One very sad event in my life shaped me as a young adult. Here’s why I’m sharing it with you.
I don’t think you can separate a person’s philosophy or worldview beliefs from their life. Therefore I like to study the details of the lives of my favorite philosophical and theological thinkers. That’s why in my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction, I introduce key ideas and events of church history and historical theology by using the appealing vehicle of biography.
Many people have been inspired and uplifted by the stories of other Christians. Thus, my hope in sharing my story is that readers of my blog will benefit from my contemplation and may be challenged and/or encouraged by the things I write about. I have both non-Christians and Christians who regularly read my articles and I hope there is something important in this piece that will speak to both of you.
Sorrow and Grief
Up until the age of nineteen, I never had anyone close to me die. I had gone to the funerals of some distant relatives, but as a teenager, death seemed like a distant reality. Just before my birthday that year my family experienced a catastrophe. After a long battle with mental health challenges, drug addiction, and a period of incarceration, my older brother Frank took his own life. I was close to my brother and his sudden death hit me harder than anything ever had.
Years later I would teach a philosophy course entitled, “Perspectives on Death and Dying.” In my preparation for teaching that class I came across what psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Rosscalled the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I distinctly remember feeling shock, aloneness, depression, and what I would later come to know as estrangement. Grief was something I had never encountered and it was intense.
In reflecting about the loss of my brother, I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him in his despair. But at the time I was young and preoccupied with my own interests. I was searching for something to anchor my own life. Therefore, I had few answers to offer someone who was in such deep psychological pain. My brother’s death was hard on all the members of my family but especially so on my parents. Losing one of your children to suicide can only be described as overwhelming.
Hearing God’s Shout
Influential author C. S. Lewis said “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”1 The pain I felt at my brother’s death got my full attention. I heard God’s megaphone, so to speak. This first real encounter with suffering caused me to look even deeper for an enduring meaning to life. I wondered if meeting the right woman would make a decisive and enduring difference in my life. I also wondered if pursuing and achieving my career goals would provide sufficient fulfillment.
While my Catholic baptism remained meaningful to me, I didn’t understand Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular. I didn’t feel that I knew God personally, nor did I sense his presence. So I began reading philosophy—both Western and Eastern—in my quest for answers to life’s deepest questions. I listened to the music of the Beatles where George Harrison in particular sang about Eastern religion. I began thinking about the claims of Hinduism in general and transcendental meditation and Krishna Consciousness in particular.
But those tastes of Eastern religion left me empty and dissatisfied. In light of my brother’s passing I was intent upon looking for a genuine spiritual path that would help me make sense of life and give me what philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called “a reason to live and a reason to die.” One significant event that led me to reconsider Christianity was reading C. S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity.
The pain of grief got my attention and caused me to look more attentively at my life and my neediness. As a wearied and burdened young man I ultimately discovered the rest and peace that Jesus Christ uniquely offers (Matthew 11:28).
A Severe Mercy
My sorrow hurt deeply but it turned out to be a severe mercy, for in my pain I heard God’s loving and forgiving voice. And God has used my pain and weakness to comfort and encourage others who struggle with suicidal thoughts or who have lost loved ones to suicide. God gloriously works good things even in our weaknesses and sorrows.
Reflections: Your Turn
Can you identify spiritual and intellectual turning points in your life?
For more about my story of searching for answers to life’s profound questions, see the introduction of my book Without a Doubt.
- C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 91.