BOOK REVIEW: Seasons of Sorrow (Tim Challies)

BOOK REVIEW: Seasons of Sorrow (Tim Challies)

by Michael J. Penfold

On 3rd November 2020 Tim and Aileen Challies received the kind of phone call every parent dreads. During a sporting activity at his college, their loyal and loving son had suddenly fallen unconscious and collapsed. Despite the best efforts of friends and the emergency services, Nick Challies could not be revived. He passed into the presence of the Lord soon after. He was 21. To add to the grief, Nick was engaged and due to be married to his sweetheart Anna 6 months later.

Nick’s father, Tim, is a Christian writer. As he and his wife Aileen began to process their loss, Nick turned to his keyboard. The result is an extraordinary book, Seasons of Sorrow (ISBN: 9780310136736, Zondervan), which chronicles the Challies family’s first 12 months through the very particular grief that is the loss of a child.

In 42 short chapters Tim relates how Nick became a Christian in his youth, how he was living his life for the Lord, how special he was to his parents and sisters, and then a little of how he died. The rest of the book is taken up with how the Challies family navigated the next year of tears, of visits to the cemetery, and of wrestling with the providence and sovereignty of God in their situation. Some chapters will no doubt bring you to tears too, but the book is not overwhelmingly sad. Nick’s family have, with immense dignity, accepted the unknown but real purpose of God in Nick’s unexplained homecall. The life-changing experience has resulted in Tim and Aleen being entrusted with a “ministry of sorrow” as they now reach out to many thousands of others who are travelling through the same vale of tears.

Chapter 29 is particularly striking. Tim recalls at one point feeling that he was going through a trial so deep and so sorrowful that no one had ever suffered more than him and Aileen. Then, one day, he read a piece by C.H. Spurgeon in which “the prince of preachers” said, “Thou art but one pilgrim along the well-trodden via dolorosa.” Reminded that Christ was a “man of sorrows”, Tim began to scan the horizon of history and found a long list of mourners that had gone before him:

I squint my eyes to see who walks the way before me, and familiar faces soon begin to materialise – faces I know from the pages of Scripture and the annals of history. The Bible is only four chapters into its grand narrative when the first death strikes the first parents and the hearts of Adam and Eve are broken by the death of Abel. Not long afterward, Job suffers the loss of no fewer than ten of his children – seven sons and three daughters. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu soon fall before God’s judgment, while Hophni and Phinehas fall before the enemy. Naomi is grieving the loss of her husband when her sorrow is compounded by the death of her sons Mahlon and Chilion. Just a few generations later, David suffers first the loss of his infant son and then of his favoured son. As the Old Testament gives way to the New, Zachariah and Elizabeth grieve the loss of John at the hand of Herod, while Mary grieves the loss of Jesus at the hand of Pilate.

As history carries on and the ranks of the faithful continue to march past me, I spot the tearstained faces of many more dear saints who know what it is to lose a child. Katherina von Bore bore Martin Luther six children, one of whom died in infancy, while another, their precious Magdalena, died in her father’s arms at the age of just thirteen. Idelette Calvin bore John only one child, a son named Jacques, but he was born prematurely and survived only briefly. John Owen had eleven children, only one of whom survived to adulthood, and even that one daughter still died before her father. John Bunyan suffered a grievous blow when he lost his precious Mary, who had cared for him so tenderly during his long imprisonment. God filled Cotton Mather’s quiver, but death emptied it, for Mather outlived only two of his fifteen children.

As the death of a child touched the Reformers and Puritans, so too were the great poets affected by loss, many of whom used their craft to express their grief. Charles Wesley lamented a son in “Wherefore Should I Make My Moan”:

God forbids his longer stay
God recalls the precious loan;
God hath taken him away,
From my bosom to His own:
Surely what He wills is best:
Happy in His will I rest.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow mourned a daughter in “Resignation”:

Not as a child shall we again behold her;
For when with raptures wild
In our embraces we again enfold her,
She will not be a child;

But a fair maiden, in her Father’s mansion,
Clothed with celestial grace;
And beautiful with all the soul’s expansion
Shall we behold her face.

Hannah Flagg Gould wrote of a child who had lived but a year and a day:

To grief the night-hours keeping,
A mournful mother lay
Upon her pillow, weeping –
Her babe had passed away.
When she clasped her treasure
A year and yet a day,
Of time ‘t was all its measure –
‘T was gone, like morning’s ray!

John Paton was just three months into his ministry among the cannibalistic tribes of the New Hebrides when his son was born, yet within days of the happy occasion, both his wife and child would be laid within the grave. David and Mary Livingstone lost a daughter, William and Dorothy Carey two daughters and a son, Hudson and Maria Taylor four of their eight children before they even reached the age of ten.

Fanny Crosby spoke of her bereavement only to say “God gave us a tender babe but the angels came down and took our infant up to God and to his throne”. Theodore Cuyler, at one time pastor of the largest Presbyterian Church in the United States, lost two of his children in infancy and another at twenty-one, and often wrote movingly of his visits to the Green-Wood Cemetery where they, and now he, await the day of resurrection. His southern contemporary, Thomas Smyth, laid two young children in the very same grave on the very same day.

Time would fail me to tell of Matthew Henry, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Lemuel Haynes, Seline Hastings, Frederick Douglass, George Muller, and so many others. It would fail me to tell of Charles Spurgeon and D.L. Moody and so many others who endured the double sorrow of the loss of a grandchild. It is only in the most of modern times and the most privileged of nations that the death of children takes us by surprise and strikes us as unusual. Spurgeon is exactly right when he says that the singularity of sorrow is but a dream of the one wh0 suffers.

Seasons of Sorrow is a jewel of a book, beautifully and movingly written in the midst of overwhelming grief and heartbreak. It will bless all readers, but especially those enduring the sorrow of bereavement.

Webtruth is pleased to highly recommend Tim Challies’s book to all our readers.