As I said last week, it’s difficult to articulate the impact of Tim Challies’ book Seasons of Sorrow on my heart and mind. Therefore, I’ve decided to post several articles. First, today, I begin by drawing your attention to five theological truths that are both affirmed by Tim’s writing and modeled in his response to the sudden death of his twenty-year-old son, Nick. Tim is a living example of how a Scripture-saturated mind is equipped beforehand for the deepest pain and loss.
Here are five illustrations of how theology works itself out in a life response. Meditating on these truths will minister comfort to your heart, prepare you to respond to future loss, and equip you to be a more compassionate comforter.
God is worthy of our trust because He is good. The goodness of God is a significant doctrine that we often overlook. Yet, the Scriptures often attest to it (Exod. 34:6; 1 Chron. 16:34; Ps. 23:6; Ps. 25:8; Ps. 145:9; Mark 10:18; James 1:17). Tim testifies of how this doctrine stabilized him and his family:
I have never doubted that God’s sovereignty and goodness were displayed in giving me my boy. I am fighting right now to never doubt that God’s sovereignty and goodness have been displayed in taking away my boy. He was a gift I received with such joy, such gratitude, such praise. He was a gift I am releasing with such pain, such sadness, such sorrow. But as much as I can, I am releasing him with confidence that somehow his death is an expression of the good sovereignty of a good God. This is the God who does all that he pleases, and for whom all that he pleases is good. As I blessed him in the giving, I will bless him in the taking, for he is good all the time and all the time he is good.
Life and death are only ever—ultimately—God’s arena of authority. God is the author and designer of each of our lives, as Scripture testifies (Ps. 139:16), and “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Jesus claims full, rightful authority: “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). Tim shares how this truth helps him.
I am not enthroned at the center of the world and was not enthroned at the center of Nick’s existence. He was his own man, his own individual. He was God’s son more than my son, God’s creation more than my procreation. Nick’s death was primarily a transaction between God and Nick, not between God and me. There is a sense in which I was only ever an onlooker in his life and only ever an onlooker in his death. In reality, not even Nick was enthroned at the center of his own existence. He existed according to the plan and purpose of God in order to advance the plan and purpose of God. God was at the center of Nick’s life, which means God’s purposes are at the center of Nick’s death. From all we know of the character of God and his posture toward his creation, and especially toward his children, those purposes must be good, for God can do no evil, wish no evil, want no evil.
God’s heart is love. Scripture testifies that God’s nature is love (1 John 4:8), and his work in the lives of his children is motivated by love—even when pain and loss are his chosen trainers (Heb. 12:6-7). Tim testifies:
A little mind like mine cannot hope to put all the pieces together, to unweave the entire tapestry or make sense of the whole. But I can have complete confidence that it is all according to the good plan of a good God, a God whose heart is always love, whose purpose is always love, whose acts are always love, whose very nature is love.
The Christian life is always a mixture of joy and bitter sorrow. As servants of God, we are called to endure many hardships and afflictions, “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). Tim models this understanding so graciously.
“The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy.” I take this to mean that some sorrow is so bitter, so painful, so deep, that it simply cannot be expressed to anyone else. Sometimes there are, quite literally, no words. I can press into the proverb a little more to consider why this is. It must be because the one experiencing the sorrow cannot articulate their grief, even to themselves. It’s the heart that knows its own bitterness, not the mind, not the tongue. This grief is lodged deep in the soul, inexpressible by mind or mouth.
While the streams of joy and sorrow run in parallel, they are not identical. The stream of joy is more like a gentle brook, while the stream of sorrow is like a raging river. It is sorrow, not joy, that threatens to overwhelm me, pull me in, and drag me under. I’ve never had to remind myself to temper my joy with sorrow, but I have often had to remind myself to search for light amid the darkness.
Emotions are not trustworthy in times of deep sorrow, but God’s Word, presence, and people stabilize the soul. God is our ultimate comforter, but the Spirit delivers this comfort through provided means. Scripture brings comfort: “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Ps. 119:50), as does the loving actions of a local church community “in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). Tim transparently writes:
As I endure this time of pain and trauma, I am sometimes tempted to feel like God has become distant from me or turned his face away. I sometimes feel as if God’s love for me has grown cool…. My feelings rotate like the earth; my emotions come and go like the seasons. But the truth is as fixed and constant as the sun. When I focus on what is true, I understand that God is present with me. He has been present since the moment I heard the awful news; he is present with me right now; he will be present with me until that day when he at last wipes away my final tear. He has been particularly present with me through his Spirit and through his people.
In the coming days, I plan to share more insights, but it will never replace you getting a copy of Seasons of Sorrow and reading it for yourself. Last month, I ordered three extra copies when the book was first released and have already given them away. So, you may want to order several copies for others.