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Learning from a Brother

It would not be my preference to begin this way, but I guess I need to say it up front: R.C. Sproul Jr. and I have some significant theological differences, and not only that, but we have differences in areas in which we are both rather vocal. Though we disagree on these things, he and I have often shared cordial emails expressing mutual love and respect even in the midst of significant disagreement.

However, though I wanted to offer that by way of context, I am not writing today to discuss the nature or manner of such theological disagreement. Instead, I am writing to tell how R.C. Sproul Jr. has been an encouragement to me as the Lord has called him to pass through this darkest hour. Just a few weeks ago, after a 9-month battle with cancer, his wife Denise went to be with the Lord, leaving behind Sproul Jr. and their eight children. Through the Ligonier Ministries blog, Sproul Jr. has been steadily writing about the long journey from diagnosis to death and now life as a widower and single parent. These articles have been a great source of challenge and encouragement to me.

My Better Half teaches me to appreciate what Christ has formed in the marriage relationship. Sproul Jr. reminds me that the one-flesh metaphor used to describe husband and wife may be a little bit more than metaphor. “We are not commanded to live as if we were one flesh. Instead we are told that such is the actual truth. The one-flesh reality means that I haven’t just lost the love of my life, but half of me. … It isn’t quite accurate to say that when she drew her last breath a part of me died. Instead, half of me died.” But even in the middle of such pain there is hope:

The good news, however, is the same. Half of me has died, and is with Jesus. Half of me has no melancholy, but only joy. Half of me cries no more. Half of me sins no more. Half of me loves me, and the children, with a perfect love. Mourning, over the coming weeks and months, will move to dancing, as this half of me begins to more deeply believe the blessings I have in my better half.

I love Denise all the way to heaven and back. She in turn loves me all the way from heaven and back. And Jesus loves us both as the great bridge that not only brought us together, but keeps us together. May these gospel truths give me gentle sleep tonight.

I cannot imagine the pain of enduring the trials he has endured, but he gives me hope that the Lord would extend the same grace to me to endure with joy and hope even in pain. And he calls on me to love my wife with even more intensity for the God-given gift she is to me.

What Now? teaches me to look beyond the easy answers to prayer. For 9 months of illness he “prayed that Denise would be made well, that the cancer would be beaten, that she would be blessed with health, comfort and joy. It is rare indeed when we can see such specific prayers answered so clearly and powerfully. … I prayed against the weakness, the fear and fragility, the weariness and the pain. I prayed against the tears and the sorrow.” And his prayers were answered. They were answered in a way far greater than all he had hoped and wished.

And now my prayers have been heard. What we wanted for her she has received, and more. We, His children, all together asked for bread for her. He didn’t give her a stone. He didn’t give her bread. He gave her Jesus. She who awoke pity in the hearts of thousands now has awakened with Him, with more health, more comfort, more joy than all of us combined. Eye hath not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the mind of man all that she has already been blessed with (I Corinthians 2:9).

Here I find hope and confidence that in a trial like this one the Lord would give a fresh and deeper and more faith-filled perspective on the truth that it really is better to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. It seems that there are some lessons that simply cannot be learned nearly as well in the abstract.

Can You Remember? challenges me to give thanks for the Lord’s good gifts and reminds me that even though I am charged with caring for my family, ultimately I am only caring for them on behalf of the Lord and with the gifts he provides. Meanwhile my wife is caring for me and our family with the grace God gives to her. That grace would not cease with my death or with her death. Sproul Jr. says, “as I face a future without the spiritual wisdom of my bride it is less important that I bank what I can still receive from her, and more important that I give thanks to God for all the wisdom He has bestowed over the years through her. Looking through the gift of her wisdom to the source of that wisdom makes it less likely that I will miss her wisdom while I miss her.” And he says, “it was the grace of God that gave us the blessed life of having Denise for a wife and mother. Losing her doesn’t mean losing that grace. It means remembering where it ultimately came from.”

He teaches me that though trials of this kind are deeply painful, they are times the Lord uses to teach us, to teach us lessons that will more and more conform us to the image of his Son.

Praying Friends reminds me of the importance of pursuing and celebrating friendship because “[t]hose who make friends with the world have only the world to pray for them. Those who love the saints, on the other hand, have those covered by the righteousness of Christ Himself praying on their behalf.” He causes me ask myself how much and how deeply I am investing in significant, spiritual friendships.

The Terminal, written in the days when there was still hope that the Lord might preserve Denise’s wife, teaches me that I need to be willing to lose my wife if this is what the Lord wills for us. 

It is a good and proper thing that I should, and you as well if you are willing, pray that God would make Denise well, that He would allow us to grow old together. It is, however, a better thing to pray that I would be a faithful husband to my love, and a faithful father to the children He has blessed us with. It is less important that He believe me and my conviction, that the kingdom would be better with her here. It is more important that I believe Him and His promise that the gates of hell will not prevail (Matthew 16:18), and that He who has begun a good work in us will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 6:10). This train is bound for glory. 

In these articles and others like them, I have learned so much and have had my faith stirred. And so I suppose I write today to express gratitude to Sproul Jr. that he has been willing to allow us into a difficult, wrenching time in his life. I write to express gratitude to the Lord that he has not only sustained my brother through it, but has led him and taught him and allowed him to teach us. And I write to ask you to consider reading some of these articles as well; I am sure they will be a blessing to you.