Comfort in Grief: What Helped, What Didn’t: Tim and Aileen Challies
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Tim And Aileen ChalliesTim Challies, a pastor, noted speaker, and author of numerous articles, is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere. Tens of thousands of people visit Challies.com each day, making it one of the most widely read and recognized Christian blogs in the world. Tim is the author of several books, including Visual Theology and Epic: An Around-the-World Journey Through Christian History. He and his family reside near Toronto, Ontario.
Blogger Tim Challies and his wife Aileen reflect on their passage through grief over the loss of their son, with thoughts for grievers and comforters alike.
Comfort in Grief: What Helped, What Didn’t: Tim and Aileen Challies
Dave: One of my favorite verses in the Bible is John 14:27. You’re going to recognize it: “Peace I leave with you,” Jesus said. “My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives to you do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” It’s such a beautiful promise from Jesus, that there’s a peace that we can access that only comes through Him.
Ann: I don’t think there’s a person on the planet that doesn’t need that verse or those words, because we’ve all experienced grief, trauma, anxiety. Especially in our culture today I feel like more than ever before culturally speaking across the globe, this means a lot to people.
Dave: Yes. I think one of the questions is “How?”
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Dave: This is FamilyLife Today!
Tim and Aileen Challies are here to talk about a lot of things, but definitely peace. Welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Aileen: Thank you.
Dave: We talked yesterday about Tim’s book, Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and The Comfort of God, talking about you walking through the death of your son, Nick. If you missed yesterday, go back and listen to that. And you can read all about this and your journey at Challies.com, which is just a beautiful blog.
We talked, obviously, yesterday about your journey. But here’s what I want to ask you. The passage I just read where Jesus talks about this peace, how did you access that? Did you experience a peace in the middle of walking through the last couple years of this journey of grief?
Tim: Yes, I think we really did come to a point of peace, and I think we got there through an understanding of God’s sovereignty, that this is God’s world. We sing that hymn, This is My Father’s World. Well, we just chose to believe that that was true, and if this is truly God’s world, and God is truly king, and he’s truly sovereign in this world, then in some way Nick’s death was God’s plan.
The God who numbers our days—we might have assumed God had numbered Nick’s days at 80 years or 90 years. Turns out God had numbered his days at 20 years, and we just had to believe that this was God’s plan and God’s will. Once we were submitted to God’s sovereignty in the death of Nick, then we found hope because we knew this was God behind this. That gave us, I think, just a whole lot of peace and comfort.
Ann: Aileen, I’m thinking about you as a mom with this 20-year-old boy. It was sudden; he just collapsed and passed away instantly, it sounds like.
Dave: And you’re in Canada and he’s in Louisville.
Ann: Yes, and your daughter was also going to school there. So, was there any point that you were questioning God, “What are you doing? What’s happening right now?”
Aileen: If you had asked me four or five years ago, I would have said, “Yes, absolutely that would have been my first instinct, would be to question.” I very early on determined that God’s sovereignty was this course, and I didn’t like it, but I didn’t deny God’s right to choose that. I think that peace very much stemmed from that, the understanding that it was God’s right to choose this. I didn’t like it, but it was His right to do so.
Dave: The question would be, how much did you struggle with that? Because Nick was going to get married. He’s engaged, and just months before, he’s gone.
Dave: As a pastor and as a theologian and a writer, yes, we understand God’s in control. He’s sovereign. It’s His will. But did you push back? Did it feel like days where it was just dark, like “Man, I understand this, but man it’s hard to experience it right now?”
Aileen: I think you have to separate out the two, because there was days that it was dark, and it was days that it was incredibly hard, but it wasn’t because we didn’t trust God and His sovereignty in it. It was because of what had happened. So, there are two different things. If we didn’t trust the Lord, then that would be much harder.
Tim: So we had to realize things like, “Well, we might have had an 80-year plan for Nick’s life, or we might have imagined Nick having children and grandchildren. That was only ever fantasy; that was never reality. The reality was Nick would live 20 years and go to be with Jesus, and that’s God’s plan. God does no harm; God can only do what’s good and what’s best, so that’s the best plan for Nick.”
We just had to say, “That’s God’s right to do that,” and why would we contest that? There’s no reason to contest that. God’s good. We had to readjust our understanding of just how this world works, and how God’s sovereignty plays out.
But I don’t think we ever came to a point of anger with God, or a point of accusation with God to say, “God, You’ve done something wrong.” We just had to say, “No, God’s done something good here.” He makes it clear in His Word, God will only do what’s good, ultimately for good in the lives of His precious people.
Ann: I struggled when my sister passed away, and she left four kids that were from 9 to 20. I remember saying to God, “I see no sense in this. I can’t see a good thing in it.” And later, I saw some amazing, beautiful things that God had brought out of it. I can remember finally saying, I was in my bathroom on the floor, crying and telling God everything I was feeling, and I finally said, “But I will submit and give all of this to You, because I know You love me, I know You love her, I know she’s with You.”
“I know that, God, and I don’t feel any good thing at this point. But I will walk with You, and I will trust You.” I remember sharing that with a young woman at the time. She said, “Oh, you lost your faith.” I said, “No, I didn’t lose my faith. I’m just communicating the feelings and the anguish and the grief and the lament.” Did you experience that? Is that important for us to go through that?
Tim: Yes. I think what you’re describing is certainly not a loss of faith. Our faith, at times, has to become more complicated than we thought it was.
Tim: We have to realize we sing these nice hymns, “All to Jesus I surrender,” and then God does something in our lives and we think, “Okay, maybe I don’t actually surrender.” “Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord to Thee.” What a nice thing to sing, and then the Lord takes your child. Okay, well, you said you surrender him. So what are you going to do with that? Are you now going to say, “God, You did something wrong?”
All God has done is what we told Him to do. We said, “Take my life. Use me however You will, God. I’m Your servant. You use me.” Some of us have to go through hard things. I think that’s what God calls us all to do, in all of our sorrows and all of our pains, to receive them, to understand, “As a father has compassion on His children, so the Lord has compassion to those who fear Him.”
God is somehow even expressing love and compassion through this situation that feels so hard, which is so hard. I’m just choosing to receive it, to say, “This is from God.” I’m going to turn it out to others in love and service to them, and trust that God will bless that.
Ann: I think that’s the beauty of your book. It’s the beauty of the Psalms, too, where we see the honesty and the openness, the dialogue of David to God, what that looked like. But in the end, he’s going back and saying, “But I will trust you.”
Tim: Yes, and we have to go through that, what you describe, that process of getting to the point of submission. I think that’s just often the difference between what you thought it was to follow Jesus, and what Jesus is actually going to call you to do to follow Him. It’s so easy to follow the Lord on the best of days, but then you go through these really hard things and you just have to work it out in your heart over time.
“If this is what it means to follow the Lord, can I do this with joy? Can I love and serve Him in this?” And then you emerge from the far side truly loving Him more, and serving Him better, and submitting to Him.
Aileen: I am very thankful that one day we will know the purpose in our suffering as well, because that hope in knowing sometimes gives me a great deal of comfort.
Tim: Yes, we wanted to distinguish very quickly between why the Lord did this, and how God is going to use this. So what we didn’t want to do is say, “Well, look. This good thing happened. This person came to faith after hearing Nick’s story, so that’s why God did it.”
Ann: Why do we do that?
Tim: I know. That is so simplistic. If God is truly as great and as beyond all we think as He truly is, then He must be up to a thousand things or ten thousand things. So, we can truly look for these evidences and say, “Look what God did!” That is a wonderful thing, but that’s not necessarily why He took Nick at this young age.
Let’s just leave that part as part of God’s mysterious providence, we’ll rejoice over every way God uses it, and we’ll trust that in eternity God will show us that illustration of turning over the tapestry, so you’re seeing not just all the knots and the mess, but you’re seeing the full work of art God has created.
Ann: Is that a bad thing to say to a grieving person, “Well, God’s going to use it?”
Tim: Yes, I think it can be very hurtful, because in that moment it’s cheapening the death of the person to say, “Well, God’s going to use it.” In that moment they don’t want God to use it. They want their child back, they want their parent back, they want their sister back. Someday you can get there, but in the moment you just need to be with them. You just need to bring them some sweet, comforting Scriptures, you need to read Psalm 23 with them, and take a cue from Job’s friends that they were at their best before they opened their mouths.
Dave: We’re talking about this peace, and Paul says in Philippians it’s not just a peace that we experience in the world. It’s beyond. I’m sitting here thinking, “You’ve experienced it.” I’m not saying it doesn’t fleet at times, but how do you access that? How have you? I know sovereignty is part of it, so some of it is I have to understand truth, but is there another journey you’ve taken to access the peace of God?
Aileen: Honestly, a lot of it came down to a foundation of theology. I had grown up as a Christian with a good, solid foundation of theology, so when I needed to I could access those truths that I knew, and that was very much important to give me that peace as we moved forward.
Dave: Can you talk a little bit about a theology of suffering, because that’s foundational to walk through suffering. If your theology is not that God will allow suffering in your life, you’re not going to be able to get through it, so what would you say is a theology of suffering?
Tim: I think the building blocks for us at least through this time of suffering were God’s sovereignty and God’s goodness. So the sovereignty of God—God is king over this world, He rules this world, this is His world, there’s nothing that happens within this world that isn’t in some way His will, permitted by Him, decreed by Him, however you want to understand that.
And then the second pillar would be God’s goodness, so just understanding that God’s character is good. God only ever does what is good. God can do no evil, He can will no evil, He can want no evil, and so on. If you have those building blocks in place, then we look at something sorrowful like the loss of a child, and we say, “Okay, these things are true. My son died, but I know God is powerful, so He was in some way connected to this, and God is good, so He’s not bringing about bad things through this.”
So, the theology of suffering built on those twin pillars is one that just calls me to bow the knee to God’s sovereignty and say, “This God Who is so much bigger and greater than I am has decreed this, and this God Who is so much better and kinder and “gooder” than I am has acted out of His goodness in this way. So what is my response going to be?
I just have to bow the knee to God and say, “I may not see how You’re good in this. I may not see why You chose to express Your sovereignty in this way, but I’m just a little guy who fell over the other day putting my pants on.” That’s the kind of guy I am, and here’s this great big God Who created this universe. Who is more likely to have this one right?
We are so thankful that we had gotten our theology in place before we went through this. We didn’t know at the time we were preparing ourselves to suffer in this way, but it’s after you suffer a great loss, that is not the time to be asking a question like, “Is God really good or not? I’ve never really studied the Scripture.” You want to have that in place before you go through it.
Or, “Is God really sovereign over this world, or are He and Satan sort of locked in this battle and either one could come out ahead?” You want to know before you go into your times of suffering who’s truly sovereign in this world. So just preparing yourself by studying the Word, studying the doctrine of the Christian church is so, so important.
Dave: We probably don’t have time to read it, but I think it’s chapter 30, “Angels Unaware,” I just found that so beautiful. Talk about that. Maybe just tell the story. You were at the gravesite, and wasn’t that maybe the day they were going to be married?
Tim: Yes. We were doing well in our process through grief, but you do come to these dates and times that are unusually hard, and we came to the day when Nick would have been married. It was very, very hard because—I think the way I express it is that we had grieved what was, what we had lost, but on that day we were grieving what would never be. That should have been the day of his wedding.
We went to the cemetery and it was just bare, empty, nobody around. I had written a speech I wanted to give at his wedding. It just felt like something I could do, and I wanted to read it but I was just too sorrowful, too brokenhearted. So we just stood at the grave, and we were just so, so downcast that day, just weeping together. And then, just in our sorrow, somebody spoke my name, and we turned around.
There was this couple approaching, and they came up and introduced themselves, and told us that they were reading my website. They knew who we are, and their son is buried just a few rows over, and they just wanted to know if they could pray for us. So there on that absolute hardest of days, just in the moment God had these people show up to minister to us. It was just so, so powerful, and just this clear, clear indication that the Lord was with us.
Aileen: I often distinguish between the concept of knowing something and feeling something, right? You can’t trust your feelings, but you know, and this was the first time I felt that the Lord was caring for me. I knew up until that point God was caring for me, but this was the first time I had actually felt the Lord was directly caring for me. It was such a blessing that day, because Tim had been doing really well, but that day he was really, really struggling, and then you just feed off each other in those moments.
Tim: We’ve often just remembered that day as one of those days, one of those moments when God came through in an unusual way and just really, really blessed us. God just brought these circumstances together in such a way that nobody could deny God had done this. God had arranged this in just the perfect way.
We might long for a voice to boom from the sky or something, but you know what? God sent His people to do His mission on His behalf, and what a blessing that God sometimes enlists us to do that as well, that we can be the people there to comfort people in their sorrow.
Dave: It comforted you in such a powerful way that you were able to then read what you wrote to Nick, right?
Tim: Yes. It just really strengthened us and helped us in that moment, and we walked away from that experience, still sad but also just overwhelmed with joy because it was just such a clear indication of God’s love and God’s care for us.
Ann: Can you read what you read that day?
Tim: To Nick?
Ann: Yes. Is that too personal?
Tim: I could try.
[Reading] I suppose every parent can attest that it’s not just a bride who dreams of her wedding day, and it’s not just a groom who dreams of his, but their parents as well. So this is a day Aileen and I have dreamed about, a day that we have prayed toward. Nick, when you were tiny, no more than a few days old, I began to pray for a future spouse, that He would first call her to Himself, and that He would then lead her to you.
It was not long after you arrived at Boyce that we began to hear the name, “Ryn,” and after you dealt with some early rejection, and I’d say even well-deserved rejection for coming on just a little too fast and a little too strong, you caught your bearings, you regained your confidence, and you found your wife, and so this day is an answer to so many prayers.
And what a delight it has been to get to know your bride. Ryn, we often wondered what it would be like to welcome another daughter into our family, but we couldn’t have imagined just how easy you would make it, and what joy you would bring. You have gained yourself a husband who I can honestly say is one of the finest men I know.
Nick, Solomon says “A wise son brings joy to his father,” and I can truly say that among all the many joys God has granted me in this life, few have been greater than the joy of being your dad. “He who loves wisdom makes his father glad,” and truly, my boy, you make my heart overflow with gladness, with joy, with pride.
At this point, I think I’m supposed to offer some words of counsel, some words of wisdom born of nearly a quarter century of being married, so here it goes. Treat each day as its own little life. Each morning marks a creation of a new day, and each evening marks its passing away. We cannot live in the past, and we cannot live in the future. We can only ever live in the day God has created for us.
The key to living life well is to live each day well, so begin each day as a fresh opportunity to bring glory to God, and close each day as if you will never see another. If there are duties to be done, do them today, and if there are praises to be offered, offer them today. If there are sins to be confessed, confess them today, and if there are amends to be made, make them today. Yesterday is in the past, and tomorrow is never guaranteed. There is only ever today.
And speaking of today, today is a day to celebrate you and to celebrate your marriage. Instead of closing with a traditional toast, I’d like to close with a biblical blessing, with the words of God Himself. “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus. He who calls you [spoken through tears] is faithful; He will surely do it.” The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.
Ann: That was beautiful.
Tim: Thank you.
Ann: And you ended up reading it.
Ann: You know, these are heavy and hard conversations, aren’t they?
Dave: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. It was heavy.
Ann: And sometimes you don’t even want to talk about them, because you’re afraid, like “I don’t want to live through anything like this.” But I found them to be so helpful in so many ways.
Dave: What way?
Ann: I think just even listening to them, knowing how to respond, knowing that there’s no normal, per se, but we can cling to God. I just also thought having community around you is so important.
Dave: Yes, the thing that really struck me was a foundation of theology. You don’t build a foundation in a storm. You build it before the storm, so that when the storm comes the house doesn’t crash. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t shake and be weathered, but their foundation and their understanding of God’s goodness and God’s grace—they both said it—is the reason they’re able to be strong in where they are.
I just thought so many people don’t have a solid foundation, and then when the storm comes they turn against God rather than allowing God to work in and through that storm.
Ann: Yes. As I hear you say that, I think one of our goals and what we hope on FamilyLife Today, is that as you listen, you’ll hear and understand that Jesus is our foundation with FamilyLife. I hope you’re listening and even sharing these different podcasts or telling people about it, because Jesus is our hope. He’s our calling, He’s our foundation.
Dave: He is the foundation, and here’s a truth that’s inspiring. As you give to FamilyLife Today, you’re helping other families, especially even younger families, build a strong theological foundation.
Dave: That’s something we talk about every single program, is the foundation of Christ. When you give, you’re not only building your own foundation, you’re helping others. You’re helping them build a foundation because you know and I know storms are coming, and they’re going to need that foundation. So thank you.
Shelby: Yes and let me say thank you as well. I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Tim and Aileen Challies on FamilyLife Today. Right now is such a unique opportunity to have your gift doubled in terms of both numbers and impact. With your support during our matching campaign this month, your gift is going to be matched dollar for dollar.
So if you make a $25 donation for example, it becomes $50, and if you make a $100 donation, it becomes $200. The math is pretty simple. You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com and have your gift matched dollar for dollar all this month long. Thank you so much for being part of pushing the gospel out to every home through FamilyLife and the ministry that we have here at FamilyLife Today.
Again, you can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com, and while you’re there you can pick up Seasons of Sorrow by Tim and Aileen Challies. The subtitle on that is The Pain of Loss and The Comfort of God. Obviously, they have a very impactful story, and you can learn more about how they not only dealt with the loss of their son and the subsequent grief that came after that, but how they learned to trust God in the midst of impossible circumstances.
Again, you can go online to grab a copy of that at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, the number is 800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.” And feel free to drop us something in the mail. Our address is FamilyLife, 100 Lake Hart Drive, Orlando, FL 32832.
You know, God calls us to live in the world but not of the world. How do we participate in what’s going on with our kids, specifically in the digital world, but not boycott everything? We need to learn how to have good conversations with our kids and figure out this whole screen time thing. Well, Jeremiah Johnston is going to be with us tomorrow, talking with Dave and Ann Wilson about how to do just that in the lives of our kids. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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