November 4, 2020
“In all the years I’ve been writing, I have never had to type words more difficult, more devastating than these: Yesterday the Lord called my son to himself—my dear son, my sweet son, my kind son, my godly son, my only son.”
So begins Tim Challies’s new book Seasons of Sorrow (Zondervan, 2022). Just the day before those words were written, Nicholas Challies suddenly collapsed while playing an outdoor game with some friends. There was nothing anyone could do. Nicholas died that day at just 20 years old.
As a blogger and a man who is always writing, Tim wrote a lot during the year following his son’s death. He wrote mainly to process his thoughts and feelings. Those personal reflections, blog posts, and journal entries have been collected and presented chronologically, going through the four seasons of that difficult and unprecedented year in Tim’s life. Seasons of Sorrow is an inside look into his grieving process as it unfolds. As Tim writes about the process, we are in a sense watching him move through stages of grief, from the initial time of shock where so many decisions have to be made and you pray for God to simply keep your head above water, to the time when the pain settles in, the offers of help and expressions of sympathy fade away, and you begin asking God for the endurance to live with this for the rest of your life.
Two things above the rest make this book stand out to me. First is Tim’s raw honesty and his willingness to be vulnerable in the midst of deep personal tragedy. You probably know how it feels to be in the middle of a strong emotional moment, only to have to compose yourself and try to hide it because you all of a sudden find yourself in the midst of a group of people. Tim’s not doing that at all here. He is letting us in to the emotional moment without putting on a face, or editing out the messiness. For example, at one point he mentions his concern that in his thoughts about heaven, his son Nick has perhaps begun to have more prominence than Jesus. “What does it say about me that my longing to be with Jesus is now matched, or even surpassed, by my longing to be with Nick?” And he refuses to resolve this with a trite cliche or an oversimplification. He lets it hang there for the reader. I do not know personally, but I would imagine details like these are so refreshing and encouraging to those who are struggling through the same thoughts, but perhaps are afraid to admit them out loud.
Second, while giving us a window into his grief, Tim is constantly teaching about the sovereignty and the goodness of God. As he does so, his words carry enormous weight because we know his theology is being put to the ultimate test. I found myself praising the Lord when he wrote things like, “It falls to me to align my own understanding of goodness with God’s, to rely on God’s understanding of good to inform my own.” Amen brother. Tim is showing us how to trust the Lord while walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
It is apparent that this teaching element is not some strategy for the book, but is simply the way Tim processes his grief because he cannot separate the character of God from the real events of life. It is clear, to me at least, that Tim has walked closely with the Lord for so long that the doctrine of God has infused and permeated every area of his life, and it naturally comes to the surface as he pours out his heart. At one point, he writes, “If Nick’s death was not a lapse in God’s sovereignty, it was also not a lapse in his goodness. If there was no moment in which God stopped being sovereign, there is no moment in which he stopped being good—good toward me, good toward my family, good toward Nick, good according to his perfect wisdom. God can’t not be good!”
Tim is a skilled and polished writer and he writes in a style that is easy to read for long stretches of time. But when combined with the way he put his whole heart into each chapter, and his raw emotion, this makes Seasons of Sorrow one of the best and most engaging books I have ever read. This was easily the best book I have read this year and, as a pastor, I believe it will become my go-to recommendation and gifts to those who are going through the tragic loss of a loved one.
Well done, Tim Challies. I am thankful to have had a window into your son’s short but God-honoring life through your beautiful writing.
John Davis is the pastor of Columbia Christian Church in Columbia, KY. He is the author of God-Centered Christianity: The Bible’s Antidote for Self-Centered Religion and Seeing the Unseen God.
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