Reformed Theological Seminary welcomes you to this episode of the Mind + Heart podcast, with host Phillip Holmes interviewing Nancy Guthrie. Guthrie teaches the Bible at her church and conferences, and much of her teaching centers on biblical theology for women. She hosts a podcast entitled Help Me Teach the Bible and is the author of many books. She and her husband host respite retreats for couples who have lost children and are co-hosts of the GriefShare video series. Today, you will hear about Guthrie’s latest book, her insights and personal story concerning the topic of loss, and her experience with theological training and ministry to grieving parents.
The interview begins with an introduction to Guthrie’s most recent book, God Does His Best Work with Empty. The work provides a biblical theology of the themes of emptiness and fullness throughout the Bible. Since loneliness, disappointment, fear, loss, and the like – all aspects of emptiness – are prevalent experiences today, the book’s concept has resonated with many. Nancy and Phillip consider how the Bible and our experience indicate God’s work in our times of desperation.
Holmes then turns the conversation toward the topic of loss. In a featured Wisdom Wednesday recording, Guthrie says that, while many Christians think that their faith should make loss hurt less for them than for non-Christians, Christians need to know that loss will hurt deeply, but that their faith provides needed perspective and hope. This has been Nancy’s own experience, and at Holmes’ request, she goes on to share her own story of losing two of her three children within months of their births.
Phillip and Nancy talk about how the Guthries’ experience with loss has led to their work hosting retreats with grieving couples. Hosting respite retreats to help parents who have lost children is hard, but the Guthries keep at it out of a sense of ability, opportunity, and stewardship. Nancy points out that the couples at the retreats are most powerfully helped by each other and by the presence of other people who understand their pain.
Next, Holmes and Guthrie discuss how learning about biblical theology has strengthened her understanding of loss. Nancy has realized that, while many people want a personal answer to the question “Why?” after facing loss, the Bible provides a broader, but more foundational answer through the realities of sin and the fall; the Bible also points towards the profound hope of resurrection. In closing, Nancy shares Bible passages that have particularly encouraged both herself and others.
Learn more about Reformed Theological Seminary and RTS Global
Learn more about Mr. Phillip Michael Holmes
Learn more about Nancy Guthrie
Check out Nancy’s book, God Does His Best Work with Empty, as well as her other books.
Check out the Wisdom Wednesday video that is referenced in this episode
Check out more Wisdom Wednesday episodes here!
Bible Verses referenced: Genesis 1, 2 Corinthians 12:7-9, Genesis 3:15, Psalm 139, Matthew 26
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Welcome to the Mind + Heart podcast, which features interviews and more from the faculty and friends of Reformed Theological Seminary. We created this podcast to assist you in your daily quest to love God and love your neighbor. I’m your host, Phillip Holmes, and this week I’m joined by my guest, Nancy Guthrie. Nancy Guthrie teaches the Bible at her home church, Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee, as well as at conferences around the country and internationally, including her biblical theology workshops for women. She is the author of numerous books, including Saints and Scoundrels and the Story of Jesus and her new book, God Does His Best Work with Empty. She is the host of the Help Me Teach the Bible podcast at The Gospel Coalition. She and her husband host Respite Retreats for couples who have faced the death of a child and are co-hosts of the GriefShare video series. Nancy, welcome to the show. Glad you can join us.
Nancy Guthrie: Well, thank you for asking me, Phillip. I’m happy to do it.
Holmes: Absolutely. Nancy, I love the title of your new book, God Does His Best Work with Empty. Would you mind sharing with us a little bit about that book?
Guthrie: Yeah, sure. I’m glad you like the title. My husband will appreciate that because actually the way the book came about was when I made that statement about 11 years ago at I think our very first Respite Retreat for couples who have lost children, afterward, David said to me, “That needs to be a book.” So it took a while before it happened, but it finally did. I think a lot of people have the same response that you have, they’re just like, “OK, yeah, that resonates with me.” As I was working on it, I would tell people what I was working on, and so often the basic response was like, “Mhhmmm.” You know, like, “Oh yeah, emptiness. I know that. I feel that.” It probably looks different for all of us, but I think we can all relate to that sort of emptiness, especially in these months as we’ve been going through COVID-19. Emptiness in the form of loneliness, disappointment, unmet desires, fears about the future, loss, boredom. All of those are aspects, aren’t they, of emptiness?
My book is, for people who are familiar with biblical theology, if they’re good RTS people who recognize biblical theology, they will recognize that what I’m really doing is presenting a biblical theology of the biblical theme of emptiness and fullness, in that I trace it from beginning to the end of the Scriptures. Emptiness is right there at the beginning of the Bible. We read, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and it was formless and void.” Emptiness is just right there, but as we begin to read through Genesis 1, this is the first place we discover emptiness is not a problem to God, because right there in Genesis 1, all he does is say, “Let there be, let there be, let there be.” And the emptiness is filled, and it’s filled with light and life and beauty and abundance and relationship and meaning and purpose.It is in the emptiness of the world and the emptiness of our lives that he actually does his best work.
So as we come to the Bible, as people who have a sense of emptiness, just right there on the first page, we’re encouraged. We find hope that the emptiness that seems to us to be our greatest problem, that God looks at it and he sees it as his greatest opportunity because it is in the emptiness of the world and the emptiness of our lives that he actually does his best work.
Holmes: That is so good. I have all these applications for how that’s been so true in my life on so many different levels, especially during the current pandemic.
Guthrie: I think we tend to think we’ve got to somehow get ourselves worked up into having so much to offer and get everything figured out and be spiritually strong and insightful, all these things for God to work in us and through us. But all we have to do is look at the Bible’s story, but really just even look at our own lives: the times when we really sense God at work in our lives, isn’t it when we’re most desperate for him? Because when we just fill our lives up with other things, it’s like we hardly recognize our need for God, and we don’t have eyes to see him at work. But when we’re desperate for him, you know, “Lord, if you don’t work here, nothing good is going to happen.” It’s in those times that he does, and he does some of his best work in our lives, both in us and through us in those times, I think.
When we just fill our lives up with other things, it’s like we hardly recognize our need for GodHolmes: Next, we’ll take a moment to listen to Nancy’s answer to the question: how can a Christian deal with loss? And once we’re back, Nancy will offer some final thoughts on this topic.
Guthrie: I think sometimes we think that because we are Christians, that somehow loss should hurt less. But the reality of being a human in this world, a human living in a very broken world, is that we experience loss and it hurts. So if the question is how do we deal with loss, the first reality is that we hurt deeply. Sometimes I think we think, “Well, if I really have faith, then maybe I shouldn’t feel this loss so deeply, shouldn’t experience it so significantly.” But faith doesn’t make loss hurt less. Faith does, however, give us perspective about loss. Faith gives us hope in the midst of loss.
And as we go to the Scriptures in the midst of loss, I think perhaps one of the most important scriptural truths that we come to, we find in 2 Corinthians. Paul has this thorn in the flesh, we don’t know exactly what it was, but whatever it is, it’s bringing him unrelenting agony. We see Paul pray, he pleads, he begs God to take it away, and he hears Jesus speak to him. And what is it Jesus says? Jesus doesn’t say, “I’m going to take it away.” Instead, he says, “My grace is sufficient.” He’s saying to Paul, “I’m going to give you the grace you need in the form and the timing and the quantity in which you need it so that you are enabled to endure faithfully the pain that I’m not going to take away.”
I used to think that that sounded like a very religious-sounding promise that wouldn’t mean very much, and I don’t think so anymore. That’s everything we would want in the midst of loss. When we feel a deep, aching emptiness because of the loss, we hear Jesus saying to us, “My grace is sufficient. I’m going to be enough for you. I’m going to provide everything you need to endure the pain that I’m not going to take away.”Faith doesn’t make loss hurt less. Faith does, however, give us perspective about loss. Faith gives us hope in the midst of loss.
Holmes: Nancy, this particular topic is extremely personal for you because you’ve dealt with significant loss in your life. Would you mind telling us a little bit about your story and your relationship with loss?
Guthrie: Sure, I’m happy to. My husband and I have a son, Matt, who is now 30. When he was eight years old, I gave birth to a daughter that we named Hope. When Hope was born, it was immediately obvious that things weren’t quite right. She had club feet. She had a really large soft spot. She had extra skin on her neck. She was very lethargic. She wasn’t crying much. She wasn’t moving much. On her second day of life, a geneticist came and examined her, and he came to our room, and he told us that he suspected Hope had a rare metabolic disorder called Zellweger syndrome, something we’d never heard of and probably most of your listeners never have. It’s a metabolic disorder that meant that she was missing a tiny subcellular enzyme in every one of her cells. But he also explained that because of that, a lot of damage had already been done to all of her major organs and her kidneys and her brain. He told us there was no treatment and no cure and that most children with that syndrome live less than six months. As you can imagine, that was devastating. We had gone to the hospital looking forward to bringing home a daughter who would grow up and grow old with us. So I suppose loss really got going in my life even with that conversation, as I began to have to let go of the dreams I had for her and for our family.
When we feel a deep, aching emptiness because of the loss, we hear Jesus saying to us, “My grace is sufficient.”The reality of Hope’s life was that it was difficult, and it was also beautiful and rich, all of those things. It was difficult; it was challenging to know how to care for her. She developed seizures at three months. We had to medicate her heavily for those. It was hard to stay on top of her ever-worsening condition. It was hard living in a world with people, and people do and say things and didn’t know how to interact with us about it. There were some people who didn’t know what to do with the fact that we weren’t praying for a miracle. Our sense was that God had determined her life and that we could trust him with it and that we didn’t want to pour ourselves in getting him to change his mind. We wanted to pour ourselves into accepting the number of days that he gave us with her, and he gave us 199 days, and then we had to let Hope go.
To have a child with that syndrome means that both my husband David and I must be carriers of the recessive gene trait for that syndrome. So we thought we had a lot in common when we got married, but we didn’t know how much we had in common that we had this gene trait in common. But after having a child with the syndrome, then we knew that whenever we have a child, that child would have a 25 percent chance of having the fatal syndrome. Then we knew we had a difficult decision to make about whether or not we would have more children. We decided to take surgical steps to prevent another pregnancy, and evidently it didn’t work. I discovered a year and a half after Hope died that I was pregnant, which, Phillip, was scary. I remember driving up to my husband’s office to tell him. We just sat there shaking our heads.
At that point, I felt like I was just beginning to get my bearings again in terms of grief. That year and a half I’d been so very sad after Hope’s death, so disappointed, and it was like the sun was beginning to come out again. But then I saw these gray clouds gathering way off in the distance. We remembered that the geneticist had said to us, “Now don’t take any permanent birth control steps because we can test very early.” Of course, you understand what he’s saying. We knew that we would continue this pregnancy either way, but we did feel like it would be helpful to know which way we were headed.
I called him that day from David’s office, and I had to wait about another eight weeks to go through prenatal testing, and then we waited three weeks for the results and found out we would have another child who also had the fatal syndrome. So our son Gabriel was born in July 2001, and he also had Zellweger syndrome. In many ways, we thought he might be with us a little longer than Hope had been. He seemed a little bit stronger, but he was with us actually a little bit less, 183 days, and then we said goodbye to him. So that’s what brings me to this topic, Phillip: the loss of two of my three children.
Holmes: Wow. Thank you for sharing the. You have someone like yourself and your husband that has that sort of pre-package, right? You’ve actually endured loss and persevered by God’s grace. You have theological insight and faith to recognize what the Lord has done. But then at the same time, he’s connected you to other people to be able to share in this. You and your husband are doing this through multiple avenues, but one is the Respite Retreat. First, tell us what that is and how has it helped other couples grieving the loss of a child?
Guthrie: In 2009, we had dinner with a couple who had read my book, The One Year Book of Hope, and they had lost a child. They came through town, and David and I met them for dinner. We realized that I had a lot of interactions with just moms, but there was something very different when it was couple with couple, because this loss isn’t just individual. There’s a loss as a couple to figure out how to navigate through. On the way home from the dinner, because we were familiar with this 12-bedroom lodge owned by a ministry in Nashville that we had been to for some Sunday school things, I was like, “Maybe we could hold a retreat just for couples who’ve lost children. We could do it at the Hiding Place.” On the drive home, I had the whole thing basically mapped out and a short time later sent something out to all the couples that we’d interacted with in the previous couple of years who had lost a child. Within two weeks, the first one filled up.
This spring we were supposed to have our 36th and 37th Respite Retreats, but they got postponed due to COVID. We’re actually right now trying to figure out—we went this last week and visited a place where we could do one in an open-air setting, a room that opens up with garage doors, so it might actually be safe to do it even during COVID with social distancing. We’re hoping we can pull one of those off still in the midst of this in October.
Since 2009, we’ve spent the weekend with over 800 grieving parents, and we talk about the loss. Going into it, Phillip, I think we thought it’s going to be all up to us and what we have to offer to these couples and what we have to say. But what it really ends up being about is what they offer to each other and the relief that they feel to be in a social setting where everybody gets it, where they’re not the odd person out, that everybody’s walking on eggshells around. That is an enormous comfort to them. So we have loved getting to do this. Can I be honest with you, Phillip, and say it’s really hard? Sometimes we just want to give up, we just want to stop, we just want to be done with that. But what keeps us in it is that sense of stewardship, and I think also the sense of God’s given us the ability to do this and the opportunity to do it and who else is going to do it? So let’s go for it.
Holmes: That’s good. That’s good. Thank you guys for being faithful stewards of that ministry that God is giving you. You teach biblical theology workshops at your church and around the globe for women. You also have a podcast with TGC called Help Me Teach the Bible. How has your biblical and theological education—because you’re a current student RTS, so there’s a formal education that’s here as well—but how has this strengthened your understanding of loss?
I think when anybody suffers loss, we all have the same question: why?Guthrie: I think when anybody suffers loss, we all have the same question: why? Everybody gets there. Many people trying to find an answer to that question, try to find an answer that might be circumstantial. They want to see in their circumstances some kind of answer to the question “why.” For some, it’s very philosophical. For some, it’s relational. It’s all these ways. But for me, I wanted an answer that was scriptural. I know that the Scriptures are the solid truth underneath. Many people will tell you that you can’t find an answer to the question “why.” And I completely disagree. I think the Bible over and over and over and over gives us answers to that question. Now they’re not always the answers we want or like. We want something personal and individual.
So for me, one of the most significant answers to the question “why,” I found in Genesis 3:15, to understand the curse that came upon all creation because of the sin of Adam and Eve, and that this curse has impacted and infiltrated all of creation. So if you ask me why I’ve had two children who were born with a rare metabolic fatal disorder, I would say to you, “The curse of sin has so impacted the world, it’s impacted even my genetic code.” To me, that’s the ultimate and foundational answer to the question “why.” Now I know there are other answers to that, but when I came to see that one, so much flows out of that.
So seeing that at the beginning of the Bible has had a big impact on how I have thought, processed, and ministered to others in regard to loss. It’s at the very beginning of the story of the Bible, but then, the end of the story of the Bible. Philip, I imagine a lot of listeners are like me. I grew up understanding that the story of the Christian life was basically I choose Jesus and ask him to come into my heart, whatever that means. I try real hard to live for him, and then I go to heaven when I die. It’s not the whole story. My growing understanding of Reformed theology and biblical theology, my growing understanding of the larger story of the Bible, which, yes, began there in creation and was altered so much at the fall, but it’s still headed toward glory. It’s headed toward consummation. I am not simply headed toward a spirit with no body existence somewhere away from here. If the story of the Bible is headed toward resurrection and renewal for me as a believer and in fact for all of creation, if that’s the story of the Bible, that’s my story. So I look at the Bible and I realize, “OK, that’s my story.” That makes all the difference as we face loss to understand that larger story.
It’s been my joy to interact with the couples who come to our retreats. Sometimes they are not Christians at all. More often they are just generally evangelical. Sometimes they have come very bitterly out of their experience, out of a health and wealth gospel kind of thing. So they’re really angry with God because he didn’t answer the prayer they thought he was going to. They’re coming from all of these vantage points. But what a joy it is to get to sit in front of them and tell them this larger story of the Bible that is headed toward resurrection. The hope we have to offer these couples is the hope that the Bible offers over and over again, which is not simply heaven when we die, it’s always anchored in resurrection. We are born again to a living hope, and that’s all about resurrection. We are born again to a living hope, and that’s all about resurrection.
Holmes: So Nancy, final thoughts. What Scriptures have encouraged you and others you’ve ministered to the most who were grieving the loss of a loved one?
Guthrie: Well, I just talked about 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, this promise that his grace is sufficient. I can’t tell you how often I use that, Phillip, with people. We’ve had some couples who come to Respite Retreat. I remember recently one of them called me because then their other child was dying of the same thing that their son had died of before. You get in a situation like that, and you’re like, “What can I say?” This is devastating, right? But I do have something to say, and that’s what Jesus has said, and that is his promise that his grace will be sufficient. We look into the future, and we can’t imagine what we’re going to take hold of to get through what is ahead, but he’s going to be enough.
A couple of others that I think are significant: Psalm 139 where David gives us words to sing and say to God—that’s what so much of the Psalms are—“Every day of my life was written in your book before one of them came to be.” What a profound truth, to know that God has ordained the number of days. Let me tell you, when I sit in front of those couples and as I speak to people who interact with grieving people, the hardest thing to accept and yet the softest place to land is the sovereignty of God. It’s very hard to accept that he numbered the days of the one that we love because it was less than we wanted. That’s hard to accept. But at the same time, it’s this only solid and comforting place to land, like this wasn’t random and meaningless like it might seem. This did not happen outside of God’s control. I mean, talk about a nightmare. A nightmare would be to believe that we’re in a world and things happen to us that are completely outside of God’s control. That would be a terrible world to live in. But instead, we can know, no, every day of my life was written in your book before one of them came to be. I think that’s very significant.The hardest thing to accept and yet the softest place to land is the sovereignty of God.
Another one I think about is in Matthew 26, we’ve got the picture of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he says something there. You know, Philip, when you’ve gone through a loss like I experienced and I imagine some of your listeners will relate to this, you come back to the Bible and things you read and understood one way you now read them through that new filter of your loss and they can think and sound different. That was so much the case for me. I remember coming to this passage in Matthew in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus says to his disciples, “I am overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Wow. That Jesus would so fully enter into this world as a human, that he would be able to understand what it feels like to feel like grief and loss is pressing the life out of you. He understands the lump in your throat and the heaviness in your chest and the sick feeling in your stomach. I remember when I first read that passage about six months after Hope died and I wrote beside it, “Jesus understands.” It was so good to me to know that Jesus understands what the heaviness of grief feels like.
Holmes: So good. Nancy, thank you so much for joining us today. That was extremely helpful, encouraging, biblical, theologically rich, and I’m sure that our listeners are going to really enjoy and appreciate this episode.
It was so good to me to know that Jesus understands what the heaviness of grief feels like.Thank you for tuning in, and we hope you enjoyed this week’s episode featuring Nancy Guthrie. I would also like to thank the RTS family, church partners, students, alumni, and donors for the many ways you make the work of Reformed Theological Seminary possible. The clip we listened to earlier is from our weekly video series Wisdom Wednesday, where relevant matters of the Christian faith are addressed by the RTS faculty and friends with truth, candor, and grace. Access our entire archive or submit a question at rts.edu/wisdom-wednesday. Mind + Heart is powered by Reformed Theological Seminary, where we desire to raise up pastors and other church leaders with a mind for truth and a heart for God.