September 5, 2022
On November 3, 2020, Tim and Aileen Challies received the shocking news that their twenty-year-old son Nick had died. Tim, an author and blogger, began to process his loss through writing, which eventually led to the book ‘Seasons of Sorrow.’ During this launch event, Tim reads a brief excerpt from the book and then has a discussion with Alistair Begg and Bob Lepine about God’s purpose in and through our sorrows, reminding us that lasting comfort is something that only He can provide.
Sermon Transcript: Print
[Tim Challies reads an excerpt from Seasons of Sorrow, pp. xiii–xv.]
Tim Challies: Good morning. It’s my joy to welcome you here and to thank you for being here this morning. This is what we’re calling the launch event for my book Seasons of Sorrow. I’ll tell you a little bit more about that before too long. But before I do that, I want to let you know about some special guests who will be joining us here today. I’m very thankful to have my friends Alistair Begg and Bob Lepine here today. You know Alistair, of course, from his preaching ministry at Parkside Church near Cleveland, Ohio, and then from his teaching ministry as well at Truth For Life. And then Bob you would know as the on-air announcer for Truth For Life, and he’s also the teaching pastor at Redeemer Community Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. And since this whole conference revolves around singing, I’m thankful to have my friends from the band CityAlight here. And with them as well will be Sandra McCracken.
By way of format, just to let you know what will be unfolding here over the next few minutes, I’m going to be reading a short excerpt from the book, and then Bob and Alistair will come out, and Bob will lead us in a brief discussion about God’s purpose and God’s comfort in the sorrows and the sufferings we inevitably experience in this life, whether that’s the sorrow of loss, or the sorrow of illness, or the sorrow of persecution, or whatever else we might experience along our way.
And then, just before we wrap up, CityAlight will come out and share a new song. This is a song meant for congregational singing that they wrote after reading the book. So the song would be inspired or based upon the book. The song is titled “In the Valley,” and this is going to be the debut of the song. It’s never been sung in public before. They’ve never performed it in public before. And then that will bring us to just about eleven thirty, so you’ll still have plenty of time to head out and grab a bite to eat before the first session of the conference begins. And they’ve asked me if I would tactfully invite you to leave the room when the session is over. They need to clear the room out before they can fill it up again.
When the formalities have wrapped up, I will be sticking around. I’d love to meet you. So the very last set of doors on this side of the room, through there, there’s a miniature bookstore that has the book for sale, so you can buy a copy there. I’ll be there. I’d love to meet you. And I’ll be there for as long as it would be helpful for me to be there. I have it on good authority, my publisher would really appreciate it if you would pick up a copy or two of the book.
And with that, I’d like to read just a short excerpt from the book. The book is written chronologically, beginning at the very night that Nick passed away, and it continues all the way through the first year, and the last chapter is written on the first anniversary of his death. And along the way, I’ve written these short reflections that just record, real time, what was going on in our lives, what was going on in our heart as we grappled with our loss. And this chapter was written on a particularly difficult day, so it tells about that day, and it also tells how God just reached out to us and extended his comfort to us on that day. So the chapter is titled
“Angels Unaware,” and I’ll read a portion of it for you.
[Excerpt from Seasons of Sorrow, pp. 130–33]
I’ll end my little reading there. You can read that letter at another time if you so desire.
I’m going to invite Bob and Alistair, if they would come out at this point. And Bob is going to lead us just in a brief discussion now about God’s purpose and God’s comfort in our times of suffering, sorrow, and loss.
Bob Lepine: Well, thank you for that. Thank you for this. The book comes out in about ten days. There are copies here, and when we’re done this morning, if you’re interested in purchasing a copy, out the back corner of the room here, Tim’s going to be back there. You can visit with him. You can get copies. They’re regularly about twenty-five dollars. They’re going to be fifteen dollars here, so—just wanted to alert you to that.
And I think any of us in the room, and many of us in the room, were painfully aware of what happened with your son when the news came out. It was one of those things that the body of Christ around the world, we grieved and mourned with you. And I remember trying to put myself in your shoes and thinking, “What would be my emotional responses in those moments?” And I thought first it would be “No, this can’t be.” And then, second, it would be just the why question that plagues all of us. Our mind begs for answers to things that make no sense to us. How did you process both of those… I assume you went through that same kind of a grieving moment?
Tim: Yeah. Yeah, definitely there’s a sense of “This can’t possibly be true.” And it just doesn’t make sense to lose somebody suddenly—to lose somebody at all. Death is just so wrong, so—such an intruder into this world. It doesn’t make sense, and our minds aren’t really able to grapple with it in its full reality.
There was a sense of “Why?” but there was also a sense of God. We really understood from the very beginning that God has the right to do what God will do in God’s world. “This is my Father’s world.” And so, even though we had some sense of wondering, “Why? Why did God choose this for us? Why did God choose to take Nick to himself?” we didn’t spend a lot of time grappling with those questions, ’cause we have a pretty good sense of what answers God gives us and what answers he’s unlikely to provide. So we were content to just hold on for an answer to that to the future and deal more with the “Well, what is God calling us to? How can we live well in this moment?”
Bob: Alistair, in pastoral ministry, you have come alongside many people who have gone through seasons of grief and loss like this and have found themselves plagued with those kinds of issues. What kind of pastoral counsel do you try to provide in those moments?
Alistair Begg: Well, just listening to Tim say that—that would not be what one would regard as the sort of normal immediate reaction. That not everybody has the kind of biblical or theological underpinnings to be able to take the “Why?” and bring it down, as it were, underneath the reality of God’s sovereignty—a God whose ways are always righteous and who’s kind in all of his works. And I think probably there’s a couple of things, I think, in walking into the home of bereavement, especially in sudden loss—reminding oneself of Ecclesiastes, you know: that there’s a time to speak; there’s a time to be quiet. And I’m always struck by the reaction of the friends of Job at the beginning of it all, when they seek to express sympathy and comfort to Job, and it says at the end of chapter 2 that they sat on the ground with him for six days and for six nights, saying nothing, because they could see that his grief was so severe. And those of us who talk a lot find it hard to be quiet, and we often think that we are doing more if people can hear us, when in actual fact, often simply our presence among them at that moment is the best that we can do.
Bob: And I’m sure that there were people who came alongside you and handled being co-grievers with you—handled that well—and probably some people who did it a little awkwardly. If you were giving us tips for how we can love someone well in a season of suffering and grief, what tips would you give us?
Tim: Yeah. I think what Alistair said is true, is generally, the less said, the better. And to speak God’s words is usually far more helpful than speaking human words—and so, some people are inadvertently hurtful by bringing silliness, nonsense. And I think we were able to filter that through. But a lot of people did want to bring comfort by talking about birds and clouds and other ways that “maybe your son is manifesting himself in your life and trying to assure you he’s okay,” and things like that. But far better was just to have people come to us and bring God’s words and bring a hot meal. In this particular loss, I think the family is so overwhelmed by the loss that they can’t carry out normal functions, often. So being able to say, “Can I do your shopping for you? Can I bring you a hot meal at dinnertime?” is really, really helpful—just removing some of that burden. But mostly, bring truth.
Bob: And maybe not even ask, “Can I?” but just do it. Because in the moment, you don’t know whether they can or should or what you need from the grocery store.
Tim: Right. And we’re very accustomed, culturally, to saying no. We don’t like to be the person who’s receiving. We like to be the one who’s giving. But to be able to just receive… And I think that’s the responsibility that falls to those who are grieving: to just now be willing to let the body of Christ be the body of Christ and not inadvertently push them away in our Western self-sufficiency.
Bob: I’m sure you told one another over and over again, “We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.”
Bob: And you were really preaching to yourself in that moment, weren’t you?
Tim: Yeah. Yeah, what we found very quickly is that… We compare it to two streams: you have joy, and you have sorrow, and they’re flowing together. And those aren’t streams that ever turn into one thing. So even in life, you’re sorrowful and you’re joyful at the same time. So what is our goal as parents? To raise our kids, and to raise our kids in the Lord, and ultimately for our kids to go and be with the Lord. We had the joy of seeing a son go to be with the Lord and have full confidence that that’s where he is. So there’s great joy in that, and yet the deep sorrow of “This isn’t the way we expected this would happen, not the way we wanted this to happen.” So not trying to put aside the joy, not trying to put away the grief, but to allow both of them to be present.
Bob: Alistair, you mentioned Ecclesiastes 3. Later Solomon says… Do you think Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes? We should ask that at the beginning.
Alistair: I don’t think this is a question for today.
Tim: The Preacher.
Bob: The Preacher in chapter 7 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting, because the living take it to heart.” What should we take away from what the Bible says there?
Alistair: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t want to call on Tim in the immediacy of his loss and try and read to him Ecclesiastes 7. The context, of course, of Ecclesiastes 7 is a reminder to us of the fleeting nature of life and that just in the same way as Shakespeare’s comedies have an immediate impact that induces joy and frivolity, it’s a bit like a milkshake: it has no lasting impact. Whereas his tragedies live with you, and the soliloquies live with you. And I think what Solomon, or whoever it is, is writing there is writing to confront man as man with the fact that the very things that we seek to run away from are often the things that make us—that the lessons that we don’t want to learn are often the lessons that we do need to learn. And certainly in this past period of time, if there is one great lesson that has come out of this COVID experience, is that the Western world is manifestly scared to death of death and has no answer to the question.
And it’s in that kind of context that, I think, in a well-conducted funeral—and I mean a well-conducted funeral—there is the opportunity not only to seek to encourage those who are bereaved but also, with their permission, to speak graciously but very pointedly to those who are living as if there is no terminus to be faced.
Bob: I had a friend say to me recently he does not think that most of us Protestants have a good theology of suffering the way that some traditions emphasize that. Would you agree with that?
Tim: Yeah. We just generally don’t have much experience at it. One of the things I did in the early days after Nick went to be with the Lord was I went to old books, where the loss of a child in the 1700s, 1800s, this was so common. What’s unusual to us was common to them. And so I found by going back in history, I found real friends there—people who could really commiserate with me and who really knew what I was going through. But that’s less common today, just because of the privileges we enjoy at this time and place.
Bob: I remember Dennis Rainey coming back from a visit to the Cotswolds, and he had been in one of those old cemeteries by the churchyard in the Cotswolds. And he said there were three headstones there: a mother and a child who had died in the same season, and then a father who had died a few years later. And on one of the gravestones was inscribed, “We cannot, Lord, thy purpose see, but all is well that’s done by thee.” And again, these are things we have to tell ourselves are true, even when our emotions are screaming at us, “This is wrong. This is painful. I don’t like this.” Talk about the discipline of counseling your soul in a season of suffering.
Tim: I want to just go back and say I think there’s such value, such ministry, in putting significant words on gravestones. They will by far outlast any memory of the person. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just read words like that on a gravestone that might have been hundreds of years old and just been encouraged. It’s so comforting to say, “There’s a believer lying there. This is one of my brothers or sisters.” And it’s so much better than something about, you know, getting your angel’s wings or something, too. But just truth, placing that—I think there’s a real blessing, real encouragement. And now I’ve forgotten the question you asked.
Bob: So, preaching to yourself—the discipline of preaching to yourself. How did you engage with that?
Tim: Yeah. I’m so thankful that we were raised in a tradition that taught sound doctrine. So I met a bunch of Dutch people here. You know what your only comfort in life and death is, don’t you? ’Cause you were… There you go.
Bob: “I belong, body and soul…”
Tim: Right. “… life and death, to our faithful savior Jesus Christ.” So right out of the gate, question and answer 1: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” “I’m not my own. I belong to Jesus Christ.” I mean, what truth to rely on in your deepest moment of grief than that—to have that kind of theology nailed down in your heart, in your mind, as you go into tragedy? You don’t want to suffer deep loss and now to have to think, “Well, how can I find comfort?” or “Is God sovereign?” or “Is God good?” It’s to have your doctrine in place, and then you just need to enact it. You just need to believe it in that moment. But I was just so thankful to have all that to… “We believe this. We know this is true. Are we going to believe it’s true in this?”
Bob: You don’t build a foundation in the storm.
Bob: You build the foundation for the storm, and then you stand on it when it comes.
Alistair, as the pastor of a large congregation, when death visits your congregation, how do you encourage your parishioners, your congregants, to respond in that? How should the church respond?
Alistair: Well, you know, to Tim’s point, it was Baxter or someone like him who said that the responsibility of the pastor was to prepare his people for death—to prepare his people how to die. Some of my colleagues at Parkside have regarded it as a strange idea that we would put a graveyard into our church property—a kind of strange use of space. But to Tim’s point, I think there is great wisdom in it, in that the church, the living church of Jesus Christ, is the only entity on earth that has any answer to the question of death. And so, what do we do in preparing our people? Well, we do what Tim is saying: that we’re trying to teach the Bible in such a way that they’re laying hold of these things, that they are making them their own.
But I would say, too, that even when people have done that—when, if you like, their heads are in gear—when their emotions are so fractured, when they are so overwhelmed, I’ve found that I have to learn to be far more patient than I am by nature in waiting for, if you like, their hearts to catch up with their heads, so that what they know to be true has now taken on, if you like, an emotional and a visceral dimension to it.
And in my experience, not everybody grieves at the same pace. And since not everybody starts from the same position, that’s where the body itself comes into play, isn’t it? The pastoral role is as significant as one is allowed to play, but the way in which the members of the church family gather around and support one another is so wonderfully necessary and so vitally important.
Bob: And we have to be wise to know how to and when to bring truth as opposed to when to just sit in silence and to discern that moment. Thoughts on that?
Alistair: Well, yeah. You know, as we flew in here this morning, I was remarking on how wonderful it is that they have this thing called the ILS—the instrument landing system. And I believe it was discovered or used first in 1929. I thought it was fairly recent. But, you know, and what those guys are doing is they’re flying the instruments. And they’re not looking out the window—at least they shouldn’t be! They’re certainly not looking around to find if the passengers are voicing their approval. They’re simply flying the instruments.
And it’s a lesson that we have to do all the time for ourselves. I mean, it’s the same issue in the face of temptation. It’s very alluring, very appealing. Fly the instruments. Do what you’re told. And it may seem rather hard at times, but I think people will look back and say, “You know, when I couldn’t feel his presence, I could trust his Word.”
Bob: Tim, you talk in the book about the idea of stewarding your suffering, which I thought, “I don’t know that I’ve stopped to consider that suffering is a gift from God that I’m to steward well.” But I was reminded—is it 1 Corinthians 1 that talks about how we’re to comfort others with the comfort we’ve received?
Tim: Yeah, well, I think we’re all looking forward to hearing Joni Eareckson Tada sing before long. And what’s she done but stewarded her suffering very well for this very long time and been such a blessing and inspiration to so many of us because of that? So she didn’t receive it as a curse. She didn’t receive it as something Satan had decided was right for her. She received her suffering as something God had entrusted to her. And so I think for all of us, it may take time, but eventually, as we go through loss, as we go through sorrow, we realize, “There’s something here that’s meant for others.”
And the excerpt I read from the book was just that. Here’s this couple who had grieved deeply, who was just a little bit ahead of us on the road of suffering, but they had something to give us. They had something to bless us with. And so they were faithful with the sorrow God had entrusted to them. So, if we understand the sovereignty of God—we understand that God is in control, that no death happens apart from it being his will, in some way, no matter what other cause is involved in that death—then all we can do is receive it as something meaningful, something precious from him.
Bob: And Alistair, we never want to minimize the grief that someone is going through, and lament is a biblical theme that God calls us to. And yet, I have looked at friends and said, “You know, the Bible says these are light and momentary afflictions that are producing in us an eternal weight of glory.” Again, I don’t want to rush to that and try to minimize the reality of the pain, but sometime we have to get there, don’t we?
Alistair: Yeah, we do, I suppose. I find it relatively easy to be, you know, really clever about things I don’t know about. And I’m reminded, too, about, you know, the old Indian proverb about not having walked in somebody’s moccasins, and yet at the same time, it really is a skill, isn’t it, in seeking to know when to encourage and when at the same time to give a very godly kick in the seat of the pants? You know, to see that the person is now spending all of his time in remembrance, and so it’s remembrance time; it’s always remembrance Sunday; it’s always the remembrance year; it’s always the remembrance. And for that person, there’s no present, and there’s no tomorrow. And, of course, the Bible encourages us to reflect on these things, to lament. But it’s always a “today” book. It’s always “Today is the day of salvation.” So, “Today is the day of salvation”—that he has saved us, and he has taken my loved one to himself, and he is this God who has made himself known.
I… Yeah, I… It’s hard. It’s hard, you know. I think, just as I’m listening to you both talk, you know, that hymns have been a big help to me, as I know they are to Tim. You know, and the hymn that begins, “My God, I thank thee, who has made the earth so bright,” goes on to thank God for all these things. And then it has the verse that says,
I thank thee, too, that all [my] joy
Is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours
[And] thorns remain,
So that earth’s bliss may be [my] guide
And not [my] chain.
And how to encourage one another to move on from that—if you like: At what point along the journey do we cut the chain and move on? Sometimes I think we get it right. Other times we get it wrong, and others pick it up for us.
Tim: One thing we’ve been surprised to learn is that there can be a little bit of a community in a cemetery. And you notice that with cemeteries, people who have just died are buried generally in the same area, and the people who visit most tend to be the people whose loss is the most recent. And so you have these little parts of the cemetery where people tend to gather. And Aileen is far—she goes to the cemetery quite a bit more than I do and is just more friendly and accessible, so she spends more time speaking to people there.
But it’s been such an affirmation to us that the gospel really does give us hope. That one couple I read about, they had hope. They had something to give. But so many other people are just in utter despair. They’re years farther along in terms of the timing, but they’re still just at the very beginning of grief, still just so deep in their sorrow, unable to move forward, unable to breathe, really. So it’s been such a blessing to us to see that the gospel really does give us deep answers, deep hope, deep confidence and is worth believing. It truly makes such a difference in our grief and sorrow.
Bob: And to read in the Scriptures that God describes himself as the “God of all comfort, who comforts us”—that designation for God, to be able to share that with others in their grief, is an evangelistic opportunity, isn’t it?
Tim: It is, absolutely. And to be able to show that—I think as much as anything, to show that we are progressing. We’re still sad. There’s no doubt we’re still deep in grief. But we have hope. We’re looking forward to the future. As Alistair said, we’re not stuck in the past. We’re moving forward. We’re truly rejoicing. We’re thankful, even as we grieve. And to be able to just express some of that, I think, can be really helpful to people.
Bob: What do you do with holidays and birthdays and landmarks that are reminders that make it fresh again?
Tim: Yeah, we’re still relatively new to this. So, we’re only two years in. We do mark holidays and birthdays, etc., and we usually just go and pay a visit. Usually, the leadup is worse than the day itself, we find. When the day comes, we’re usually feeling a little bit better. But we allow ourselves to grieve, ’cause it’s right and it’s good to grieve. Death is an ugly intruder in the world, and death exists because sin exists. So we don’t have to pretend that death isn’t terrible. Yet we also have true joy and hope, because for the Christian, death is simply the pathway to true life. And so we try and hold those griefs and joys in balance with one another and experience the grief but speak of the joy.
Bob: Alistair, you quoted a hymn. We were all surprised it wasn’t a Paul Simon song that you quoted; it was a hymn. But hymnody is one of the gifts of God. As you were quoting, I was thinking of Cowper’s line, “Behind [the] frowning providence he hides”—what is it, “a smiling face”? Yeah. Again, those lyrics that come to mind are a great source of comfort to us, aren’t they?
Alistair: Indeed they are. And you know, listening to what Tim is saying now has such a ring of authenticity to it. We’re not three fellows up here who have done a course in systematic theology and have paid particular attention to the end story of the drama, and as a result, we’re just here pontificating. So it really does… You know, the providences of God are seldom self-interpreting. You know, when we ask the question, “Why has this happened to me?” the answer may not actually have very much to do with me at all.
And it is a very strange thing, and it is a very—I don’t know quite what it is—but to sit here with Tim and this book and to realize what it has meant for Tim and his family to go through in order that he might be able to be a voice into the lives of all of us. And hymns, poetry that has been well-crafted and is theologically, biblically grounded does that, because it drives home to us, often in a way that is far more memorable, the truths that we need at these very crucial moments in our lives.
Bob: Tim, you had a moment of providence in the midst of this, that you write about, that was a gift from God for you.
Tim: Yeah, it was just… The Lord provided on that day. And he hasn’t always provided in ways that, just undeniable. He’s been a very constant friend. But what God has not done is he hasn’t performed miracles. He hasn’t given us a voice from the sky. He hasn’t given us fresh revelation. He hasn’t needed to. He’s given us the worship of the local church, which has just—being in church, the constant, steady, ordinary means of grace—have been such a blessing: gathering with Christians, singing just this bounty of great songs we have available to us. And then God just meeting us through his providence, as he did that day. There’s been a couple of occasions where he met us just that obviously and just provided what we needed. Through it all, we’ve never had to doubt God’s love for us or God’s care for us. He’s been so very kind to us through our sorrow.
Bob: And this is a conference about singing. How has singing and music been used in yours and Aileen’s lives?
Tim: Yeah. So it’s been almost two years. I think it’s rare we get through a Sunday without crying, usually during the music, because there’s something… At our church, we try to sing just the best of the songs we can find, and those songs almost always follow a pattern: they start in the past, and they move toward the future. And it’s as we sing of sorrows or we sing of gospel and we move toward the future, being reunited in heaven—man, does that ever tug on the heartstrings! When you’re looking forward, your mind is drawn to those people you’ve loved and lost, those people who are truly, genuinely waiting for you in the arms of the Lord. So, music has been so important and such a blessing, but it engages the heart on such a deep level that it often then also motivates the tears to start. And that’s okay. We’re good with crying in church. We’re good with crying around the people we love. And I’ve learned to cry through this experience. I wasn’t a crier before. I am now, and I’m okay with it.
But [we] on earth [have] union
With God the Three in One
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.
I’m not sure I know what that means, but I really like the idea of it: that somehow or another, Tim’s son and my mom and so many of our loved ones, in Christ, without having to look down on us—because that would not be heaven—but somehow or another join with angels and archangels, and they’re singing the same songs. They’re singing songs that angels can’t sing, because angels have never known redemption. But we do still say, “Angels help us to adore him; ye behold him face to face.” Yeah, songs: vital.
Tim: We sang that very song, “The Church’s One Foundation,” on Sunday, and I cried when we got to that part, just to think about the “mystic sweet communion” we share with “those whose rest is won.” Yeah. Glad to cry on that.
Bob: You mentioned a song we’re going to hear this morning. Tell us how this song came to be.
Tim: Great. Good. Yeah, so, in the aftermath of all this, I started writing a book, and the band CityAlight got in touch and asked if I’d like to collaborate on a song. And I think my message back to them said, “I mean, it sounds great. I don’t sing. I don’t write songs. I don’t play an instrument. So it’s hard to imagine how a collaboration would come about.” But I did send them the book, and they read the book, and they just asked, “What’s on your heart these days?” And so I sent them the book, and they read the book, and they wrote a song that was based on the book or inspired by the book. It was trying to share some of the prominent messages from the book. And so that’s going to be released the same day as the book, September 13. It’ll be on all your musical platforms. But they are going to perform it today.
Bob: And we are, all of us, grateful for them and for the gift that they are to the body of Christ around the world. And we sang two of their songs yesterday morning in church, and I’m sure you have been singing them regularly. But why don’t I let you introduce them, and we’ll step aside here.
Listen to “In the Valley (Bless the Lord)” by CityAlight (feat. Sandra McCracken).
 Maltbie Davenport Babcock, “This Is My Father’s World” (1901).
 See Psalm 145:17.
 See Ecclesiastes 3:7.
 See Job 2:13.
 1 Thessalonians 4:13 (paraphrased).
 Ecclesiastes 7:2 (paraphrased).
 The Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 1. Paraphrased.
 Richard Baxter, preface to The Reformed Pastor (1656).
 See 2 Corinthians 1:4.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:17.
 2 Corinthians 6:2 (paraphrased).
 Adelaide A. Procter, “My God, I Thank Thee, Who Hast Made” (1858).
 2 Corinthians 1:3–4 (ESV).
 William Cowper, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774).
 Samuel John Stone, “The Church’s One Foundation” (1866).
 Henry Francis Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834).