John Mark McMillan
and the Grief Behind
"How He Loves"

As I was writing last week, I stumbled upon John Mark McMillan's record, "The Song Inside the Sounds of Breaking Down" on Spotify. His song, "How He Loves" is one I am quite familiar with, but there's a particular version of the song on this record which was totally new to me—and it stopped me in my tracks.

I had to replay the end of the song to hear it again. I heard the name, "Stephen" but had a hard time making out the other words. I could tell McMillan was crying while attempting to sing the lyrics.

So I looked online to see if I could figure out what he was saying. And I did.

You don't often hear musicians crying in their recordings—and it moved me to tears, even before I knew the lyrics. I wept because his grief was stealing away his voice, which was something I resonated deeply with. Hearing his pain made me recall a time when, through my weeping, I read a goodbye letter to my Dad, who was dying from cancer.

Agony also stole away my voice when I forced, "thank you, Dad," from my lips.

I had no idea the world-renowned song, "How He Loves," originated from a deep grief McMillan had walked through. Writing the song was his way of wrestling with the pain, anger, and frustration he felt after losing his best friend in a car accident.

According to WorshipLeader.com,
"How He Loves” became the anthem of a youth movement as John Mark McMillan recounted the story of his friend Stephen at a conference with 70,000 young people. John Mark told how one fateful night his friend prayed something on the order of: “I would give my life, for these people that I love.” And that very night, Stephen’s earthly existence was ended in a terrible accident. McMillan says, “I was in complete shock of my friend dying. And I sat down and had a conversation with God about it. And that song, basically, popped out.”
In this particular version of, "How He Loves"—at the 6:25 minute-mark—McMillan weeps through an added stanza:

I thought about You the day Stephen died
And you met me between my breaking
I know that I still love you God
Despite the agony
See people they want to tell me you’re cruel
But if Stephen could sing
He’d say it’s not true
Cause you’re good


You can listen to this incredibly moving section of the song by watching the video below. It's programmed to start right before this stanza.
Through this version of the song, McMillan permits us to see what it looks like to lament—to sing a prayer in pain that leads to trust, as Mark Vroegop would put it—and as a result, encourages us to take our anger and hurt to God rather than letting it drive us away from him.

McMillan recalls,
“I was super angry. And I didn’t know who to be angry at. And I came to realize if you’re angry at nobody then you’re really angry with God, because he’s the only one who can change the situation. So, I sat down. I didn’t have a bad attitude. I wasn’t shaking my fist at God. I was just, I guess, hurt. I was really young. I’d never experienced anything like that before. I thought Stephen was the only one who understood me in certain ways, probably the only guy at the time I could be completely honest about any area of my life. And he was the same with me; there was no sort of pretension. When he was gone, it was, ‘I have nobody to call, nobody to talk to. How am I going to process and deal with life without him there?’ And so I sat down and that song just sort of materialized. And as I was singing the song I saw the story of my friend in the song. In my heart I was questioning the love of God, really. I was trying to have a conversation with God, but I think he was speaking to me in the song even though it’s written from my perspective.”
This is the decision that ultimately helps us find the courage to endure the searing pain of the loss: that we choose to weep like babes at the feet of the Father and sob, "Lord, I know you are good, but I'm devastated and don't understand how I can live without this person who meant so much to me."

Instead of turning away from God in our grief, we engage him and our feelings. We sit between the tension of our pain and hope of his promise. We weep without answers yet with the answer that one day, things will be put right (Revelation 21:4).

McMillian also offered some additional perspective on what he hoped to communicate with the song:
“In church we like to pretend everything’s okay a lot. And most of the songs we sing in church are sort of the happy songs, but only 15 to 20 percent of the songs found in the Bible are happy. The other 75 to 80 percent are the angry ones, the sad ones, or the brutally honest ones. For me, the song was not about ‘how much’ he loves us: ‘he loves us so much that he died.’ It was ‘how’ he loves us, ‘the way’ he loves us. He loves us in ways that are not like we think; they’re better than we think. The idea that Jesus is acquainted with our situation: we don’t serve a God who doesn’t understand our suffering and our pain or joy. He’s not this sort of mechanical brain in the sky who does things for us when we pray. He’s actually a person, and he has experienced life on earth."
I was able to track down an emotional video on YouTube that offers personal reflections from McMillan about the story behind "How He Loves," and was again deeply moved by his willingness to be vulnerable and transparent about both the love he had for his friend, and the pain he felt in his death.

If you are walking through a season of grief and loss, I pray that this article helps to give voice to your mourning and gently leads you to the bosom of our Father for hope and solace.
Christine M. Chappell
Author/Writer/Speaker
Christine Chappell is the author of Clean Home, Messy Heart and Help! My Child is Depressed (forthcoming with Shepherd Press, Spring 2020)She hosts The Hope + Help Project podcast and has completed biblical counseling certificates with the Institute for Biblical Counseling & Discipleship. Christine's writing has been featured at Desiring God, The Gospel Coalition, Risen Motherhood, Servants of Grace, and Thrive Moms.
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