wanted to tell Nick in that day, that the importance of confessing his sin before the Lord and repenting of that sin and putting his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And that's something Nick did just a couple of years after that when he was young, he decided to be a follower of the Lord. And so I think the answer did hold up in time. And, of course, we often look back at moments in the past and wonder if we could have done better there or what we should have said there but I'm content and I'm content that as we prayed together, I prayed that Nick would come to know the Lord. And God answered that prayer. So I'm very grateful for that opportunity and others.

WS: Yeah, Tim, I do want to talk to you a little bit more about your writing process before we conclude. But for now, let me just observe that the book is fairly short. And it's made up of very short chapters, you say that some of those chapters started out as blog posts, but not most of them. And often they are organized around a single metaphor or a single story. And I found that to be enormously helpful. One of the one of the metaphors that you introduce early in the book is the is the metaphor of rowing, uh, versus sailing, I guess might be the way to to juxtapose those two. Can you tell that story briefly and what you learned from that story?

TC: Sure, yeah, I tell a story of a time my uncle and I went out in his brand new sailboat. He had reconstructed this sailboat. And we went out one day and day became night and the wind stopped, and we're stranded far out on this lake. And there's just no way without wind that this boat could return as a sailboat. But the boat did have oars. And so the lodge the oars, and we began to row home. And the distinction I make there is that when you row you turn your back to your destination. And yet, as it happened, as I was sitting in the rowboat, my back was to my destination, but my eyes are on my uncle, who was steering the boat. And taking that as a metaphor for enduring this time of sorrow, this time of grief where I can't see where I'm going. But I have to have faith so I can look at the captain, I can look at the one who's steering me, I can look to Christ and have my my confidence absolutely fixed in him. Even if I don't know the way I'm going, I can rely on him. So yeah, as you said, a short but I think poignant metaphor that's pointing toward a reality that hopefully we all know in our times of sorrow.

WS: Yeah, you know, I found that story to be enormously powerful to him on a number of different fronts. Number one, and you've already mentioned one of them, if you had tried to turn around to see where you are, go, we're going yourself, rather than rely on your uncle, you would have probably been in a big mess, you'd probably ended up rowing in circles. And you literally had I mean, the the right answer was the counter-intuitive answer, wasn't it? In other words, to not look where you were going, was the most reliable way to get where you were going?

TC: Yeah, exactly. So and God doesn't give us the answers we want. He doesn't tell us all we need to know about where he's directing us in life. And so our faith then can't be in our circumstances, our faith can't be in our our knowledge of where we're going, or our confidence in where we're going. Our faith as Christians is fixed in the one who's guiding and directing us and accompanying us through it. And later on, I talk about Psalm 23, and just the reality that we go through the valley of the shadow of death, with the shepherd at our side, and even at the direction in that God is the one who's with us, the one who's leading and guiding us even through our darkest moments.

WS: Yeah, you know, someone once told me that if you follow God only when you agree with him, or understand him, that you're not really following God, you're following yourself. You're following a vision of God or a God of your own creation. It seems to me to him that in some ways, that's what you're saying here as well. Do I have you right in that?

TC: Yeah, yeah, we have to have faith, and we're called to have faith, saving faith. You know, we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and receive His salvation. But our faith doesn't end there. We continue to have faith in God's purposes. And ultimately, we just have to believe that God is up to something in this world, we, we don't come to faith and then just live life on our own. We're living at the mercy of God and according to His purposes, so when we surrender our lives to Him, we're surrendering all we have to him and we're really saying, "God, I'm willing to be used by you in whatever way furthers your purposes and whatever brings you most glory. But then I'm trusting you that this will bring you glory that this isn't meaningless pain. "There's got to be something that God's doing here and that's where we just have faith that in time God will make it clear God will make it known in some way we'll see how all of this has brought Him glory.

WS: Yeah. You know, to him another one of the metaphors I guess you could say that you use in the book is the idea of seasons the book is organized in the chapters are organized into four seasons to correspond, you know, with the seasons of the year, of course, and you make the observation that during the various seasons that we experience here on planet earth, the weather changes. I mean, it's hot. In the summertime, it's cold in the wintertime. But the sun never changes. It's only our attitude towards the sun that changes - it's our, when I say attitude, I don't mean our mental attitude, but our position, our orientation towards the sun. And you talk about the necessity, sometimes during extremely cold seasons, to turn towards the sun. Can you say more about that?

TC: When we are in times of deep sorrow, deep grief, I think we can feel like God Himself has changed. And so it's like we lose our constant, we lose our sense of who or what is most fixed in all the universe, and we start to trust our feelings, we start to trust our emotions to guide us and our emotions are untrustworthy, because we ourselves are such finite, broken little creatures that our feelings change, our emotions change and so on. And they can't, we can't trust them to guide us. And so we always have to look to our God as the one unchanging, unchangeable reality in the world. And so all that was true of God on our best days is still true of God in our worst days. And so we just need to anchor ourselves in that reality and not allow then our emotions to reframe our understanding of God. And that's, that's, I think, where so many people go wrong, when they experienced times of deep grief. And this is understandable, they begin to change their assumptions or change their understanding of God so he fits their emotions, so he fits what they're feeling. But I think what God calls us to do is say, No, God is fixed, He's constant, unchangeable. And so I need to reexamine my feelings and bring them into alignment, what I know to be true.

WS: Yeah. You know, Tim, I think I've got a question bound up here, but I'm going to ramble for just a second and then ask you to react to my ramble. One of the most interesting and, and and I should say, helpful parts of your book for me, was when you started talking about the relationship between grief and fear, and that grief will cause you to fear, that fear and anxiety will exacerbate grief. And I have found that to be true in my own life, I found that to be true in the lives of people who are close to me, that are going through grief, and God, for whatever reason, has, you know, asked me to walk through that season with them. On the other hand, there was a part of me that wanted to push back against that idea. That grief is real, that Jesus wept whenever he found that Lazarus was dead, or as Jesus said, asleep, and that sometimes we do grieve with those who grieve and that our grief can be really profound, not necessarily motivated by fear. On the other hand, I'm also very aware that a lot of times grief is born of not really believing what we say we believe. And I had a mentor once told me that, you know, you either believe this stuff about the hope of the resurrection, or you don't. And if you do, or you don't, it changes everything. Again, Tim, I'm not sure there's a question in there except to say that it's kind of a both end. Not an either or isn't it this relationship between grief and fear and belief and unbelief?

TC: Yeah, and we are finite creatures. And we have to admit our finitude, we have to admit that this is true of us. And so in our traumatic moments, we will not be at our...grace and tons of mercy toward us. And we have to have that toward ourselves. There's never an excuse to sin, of course. But we will go through these times where we're not thinking, (where our) minds and hearts are clouded. And then of course, it's good to grieve. God allows us permits us invites us to grieve. We should grieve, we should mourn over our sin, we should mourn over the consequences of sin. And death is one of those consequences. So God doesn't call us to grieve like stoics, He doesn't call us to grieve like deists; He calls us to grieve like Christians, who genuinely grieve our hearts. But we do have hope. And that hope is in the resurrection (knowing that trials) have purposes and everything that happens in this world, there will be purpose and meaning attached to it. So, absolutely, we grieve, but we grieve with hope and we grieve with a deep sense of God is up to something.

WS: to another one of the many you have a number of agricultural metaphors or metaphors that come from the natural world, I guess you might say. And one of those is this notion of sowing and reaping and you talk about winter wheat. I'm guessing that a lot of our listeners might not know about winter wheat and so, can you explain what winter wheat is and when it is planted and when it is harvested?

TC: Yeah, winter wheat goes into the ground in the autumn, and it lies in the soil all throughout the winter. And then when spring comes, that winter wheat begins to spring up. And I use that to speak of the hope of the resurrection, that we sell our loved ones into the ground. And for a time, it seems hopeless, it seems barren, it seems like no good is coming out of it. But then we do have faith that just like the farmer waits through the winter, and then when spring comes that wheat will begin to grow and there will be a great harvest, (our) faith fixed in the Lord that our loved ones will rise, and that there will be this this wondrous resurrection, there will be life beyond the grave, new heavens and a new earth.

WS: You know, Tim, there was a kind of an art to one section of your book where you talked about visiting Nick's grave from time to time, and that for a season, there was no gray stone, no marker on his grave. And you you wrote the words that would be ultimately be on the marker. But even though you wrote them once the marker was in its place, something jumped out at you. And that was the dash between his birth year and his death year. In fact, you devoted a chapter to that idea called How long is the dash? Can you say more about those visits that you would make? And sometimes you even brought Nick a cup of coffee. And what you mean when you when you wrote, How long is the dash?

TC: So one of the things we found meaningful is to go to the cemetery, which is about 10 minutes from our home here. And we go there quite frequently and always even know why. But sometimes we just feel the need to be there as maybe that being the closest point of contact, in a sense, the place where Nick's resurrection will, will happen. And so we go there frequently. And sometimes we do take little gifts. And we know that's for us not for him. He and I bonded over coffee - that was a shared love of ours, and I love to make him a cup of coffee before he got up to go to work and so on. So on, sometimes take a cup of coffee over and just leave it there. We take flowers as people do. And each of these things is meaningful. One of the one of the deep sorrows of losing a loved one is that you can no longer love that person or no longer express love to that person. Part of what we love about people is being able to love them. And once they're gone, we can't do that anymore. And so these little gifts are maybe a means through which we do that. And in that chapter, I write about the dash on the gravestone and sort of just make this almost silly comparison between just saying if you live for 10 years, let's say your dash is an inch long. If you live for 20 years, let's say it's two inches long, and so on, and then start thinking about, Well, how long would a dash be for somebody who lived eternally? It will go on forever and ever and ever. And, and that's a reality that will be ours. When Christ raises us from the dead we in this new heavens and new earth that he's promised to us, our lives will extend forever. And so (death on this) side of the grave is absolutely real and genuinely hurtful and genuinely sorrowful. But we're also told in Scripture that it's light and momentary in comparison to what's to come. So even though it's truly heavy and truly grievous now, we can look to the future and say, okay, but by comparison, someday we'll look back and say, oh, okay, I see it now in its proper context.

WS: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, I was reminded, as you were talking to him just now of CS Lewis's famous question, I guess it is, he would say, Has it ever occurred to you, and I'm going to paraphrase a bit here. Has it ever occurred to you that you have never met a mere mortal, that we are all immortal? And I guess in some ways, you are saying what Lewis was saying, you were experiencing what Lewis was saying.

TC: Yeah, exactly. So that if we could understand, if we truly understand what God has promised, and we truly believe what God has promised, it really does change our grief because it causes us to look forward. I mean, it changes everything. It changes the way we relate to people here on Earth, as well as immortal beings who have an immortal soul. How much does that increase the burden on us to reach out to them with with gospel hope? But then for our loved ones? Yes, we understand they are immortal beings immortal souls. And we can look forward to that reunion if we're in Christ, and they're in Christ.

WS: Yeah. You had a really interesting chapter called, How many children do I have?, and that chapter was interesting to me, in part because of the way you processed that question and then arrived at an answer. And in part, because people might not know that you had a son who who died. I found that chapter interesting for both of those reasons. One is how you processed it, and then number two, how you relate to people who have no knowledge of what you have walked through recently. And, and yet you you have to deal with them, and they have to deal with you. So, how do you answer it? How many children do you have?

TC: Yeah, I've been asked that question a number of times. And there's different contexts in which we're asked it. And so if we're asked in a very casual context, where it's clear, there's no real conversation, I may just say to, that makes the conversation a little a little faster, a little easier. And so I think in the book, I relate when that happened in a bank once and I answered that I had three and he kept pressing. And so I had to tell him that my son had passed away, and he got all embarrassed and flustered and didn't know what to do. And so sometimes I'd say two, but in most contexts, I do say three, or I'll say, I have two daughters, who are young adults, and one son who's waiting in heaven or something along those lines. Because I do have three children. And that's not, that's something Death hasn't taken from him still, next father, he's still my son, we do have a great and wonderful future ahead. And I do believe that and even in heaven, though I'm sure relationships will change, he'll never stop being my son, I'll never stop being his father. And I think you mentioned how I got there. I got there by Jesus speaking to the religious authorities of his day, and just focusing in on the way God says, I am the God of people who have gone to the grave, not I was there God, but I am there God. And so if God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, then I am the father of of Nick, and Abigail and Mikayla.

WS: Yeah, well, and that brings me to sort of the second question in this arc, Tim, and that is that when you're having that kind of an interaction with someone, and maybe they know that, you know that Nick has died, and they're wanting to be helpful, but the interactions, as you've just demonstrated, or as you've just recounted, can quickly turn awkward, both for you and for them. And I know, in part, your decision to answer some with two children, and some with three children is at least in part motivated by your desire not to make other people feel awkward, to love the person in front of you, and in, you know, as well as you can. So my question then is, what kind of help is helpful? And I know, it's only been a year or two years since Nick passed, and probably a year since you started writing this book. What has changed in that two-year period for you what was helpful, especially in the beginning? What advice and I don't mean to kind of do a, you know, reduce this to three bullet points here. But you know, what advice would you have to people who are going through a season like this? Or who are walking with others who are going through a season like the one you've been through?

TC: It's a very good question. And I think hopefully, we're all going to have opportunities to serve others. I mean, grief is going to happen around us, if we're connected to others through local community, local church community, there will be opportunities where we may be the ones who can be most present. And so I'd say the first thing is to be present. And you have to read the people to know whether they want you there over a long period of time, or just to sort of show up and serve them for a few minutes and leave - different people, different cultures respond very differently. To help with material needs, especially with very sudden or very deep losses, many people can lose the ability to function for days, weeks, even months. And so being able to provide food help or cleaning the house help or things like that can be so, so helpful when people are just incapacitated by their grief -that does happen.

And even with decision making people make very poor decisions, when they're in grief. So offering your help, I can help make decisions or if you need another mind behind those, I think that can be tremendously helpful.

And then of course, simply prayer. That's something we we never want to downplay that God hears the prayers of His people, and he loves to respond to those prayers. And it doesn't matter how many people are praying. You know, we sometimes think people who are well known get so much more prayer, therefore, so much more help. No, we don't need to believe that. Pray for those people. Bring them before the Lord and he hears those prayers and those are very precious to him.

WS: Tim, I'd like to kind of backup a little bit of my mind, because I know you are concerned about theological issues. We've already talked about some, but I can't resist asking you, what do you believe about Nick's level of understanding now about you? In other words, do you believe that he can see what's going on here on Earth? There are some passages in Scripture that talk about a 'great cloud of witnesses' that seem to at least suggest that people have died, who have died can see what's going on here on Earth. On the other hand, I've heard some theologians say that there's no sorrow in heaven, and how could anyone in heaven look on the brokenness of this earth, and not experience sorrow? And so what are your thoughts about that?

TC: I have not found it tremendously helpful to ponder all of that - it hasn't helped my soul or my family souls to really consider whether Nick can see or whether he's receiving dispatches, or what, so I've not put a lot of time into, I haven't found it that helpful, I don't think it really matters to me. Of course, we assume that time passes the same way where he is, as it says here, and I don't even think we necessarily need to believe that. So what I do know is that Nick is beyond sin, beyond suffering in this intermediate state, waiting for his body to be resurrected, waiting for the coming of the new heavens and the new earth and, and all as well. So he's not concerned for us. He has no concerns that that we're suffering beyond God's capacity to comfort us or anything else. And the rest of it, Yeah, just isn't an urgent issue to me. And I think all we can ever do is speculate, you know, and not all speculation is wrong. I don't mean that in a negative sense. But the Bible doesn't give us the clear answers we'd like. And so I don't think fixing our hope, on those sorts of things is, is really helpful. You know, I'll tell my daughters, if you want to go to the cemetery and talk to Nick like he's there, I think that's absolutely fine. Probably can't hear you. And where you get concerned, is he starts answering you back, right? If you start hearing that, that's where that's where we need to have a talk. But, you know, it can be therapeutic to act as if Nick is aware, even if we don't really know.

WS: Right? And that leads me I think, to I think my final question Tim, and that is, you know, how are you guys doing? I know that we're coming up on the two year anniversary of Nick's passing, and I know that you recount a lot of how you are doing in the book, Seasons of Sorrow, but I also know a little bit about the book publishing process. So you probably had to let go of that book many months ago to get it to the, you know, place where it is right now, which is in publication. So how are y'all doing? How are you, your wife, your two daughters and Ren? How are they doing?

TC: Thanks for asking. Yeah, so one thing I want to say about the book is I wrote it real time. And so it begins literally on the night that Nick died as we're traveling down to the states to be with his sister who was there when he died. And the last words that I wrote, were literally on the first anniversary. And so I let go of the book on the first anniversary of Nick's death. And so I think what the book offers that's unique is this real time look at grief, I'm not looking back at it. I'm experiencing it in the moment and through the four seasons. And since I handed in the book, of course, there was an editing process, but not a not a deep and significant one. And I think we're doing well by God's grace, he's been so kind to us and and I just want to say God has been true to his every promise - we've never had. My family has not gone through anything this grievous before. But now that we have God has been true to every promise. He's been there with us through His Word, through His Spirit, through his people. He's comforted us. He's blessed us and we're doing okay, the girls love the Lord now more than they did even when Nick was alive. They've just had to bear down on His promises and choose, they're going to, they're not going to rail against God, they're going to say, No, God is good. I'm going to continue to believe that, and continue to submit my life to him and just trust Him with these things. And I think that's true of Elaine and myself, too. And so God has been so kind. We've wept more in the last two years than we ever knew was possible. We continue to just struggle with grief at times, continue to cry. And yet God's been so faithful and so good, and we're longing for heaven and just looking for the day when we have a great family reunion.

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