“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” – Jesus in Mark 11:25 (NIV)
I had the privilege recently of interviewing my friend, Gentry Eddings, Worship Pastor of Forest Hill Church’s Ballantyne Campus, and soon Campus Pastor for that thriving body. Gentry and his wife Hadley were in the news eight months ago — because of a tragic accident that took the lives of their sons, Dobbs (age 2) and Reed (38 weeks gestational age), but also because of the remarkable choice they made to forgive the driver of the truck that caused the crash.
On Saturday, May 23 last year, Gentry and his family were returning from his sister’s wedding when a commercial box truck failed to stop and crashed into the cars driven by Gentry, his wife Hadley, and Gentry’s parents, respectively. Gentry and Hadley’s two-year-old son, Dobbs, died en route to the hospital. Their unborn son Reed, 38 weeks gestational age, was delivered via emergency c-section, but doctors were unable to save him. Reed died on Monday, May 25.
Gentry answered my questions concerning suffering, grief, anger, and forgiveness, as he and Hadley have walked through these while living authentically and wrestling with these matters with faith and hope.
Life before the accident
I asked Gentry what their life was like before the accident. He said that they had been enjoying a period of rest and contentment. But before that season, just a week after Dobbs’ birth, Hadley had a medical episode that nearly took her life. Gentry explained that this shook him, and that it was a spiritually challenging time for him, as he began to question whether God was good as he had believed. It was, he said, “an intense experience of darkness and feeling distant — like God wasn’t there.
“My faith was challenged with doubts and fears. But through that, God revealed his love and faithfulness to me.”
Having come through the challenging time, caused Gentry and Hadley to give thanks every day for the gift of life. The last year of Dobbs’ life was a time of spiritual growth and of cherished memories for the three of them, as they anticipated the birth of Reed. “I knew for certain that God was with me, and each day I was so thankful, enjoying my family.”
Some of the most profound lessons of that time were, he said, “learning not to over-think things and to let God be God.” He added, “God humbled me… and brought me to a place of deeper faith, deeper trust in Him. And I was so enjoying life with my family.” He described it as a “very healthy season,” and said, “I believe God used it to prepare me for the season that we were about to go into with the loss.”
I asked how Gentry had viewed the role of suffering in the Christian life before the accident, and how it had changed. “I had an idea that suffering was a part of Christianity,” he said, “but I think it’s always mixed with American culture, where it’s health and wealth and prosperity, and you want comfort.” He continued, “I know as a Christian that suffering is part of it. I read the Bible — I know that it says that (suffering) will be a part of it — but it doesn’t feel close at hand because of all the comforts around us.”
But, he adds, there are multiple experiences God has brought him through that have illustrated that suffering is part of our world — largely because of the Fall. He explained that suffering is something “we, too, as Christians will go through as well as all people.
“It’s something God can use in our lives to shape us. I believe there’s a mystery to suffering. Like with Job — why God defends and delivers here, but allows suffering to exist and continue over here on the other hand is something that we can’t always explain.
“I also know that there is an enemy. It’s more like I know there’s pieces of the puzzle why we are where we are. Largely due to the Fall. You have to hold onto the heart of who God is in the midst of suffering.
“His heart is still for good. Because of the cross, he doesn’t look at us as people he wants to put under deep suffering in a revenge, wrathful kind of way. It’s more that He considers us children whom He loves. He has reasons often hidden from us why He allows us to go through suffering. It does bring us closer to Christ. It does help us to grow in our faith and our understanding of Christ. So that’s one way He can use it.
“But,” he said, “there’s deep mysteries when you get into suffering.”
The motivation and process of forgiveness
At the memorial service for his sons, Gentry spoke to the congregation and as part of his remarks said that he and Hadley had decided to forgive Matthew Deans, the driver of the truck who caused the fatal accident. I asked him to describe the process that led to such a breathtaking conclusion.
“The first 24 hours or so in the hospital — that first day or two — we were processing a lot,” he said. “You go through the initial shock of grief when we found out about Dobbs. We were still caring for Reed, and Hadley was recovering. I practically didn’t sleep for those first two days, and just was with all my thoughts. And one of the thoughts was about Matthew Deans and what had happened. At that point we didn’t know the full scope of what had impacted him, and some of the poor decisions he had made leading up to this.” He explained that the initial story was one of a distracted driver, but as facts emerged there were additional factors involved that were less innocent. However, Gentry added, that none of these factors changed the position of their hearts where Deans was concerned.
“I remember thinking about this in the hospital room with Hadley. This terrible thing has happened, and I am so upset that it has happened. And it was, honestly, a fairly quick process of going: OK, this man has made a mistake and it has cost us dearly. I get that. I don’t fully grasp the entire weight of that in this moment, but I get that this is what had happened. And I just… the thought of forgiveness — can I forgive this man?
“And I thought: In the story of my life, if I look back and think of the great forgiveness that I’ve received, of course I can forgive this man. Because apart from God’s forgiveness in my life I would be completely lost. It’s very much like the story of the man who was forgiven much but failed to forgive. That’s not what I wanted to be. I realized that I had been forgiven much and needed to carry that forward in the way I treated others.”
What do I do with my anger?
I asked Gentry if anger had a place in recovering from such a loss. He said anger came later for him. “There’s deep levels of my grief that I’m still tapping into. I think initially the Lord preserves your mind and your sanity by not having you walk through all the layers of grief in a moment, but over time — in months — you process what you feel. As a Christian, we know there’s hope in the Resurrection, and I comforted myself in that for a long time — and I continued to comfort myself in that — but in some ways I have used that to cover these deep emotions that are going on. God wants me to go, ‘This is true, but we still need to process all these other emotions.'”
Recently, he said, he was praying and grief came to the surface — for Hadley and her suffering, and as he continued to pray, thinking about Dobbs’ two-year-old innocence and child-like view of the world. He said he became angry “that anything that would come against that pure, beautiful, created-in-the-image-of-God child to destroy. I expressed that deep anger to God, not necessarily toward God — and vented that.
“Hadley and I have taken the position that Satan is the enemy,” he said, “because he’s the one who seeks to destroy us. he is the liar who is the enemy of our souls. God is for us; the enemy is against us. You know, I let God know I don’t understand this. I know because of who God is His heart is good, and so I trust Him and I feel like He can understand that anger.
“And I also think there is a wrath and anger that God has toward evil and injustice,” he said. “And I felt that my heart was shaped closer to (that) because of allowing that anger to come out. That isn’t a bad thing. It’s a very godly thing that there’s an anger and a fierce, passionate hatred of evil and things that are wrong.”
The courage to seek counseling
We talked about the role of counseling for anyone suffering loss. Gentry said, “I would say counseling, if you treat it the way it’s meant to be, is one of the most courageous things you can do. It takes great courage to stand before another person and open your soul to them. You want to do that in a safe place. For me, I want someone who’s going to give me wisdom and counsel from a biblical perspective and a grace perspective.
“I definitely recommend it because it helps you become more aware of what’s going on in your heart and mind. It takes courage but it brings healing and it is a help. It’s a wise thing to do, so I definitely recommend it.’
He added, “I also think the context of the church is the best place to feel the freedom to do that. The world we live in is so critical and judgmental, I can understand why people would feel scared to share their heart. Because in other settings — if you were famous — it would end up on the front of a magazine. In a church that’s a healthy one it should be a place where you can share in confidence and receive love, grace, prayer, truth to help you through that without the judgment.
Gentry’s wish for the man who caused the accident
Returning to the question of forgiveness, I noted that Gentry’s remarks at the memorial service included a challenge to those attending to forgive those who had wronged them. I asked if there had been any thought to make their forgiveness contingent on the driver’s apology.
He said, not at all. ” I just thought that I, in my heart, can forgive him. And I did think at some point, we’re probably going to see this man, so there was a lot of preparation and a desire to express that to him face-to-face. And again, the story line at that point was an accident. When we found out more information that was a new opportunity to process, when there had been poor decisions that could have been avoided, that would have potentially not led us to where we are today. There were definitely things that could have been avoided.
“And, yeah, there’s a process to it. Whenever my heart goes ‘OK, where is my heart with this?’ it’s the same: I have been forgiven much, so I continue to forgive this man. And I think God has been gracious to help my heart stay in a place of peace with that.” He says God’s grace prompts him to pray not only to forgive Matthew Deans, but to pray for his redemption.
“I believe that’s God’s heart for us. He went ahead and offered us forgiveness, and not just forgiveness, but also the riches of being his sons and daughters in Heaven, and hoping for the best for us. I mean, it’s mind-blowing.”
Gentry and Hadley had the opportunity to speak to Matthew Deans in court and to tell him in person that they forgave him. His remarks to them expressed remorse, wishing he could trade places with Dobbs and Reed. Then, “As clearly and as plainly as we could, we tried to explain that we truly forgive him, and that we truly want God’s redemption of his life. What I felt like I needed to say was there was a mistake. There was a loss. There is a pain. But there is true forgiveness for that.
“We do hope that God continues to work in his heart and his mind with the grace that’s been shown to us to shape him into a better person. We don’t know where Matthew is in his faith, so we pray that he has faith that he comes to know Christ, if he doesn’t know Him already. And in the perspective of eternity, I do pray that Matthew Deans comes to be with us in Heaven someday, and we can look him in the face and say, ‘As God was gracious and forgave me, He forgave you and was able to do a wondrous thing to bring us all to this new place.'”
Life from here
Gentry says God has brought them healing over the months. “For Hadley, we continue to seek the Lord’s will for the rest of our lives in every aspect. We seek to have a healthy marriage and to invest in that, and have that as a top priority. We don’t have a perfect marriage. It’s not like we never fight, we do fight — all people who are married fight. If they tell you they don’t, they’re lying.
“We’re investing in things that give life. Hadley’s taken up watercolor painting, and I celebrate that. God has given us so many gifts. There is still good in life — things to be enjoyed. Continuing to advance the Kingdom through making disciples, and knowing that’s the mission that God has for us while we’re here.
As he moves into his new role as a Campus Pastor, he’s thinking about investing deeply in the lives of his congregants. “God wants every man, woman, and child to trust Him as Lord and Savior, and to follow Him — becoming bolder and more focused in that mission.
“I am saying I believe this is the one true way. And I am saying I want all people to go this way, versus saying every option is OK, and I’m just going to sit back.”
And his advice for us
I asked Gentry what he would advise those of us who have been wronged. He answered, “Let God be your avenger. Don’t take that into your own hands. Trust God with the enemies in your life. Don’t stuff it or hide it, but be honest with him about it, and place it in His hands. I think that shows faith and trust and pleases God. And it saves you from doing something that is wrong or evil in itself. He’s better at justice than we are — and if He chooses to be gracious you have no room to talk, because we all need that.
“Be aware of the lie of our culture about what it means to be a man, as it pertains to strength and dominance and expressing violence and aggression. A man can display courage and boldness through self-control when lashing out would be easier.” There’s a time and place for protecting (others) even physically, but when you’re personally wronged, I think there’s a place for self-control.”
As we concluded our interview, I asked Gentry how he thought the past months had prepared them for the next season of their life and ministry. “It has certainly impressed on us the brevity of life, and in that wanting to make the most of each day. Heaven is what we long for. There is so much on earth that is not Heaven, and so we long to see the Kingdom of God — Heaven on Earth — realized as much as we can here, until that day we get to go to Heaven to be with our boys again. It has given us an eternal perspective that will shape everything we’re doing.”