Nancy Guthrie doesn't look like someone whose faith has been severely tested. She's an attractive woman with a soft but assured Tennessee accent. When she teaches the Bible, she speaks with a gentle authority. An author and publicist, she has her own public relations firm, regularly handling publicity for clients such as Anne Graham Lotz and the Christian Booksellers Association. In family pictures at her Franklin, Tennessee, home, she stands alongside her husband, David, and their teenage son, Matt, looking like any other happy, middle-class American family. But as most "happy" Christian families know, God's grace dries a lot of tears.
In her latest book, Hoping for Something Better (Tyndale), a passionate study of the Book of Hebrews, Nancy wants to help her readers break out of their spiritual ruts and grab onto God's promise for life beyond the ordinary. For Nancy, "ordinary" came to a screeching halt nine years ago when she gave birth to her second child.
After her daughter was born, Nancy knew something was wrong. Though she named the baby "Hope," there wasn't much to be hopeful about. Born with clubfeet, extreme lethargy, and an inability to suck, among other problems, Hope was officially diagnosed with Zellweger Syndrome. This rare metabolic disorder is characterized by an absence of peroxisomes (cell structures that rid the body of toxic substances). There is no treatment or cure. Most babies with the disease live less than six months.
"At first, I thought it was my fault," says Nancy, "that I didn't pray enough for a healthy baby and was now paying for it."
Nancy was familiar with prayer. She grew up going to church, attended a Christian college, and had a great job in Christian publishing. Her life was filled with the pursuit of Christian things—but, as she later realized, not necessarily with the pursuit of Christ. "There was a sense of hypocrisy, you know? I was so busy for God and interested in theological things, working with Christian authors and books, and working hard at my church, but I wasn't talking to Him or listening to Him by reading His word."
When a friend invited her to a Bible study, she thought, I don't need that. But Nancy's life was at such a low point that she attended anyway.
The topic was Matthew 9:20-22, the story of the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years. The teacher remarked how the life was literally draining out of this woman. "And I just thought, That's me. That's how I feel—just like the life is draining out of me." The woman was miraculously cured by reaching out and touching Jesus' robe. Symbolically, Nancy felt that's what she needed to do.
"I think for those of us who have grown up in the church, it takes a miracle rescue touch from God to break out of going through the motions. It takes great humility to say 'What I've been doing hasn't been working and it hasn't been real.' " Nancy began by telling God, "It's been so long since we've talked and I don't even know how to do this or why You'd want to talk to me, but … can we start talking?"
For Nancy, talking meant committing to regular Bible study. Slowly, she felt the hypocrisy being replaced by a hunger to know God more. It seemed that those who knew Him best had suffered. So one day in the car, Nancy prayed that prayer—to know God better even if it meant suffering.
Holding on to Hope
Years later, as Nancy held Hope, she thought of that prayer. She also considered a recent Bible study she had done on the book of Job. At the time, she wondered if she could do what Job did. She recalled the passage where God said, "My servant Job will be faithful to me no matter what."
"I remember being so challenged by that," she says. "I couldn't imagine God ever having that confidence in me." As Nancy looked at Hope, she thought, Here's my chance to respond to the worst thing I can imagine in a way that is pleasing to God.
It wasn't easy. Nancy had to make that decision over and over again during the next few months. Her grieving didn't get easier. Hope wasn't healed. The pain didn't lessen.
But each day, Nancy tried to respond faithfully despite her loneliness and grief. When people offered to drop off meals, she and David invited them to stay. When people expressed pity at their circumstances, she asked them to celebrate their daughter's life. "Whereas before we talked to our neighbors about our lawns, we never had meaningless conversations anymore. We were talking about life and death, and Jesus, in a way we never had before." In preparing for her own loss, Nancy began to help others.
On her 199th day of life, Hope took her last breath.
Both parents must be carriers of the recessive gene for Zellweger Syndrome to occur. The Guthries decided David would have a vasectomy to prevent another pregnancy. Only 1 in 2,000 vasectomies fail, so the couple felt secure.
|Matt kissing his sister Hope in 1999.|
But one year after Hope died, Nancy was pregnant again. Pre-natal testing revealed their third child would also have Zellweger Syndrome.
Time magazine interviewed Nancy and David for an article in which the writer compared their plight to that of Job's in the Old Testament. The article quotes an entry from Nancy's journal: "[Like Job], we often cannot see the hidden purposes of God," she wrote. "But we can determine to be faithful and keep walking toward Him in the darkness."
Named after the angel, Gabriel was born on July 16, 2001, the same day the Guthries' story appeared in Time. They knew what to expect. Their son's first day would be his best.
Gabriel died 183 days later.
How does a mother watch her baby girl, and then her baby boy, die? How does she tell her living son that his sister, and now his brother, won't live? Why would God allow this to happen?
Talking to Nancy about family or business, she is in control. But when she talks about her grief, a volcanic crack of emotion erupts and begins to flow. Her once penetrating eyes swim in tears so familiar that she is neither surprised nor embarrassed by them. She accepts them as readily as she accepts her circumstances.
Nancy says that answering how or why begins with another question—What? What do we believe about God? "Do I trust the character of God enough to believe He's in control and whatever He allows in my life will be for my ultimate good—not whatever He allows in my life is good?" says Nancy. "Can I trust knowing Him will be good enough to make whatever it cost me to know Him worth it? A lot of people say, 'Oh, I could never do that.' And David and I say, 'You couldn't. But if God allows this in your life, He will also give to you the grace you need to respond to it faithfully.'"
Nancy's first book, Holding on to Hope, was released in 2002. In it, she weaves together reflections on the life of Job with the story of her own encounters with suffering. In the years since, she's heard from numerous people who also have lost children (see "Hope Goes On"). She's always encouraged when they tell her God used the book to help them cope with the sorrow.
"I've experienced one of the worst things that can happen," says Nancy, "and I haven't found I'm strong and I can handle it. But I have found out God's promise is true, His grace is sufficient. Now when I read 'My grace is sufficient' (2 Cor. 12:9), I believe it not only because Jesus said it in the Bible—I believe it because I've experienced it."
In Holding on to Hope, Nancy writes:
Trusting God when the miracle does not come, when the urgent prayer gets no answer, when there is only darkness—this is the kind of faith God values perhaps most of all.
For Nancy, the hypocrisy has been replaced with a deep understanding of God's character based not only on her study of His Word, but on having experienced His promises. Now she and David have a chance to pass this hope on to others as the hosts of the newly updated GriefShare video curriculum used by over 4,000 churches.
In a sense, Nancy has become an unofficial spokesperson for God's grace during times of loss. She experienced it and now wants to teach it. She may have lost her children, Hope and Gabriel, but she's found a greater hope in God.
For more information about Nancy Guthrie and her ministry, visit www.nancyguthrie.com.
Jennifer Schuchmann is an Atlanta-based writer and the author of Your Unforgettable Life: Only You Can Choose the Legacy You Leave (Beacon Hill Press), visit her at www.jenniferschuchmann.com.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine.
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