5: Therefore, I Have Hope
About the Guest
- "Therefore I Have Hope" by Cameron Cole. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079XXYNYC
Cameron ColeCameron Cole (MA, Wake Forest University) serves as director of children, youth, and family at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, and is the chairman of Rooted, a ministry dedicated to fostering gospel-centered student ministry. He is the coeditor of Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.
Cameron Cole had a charmed life-almost perfect. Until the phone rang and his wife uttered four words: “Our son is dead.”
5: Therefore, I Have Hope
Cameron: Every parent has their wildest dream, and every parent has their worst nightmare. Our family experienced both in, like, a 48-hour span. You know for us, as Christian parents, our wildest dream is that our children would come to know Christ as Savior and Lord. So, our little boy Cam was sitting around. He was playing with Legos. He lost his Lego axe, and he asked his Mommy and Daddy, “Can we ask Jesus to help me find my Lego?”
Kim: So sweet.
Cameron: So, we prayed. We prayed and said, “Lord, God, we know that nothing is lost in Your sight, and we ask You to help us find Cam’s Lego axe.” So, we looked, and we found it. Cam said, “Thank You, Jesus. Thank You, Jesus.”
That really kind of started to develop into a longer conversation. He said, “I want to go see Jesus. Can we go see Him today?” We said, “Well, buddy, you can’t exactly—Jesus is here with you. You can’t see Him, but He is with you now.” He said, “Well, we can go get in the car and go see Jesus.” We said, “Well, you’ll see Jesus when you go to heaven; but right now, we just have to know and trust that He’s with us even though we can’t see Him.”
He, then, started to ask a lot of questions about heaven. He said—he asked if he would see Adam and Eve in heaven, and he pledged that he would not eat from the tree. We said—he was a precocious three-year-old. We said, “Well, you know, buddy, everyone eats from the tree. That’s why Jesus came. We’re all sinners, and that’s why Jesus came because we all eat from the tree.” Then, he said, “Jesus died on cross. Jesus die for my sins.”
Little did I know, at that point—two things—I started to kind of realize a little later that day that—“Wow, I think I just heard my three-year-old child profess faith in Christ”—one thing; but I didn’t realize, at that point, that was the last meaningful conversation I’d ever have with him.
Kim: From the FamilyLife® Podcast Network, this is Unfavorable Odds. I’m Kim Anthony.
Unfavorable Odds is all about finding hope and help in those seasons of life when things get pretty hard. Now, Jesus has promised that we never have to go through those dark places alone. He is always with us. And on each episode of this podcast, we will talk to people who have done just that. They’ve navigated those places, and they draw their strength from Jesus.
Have you ever found yourself wondering, “What if something bad happens? I mean something really bad?” Then, you found yourself coming up with all these scenarios of the worst possible thing ever. You know, I think it’s like 95-percent—not sure what that percentage is—but 95 to 98-percent of the time, those things that we fear the most never even happen.
I sat down with someone recently. His name is Cameron Cole. He serves as the Director of Youth Ministry at a church in Birmingham. He is also the Chairman of Rooted, a ministry dedicated to fostering Gospel-centered student ministry. He has written a book. It’s called Therefore I Have Hope; and Cameron actually did have his worst fear become a reality. He told me about some truths he continues to hold on to that comfort and sustain him.
Cameron: That night, I went on a youth campout. I woke up that next morning, and I had received three missed calls from my wife in the span of a minute. The fourth call is coming in, and I answered the call. My wife—and really, in a shriek of terror—informed that she had found our son dead in his bed. He had just mysteriously passed away in his sleep which is very, very rare for a child over the age of one to die in their sleep. It’s about 1 in 100,000 chance that will happen.
Like I said, our worst nightmare was that—any parent—is that your child would die; but you know that happened within 24 hours of him also professing faith in Christ.
Kim: Cameron, take me from that moment that you received those phone calls and spoke with your wife and heard those words come through the telephone. What was going through your mind?
Cameron: For me, my worst nightmare was that my child would die; but it was kind of compounded with the fact that I worked in student ministry, and—you know, I’ve had a really—up to this point—had a really nice life / a really charmed life—nice parents, nice home, school and sports. Everything had kind of gone my way. Things had been very easy for me, and I had this fear—“What if something really bad happened? Would I lose my faith?” I kind of had determined that if my child died, I was afraid that I might lose my faith.
So—and I really had kind of a fixated recurring nightmare that Cam would die. I would kind of envision and see myself turning my back on God and losing my faith and becoming bitter and, you know, just running out the shot clock on my life. Then, it happened. Like you said, when the call came in and I heard that my worst nightmare had occurred, it was so surprising to me what came out of my mouth when my wife delivered this horrific news. I said, “Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus rose from the grave, and that means that God is good. This doesn’t change that fact.”
It was interesting. What I was finding was in reality God had been preparing me for this moment my whole life. I thought that I was not prepared. I thought that my faith in Christ could not handle a tragedy of this magnitude; and I found that the Lord had, in fact, been preparing me my whole life and that, in that moment, the Holy Spirit met me and brought me to the truth—that Jesus Christ rose from the grave and because of His resurrection that means that all the promises of the Gospel / all the promises of Scripture, they are factually true. They are factually true.
Even when something as bad as your child dying occurs, the possibility that God can heal you / that God can redeem you / that God can use this for His glory / that the Lord does not leave you / that He accompanies us at all times / that there is the possibility of joy in the midst of suffering—all of those things remained intact because of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, that was the—that was the thing that I really clung to in that moment.
Kim: Your book is divided into three sections—three different stages of grief: the initial shock, the new normal, and then the long haul. Let’s talk about that initial shock. Describe the common characteristics that take place in this stage.
Cameron: Yes, you know, honestly, especially when it’s a sudden tragedy / it’s not something that you were expecting, it is honestly almost like you are crazy. It’s like you are living in a cloud. There’s just so much going through your head. It’s so disorienting. You feel like you’re just kind of thrown in the air and just kind of spinning around. I think there are just lots of really intense fears that you encounter feeling like—“My life is ruined,” “My life is over,” “My marriage may fall apart”—so on and so forth.
So, I found, you know, in the month after Cam died, that I would say to my wife over and over again, “If a person didn’t know about the sovereignty God or a person didn’t know about the presence of God or didn’t know about the possibility of joy in suffering and so on and so forth, I have no idea how they could survive something like this.” I was finding that it was God’s truth that was really the anchor of the hope that I had. Even though I was in a tremendous amount of pain / indescribable anguish, I still really did have a sense of hope even from the moment that I heard that he had died when my wife called.
So, in the initial shock, I kind of identified these truths that I felt were really essential right in the beginning. You know, one of them was the resurrection—that just knowing that Christianity is factually and historically true based on the bodily resurrection of Jesus because when tragedy comes in, your feelings and your experience do not communicate to you that God is good—
Cameron: —and that there is hope in this situation. That’s where the intellectual tools of God’s truth really, really are an asset and a resource; but anyhow, I found that the resurrection—I found that the Gospel—knowing that God can redeem anything, especially when we look at the cross, what a failure and a travesty the cross appears; and yet, through the cross, our sins are atoned for, and God is redeeming the world.
I found that the daily grace of God was just utterly instrumental—that you have to have this blinders mentality—“Don’t worry about tomorrow. Just trust God’s grace for right now.” I found that to be utterly instrumental. So, the initial shock—I think are these pivotal truths that I found helped me in that first month after Cam died that I kept on going back to that I found to be essential for finding hope and for being sustained in Christ.
Kim: Cameron, how do you help encourage someone who may not share your same faith in that initial stage? Maybe, they don’t understand the resurrection—the grace that God gives. How would you walk a person through that?
Cameron: Yes, you know that’s a tricky pastoral situation—whether you are a pastor, whether it’s a friend or a family member. I think you have to be cautious not to overwhelm them with—overwhelm them with content, so to speak. I think ministry of presence is probably the most important thing I would say at the beginning—just to be a person who is there / who is with them / who hears them.
But you know one thing that I have found myself saying to people who I’m not sure if they are a believer or if I’m not sure they have a tremendous amount of depth in their faith is, first off, I tell them that the God of the Bible—the God—is an empathetic God who feels their pain. I say, “You know, perhaps, the most helpful thing for me, in clinging to God in this, is knowing that my God lost a child. My son died in his sleep very peacefully. The Son of God died a violent death, and He was a victim. He was a victim of our sin. He was a victim of the evil in the world.”
So, the first thing I do is I tell them that the God of Christianity is an empathetic God who suffers with them and feels their pain, who can actually identify with what they are going through.
The second thing I tell them is that we serve a gracious God who knows that we are human beings who are very flawed, very limited, and sinful. As a result of that, like, He can handle our lament. I encourage them—“You need to be honest with God. You need to tell Him what you are feeling. You need to tell Him about your confusion.” There is an audience that they can say anything to. I’m not encouraging sin.
Cameron: We also serve a holy God to whom we approach with fear and reverence; but to a person—I think it is helpful for them to know that in God, there is a person that they can actually have an authentic relationship and with whom they can be honest about their pain and their anguish.
I think one other thing I would tell them is—“You can’t redeem yourself in something like this. You really can’t.” My wife and I—our favorite show to watch is This is Us on NBC.
Cameron: You know we watched an episode last night where the two brothers were in Vietnam together, and they were both very wounded by the traumas they experienced in the war. The one brother—he lives his life kind of sequestered and secluded in a trailer in the middle of the woods for, really, the entirety of his life after the war. I just said to my wife—I was like—“Man, if we were the ones who could enter into that situation, the thing I would want to say to Nick, the brother, is like—‘God can heal you. God can redeem you. And in your flesh / in the natural, you cannot heal yourself.’”
There is no way that you handle the kind of trauma that he experienced / the kind of guilt he experienced without supernatural power—the supernatural power of God. I think that people at these darkest moments—they are receptive—are a lot of times really receptive to hearing about God. I think they are very clear on their limitations; and they, in and of themselves, don’t have the power to raise and redeem themselves from such horrific pain and tragic situations.
Kim: Well said, Cameron. As you were talking, I was thinking about how a lot of times—even we—as Christians, we think that we have more power than I believe we have when it comes to overcoming tragedies. We come at it with this mindset of—“With God’s help, I can do this.” As if, there is something that we can do; but in my own experience in grief and tragedy, I realized that—“You know what? As the Lord has brought me through those dark places, there was nothing that I could do. It was all Him.” I can’t even explain how He did it.
Cameron: Absolutely. You know I think—one of the chapters in the book, Kim, is Faith. I talk about how if you have a mentality that Christian faith is—“Jesus is my copilot” / it’s a partnership—like an equal partnership—you’re done. You are in real trouble because you—I mean you said it so well, Kim—we have no power apart from the saving power and the saving grace of Christ in these kinds of situations—and especially—and the term I use is “your worst”—
Cameron: —you know when you are going through your worst nightmare. One of the reasons that those situations are so sanctifying is it brings it into reality that we have no resources within us—like our hope / our resources for comfort and redemption all come from the outside. They all come from God. Psalm 40 where the psalmist is—“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined…and heard my cry.” He picked me up out the pit—
Cameron: —out of the miry clay. It’s this image of a person who is in a pit, and it’s not just a pit. It’s a pit where, at the bottom, they are basically wading in mud. You can’t climb out of that. You can’t climb out of it yourself. You have to be rescued. So, to your point, we have to have a mentality of rescue. We can only be rescued by the Lord and daily rescued. You know daily rescue is what we need—especially when we are in just deep, deep pain and sorrow.
Kim: Oh. But Cameron, we want to be so strong, and we want to be so involved and have a part in overcoming. I guess there is something about saying, “I have overcome this tragedy”; but is there a danger living in that copilot mentality?
Cameron: Yes, well—and I think—I say this with a little bit of caution because there are some moments where you do just kind of have to put the next step forward.
Cameron: You know I can remember the day after Cameron’s funeral just crying so hard that I had shards of carpet in my teeth; and I just sat there, and I’m like—“I don’t know if I will ever be able to stand up off the carpet.” There was a point where I—and you’ll appreciate this as a former athlete—where I can remember being a swimmer in high school, and you’re doing a set. It’s like you have to push off the wall; you know? So, there is—there is something to kind of physically putting the next step forward; and at the same time, the nature of our sin is, at the core, we want to be our own savior—
Cameron: —we want to be our own lord. That’s the essence of sin. So, coming into saving faith, as a believer, is when you stop trying to be your own savior and you stop trying to be your own lord and you look to Jesus. Jesus, now, becomes the one who saves you from your sins. Jesus is the one who is the Lord of your life.
You talked about this impulse that we have to want to be strong and want to pull ourselves up. I think a lot of times that’s really just our sin nature. I think we first have to rest and wait and trust in Christ and then out of the grace that Christ gives us to walk out of that.
Kim: You write that there is one deadly sin of grief. What is that, and what it makes it so deadly?
Cameron: One deadly sin—and that’s to deny reality—deny reality. You know I think it’s a very human thing, and it’s actually increasingly easy in our culture to withdraw—you know just to pretend that things didn’t happen and to get busy or to get over medicated or to pick up an addiction or whatever it may be and just to try to avoid the pain and the difficulty of what you are facing.
Unfortunately, you’ll never heal unless you cry the tears and unless you feel the pain. You have to enter into the sorrow and enter into the pain. You know there is a theologian, FitzSimons Allison, and he has this wonderful, wonderful accent. He says, “Everybody wants to pole vault over Good Friday and land on Easter Sunday, but without a cross, there is no resurrection.” Now, that’s the truth; you know? I mean Jesus—
Kim: So true.
Cameron: God is very clear in His Word—particularly with the Apostle Paul—that if we are united with Christ, we’ll be united with Him in death and in resurrection. We will be united with Him in pain and suffering in this life, and we’ll be united with Him in resurrection and redemption.
So, to reveal just how from Alabama I am, the grease comes with the gravy. If we’re going to heal, we have to acknowledge the depth of our pain. We have to acknowledge our questions. We have to cry the tears / feel the feelings as hard and as painful as they are because the Lord meets us in that, and the Lord heals us through that.
If you tear an ACL, you have to do physical therapy.
Kim: Yes—which is not easy.
Cameron: It’s not easy.
Kim: It’s hard.
Cameron: It’s painful. It hurts.
Cameron: It really, really hurts. That’s a hard word; but it’s the truth. It’s the truth. The Lord is with us in that pain. In fact, I feel like—and I’d be curious to hear your feelings on this—but I feel like in those deepest moments of pain, that’s probably where I felt the presence of Jesus the most.
Kim: I agree. It was, for me, in those deep moments of pain that He showed up out of nowhere. I mean I know that He is always there with us. He never leaves us nor forsakes us—
Kim: —but there comes a time—sometimes, in grief, you wonder, “Okay, Lord, are You here?” Even in those silent moments, He shows up, and He empowers you and gives you the ability to stand up to face that reality / to grieve well.
Kim: I love how you talked about how—if we don’t grieve well / if we don’t lean into that pain, then, that pain is going to stay there, and it’s going to simmer; and it’s going to simmer until we actually address it and face reality.
Cameron: Yes, you’re absolutely right. I like the way you just used that term grieve well because that’s—that’s not to put a performance-type pressure or element to grief, but there is such a thing as grieving poorly. I think the essence of grieving poorly is trying to withdraw and resist digging into and feeling the pain of it or resisting going to a counselor or talking about what’s going on with people. There are people—Christian counselors—who are trained to give us direction on how to grieve well.
Kim: You talk about how some Christians—and some non-Christians—espouse their faith because it feels right; and others do so because it works for them; and still others engage, in what you call, pick and choose Christianity. Why is the nature of one’s faith so important?
Cameron: This is a really good question—you know because of my book Therefore I Have Hope is so much about how God prepared me to suffer, and it’s kind of reflecting and unpacking that and trying to share that with other people. So, they will be prepared to suffer.
A lot of people ask me, “What can I do to prepare myself—or what can I do to prepare other people—like my children or people in my church to suffer?” So, I think one thing that people need to do is they need to ask a hard question about—“Does their faith have an objective grounding? Do you believe and do you follow Christ because you actually do believe the Christian story that He is the Son of God and that He rose from the dead and that He is the King of the world now?”
I think in our culture / in our society, a lot of times, people—their faith is purely pragmatic. You know it kind of works for them. It gives them a sense of direction or a sense of self-esteem or moral framework. They don’t necessarily believe that it’s true, but it’s something that functions for them.
Then, you have, sometimes, people who I call a pick-and-choose Christianity. They don’t want to accept the full counsel of God’s Word. They kind of pick and choose doctrines or truths or whatever that kind of meet their preferences; but there are two problems. One is, in that sense, it’s kind of a self-constructed faith. It’s not something that they actually believe in. It’s something that they have, in a sense, crafted for themselves.
So, when tragedy comes, it will expose a pragmatic or a self-constructed faith for what it is; and that’s just something that you kind of on your own have made up and something that you don’t necessarily believe is true.
Kim: And when you’ve made that up, that means you are in control of it. [Laughter]
Kim: We just talked about the fact that we don’t have the power to bring ourselves through situations that are tragic and devastating.
Cameron: Yes, that’s really well said. It’s more connected to us than it is connected to God. It really—it doesn’t really answer for us the questions of: “Who God is?” I think that, in the same light, for a lot of people, their faith is purely experiential / purely existential; you know? They have had emotional experiences where they feel the presence of God, and that is really important. Certainly, our faith can never be just intellectual. We have to enter into relationship with Christ where we do feel the joy and the peace and the hope of knowing Christ. That’s really important.
But if it’s just—just—emotionally based or just experientially based, it will get washed away when your worst nightmare comes because it definitely—I say this in the book—“When you are carrying your child’s coffin to a grave, it does not feel like God is good. It does not feel like God is in control. It does not feel like God is for you.” That is where the objective side has to come in where we have to—and this is something that everyone needs to ask themselves, like: “Why do I actually believe this? Do I believe this is absolutely true?”
I think that that’s what saved my life—is really knowing that, to me, the historic facts point to the reality that Jesus rose from the grave in a bodily form.
Cameron: And if Jesus rose from the grave that means that He, in fact, was God. If He is God, then, this whole Gospel narrative that Christians believe in is true. It is the actual reality that we live under and that governs us; but if you don’t have the objective basis, you’re kind of building the house on sand.
Kim: A lot of us believe in the law of reciprocity: If I am good, good things will happen to me; if I am bad, bad things will happen to me. But you talk about how when God’s existence doesn’t line up with your circumstances, it can throw us off a bit. It could cause us to doubt God’s faithfulness, to doubt His love, and, perhaps, even doubt His existence. What do you say to the person who is feeling very far away from God in the midst of their pain?
Cameron: Yes, well, I think there are kind of two things I would say in light of that. You kind of talked about kind of having a karma mentality where people kind of think, “If I do the right things, then, I’ll be blessed with comfort and happiness”—health, wealth, and prosperity, if you will. That’s a lie from the pit of Hell.
Let me just say that real fast. Karma is a cruel notion. All we have to look at the person of Jesus Christ. I mean Jesus was a perfect human being—never sinned / never did anything wrong.
Has there been a person who suffered more than Jesus—who was poor, who was a refugee, who had to flee because all the little children in his village were being killed on His account, who was betrayed by His friends, who was resisted by the people He came to save, who was convicted in a kangaroo court and then tortured and died on a cross; and, on top of that, He, as a sinless person, absorbed and experienced all of the sin of mankind and felt all of the eternal judgment that a sinner would face in hell? That’s a perfect person.
So, looking at the cross, just flushes the idea of / the notion of karma down the toilet real, real fast. You can see—you can see that I’m getting a little bit fired up as I talk about that because a lot of people really do have this idea; and it’s—and I say this, and a lot of times, they’ve been taught this idea that if you do the right things, then, God’s going to bless you with comfort and success; and He’s going to spare you from difficulty. That’s just not true.
The reason, I think, it’s so important—I make this point so emphatically—is that to a person who feels like your pain and suffering is God communicating His feelings about you, that’s just not true. Like, God is not punishing you. God is not telling you that He doesn’t like you. God is not taking out His anger and His frustration with you—like—if you’re a believer, then, Jesus absorbed all of the spiritual consequence of your sin on the cross.
Kim: That’s powerful.
Cameron: Why we suffer is—you know why we suffer is a mystery. I mean look at the book of Ecclesiastes: “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” It’s a mystery, and we just have to trust and know that God is good. We know that God is good. The person Jesus Christ in His word—it tells us that God is good; and your suffering and your difficulty is not a statement about who God is; and it’s not a statement about how God feels about you.
So, I think that’s really important to see how the cross just smashes this notion of karma and protects us from falsely interpreting our pain as a statement from God or a statement about who God is.
Kim: Yes. I love that. There are people who are teaching that law of reciprocity, even in the church; and I think about the bitterness of those individuals who have bought into that law of reciprocity.
Then, when you describe Jesus and all that He went through even though He was sinless—I mean we have sin in our lives. It’s a part of this flesh that we carry, but Jesus had no sin. Yet, He suffered more than us all. So, when we look at His life and we, I guess, experience our bitterness while looking through that lens of Jesus’s life, then, we can say, “You know what? He truly does understand. He truly does love me because He was willing to die on that cross.”
Cameron: Right. You talk, there, a little bit about bitterness as a real temptation and a real danger for person who is suffering. And we see this. We all see this. People who have had something really bad happen in their life, and they become bitter. It really just wrecks their life. It poisons their heart. It hardens their heart, and they just can’t move on; you know? It shuts them out from relationships—their relationship with God. It’s a temptation because when you are bitter, you feel entitled, and you feel in control. In some ways, it kind of numbs you from the pain; but man, it is so, so poisonous to your soul.
Kim, I’ll tell you the hardest chapter I wrote in Therefore I Have Hope was the sin chapter. I mean I have to tell you I was cringing writing it because it is such a hard truth to communicate. It sounds brutal; but honestly, what protected me from becoming bitter was recognizing and owning my own sin.
This is—I say this with as much kindness and gentleness as I can—but the reality is that, for all of us—I’ll just speak for myself—you know because of my sin, what I deserve is eternal judgement. God does not owe me anything. He doesn’t owe me anything. Jesus tells the disciples—He says, “Rejoice that your name is written in heaven.”
So, basically, God does not owe me a comfortable life. He does not owe me that I get my way or that I’m spared from difficulty. He doesn’t owe me anything. I am entitled to nothing because of my sin. The fact that God purely by His grace and mercy and purely through His Son has redeemed me from eternal judgment and has brought me into His kingdom with the hope of eternal life in heaven with Christ—everything after that is gravy. Everything after that is gravy.
So, it’s—like I said, it’s so hard; but if—when you find yourself becoming bitter or when you’re facing that temptation, you really have to remember what the Bible says about the full consequence of our sin and how, in our sin, we have basically surrendered any entitlements that we could have.
So, I found that to be the thing that protected me from becoming bitter and feeling like God had done me wrong in losing a child.
Kim: At one point, you found yourself moving toward bitterness; but you began to do something radical to help you to overcome that bitterness. What was it?
Cameron: What I did, Kim, is I wrote down the 20 worst things I had ever done. I wrote down my—the worst sins I could ever remember myself doing. In that, it reminded me that the Lord didn’t owe me anything. Also, it reminded me how God had been merciful to me in those sins—not just that He had forgiven me in terms of my eternal salvation, but also too that He had been merciful to me in shielding me from a lot of the potential consequence that I could have experienced from that sin.
It just humbled me in a way that I needed to be humbled. It undermined this sense of entitlement that I was starting to feel like—“God owes me more.” It helped me to remember, “No, God really doesn’t owe me anything. He doesn’t owe me anything, and He is—everything I have received from Him—my salvation, the very life that I have, my children, three years and 55 days that I had with Cameron—all of that was purely out of God’s generosity and His kindness.
So, it just kind of took me back to a place—I feel like the opposite of bitterness would be gratitude and humility. So, remembering my sin helped me to move back to a place where I was grateful and where I was appropriately humbled.
Kim: Gratitude and humility—as you were talking, I was thinking, “How does a person get to that point where you are able to look at your own sin to help you to overcome bitterness?” The word surrender came to mind—complete surrender.
Now, we’ve talked a little bit about this already, but let’s step into that phase of grief called “The new normal.” What are some of the difficult things that happen during this phase?
Cameron: You know I think with the new normal—there is this massive adjustment in your life of kind of living with a limp, and you are starting to think about—“How am I going to live life with my family and be a parent and be a spouse and be an employee given that I have lost my child, and I have this deep wound in my heart?”
I think one thing that’s just like—I don’t want to say an accomplishment but a huge blessing—is when you get to a point where you’re like—“Wow, I have a functional life”; you know? For me and my son—he died in 2013—so, that’s about five and a half years ago; and it is—it’s not something to be taken for granted that I have a good marriage, and I really like my wife; I like my kids; and I go to work; and I make a living; and I cheer when Alabama beats Auburn—no.
Kim: Oh, goodness. [Laughter]
Cameron: No, that’s—
Kim: We are not going to go there.
Cameron: Oh, I know; I know. [Laughter] But anyhow, I—you know, all kidding aside, that I have a normal life is just such a huge blessing; but getting to that point was / is something that really required the Lord doing a lot of healing; the Lord offering a lot of wisdom; and just being reoriented and learning how to live with a limp; you know?
Kim: Yes. One of the things you talked about here is the importance of connecting with other people who can truly empathize with your pain because they, too, have gone through a similar tragedy. Explain why this is so important.
Cameron: Yes, I think—and I bet you can identify with this, Kim—if you’ve really suffered, one of the surprising emotions that you feel—that is probably the worst of them all—is the sense of isolation and loneliness.
I think people in grief feel extremely lonely because they just feel like, “No one understands what I’m going through.” There’s that—and a lot of normal situations, you have something really bad happen to you, and people come around in a concentrated manner right at the beginning. Then, the crowd starts to dwindle, and you feel—whether it’s true or not—you feel as if you are still struggling as much as you did—
Cameron: —a couple days after the tragedy occurred. Yet, you feel like people don’t see that. So, it just feels very, very lonely.
So, the terminology I use in Therefore I Have Hope—is I talk about how different sufferers have their own fraternities. A lot of people who have lost children will say, “Oh, you’re in the most thankless fraternity you could ever be in. You’re in the club”; but that’s true whether it’s people who have struggled with addiction or people who have wrestled with eating disorders or people who have gone through cancer. We each have a unique—it’s a unique experience, and there is a unique set of feelings that you go through that really only to other people who have gone through it can identify.
So, my wife and I—we went on a retreat that was hosted by Nancy and David Guthrie that was just for parents who have lost children. It was—I think 90-percent of the value was just being around people who could understand what you were going through and feeling known and understood.
For me, one of the most powerful things about the God that we know and love and serve is that He also lost a Son. I think the day after Cameron died, I posted on Facebook. I said, “Our God lost a Son and so did we.” So, there’s—for me, there’s that added layer of—yes, You get me. You get me, God. You know what I am feeling. Of course, my son—he immediately went to heaven, whereas, God’s Son was separated from the Father and experienced judgment on the cross. So, it’s—what God went through is much worse than what I go through.
But I think that’s too, Kim, where the power of the incarnation comes in—knowing that God in the person of Jesus Christ, He lived in this fallen world. He knows what rejection feels like. He knows what physical pain feels like. He knows what it’s like to be a refugee—all these things. So, we serve an empathetic God who really does understand the whole constellation of human emotions; but you know particularly the difficult ones.
Kim: In the midst of tragedy, we often hear people say, either—“God caused it,” or “God had nothing to do with it.” Both of these can be a bit confusing and disappointing. How do we reconcile God’s participation in tragedy?
Cameron: Yes, that is probably the hardest theological question in the world; right?—the problem of a good and sovereign God and suffering and evil in the world. But I think you really framed the question well because we can go to either extreme; and either extreme to the exclusion of the other is not true, and it’s not helpful.
My former pastor—his name is Frank Limehouse—he talked about the most impactful moment of his ministry training. He was in a hospital, and a woman had lost her son in a car accident. A well-meaning but misguided chaplain said to the woman—the woman was saying over and over again, “Why did God do this to me? Why did God do this to me?” And this was in the hospital.
The chaplain said, “Oh, ma’am, God did not have anything to do with this.” The lady looked back at him and rebuked him and said, “Don’t take away the only hope that I have.”
Cameron: I know. Talk about some serious wisdom and prophetic voice there in the trenches; but basically, I think a lot of times people think that God cannot both sovereign and good at the same time. God is both. So, people think, “Well, if we say that God in some way that we don’t necessarily understand—but in some way, was sovereign in our tragedy or He was sovereign in my son’s death; well, if we say that, then, that means He is not good. So, to compensate, people will say, “God didn’t have anything to do with that.” That’s just not a hopeful thing.
What I hear when somebody says that is that your child’s death was meaningless; you know? If God’s not sovereign / if God didn’t have anything to do with it, then, it was meaningless. It was an accident. And another thing that I hear is—I was under the impression that I live in a universe that my God is fully in control of. That He is the sovereign Lord over the whole universe. And if God didn’t have anything to do with my son’s death, then, what I hear is that I actually live in a chaotic universe that God has limited control over.
So, if God has limited control in the bad things, then, that means He has limited control in redemption. If God’s sovereign hand cannot reach far enough to have some providential discretion in—my son’s life—my son’s death, then, He doesn’t have the providential discretion to heal my heart. Maybe, His arm can’t reach that far. So, to me, that’s very, very hopeless.
I know that that—you know, God—in Deuteronomy in talks about He is a perfect God who does no wrong. God does no wrong. Like, we need to make that clear. At the same time, at some level that we probably just can’t understand as human beings, God is still in control even in the bad things. Bad things are not a surprise to God; you know? God does not wake up to watch the news.
So, I found a lot of comfort, Kim, in the sovereignty of God in my son’s death; and I think that’s—this too is where the cross is helpful; you know? Jesus willfully goes to the cross. Jesus doesn’t accidentally end up on a cross.
Cameron: Jesus is very clear to the disciples: “I’m going to Jerusalem to die. I have to be the Lamb of God to atone for the sins of the world.” So, God is certainly in control in Jesus’s death; but we see God at His most loving and His most—in His highest goodness in the cross as well. So, He can be sovereign and loving and good all at the same time. We don’t to pick or choose one or the other.
Kim: So, in reconciling God’s participation in tragedy, it is very important for us to know who God is / to know His character and to have more than just a relationship / more than just an experience but to know Him. Because when the experience doesn’t match up to God’s character, then, we can trust that He is who He said He is and that He continues to love us; He continues to dwell in our presence; He continues to be in control.
In suffering, I think a lot of times people think that the word, “Why,” is instrumental: “Why did this happen?” Thinking about the relationship of the sovereignty of God and the goodness of God when it comes to suffering and tragedy, that is a “Why” question. At the end of the day, finding out the answer to why is not going to do much to heal your heart. Really, the bigger question is the question of “Who?” That’s really the question beneath the question. Really, what we want to know is: “Is God good? Is He for me? Can I trust Him?”
Cameron: So, I think that is an important thing to recognize is—because we can really almost torture ourselves in asking questions of “Why” and so on and so forth. That’s okay. That’s part of lamenting. We can ask, “Why?” But I think we need to be clear that the question of “Who?” / the question of “Who God is” is really generally beneath those questions; and it’s the answer that’s going to actually give us comfort and healing—is knowing the fact that God is good and God is loving; He is on our side; He is gracious; He is merciful; He is in control.
Kim: You touched on this a little earlier. You say your worst is not random or meaningless. How do you convince someone who is in the midst of confusion, second-guessing God’s presence / His love / His power? How do you help someone in that state to understand this?
Cameron: I think—that’s really hard. It’s really tricky; but honestly, I think the best way is to point them to God’s Word and to point them to what God says about Himself.
You look at the book of Lamentations which is really—man, it is a hard book to read because it’s Jeremiah looking at Jerusalem after the Babylonians have conquered the city, and there is atrocity; there is starvation. I mean it is the worst of the worst. It’s very clear that Jeremiah attributes the actions—he doesn’t say that God is the agent of evil, but he very much believes that God has a hand in allowing this to happen.
And yet—and this is where the title of my book comes from. At the end of the day, Jeremiah says, “This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” He remembers that the Lord is good; the Lord is faithful; the Lord is gracious; and He’s merciful.
So, I think pointing people to Scriptures that—and pointing people to Jesus’s own words in the Gospels about His determination in going to the cross. Jesus is the person—is a person but also is God. He has full intention that He is going to die on the cross and suffering something awful. So, I think getting into, like, a theological or philosophical argument on these kinds of things is not nearly as helpful as actually just pointing people to the Word so that they can kind of see for themselves what God has to say about His role in their suffering.
Kim: And as they are reading God’s Word and allowing it to become a part of their circumstances, there will be times when they may doubt. Sometimes, we as Christians will shame each other for doubting. What are we implying when we shame someone for doubting God?
Cameron: I think that just the basic Gospel should give us some patience with ourselves and with one another in our doubts. Jesus didn’t come into the world because we had our act together; you know? Jesus didn’t come into the world because we understand everything. Jesus came into the world because of our weakness and because of frailty and because of our imperfection and our sin. Do you think God is surprised by our doubts? Do you think He is surprised by our questions?
He’s not. He knows who we are. It’s very helpful for us to go look at the laments of the Psalms and just to see the honesty and authenticity that the psalmists communicate and express to God. I mean King David is so, so honest about, at times, feeling abandoned and wondering where God is and feeling like God has forsaken him. I think looking at the honesty of Scripture—it should be something that gives us permission to be gracious with ourselves in our doubts. We are just not ever going to get it in this life.
You know my son—my son died. That’s our story, and there are certain—I can see that God has done amazing things through his life. We have seen people come to faith in Christ. We have seen people find hope and confidence in Christ in their sufferings through his life—not as—that’s really encouraging for us. That’s really comforting for us; but that doesn’t answer all our questions; you know? It doesn’t tie it up in a neat little bow and say, “Oh, you see, there are good things that have come of this, and that’s why.” It doesn’t.
We will know all we need to know when we get to heaven, and that will be fine; but I think we all just need to—in a healthy way—just kind of resign to the fact that we’re not going to get all our questions answered in this life--and that is okay—and that we’re not ever going to really have a season where we don’t have some doubts and some questions. The Lord’s grace is big enough for that, and He’s not surprised by that.
Kim: You mention that there’s a tendency that we have to hide our pain, and a lot of that has to do with avoiding the shame that comes with doubting. On page 111 of your book, Therefore I Have Hope, it reads, “So often, Christians hide their pain behind trite religious platitudes: ‘God’s got a plan,’ or even ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or ‘This too shall pass.’”
It’s not that you are criticizing these sayings, but you go on to say that when people try to tie up their pain and confusion in a tight little bow and, thereby, oversimplify the depths of their grief, they run the risk of creating distance from God and planting seeds of bitterness in their hearts. In this way, they try ‘Be strong,’ when the very response to which God calls them to is weakness.” Why is it, at times, that God calls us to weakness?
Cameron: Wow. I think because of the fallen nature of the world and because of Adam and Eve that is just the dynamics by which we truly relate to God. We have to relate to God out of weakness. That’s the only way that we truly know God and that we ever truly grow in intimate fellowship with Christ—is out of our weakness.
I think some of it is, maybe—some of it is, maybe, cultural. That we, for whatever reason, think we have to put on a brave face and act like we’re impervious to sorrow. We think that, maybe, that’s what as a Christian that’s how we need to be a witness; but man, I find that—the feedback I’ve gotten from my book—the most prominent feedback has been my honesty and transparency about the depth of my pain and my questions and my difficulties. Most people have said that’s been the most valuable part of it.
So, I think one thing I would say to people is—and obviously, you have to exercise wisdom with this—but you are being a good witness to the Gospel when you are honest with people. In that honesty, that’s where we find the grace of God, and that’s where you find the presence of God.
So, I just think people really need to free themselves of pressure to act like they are fine or to act like they are being strong. I think that you really invite people in to true relationship with you and you invite them into really meaningful relationship with God when you’re honest and when you talk about how the Lord’s grace meets you in your sadness and your sorrow / your difficulty and your doubts.
Kim: I must say. I completely agree with that. As I read your book, I appreciated the honesty and how you dove into the feelings that you had in these various stages of grief. And I wonder, “Have you ever had an encounter with someone who didn’t embrace that honesty? Who may not have been able to handle that?”
Cameron: Um, no, I mean I—I didn’t worry too much about it. [Laughter] But I did. I, one time, was talking to a parent who had lost a child; and I was honest about my feelings; but I was also honest about my hope. They just kind of said, “How can you say that?”—like—“How can you feel that way particularly on the hopeful side?” I didn’t say this to them in that moment because it wouldn’t have been pastorally appropriate; but the honest answer is because I’m a Christian; you know?
Christianity—we come, and our salvation kind of begins with us being honest about our sin.
Cameron: And we received the grace and forgiveness and mercy of Christ through that. That’s just kind of the dynamic of being a Christian—is being weak and being restored, being honest and being dependent and being provided for and healed. That’s just kind of the nature of what it’s like to be a person who truly lives into the Gospel in a way that’s authentic / in a way that’s just consistent with what we see in Scripture about our frailty / our imperfection and God’s love and mercy in that.
Kim: As we wrap up our conversation, let’s talk briefly about that final stage of grief that you write about in your book—the long haul. What characterizes the long haul?
Cameron: Yes, so, when I wrote the book, I started the book about five months after Cam died.
Kim: That soon?
Cameron: I—yes; yes. I honestly—and honestly, not with any thought of really—I wasn’t really thinking about a publisher or an audience of anything like that. I honestly was writing the book for myself; you know? I was theologically processing what was going on in my life and what was giving me hope and what was sustaining me and comforting me.
So, I think there is this really menacing question that a lot of people have in tragedy; and that is, “How am I going to live the rest of my life with this?” “How am”—you know—“How”—you kind of have this sense of—“I’m going to have to have some measure of this wound for the rest of my life. What is life going to look like 20 or 30 or 40 years from now?” That is a really paralyzing and overwhelming question.
But in hindsight, as I started to kind of arrange the chapters of the book three / four years after Cam died, I found that there were these three truths that were hopeful as I looked deep into the future. One of those was service. You know that God could use our tragedy and use Cam’s life to minister to other people.
We—my—Lauren and I—we have credentials to minister to people who have lost children or who have gone through significant tragedies now because we’ve gone through it; and that is a credential we did not have. So, there is something really meaningful and encouraging to think like—“Hey, God can use what I’ve gone through to help other people in the future and to hopefully glorify Christ and further His kingdom.” That’s a really hopeful prospect when you think about having that credential for the rest of your life.
A second component in that area is—I thought about the possibility of joy—that—“Hey, joy”—this to me is one of the most compelling things about being a Christian—is that you can have this sense of spiritual happiness in your heart no matter what the circumstances are / no matter what you are going through / no matter where life’s difficulties and pains take you / no matter where you are, you can have joy in your heart because joy is not contingent upon circumstances. Joy has everything to do with being in fellowship with Christ.
Cameron: So, that was a hopeful thing to me. “Hey, even if this limp is really intense for the rest of my life, I can still have joy. I can still have deep joy.”
Then, finally, the hope of heaven—the hope of heaven—you know, like—I talk about this a lot now that I have a child who lives in heaven. I think about it a lot more, and I thought about it a fair amount before he died; but I mean it is a part of my daily consciousness thinking about heaven. But you know this—when you look at, both, what Peter and Paul have to say about this life relative to eternity in heaven—you know Paul in 2 Corinthians talks about these momentary sufferings / these momentary afflictions.
Kim: Afflictions; yes.
Cameron: So, if you think about the rest of your life—however long that may be—60 / 70 years; 20 / 30 years—who knows?—relative to trillions of years—
Cameron: —in eternity in perfect happiness / perfect bliss in the full presence of Jesus, life gets really, really short. You see this all throughout the epistles, in particular; but you see that in these books that are about suffering—say 1 Peter and 2 Corinthians—you see that they are thinking about heaven all the time, and it gives them hope.
So, if you know Christ as your Savior and your Lord, the difficulties of this life are momentary. There is an expiration date on them, and it’s all going to be done when we get to heaven. So, I think that that’s a really hopeful thing that sustains us—to remember what awaits us in eternity and to think about how short this life is relative to eternity with the Lord.
Kim: Cameron, what do you say to the person who is not sure that their loved one went to heaven or, maybe, they are not 100-percent sure they are going to be there either?
Cameron: Yes, for the person who is not sure about their loved one, I would say, “You are not God, and you don’t know their heart. You don’t know the prayers that they’ve prayed to the Lord. You don’t know what they may or may not have said in the last moments of their life to God. You don’t know. You don’t know a fraction of their heart compared to God.”
“So, first thing in that, you can trust God, and you can—you need to kind of allow yourself to live in the mystery.” That’s a hard thing to do. It’s a hard thing to do, but I would allow yourself to ask God for the grace to help you live in mystery.
I would also say, “When we get to heaven, no matter what the circumstances—we will be satisfied. We’ll be satisfied when we see God in all of His glory—we will be satisfied with all outcomes.” That’s hard to imagine now, but in that day, like, that’s the reality of how these outcomes and these questions will be resolved.
Then, for a person who themselves is not sure, that’s not—that’s not something to let linger until tomorrow. The question to ask is: “Who do you trust in? Are you trusting in yourself? Are you trusting in your own moral and religious performance for your acceptance before God? Or are you trusting in Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection and the grace and mercy that flows from that?”
If you are trusting in yourself—like, this is very black and white—you do not have any certainty in your salvation; but if you can answer that question and say, “No, I trust in Jesus and the grace and mercy of God that flows from His life, death, and resurrection,” then, you have certainty that when you die, you will be accepted by the Lord; and you will be with Him forever in eternal bliss.
Kim: Even though the road has been hard—and I’m sure it still is a difficult one—God did something very special to let you know that He is still in control. What happened one year after you buried Cam, your first-born son?
Cameron: Yes; before I tell this story, I should say that the Lord has just been particularly gracious to Lauren and to me. I think that’s part of what enabled me to be able to write a book about this experience—is that God was so very generous to us—but we got very accidentally pregnant about three months after Cam died. That is definitely not a time of life where you’re thinking about having the next baby.
Anyhow, so, on the night of November 13th, my wife—in the middle of the night, her water broke; and 52 minutes from water breaking to delivery our third child Hutch was born. Hutch was born on the one year anniversary of Cam’s funeral. This was certainly not planned—no scheduled C-section. This was the providence of God—
Kim: That is amazing.
Cameron: —that we got pregnant and the providence of God that Hutch was born on that particular day. So, it was just an incredible kindness from the Lord for us to have another child; but also, to have a child on that day, just such—on what was probably the second worst day of our lives—having to attend our own son’s funeral—for us to have another little boy a year later on that very day was just an unbelievable kindness and generosity from the Lord.
So, we know that God is good and that God is for us based on His Word and based on the cross; but a blessing like that is just—was a really gracious further evidence of that for our family.
Kim: What stood out to me most in my conversation with Cameron is that when facing tragedy the nature of our faith, it really matters. Remember when he talked about the feel-good kind of faith or that pick-and-choose Christianity, that’s not the kind of faith that gets you through. It’s the genuine faith in Jesus and an actual surrender to His rescue of us.
You know what else stood out?—is the fact that part of having that genuine faith, actually, involves getting to know the character of God and who He is because there is just something about better understanding this all-powerful and loving God that gives you hope in the midst of those dark places.
Thanks for listening to the podcast. If you’d like more information about Cameron Cole or his book, Therefore I Have Hope, you can check out our Unfavorable Odds page at FamilyLife.com/podcasts.
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On the next episode of Unfavorable Odds:
Heath: All of the sudden, my wife Ali, the love of my life, she became very sick, and what should have been a routine medical procedure put her in the hospital; and she had about a 48-hour window to win or lose.
Kim: Heath Adamson next time.
I’m Kim Anthony. Thanks for listening to this episode of Unfavorable Odds.
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