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Blog / Finding Friendship with God in the Midst of Pain, Grief, and Loss: An Interview with Jack Deere

Finding Friendship with God in the Midst of Pain, Grief, and Loss: An Interview with Jack Deere

Jack Deere“On the morning of December 31, 2000, I watched a white, cardboard coffin travel up a conveyor belt into the belly of a Boeing 757, along with the other baggage. The body in that coffin had belonged to my son. But he had gambled with it once too often.”

Thus opens the memoir of bestselling author, pastor, and professor Jack Deere, in which he confronts the question of where is God when your life falls apart.

Bible Gateway interviewed Jack Deere about his book, Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life (Zondervan, 2018).

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You describe your book as an “unsanitized version of the Christian life.” What do you mean?

Jack Deere: I was speaking at a businessman’s home Bible study last fall. These men have met together for years. They all attend the same church. The leader said to me, “The next time I hear a pastor say that he lost his temper in traffic, I’m going to get up and walk out of the church.”

I sympathized with him. For years, I was trapped in a religious system where pastors and leaders were not permitted to acknowledge their sins. If a pastor did confess a sin it was trivial (for example, “I took the biggest piece of pie and my conscience smote me for days afterward”), or it was a sin far back in their past that he or she had overcome. This kind of pastoral dishonesty teaches people to go underground with their sins, and our sins flourish best in the darkness. It also teaches people a version of the Christian that does not exist and sets them up for massive discouragement.

I have not found the Christian life to be easy. I have not yet had a day where my good deeds and thoughts outweighed my bad. I’ve found mercy to forgive my sin. And I’ve felt enough of the affection of the Lord in my weak, immature, and inconsistent state to enjoy the life he’s giving me. When I’m open about my sins and tell my true story, people find hope to walk out into the light.

In the Bible, God’s heroes are capable of monstrous evil. And God doesn’t hide this evil. David committed adultery and then murdered an innocent man to cover it up. David also wrote a public confession of his sin. And there’s no way to know how many despairing believers have found their way back to God through Psalm 51.

Jesus said, “Only God is good.” That really is true. So we can’t expect good results to come from pretending otherwise.

How do you answer the universal question, “Where is God when one’s life falls apart”?

Jack Deere: When the worst day of my life came, I didn’t know that it was only the beginning of bad. I lost the story that I lived by; the story that made my days make sense.

The first place we found God was in the friends. Our friends gathered around us. They listened to our wails, our hollow spiritual affirmations springing from shock not faith; ridiculous assertions that have no other purpose than to keep you from questioning aloud the rightness of what God has done to you. Our friends had no explanations. They just held us and cried.

In addition to our friends, from the beginning of our trauma, God broke through our darkness with glimpses of his unconditional love. I write about these encounters in Even in Our Darkness. His love did not take away our pain. It helped us to find the grace to endure the pain.

When King David was in the pit, he counted on God’s compassion to lift him out. I chose to believe God would do the same for us. Not because our souls are so strong, but because our God’s compassion is so great. And he did bring us up from the pit. Not as quickly as I had hoped, and not in the ways I thought he would. And not before I was dragged through days of greater pain than the day of Scott’s death. I can’t point to any single act or moment of final healing. It was a whole series of unanticipated graces that kept coming until one day I could find only the sweetness of Scott in my heart and none of the pain of Scott.

What effect has the Bible had on you in your years of despair and sorrow?

Jack Deere: When I was 17, my Young Life leader, Scott Manley taught me to memorize Scripture. I’ve been hiding the word of God in my heart ever since then and proving that it restores my soul, makes me wise, rejoices my heart, and gives light to my eyes (Ps. 19:7-8).

The Bible is usually the first and always the main way that God speaks to me. Over and over, the words of Scripture have led me back to the Anchor of my soul. All the young people that I disciple memorize Scripture as a basic life-long skill of the spiritual life.

Your family was not particularly religious. How did you “come over to God’s side,” as you put it in the book?

Jack Deere: I had just turned 17 when my friend told me that Jesus died for me and that if I would trust him to forgive me and give me a new life, he would come into my heart and never leave me. I asked my friend how he knew Jesus would never leave me. He quoted John 10:28, “I give them [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” It was the first verse of Scripture that I ever heard, and I was instantly born again. I have been in love with Scripture ever since.

You’re unsparing in revealing your own hypocrisy and pride, writing that “people who already feel righteous don’t hunger and thirst for it” and that you were “blind to the wounds of others,” including your wife and son. How were you confronted by these failings?

Jack Deere: I came to God out of a world of sexual impurity, stealing, drunkenness, lying, and obscenities. For the first part of my Christian life, I concentrated on avoiding these sins.

I didn’t know what pride was. I simply knew that the Southern Baptists (my denomination) was the greatest of all the denominations. My church was the greatest of all the Baptist churches. When I left the church for Young Life, I knew it was the greatest ministry in the world.

Then I came to Dallas Seminary and felt it was the greatest seminary in the world. Then I became a professor at 27 in the Old Testament Department at DTS, and felt we were the greatest department in the seminary. I was aware that I felt superior to most people. I didn’t know this was pride, and that pride is the greatest of all sins. I had never heard a definition of humility, let alone a sermon on humility.

I never knew that humility was the pathway to friendship with God even though I read texts like Psalm 138:6, “Though the Lord is on high, he looks on the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar.” I had mentors in exegesis and theology, but I had no one to mentor me in humility. Toward the end of my seminary career, God sent some humble men into my life who taught me that God wanted a friendship with me. He wanted me to feel his affection and enjoy him more than anything else in my life. They also taught that pride was a hindrance to my friendship with God.

When I set my heart on becoming friends with God, I asked him to expose my sins with prayers like Psalm 139:23-24. And he’s been doing it ever since. I can’t see my worst sins; not because they’re too small, but because they’re too characteristic. I need the illumination of the Holy Spirit to see my most destructive sins.

The more of God’s love I feel, the easier it is for me to reveal my hypocrisy. Over the years, I’ve found that people are far more encouraged by my failures than by my successes. I think we learn more from our failures than our successes. Recently, I confessed some of my failures as a father to a men’s group. A young father asked, “How do you handle the guilt from those kinds of failures?”

“The guilt is long gone,” I said, “I’ve been forgiven. Though in tender moments, I still cry over those sins. This morning, I’m happy because by telling you about the traps I fell into as a father, I may help you to avoid them.” That’s one way God redeems my pain and my sin.”

How did you come to believe the miraculous gifts of the Spirit are still active today, after dismissing them for so long?

Jack Deere: A godly and intelligent author that I admired told me that he’d seen God perform miracles. That conversation caused me to study every healing in the New Testament. After four months, I was convinced that God was still doing miracles and that the Holy Spirit was still giving all his gifts to the church. I tell this story in full in my book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit.

What are some examples of God’s surprising and unexpected beauty breaking through your experiences of loss?

Jack Deere: Eight weeks after we buried Scott, a church in Amarillo, Texas that I spoke at once a month needed me to introduce a special speaker at their weekend services because all their senior pastors were out of town. So I left Leesa in the care of Stephen and Alese for 24 hours. It was my first time to be in church since I lost Scott eight weeks earlier.

After the first service ended, I stood at the front of the church with the prayer team. I spotted someone moving toward me. I could not tell if the person was a man or woman, girl or boy. The person did not have a face. Where the mouth should have been, was a misshapen hole, and what once was nose was now a curve flattened against a concave surface. The blind eyes were slits sealed shut. A plastic tube protruded from a hole in the throat: a permanent tracheotomy.

A pretty blond lady was leading the person by the arm.

“Hi, I’m Michelle,” she said. “This is my son Aaron. Five years ago, at Christmas time, his father and I were going through a painful divorce. Aaron was so distraught that he put a shotgun under his chin and pulled the trigger. The blast blew away his face. It has taken multiple surgeries to get him to this place. He doesn’t believe in God, but he came down here with me because I asked him to. Would you pray for Aaron?”

The last time I laid hands on a person in prayer was when I held Scott’s head and asked God to bring him back from the dead.

“Aaron, my name is Jack,” I said. “Would you like me to pray for you?”

He put his finger over the tube to keep the air from escaping before it could go through his vocal folds and said, “Yes.”

I put one hand over his heart and one hand on his back. Power fell on me. It rippled down my neck, down my back, down my legs. I knew what to pray.

“Aaron,” I said, “my 22-year-old son Scott pulled the trigger at Christmas, but he didn’t make it. God spared your life because he still has purposes for you, if you want to fulfill them.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Michelle, “I didn’t know. I heard about the minister whose son…whose son… I didn’t know it was you. I’m just so sorry. I would never have brought my son to you if…”

“Michelle, don’t be sorry. You haven’t done anything wrong. I’m glad you came to me. I’m glad to pray for Aaron. God made this appointment between us,” I said.

I finished praying for Aaron. Then I prayed for Michelle and felt the same power descend on me.

After they walked away, I couldn’t tell who had benefited more from the encounter—Aaron or I. I looked up and offered a silent, spontaneous prayer.

“Man!” I said, “You are really something!”

God was strengthening me in the most broken of places, and teaching me to embrace a mystery, as if it were a friend.

This was my first time to be in a church service since Scott’s burial, and my first time to lay hands on anyone in prayer since I held Scott’s shattered head in my hands and asked God to bring him back to life. When I lost Scott, I lost my story to make sense of life. God began a new story for me that day with Aaron and Michelle. I knew he was saying, “Stay with me Jack, and I’ll heal the places in you that broke, and I’ll give you power to help the hopeless.” And he gave me this hope in the most powerful way I could imagine.

What have you learned about dealing with grief?

Jack Deere: First of all, I don’t trust rigid paradigms of grief. The key word in that sentence is “rigid.” The four of us in our family all had different relationships with Scott, and we are all different people. After the paramedics took Scott out in a body bag, I gathered my family together by the big stair case in our living room and told them three things:

  1. This was no one’s fault but Scott’s. We thought he had turned from drugs, but he hadn’t.
  2. We all have the freedom to grieve however we want.
  3. We all have the freedom to grieve as long as we want.

Second, we fell into the arms of our friends. They cried with us, comforted us, and took care of every physical need we had. Thank God for life-long friends.

Personally, I did not take the stoic route. I cried more than I’ve ever cried. I let myself feel the guilt of my failures as a father without taking responsibility for Scott’s suicide. I felt God’s mercy and forgiveness. Once, while I was weeping so hard I couldn’t see the road on which I was driving, God let me know that my tears were proof of my love for Scott.

Most importantly, I talked to God about everything I was feeling. And I still made the goal of life to love God and feel his love for me. I felt his love in very special ways that I describe in Even in Our Darkness. His love did not take away the pain quickly, but it did give us grace to bear the pain and let that pain do a deep work in us. I can’t tell you exactly when or exactly how it happened, but I’m healed today. The pain and anger are gone. I have peace and a longing to be reunited with Scott in heaven. I know he is praying for us to finish our races with honor.

What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?

Jack Deere: For 3,000 years, the people of God have been praying and singing the prayers of David. This great saint boiled all his prayers down to a single prayer in a single verse of Scripture:
    One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek:
    That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life
    To gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple (Ps. 27:4).

To “see the beauty of the Lord” is to experience a facet of his character that dazzles us with his love. When I feel his love, my love for him increases. There’s a huge difference between “knowing” that God loves us and actually feeling his love. Paul prays that we may feel the love that transcends knowledge and tells us that this is where our stability in life lies (Eph. 3:16-19).

Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.

Bio: Jack Deere, is a writer and lecturer who speaks throughout the world. Formerly he was an assistant professor of Old Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary for more than ten years, until he was fired in 1987 for reversing his stance on the gifts of the Holy Spirit—he had come to believe that gifts such as healing and prophecy are accessible today. This experience became the basis of his bestselling books, Surprised by the Power of the Spirit and Surprised by the Voice of God. Deere then spent four years with John Wimber at the Vineyard Christian fellowship in Anaheim California, and went on to pastor other churches. Jack and his wife Leesa currently live in St. Louis. They are the parents of Stephen, Alese, and the late Scott Deere.

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Filed under Books, Discipleship, Interviews