On the evening of November 3, 2020, pastor and blogger Tim Challies received the call every parent dreads most. His 20-year-old son Nick had died while playing sports with friends at his college. There was no warning and no explanation—only the disorientation of unthinkable loss and the battle for faith in the goodness and sovereignty of God. In Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God, Challies chronicles his experience from the day Nick died to the first anniversary of his death. Matt McCullough, pastor of Edgefield Church in Nashville, Tennessee, spoke with Challies about his journey of grief.
In your prologue, you mention that you began writing the night you learned Nick had died. How did these early thoughts turn into the book before us?
I had to board a plane right after hearing the news. In the air, I started writing, partly to reflect on what was happening and partly because I needed to tell my blog readers what had happened. At this point, I could only describe what I was going through in real time. It will be years before I might consider writing a book on grief or suffering, because that takes some time and reflection. So I realized the book I wanted to write was similar to what I’ve been doing on the blog all these years—sharing real-time reflections on one man’s experience of the Christian life.
You structure the book in four seasons—fall, winter, spring, and summer—covering the year following Nick’s death. Were you hoping to communicate something about the grieving process through this structure?
As much as anything, I wanted the book to show a chronological flow. I wanted to show some progression from the early days, when I could barely wrap my mind around what happened, to a year later, when I’m still deep in sorrow but also making some progress toward understanding and living with it.
Are there any memoirs of grief and loss that were especially helpful, either for dealing with grief or supplying a model for the book?
Years ago, I discovered a book on grief from the Presbyterian author J. R. Miller, who wrote during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The main idea I took away was seeing grief as God’s call to a ministry of comfort. If a sovereign God has given you this burden, then how will you use it to serve him and his purposes?
I also read books from periods when many more people experienced the loss of a child. I found that perspective very helpful. And there was a poetic element to these books that I think is lacking today. Beautiful ideas expressed with beautiful words—that really caused my heart to soar in some of those sorrowful moments.
Your book is full of searing honesty about the anguish you experienced, but it also radiates confidence in the sovereignty and goodness of God. In an early chapter titled “My Manifesto,” you write, “By faith I will accept Nick’s death as God’s will, and by faith accept that God’s will is always good. … I will grieve but not grumble, mourn but not murmur, weep but not whine.” How did those resolutions hold up in the year that followed?
Early on, my wife and I realized we were either going to trust God in this or we weren’t. We adhere to Reformed theology. We believe strongly in God’s sovereignty, and we profess it all the time. But throughout my life, God’s sovereignty had almost invariably done what I wanted it to do. My wife sometimes reminds me of what I told her in the year or two leading up to this—that we have had an easy life and there’s got to be some sorrow coming.
So I wrote that manifesto early on, hoping it would direct my heart for the long haul of grief. The first days and weeks are difficult. But in a sense they are also easy because you sort of go in one direction: through memorials, funerals, burials, and everything else you need to do. After that, the support starts falling away, and that’s when things can go awry. That’s when I most needed the manifesto, and God was gracious in allowing it to help and guide us through the months to come.
Throughout the book you mention friends who comforted you—many from your local church in Toronto. What have you taken away from their support?
From the beginning, we decided we wouldn’t look askance at anybody’s attempts to comfort us. We were not going to be upset if, like Job’s friends, people sometimes gave unwise counsel. And so we tried to find encouragement from anything, even from comments that could have been hurtful, however well intentioned.
Our church is very multicultural, and every culture grieves differently. But we found the most helpful things were the simple things: people offering help or bringing meals. It helped, too, when the visits weren’t overwhelming—when people volunteered to show up at a certain time with a meal but didn’t stick around longer than a few minutes.
You describe Nick’s death as a stewardship received from God, just as his life had been a stewardship. What does it mean to steward grief?
If we truly believe that God is sovereign, then nothing happens in life that isn’t a call to stewardship in some form. Whatever Providence directs has been given by God for a purpose, and our goal is to receive it well, whether that’s great talent or lots of money or even things we wouldn’t wish—sorrows and losses.
In that way, grief is a stewardship. It’s given by God, and we are responsible before him to use it well, primarily by displaying Christian faith and virtue through it. By this, we prove to the world that Christians won’t turn away from God when things don’t go our way. It has buoyed our own faith and confidence just to know that we truly do love the Lord.
How would you encourage someone whose grief is still fresh, someone deep in despair and struggling to remain faithful?
Finding meaning and purpose in your loss is not the same as saying you are no longer deeply brokenhearted over it. I am broken. I am shattered. I am never going to be the man I was before. I still cry constantly. I still haven’t gone through a worship service without weeping through the singing. This is my reality. But it doesn’t mean I can’t say that God has meaning and purpose in it and that I can serve him all the more in these circumstances.
The book leaves off in the fall of 2021, on the anniversary of Nick’s death. Has your experience of grief changed since then?
What we’ve found hardest are the days that are supposed to bring great joy. Our daughter got married recently, which was a wonderful, beautiful occasion. But we were so aware that Nick was not present. In moments like these, we’ve tried to celebrate, looking ahead with confidence that there will be a day when all our tears are dried.
The Lord has been so good and kind throughout these two years. I think I can really say that all of us love the Lord more now than we did before. We have a more tangible sense of his providence, that he’s directing all things to his glory. And we want to be used by the Lord for his purposes, to be found faithful in all he calls us to.
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