Finding God in the Stories of Loss
About the Guest
In the midst of deepest suffering, where is God and why doesn't He deliver us and answer our prayers? Perhaps the answer to that question lies in the nature of the prayers themselves. Author Jerry Sittser and Ron Deal, who have both dealt with unexpected loss of loved ones, talk frankly about finding their place in God's story.
Jerry SittserGerald Sittser is professor of theology and a senior fellow in the Office of Church Engagement at Whitworth University, where he has served for 30 years. Over the past few years he has worked with many partner churches to engage the culture and equip disciples with the good news of Jesus. He has written nine books, among them A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss and A Grace Revealed, The Will of God as a Way of Life, Water From a Deep Well: Ch...more
Ron DealRon L. Deal is one of the most widely read and viewed experts on blended families in the country. He is Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®, founder of Smart Stepfamilies™, and the author and Consulting Editor of the Smart Stepfamily Series
In the midst of deepest suffering, where is God and why doesn’t He deliver us and answer our prayers?
Finding God in the Stories of Loss
Bob: There’s an old saying that says, “Time heals all wounds.” The Bible says it this way, “Sorrow lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Here’s an illustration of that truth from Jerry Sittser:
Jerry: When you’re visiting a huge mountain, like Mount Rainier, and you’re three miles away, it dominates the landscape. It’s the only thing you see. If you back up 25 miles, the mountain doesn’t change sizes but your perspective on it does. You always want it in the landscape, but it occupies a different place in the landscape and has a different function. I would say that’s happened for us.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, November 16th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. You may find yourself, today, in the dark night of the soul, but there is a dawn coming.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. It has been interesting to see where our conversation this week has taken us because we’ve been talking about grace and redemption and story and our lives and how God is at work in them. In the middle of that, we took a turn and started talking about remarrieds and blended families, because our guest is a part of one of those. We asked our friend, Ron Deal, to come in and to join the conversation.
At this point, we are going to move in a different direction, aren’t we?
Dennis: We are. We’re going to talk about an interesting subject and one that I don’t know that I would have been all that good in addressing had it not been for Jerry Sittser’s first book, A Grace Disguised.
I’ve had a number of people that I’ve come into contact with where I’ve said, “I’m going to send you a book.” I send them A Grace Disguised, because it’s the story of how a man and a family handled loss and handled it in a biblical, authentic way. It’s not preachy; and because of that, I feel like I’ve been able to pass on some help to people who were in the midst of, perhaps, losing hope or just needed a little bit of sunshine and put some perspective on what they are going through.
We have with us here in the studio, again, Dr. Jerry Sittser. Welcome back, Jerry.
Jerry: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Dennis: We also have Ron Deal with us. And Ron heads up our Blended Family Initiative here at FamilyLife. Welcome back, Ron.
Ron: Thank you. It’s always good to be here.
Dennis: Now, when we come to the subject of loss, Ron, and we turn to you, you have experienced something that almost is unimaginable.
Ron: You know when I wrote my first book, The Smart Stepfamily, I had not lost my son. Every book I’ve written since the death of my son, Connor—he died in February of 2009 at the age of 12—and I’ve talked about that loss in every one of those books, with every blended family that I’ve talked with since then, counseled with, in our weekend conference for stepfamilies.
What I’ve discovered is that no matter what kind of loss we’ve gone through in life, there are some commonalities between loss, and how we deal with loss, and how we cope with it, and our search for God in the midst of the loss. The losses are different, the impact is different; but we’re all asking those really tough questions about where God is and how we go on.
Being with Jerry this week, sitting in on the broadcast, and talking with him some has been really a gift because you’re much further down the road than I am.
Nan and I went out on a date on a Saturday night. We went and saw the movie Taken—Liam Neeson, his daughter is taken, abducted, for the purposes of child trafficking. It was a good movie. It was a good date. We went home.
My son, Connor, our middle son at the time—we had 14, 12, and 10. Connor was 12. He had a headache. So, we did what all parents do. We gave him an ibuprofen and sent him to bed. What we didn’t know, Jerry, was that he was being taken. Woke up the next morning. He wasn’t feeling better. He was feeling worse. Nan took him to see a doctor. They checked him for this and that, and it was negative.
So, they didn’t really know what to do with him. They said, “Bring him back in a couple of days if he’s not feeling any better.” In a couple of days, he had a 104 degree temperature and could hardly breathe or stand or walk. So, we took him directly to our doctor. They admitted him with pneumonia. It was two more days in the hospital before we knew even what was causing all of this; and it was a Mercer staph infection that had gone septic and was racing through his body and causing now double pneumonia.
They had to intubate him and breathe for him, life-flight him to another children’s hospital in Dallas where they could give him better care; and long story short, from the time we went and saw the movie, Taken, it was ten days—Connor was taken.
I miss him every day, and my life is before and after. You look for God, you know He is there; but sometimes, you’re just not sure how.
Two weeks after Connor died, my youngest son, Brennan, took me to the computer and said, “Look, Dad, here is the Caring Bridge site that we put up when Connor was in the hospital.” We were asking for people to pray for him. We were posting updates on his condition. He said, “Look, Dad, 35,000 people were praying for Connor; and God still let him die.” My ten-year-old looks at me and says, “So, why did God let him die?”
My response at the time was “Wow. I don’t know. I’m going to have to get back to you on that one.” It’s been an ongoing dialogue for our family ever since, trying to find our place in God’s story, trying to make sense of what’s happened, and then, ultimately, deciding that we can’t make sense of it. We just have to trust God with it.
But at the end of the day, for me, or anybody else that I’ve talked to, when you’re kind of looking at your loss—whatever that loss story is, that explanation just doesn’t feel adequate. It just leaves us in that place of a big question mark where we just don’t know.
So, we, over and over again, come back, I think, to the Throne Room of God; and we just kind of fall on our knees and just wonder, “What’s the bigger story here? Will I ever know it in this life? I believe that I’ll know it in the next life—“
Ron: “If I can’t know it now, how do—You give me enough grace to survive it.”
Jerry: Well, it’s interesting you mention the word, grace. I think about what life would be like if there was no God and no grace at all. I suppose we would be spared all of those nasty theological questions we have that you’ve just mentioned and more: Where is God? Why didn’t He answer our prayers?
Without God in the picture, it would just be a granite wall we would be staring at with no questions or answers at all. We would just have to say, “It’s fate. It’s the ruthlessness of the natural world that eventually is going to gobble all of us up anyway.”
It’s interesting, Ron, that you said I’m further down the road than you are. The irony is I’m still on the road, and it’s been 20 years for me. I still ask questions I can’t find answers for. I stare at the scene of that accident. I look at it every day, and I still have questions. I still don’t understand some things.
Dennis: When you speak of the accident, you are speaking of?
Jerry: A drunken-driving accident that took the life of my mother, who was visiting us for the weekend, my wife, Linda—my mother’s name was Grace—my wife, Linda, and my daughter, Diana Jane. I survived as well as three of my children—then, very young.
So, the best I’ve been able to do in this question is simply stare, sometimes, in wonder, in mystery, in question, in struggle, in doubt—once in awhile even flirting on the edges of despair. It comes down to this, either there is no God or there’s grace. And I want to live in a world of grace however unfair it is.
I mean what happened to me was unfair. What happened to you and to Connor was profoundly unfair; but I want to live in a world that’s unfair if there is grace, because grace is unfair.
Dennis: Jerry, you mentioned you struggled with despair. How about doubt?
Jerry: Oh, that’s a good question, Dennis. I would say doubt not in the sense of absolutely turning away from faith. You know what it was? It was the doubt born out of exhaustion. I was almost too tired to believe. I remember going to church with my three little ones week after week, month after month; and I was so exhausted and so beaten up by the experience I just couldn’t muster any faith. I would just sit there. I wouldn’t sing. I wouldn’t pray.
As strange as this sounds, I really think the church picked me up on its back and carried me and my kids for awhile. Other people sang for me. Other people prayed for me. Now, I do it for other people. I’m back to praying, and I’m back to singing. I’ve done that for lots of people in the wake of the experience.
I don’t believe in words like recovery. I don’t believe in words like getting over something. What’s happened to me is that I’ve moved into it. I’ve simply absorbed the experience into my soul. It’s a part of the landscape of my life. It’s part of who I am, and I’m able to live with that now pretty comfortably.
Dennis: It’s part of the journey you’re on.
Jerry: It is.
Dennis: Ron, some people have been singing for you?
Ron: I know a family that two brothers have each lost a child. They’ve gotten involved in some amazing ministries out of their losses. One of them, author Mike Hope, talks about how other people intubate us during times of loss. It is as if God uses them to breathe for us. That’s a metaphor that is very clear to me because Connor was intubated for seven days while he was in the hospital before he died. Somebody else had to breathe for him because he couldn’t do it himself.
In periods of great time of stress and loss, I think that’s what the church is called upon to be, as Jerry said. Other people come in, and they breathe for us—if that’s taking care of daily tasks and activities. Mostly, I think it’s just presence.
I think what I’ve needed since the death of my son, what my wife has needed, and our other two boys have needed is just presence: people who will just come and be around us and talk to us and tell us they were thinking about Connor today and ask what we’re thinking about as it relates to Connor today.
Nan talks about how every mom wants to talk about all of her kids; and one of the best gifts anybody gives her is just permission for her to also talk about Connor, because there are lots of people who really can’t. They really don’t know how to broach that subject. So, when they give her permission, when they bring it up, then she’s free to talk about him. She wants to talk about him.
Dennis: It’s interesting that you should say that because just this past week, I was with my son-in-law and daughter, Jake and Rebecca, and they had a loss. They had a little girl who lived seven days. Her name was Molly.
Bob and I just completed a new video series for men called Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood®. In the first session of that ten-part video series, I asked the question of men, “What is the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?” And at the end of the session, I look in the camera and say, “There are a couple of things that come to my mind in terms of the most courageous thing I’ve ever done.”
“One of them is the seven days I spent in the valley with my daughter and son-in-law over the loss of their first-born little girl.” It’s a double loss for me. I was not only losing a granddaughter; but I was experiencing the loss that Jake and Rebecca were going through as well. I spoke about it on that video.
I was going to show them the video this past weekend because I wanted them to see it; and I decided not to because we’d really had kind of an upbeat fun time. It was like the insertion of that video was going to do something that I thought, “This is just not the trip to show that.” But I pulled them aside near the end of our time with them; and I said, “I want you to know that I wanted to show you this video, but I didn’t want it to be a downer for you.”
And my daughter looked at me, and she said—and so did Jake—they basically said the same thing, “Thank you for mentioning Molly’s life, for honoring her and calling attention to one of the shortest lives ever lived, seven days, and how her legacy is mighty.” They just said, “No. Thank you. We have so many people who don’t know what to say to us in the midst of our loss.”
But to engage with you around Connor is to honor his life and what he lived for and what you and Nan have been through since his death.
Jerry: It’s awkward to do. It’s worth doing. The other thing you discover is that when you tell the story and you simply remain present to the body of Christ—even if you are a heavy, obvious presence—is that you release other people to be able to tell their stories too; and you discover the incredible variety of losses that people go through, whether it’s the loss of a child, as you’ve experienced, Ron--and I have-- or the loss of a grandchild, or the loss of a marriage, or a job, or a dream, or health, or on and on it goes.
We do live in a fallen world, you know?
I remember talking to my son many years ago, and this analogy came to mind. When you’re visiting a huge mountain, like Mount Rainier, and you’re three miles away, it dominates the landscape. It’s the only thing you see. If you back up 25 miles—and we’ll take those 25 miles as time distance, not just physical distance—the mountain doesn’t change sizes but your perspective on it does. You always want it in the landscape, but it occupies a different place in the landscape and has a different function.
I would say that’s happened for us. I look at my story. I look at what my kids are like. I look at how much fun they are and how healthy and alive and interesting—and I’m so, so proud of them; but it’s all a part of our story. Diana Jane is, their mom is, their grandmother is. It comes up often in conversations.
Fortunately, my new wife, Patricia, was a woman of unusual maturity and grace and dignity. She honors all those stories and preserves them and helps carry them as kind of the property of the family. Far from being bitter, it’s actually more beautiful than anything.
Dennis: You’ve just gotten near the edge of answering the question I wanted to ask you, Jerry. All this week we’ve talked about grace. Would you do your best to explain the beauty of what grace is? It’s more than the definition; it’s the experience of what that grace looks like. There has to be a listener who is in such a place of despair that they need to have that picture painted.
Jerry: Well, first, I would never shame them out of despair. I mean when you go through a hard experience, it’s just plain hard. I never whitewash that, Dennis. I can’t in good conscience. I remember how hard it was for me and in some ways still is.
Here’s what I hear often after a person goes through some kind of loss: “It’s not fair;” and I always agree with them. “It’s not fair.” Losing Connor at the age of 12 was not fair. Losing Molly at seven days was not fair. That isn’t the way life was intended to be. It’s not the way God designed life. He didn’t design it for death and despair and suffering and grief and all the rest; but it’s happened because we live in a fallen world.
Then, I come to this: grace is not fair either. It is lavished upon people who are broken, who are sinful, who are fallen. God takes us in our brokenness and in our sinfulness and in all the rest of the pain that we carry, sometimes—in fact, often—for the rest of our lives, and somehow takes that in His hand and loves us and nurtures us and carries on that story, and somehow through it all begins to show its beauty and excellence and purity. That’s the work He wants to do in all of us.
He’s demonstrated that through Jesus Christ. You talk about a story of pain and suffering and loss. This man—this man who could have thrown the trump card of His divinity down at any moment and utterly destroy His enemies goes to the Cross for our sake and experiences a level of loss, humiliation, brokenness, death, and Hell that we will never be able to comprehend. This is God, experiencing this, and did it for our sake.
He will take the brokenness of our lives and somehow turn it out for healing and beauty and good. Got to give Him room to do it.
Dennis: It takes faith to give Him that room.
Jerry: It takes faith to give Him that room.
Dennis: Trust, surrender, faith. It’s not always easy, and it does involve despair and doubt and discouragement, failure; but you keep on believing and you keep on getting up and continuing the journey.
Jerry: Think of one biblical story that was happy from beginning to end. There isn’t one—not one. Yet, you read these stories now because we know how they turn out, right? You think, “Oh my goodness! What an amazing story that is.” We fantasize this sort of carefree, lovely story line of our lives where there are no problems, no difficulties, no obstructions, no obstacles—nothing.
Dennis: Heaven—that’s Heaven.
Jerry: That’s Heaven. (Laughter) On earth, it’s not real, and it’s boring; but God takes narratives that are all messed up—
Jerry: —and somehow works them out for good. And Jesus Christ is the ultimate proof of that.
Dennis: Ron, I want to thank you for sharing your story today. We want to come back at some point in the future, get Nan in here, and have you guys share more of the lessons that have been learned in your family and how God is using it with a little ministry you’ve got going on in Africa to reach out to orphans.
Jerry, it’s been a treat to have you back for a week. Thanks for being a guy from the Northwest and coming back into the South and hanging out with a couple of Southern guys. That’s quite a tribute to you.
Bob: Speak for yourself, will you? (Laughter)
Dennis: Well, we’re actually Midwesterners—
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: —from Missouri, but thanks for being with us.
Jerry: It’s all about grace. (Laughter)
Bob: You mentioned the ministry that the Deal’s have established in Africa. We’ve got a link on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com for Conner’s Song. If you’d like to find out more about the work that’s being done there, again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. There’s also information about Jerry’s book, A Grace Revealed, Ron Deal’s brand new book, Dating and the Single Parent.
Again, the website, FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on these resources; or you can call if you’d like to order the books. 1-800-FL-TODAY is our toll-free number. That’s 1-800-358-6329—1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
Our hope here at FamilyLife is that what we do through these broadcasts, with what we’ve got on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com, all of the outreaches and ministries that are a part of what we’re doing—our hope, our goal, is that God will take this and press it into folks’ lives, so that homes, marriages, relationships between parents and children, extended family members can be Christ-exalting, Christ-honoring.
So there can be peace in those relationships. So that there can be unity in those relationships—things that the Bible talks about. We want to see every home become a godly home. That’s the reason we do this radio program. That’s our mission at FamilyLife: every home a godly home.
Some of you share that vision. We know that because you not only listen to this program but because you also help support the ministry. You want to keep the program on your local station, on the network of stations we’re on all across the country. You want to keep our website up and vibrant, and you realize that without your support we couldn’t continue to do what we do here.
We want to say thanks to those of you who have helped in the past, and we want to say thanks to those of you who are able to help today with a donation. We have a two-CD set we’d like to send you as a thank you gift. We had a conversation not long ago with Nancy Leigh DeMoss who wrote a book on gratitude—talked with her about how we cultivate a heart of gratefulness and how we encourage our children to become more grateful as well.
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Again, let me just say how much we appreciate your partnership with us here in the ministry of FamilyLife Today.
We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and we hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk about what it means to be a living sacrifice. What does it mean to be dead to self and alive to God? Michael and Hayley DiMarco join us to talk about that. Hope you can be here as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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