How do I go on? John Onwuchekwa
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John OnwuchekwaJohn Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Cornerstone Church, a church in one of Atlanta's oldest inner-city neighborhoods, and he currently serves as a council associate for The Gospel Coalition. John frequently speaks at colleges, conferences, and churches across the country and internationally. John holds a masters in Christian Education from Dallas Theological Seminary and is currently pursuing his Doctorate in Church Leadership and Community Witness from Emory University's Candler School...more
Some moments are so grief-swept and raw, we wonder, How do I go on? Author John Onwuchekwa relays his own story of abject loss — and clawing his way out.
How do I go on? John Onwuchekwa
John: My grief made me feel like a liar—that I’d spent my whole life talking to people about the goodness of God and who He was—I felt this grief that: “Maybe I lied to them. Maybe, I told people that something worked, that didn't actually work; because it's not working right now.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: When you walked through your sister's death, and the grief after that—I mean, I don't/I'm not sure I know the answer to this—what would you say was the hardest part of that journey?
Ann: I think it was living life without her on earth. It's like you have dreams and visions of your future, even with a sister or someone that passes away.
Dave: I mean, she was your best friend.
Ann: —best friend:
- For her not to be there—to not talk to her; to hear her voice—crushed me.
- I think part of it, too, is because she died, suffering of cancer—of trying to get that out of my head—and back to the good things and not the horrific things.
Those were probably some of my hardest things.
Dave: Yes; I think we all know this—walking through grief, trauma, pain, sorrow—I could keep going—that's the hardest thing to navigate in life.
Ann: And especially, as a Christian, when you have no answers of: “Why? I don't even get it.”
Dave: And you have a question in your head: “Can I go on?”
We have a book sitting on our table right here called We Go On. We've got the author, John—okay, I'm going to try.
John: Come on, try.
Dave: I’m guessing this name has been mispronounced at times.
John: It’s been butchered in ways you can't imagine.
Dave: Tell me how I do here.
John: No, no—look—look at it—
Dave: I’m looking at it.
John: —right in front of you; I will take two letters at a time.
Dave: Dude, I've got it. It's John Onwuchekwa.
John: That's it.
Dave: John, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
John: Thank you, man. Glad to be here.
Dave: I mean, we just had a great lunch with you. It's been an amazing journey. You are a pastor in Atlanta. Tell us a little bit about what you do.
John: It's not that I do a bunch of things. I do the same two things in a bunch of different places; alright?
Dave: Okay, what's that mean?
John: I love to tell the greatest story ever told, which is the gospel, and show how that intersects with lesser stories. In my heart, I love to ideate/to create ideas and possibilities; and then, to galvanize teams to be able to do that work.
So there's an idea for a church plant in the West End. I say, “Listen, I don't know all of what it's going to take, but I know who it's going to take. Let me galvanize that group to come in and to do that.”
And then, that group goes—and church planting, and coffee, and this—it's like, “Alright, I come in and I do that.” I'm much more of a team builder than I am a team leader; so yes.
Dave: I can tell you this: you're an inspirer; I'm fired up right now.
Ann: Me too.
Well, it's so interesting too, because as you share that, I'm thinking, “Yes, we all want to follow you. You're gifted.” And yet, you wrote this book called We Go On; and the subtitle is: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys.
Don't you hear him, and think, “This guy is all about joy, strategy; he's a creator”; and yet, you've walked through some really hard things too.
John: Right; yes. Ann, I think what you said is right. But I think the conjunction that you use—“This guy is all about joy; and yet, you've had to walk through…”—I think we tend to live as if those two things don't go together; but I think that they do, right?
That's why—like baked into even the way that I put the book—it is a book that's all about grief; but everybody who picks up the book is like, “Yo, but it's so beautiful on the inside,”—and it's jarring, because we don't think about grief and beauty.
I think the way that we really do get to a lasting and a full joy is—not walking around grief—but it's a: “No, no, no; when you walk through grief, you realize that you're no longer blinded to the shallow substitutes that life provides. You really see life for what it is, and you can really lean in and enjoy some of the subtle sweetness that God provides.” I found that being able to walk through grief is actually the pathway to that deep joy; that's why I wrote the book. I didn't want people to be as afraid of it.
Ann: Yes, you're right; because we try to avoid it. You don’t see—
Dave: I run around it if at all possible; [Laughter] I see it. But as I opened your book, I mean, you start with—you’re in grief; you're walking—I didn't even know if you were feeling any joy at that point. Take us there.
John: The book starts off in 2016, and it was the spring of 2016. I just got through doing chapel for the Texas A&M men's basketball team. I drive back to a mall in Atlanta to return some shoes. I'm waiting on a parking spot, and none come up. I'm waiting, waiting, waiting; one finally comes up. A car of three girls zooms past me, and they head right into the spot. I call out/I'm like, “Hey, I've been waiting on that spot.”
Dave: Oh, you said that to them.
John: Yes, “Hey!” They said, “No, no, no; we're just going to move in here and turn around.” I'm like, “Alright.” I start to pull up, and they're sneaking out of the back of the car to go into the store. [Laughter]
Dave: No way!
John: I rolled down my window. Alright; I was surprised by the fluency at which the cuss words flew out of my mouth. As soon as I did it, I stepped back; and it's like, “What happened?” It's 2016; I planted a church in 2015. I'm a pastor; this is Saturday. I'm going to preach the next day. And here I am, for the first time in 15 years, cussing people out for a parking spot. As soon as I do it, I call my wife on the phone—I call Trip; I call Richard—and I tell them, and I just say, “I'm not okay”; alright?
In April of 2015, six weeks before we started that church—my brother passed suddenly; 32 years old, the best shape of his life—5-year-old, 3-year-old, 1-year-old; pastor. Sam never said a cuss word—he was just that guy—and he passed. In trying to move past grief to just do God's work; I avoided dealing with it like the plague. I found out that: “Yes, you really can't outrun grief any more than a dog can outrun its own tail, like, ‘Go as far as you want to, and it's still there.’” And it caught up to me.
Ann: What happened to him?—how did he pass?
John: With Sam, it was nothing—he did a premarital counseling appointment for people, who weren't even a part of his church; that was the guy that he was—leaves out of the Starbucks®, sits in his car, opens up his Bible to Acts to just read briefly to prepare for what he's going to teach this next week. He goes to sleep, and he doesn't wake up.
John: So yes, the autopsy is inconclusive, and all of that. But this is what I mean—like no way of losing somebody feels like the right way—it's puzzling, and frustrating, and heartbreaking; and I didn't take time to process it. I just felt like: “Maybe, if I move on and just try to work,” “Maybe, if I go around this fog of grief, that I'll get to the destinations that I want to go to.”
Dave: So is the parking lot moment a defining,—
Dave: —like, “Okay, we've got something here we’ve got to address.”
Ann: And what did—you called the people who were most important to you in your life—and you said, “I, basically, am not doing well.”
John: I said, “I'm not okay.” They had walked with me, so they—
Ann: —they knew.
John: —were like: “We knew.”
Dave: They had seen this before you could see it, but you finally saw it.
John: Yes, and that was January that year. By March, my church granted me a sabbatical; they’re like: “Hey, John, for the next month, you're at home; no responsibilities/no nothing.”
It was at that point that I picked up Ecclesiastes for the first time in years. I was already feeling the sense of meaninglessness, and I felt like that because I lost it all. And here I pick up the words of this book—and it starts off/and the words are—
Dave: —first verse.
John: —"meaningless,” “meaningless.” But what was jarring—it was—“Wait, wait, wait; but the guy who wrote this book, he had it all; so wait a minute. If I feel this way—because I lost it all—and he finds himself at the same destination, but he has it all—maybe the circumstances that I'm in/maybe, that's not my biggest problem. Maybe, if there's a way that both of us—I've lost it all; he has it all—if both of us can arrive at this place, where we feel like it's worthless, then maybe there is a way that I can arrive at joy, even if my circumstances never change.”
Ann: John, take us back to that day that you opened Ecclesiastes. If you had to describe yourself—“Here's who I am right now,”—give us a picture of who you are and what you are feeling in those days.
- Hollow; nothing on the inside—all of who I had known myself to be—it didn't just feel like it leaked out; it felt like it gushed out.
- I felt like a pretender; I felt like a stage prop: a paper mache rock, that looked solid on the outside, but it was light.
- I felt just a deep sense of grief—not just that the fact that my brother was gone—but my grief made me feel like a liar—that I had spent my whole life talking to people about the goodness of God and who He was—and I felt this grief, that: “Maybe, I lied to them. Maybe, I told people that something worked that didn't actually work, because it's not working right now.” I cringed at the fact that I ever tried to convince somebody to believe in the goodness of God in the hardest times.
- I felt like, even though I was hollow, I felt like I was honest; so it's like I was an empty cup. And before picking up Ecclesiastes, I was an empty cup that was face down—where I was empty—but there was no way that I could be filled up.
And then, I think picking up Ecclesiastes, said, “No, no, no; I'm still an empty cup; but I'm going to turn this face up, and I'm going to see if the Lord has anything to pour inside.”
Dave: I mean, when I hear you say that—I may be wrong—but I think a lot of listeners right now, if they were honest, would go “That's me.” They may be doing all the right things: their family looks good/their marriage—man, but if they were really honest—again, I can't speak for somebody; but I'm just thinking, “I felt that.” It's like you're living a lie—but you never really go there—so you just keep living, but you're hollow; you're empty; you're soul-less.
Ann: Well, especially that cup upside down—that's such a great visual—because I remember feeling like, too, questioning God: “Are You good? I've been telling people, for years, that You're good; and now, I'm wondering, ‘Are You good?’”—like—“I don't get it. Why would You allow these four kids to be raised without their mom? Like that just makes no sense.”
I'm thinking, too, a lot of people have the cup upside down. “How did you turn it right side up?”
John: I didn't—I think very intentional is the plural pronoun on the front of the book—We Go On. The book is not a testimony of what I did to overcome my grief. At every point, where there's some radical or drastic change in the book, it comes as a result of an interaction with somebody else. I feel like I was blessed—and it was a gift that God/for God to surround me with people, who, despite my strongest attempts to leave my cup face down—they slowly just sat with me, and pressured me, and turned the cup up. Even when it was a little full, they said, “No, look, there's something there.”
For me, it's less a testimony of what I did in terms of: “I did this…; now, you do this.” It's: “No, no; look at what God has done.” And the good news is: God doesn't have any favorite children, right? [Laughter] So if God did it for me, then He can do it for you. I think, sometimes, people just need to hear an alternative story to know something is possible.
Ann: What were some of the things your friends said to you?—or your wife.
John: One of the things that my wife brought up back then: most times when you lose somebody that you love, it makes you want to draw closer to the rest of your loved ones. [For me,] it's my mom and my dad; I had four brothers and sisters. Sam passed, and Sam was the closest one that I had.
Most times, when you lose somebody, you want to draw close. For me, the opposite took place: I didn't want to draw close; I pushed everyone away—not intentionally, but instinctively—because what went on in my head was this: “If it hurt this badly for me to lose Sam, I don't want to increase the future pain that's going to come by getting close to them and then knowing that one day I would have to say goodbye.” I was trying to protect myself from future grief.
Ann: —put a shell around yourself.
John: But I realized that I wasn't protecting myself from future pain; I was robbing myself of present joy. My wife spotted it out quick—she talked to me, and she told me—and she was like, “John, you don't have to talk to me, but you need to talk to somebody.” I kept on saying: “No, I'm fine,” “I'm fine,” “I'm fine.”
Dave: —“I’m good.” Did Richard see it too?
John: Everybody saw it, right? You've got something on your face—[Laughter]—and no mirror, right?—so it's like everybody sees it, and it's clear and apparent; but you don't. I didn't; and it took me breaking down, and then I'm like, “Maybe they do see it.”
And then, from that point on, I think I've just tried to—I think of like driving a car with no side-view mirrors or rear-view mirrors—I mean, you can make your way; but there's just so many blind spots. You're going to wreck your life or somebody else's. You need those other vantage points; and that's what—you know, a good spouse; that's what good friends are—they show you those blind spots; they call those things out.
Dave: Now, what would you say to—let's say there's a husband right now, who's literally going, “John is me—when the cup was upside down and it was hollow—I'm there.” It could be a husband or wife. You've walked through it; talk to that guy: “What would you say? What does he do?”
John: I would say:: “You have to let go of the notion that you know yourself better than your spouse knows you.” We have never physically, unassisted, seen the backs of our own heads, right? We are not built or created to have a 360 view of our natural selves. What would make us think that we were built to have a 360 view of our souls, right?
But being in such close proximity with a spouse or a friend, you'd have to sit back and trust that they've got a better vantage point of me, right? I'm existing within my grief; they see me swimming in my grief. There's an ancient Chinese proverb that says that: “If you want to know what water is, don't ask a fish; because they just live in it.” If you want to know how grief is affecting somebody, don't ask somebody who’s swimming in it. You've got to ask somebody on the outside, who can observe them.
I'd say the main thing is: “To trust them.” That's what marriage is/it's: “I've already entrusted my life and my soul to both God and you; and now, I'm at a point where I desperately need for you to speak back in.”
Dave: Yes; I think it's important to say—even to that guy, or wife, or woman, who’s listening, who feels that—when you made the call, to say, “I need help,” that's a humble step.
Ann: —and hard.
Dave: Because a lot of times, we don't make that call because of pride.
John: Ah; that's good.
Dave: You know it's like: “I got this,” and “I may even feel this for a minute, but I'll get through it.” I think it's just pride; we're afraid to reveal weakness:
“I'm in trouble, I think. I'm not even sure I am; but man, the way I just responded, am I in trouble?” And they're going, “Yes, you're in trouble, dude. We've seen that.”
It's an invitation to say, “I need help.” That's where I think we're afraid. We are too arrogant to go there.
And I know guys—I can't speak for the wives—but I know husbands and dads, who are like, “I got this.” I just want to say to that guy: “You’ve got a friend; call him.” If you're struggling, and you're connecting with what we're saying here: “Even John saying he felt that—because when you said that—I'm like, ‘I'm there, right now.’” There are times in my life, like, “Oh man, I felt that”; and it's hard to admit to God and to a brother. We need to, and that's where it starts.
Ann: And also, if you're the friend listening—who thinks, “I can see my spouse,” or “…another person I'm close to/that they're living that,”—to gently say something, like, “Hey, I'm here for you. I see you're struggling, and I want to help you.”
Will you just end with praying for that person?
John: I would; yes.
Father, we are grateful that You are not a God who sent a message from the skies; but You embodied, Lord, Your heart for us. Jesus is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Would You remind us that, as we feel these feelings, we aren't the only ones; we're not the first ones; and we're not the ones who feel it with the greatest depth, Lord.
We pray for our brothers and sisters, right now, who may feel like an empty cup turned upside down. Father, I pray that You would give them the grace and the strength—not to try harder to turn themselves up—but maybe, just to cry harder and ask for help, Lord. Give them the grace just to cry aloud, to ask You, and somebody that they're close to, for help. I pray that their cry would be met with grace and compassion. It's in Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Shelby: You're listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with John Onwuchekwa. His book is called We Go On: Finding Purpose in All of Life’s Sorrows and Joys. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com. Just click on “Today's Resources” to find your copy, or you can call us at 800-358-6329; that's 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Now, tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined, again, with John Onwuchekwa, who explains the domino effect his anger with God had in his marriage, in his life, and even with himself. That's 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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