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February 26, 2015

The “I love you.” You know the words, and you know the weight they carry. Recently Aileen and I were remembering back to the first time we said those words to one another. Each of us already knew how the other felt, but that did nothing to temper the thrill of actually voicing it and the joy of actually hearing it.

“I love you” marks a milestone in a relationship, and not only a romantic one. Friendships also thrive and deepen with the admission and declaration of love. “I love you” says that this is no mere acquaintance, but a true, deep, and meaningful friendship. I hate that our society threatens the love of friendship by the suspicion of homosexuality, and I want us to push back and to declare that we can love one another in the best and purest way.

But as I considered the importance of the “I love you” I found myself pondering three other words that also cause a relationship to grow and to thrive. A friend recently said something or did something he should not have, and later approached me and so-humbly and so-kindly said, “Please forgive me.” I forgave him, of course. Who am I, a man who has been forgiven so much, that I should withhold forgiveness from anyone else, and especially from someone I love? And I know that in that moment our relationship deepened. It grew in the exchange, in the transaction, of repentance and forgiveness. I felt it, and I knew it.

So I thought about those words and I thought about my friendships. And I believe a relationship grows just as much through “Please forgive me” as through “I love you.” One friend speaking to another and saying, “I love you”—this is where love is declared. But one friend approaching another to express remorse and seek forgiveness—this is where love is displayed and preserved.

February 25, 2015

There is nothing my dog won’t do for food. There is no command she won’t obey when we are looking, and no rule she won’t break when we are looking away, if only she can get a bit of food in her belly. I guess it is hard to fault her since, as a Lab, every gene in her body drives her to gorge herself. It’s like Paul was writing about her and her breed when he said, ” Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19). Food is her idol, her god, the thing that will motivate her to do anything or everything.

I am no dog, but I, too, am hard-wired for something—for validation. Just as a dog will lie down or roll over or beg or bark on command to get a snausage—doesn’t she realize how pathetic she looks?—, there is not much I won’t do to receive validation, to have others affirm my self-worth according to my criteria. I want to feel special about myself, I want to feel big and important. And when I look for what makes me feel good about myself, I inevitably find my idols. The thing that validates me is the thing I worship, the thing that momentarily takes the place of God in my life.

Lately I have been pondering and listing those things—those things that make me feel so special that I will do irrational things and make poor decisions in order to have them or achieve them. It makes for a pretty ugly and embarrassing little note. I think most of them are best kept between myself and the Lord, but I will give you a couple of examples.

Distant travel validates me. I receive invitations to do a fair number of conferences or speaking engagements over the course of a year, and I make it a point to prayerfully consider each one of them, knowing that I can accept only a few. But I have learned that the farther away the destination, the better it makes me feel about myself. I don’t even know why it works this way, but I suppose I like the idea that people far away are interested in hearing me speak. It feeds my ego. This makes me tempted to accept speaking engagements that will come at the expense of my church and family, even if I can really make no unique contribution to the event, and even if it makes very little sense for me to be involved. I am tempted to accept the event for the worst of motives: for how it makes me feel about myself.

Big audiences at big conferences validate me. I hate to own this one, but it is true: A bigger audience makes me feel more important than a smaller audience. A big audience at a big conference makes me feel awfully good about myself while a small audience at a small conference (or, even worse, a small audience at a big conference) is the kind of thing that can cast me into self-doubt or even despair. Again, there is a temptation to accept an invitation on the basis of how many people will be at the event rather than on any better or more noble criteria.

The irony in these two examples is that I am the ultimate homebody—I find it difficult to be away from home for more than very short stints—, and I am intimidated by large crowds—I find it extremely stressful to be in front of people. Somehow the things that validate me are the things I naturally run away from. I love them and hate them all at once.

I should note that neither of these things is wrong. Traveling distances to preach or to encourage others can be good and noble. Turning down a small event to speak at a large event can be good and God-honoring. But it can also be pure idolatry, a way I look for others to receive what only God is meant to give.

I need to be aware of these things—each of those ugly things on my ugly list. And most of all, I need to remember what is mostly deeply true. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to have the approval of others, and especially to receive the affirmation of God. But the crucial fact is, I already have it through Christ. I am already accepted by God because of what Christ has done, and this acceptance is all I need. When I am at my best it means everything to me. But when I am at my worst, it means nothing.

Image credit: Shutterstock

February 18, 2015

I was having a tough day. Not one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days. Just a tough day. A trying day. A long day. Mostly that—a long day.

A friend stepped into my office for just a couple of moments and we spoke about a ministry that concerns us both. I guess she detected something, because a few minutes later she reappeared. All she said was this: “Tim, do not grow weary in doing good.” And then she was gone.

Simple words, but well-timed words. Simple words, but words that carried divine power and authority. I took her words not as advice from a friend, but as instruction and assurance from God. They are, after all, a direct quote from Galatians 6. To me they said, “Yes, it has been a long and trying day. But don’t stop now, because there is still good to be done. You can do it.” Just like that, the words gave me a second wind.

I thought of her words recently while I read a commentary by John Stott. Stott comments on similar well-timed words spoken centuries earlier. These words came to the apostle Paul at a time where he was not just having a long and difficult day, but an agonizing and excruciating season. Here is how Stott describes it:

At one stage in his life he was terribly burdened. He was worried to death over the Corinthian church and in particular about their reaction to a rather severe letter which he had written to them. His mind could not rest, so great was his suspense. ‘We were afflicted at every turn’, he wrote, ‘—fighting without and fear within.’ Then he continued: ‘But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus’ (2 Cor. 7:5, 6). God’s comfort was not given to Paul through his private prayer and waiting upon the Lord, but through the companionship of a friend and through the good news which he brought.

It is the Christian’s great honor and privilege—to speak words that bring life, to speak words that come from the giver of life. Who needs to hear God’s words through you today?

Image credit: Shutterstock

February 12, 2015

I was born weak. Though I bear my father’s last name, I bear a much stronger resemblance to my mother’s side of the family. The people on her side tend to live long and relatively healthy lives, but they are physically and constitutionally weak—weaker, at least, than the hardy Challies folk.

I was born again weak. Though I was born again in the image of Christ, I was born again with a strong resemblance to his predecessor Adam. And the people on his side are weak—weak in faith. And I think there is a clear parallel between the two kinds of weakness.

Last summer Aileen and I discovered the importance (and joy, and pain) of working out. I had invested little effort in my physical fitness over the years and, let’s be honest: it was beginning to show. I convinced Aileen to join me, and we walked into a health club together and asked for help. They assessed us, hooked us up with a trainer, and we got to work.

Not surprisingly, I quickly learned that I was in poor shape. I had a lot of muscles that were very weak, and they were weak because they had not been developed. They had never been developed because they had never been exercised. I learned, for example, that what I thought was a natural slouch in my shoulders, was actually owing, at least in part, to under-developed muscles. I learned that the leg cramps I was prone to when jogging were due to calf muscles that were weak and poorly stretched.

The solution to this weakness was straightforward, but required a good deal of effort—I had to exercise those muscles, I had to stretch them, I had to build them up. And over time the problems began to correct themselves. There was marked improvement.

Weak faith is a lot like a weak muscle. Faith begins weak and it remains weak when it is not exercised. God calls us to live by faith and calls us to use our faith—our faith in him and in his promises. But so often our faith remains weak because it remains unused.

We need to exercise that faith if we want to see it grow. And this is why God does not show us the end before the beginning. This is why God does not give us a complete view of the future. If God showed us a vision of each step along the way and the final consequence of our decision or the final outcome of our crisis, we would have no reason to exercise our faith, and our faith would never grow.

So instead God calls us to use that faith, and to see it develop.

We exercise our faith when we read the promises of God, when we believe the promises of God, and when we call upon God to fulfill his promises. In those times we stretch our faith, and then we see it grow.

We exercise our faith when we step out into some new venture or new experience, trusting that God will do what is right and what is best and that he will provide for us. Again, we stretch our faith, we exercise it, and see it grow.

We exercise our faith when through suffering we trust in the character of God and take our refuge in the Word of God. We stretch that faith and watch it grow.

We are people of weak faith, but we can grow, if only we will use and exercise the faith God gives.

February 11, 2015

It was just a few years ago that everyone was talking about hell. One disaffected Evangelical had decided to use his platform and popularity to question the very notion of hell, and, not surprisingly, he caused quite a stir. The crisis came and went, of course, and it had at least one happy outcome: Many Christians had to examine what they believe about hell and come to stronger and better conclusions.

I believe in hell. I do not believe in some version of hell that owes more to Dante and The Far Side than sacred writ, but the hell I see revealed in the Bible—a hell of eternal, conscious torment. I wish there was no such thing as hell, but I have deteremined to live by the Bible and I simply cannot deny what the Bible makes plain.

But what if I did? What would I have to deny in order to deny hell? If I am ever to come to the point of denying the existence of hell, what will be the doctrinal cost of getting there? Though I am sure there is much more that could be said, I can think of at least four major denials.

I Will Deny What Jesus Taught

Jesus believed in the literal existence of a literal hell. It is very difficult to read Luke 16 (the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus) and arrive at any other conclusion except that Jesus believed in hell and that he believed in a hell of conscious torment of body and mind.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Jesus also believed in the permanence of hell: “[B]esides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of hell as the furnace of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He calls it a place of everlasting fire. This would be strange language for a man to use if he believed that hell did not exist and that it was not a place of unspeakable torment.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what seems so clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.

I Will Deny the Plain Sense of Scripture

Time would fail me here to provide an extensive look at the concept of hell in the Bible; time would fail me to look at each of the words associated with hell. But one does not need to be an expert on the Bible or on its original languages to see that it teaches clearly that there is life after death and that this life after death will involve either joy or torment, it will involve enjoying the loving presence of God or facing his wrathful presence. This is stated explicitly in Scripture and it is stated implicitly, it is present in the Old Testament and comes to full form in the New Testament. Those who wrote Scripture believed that hell existed and made it plain in what they wrote.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will have to do a great deal of redefining, a great deal of reinterpreting. As with the teaching of Jesus, I will need to change what is plain to what is symbolic, I will need to take what is clear and make it obscure. There is no getting around the fact that a plain, honest reading of the Bible teaches the existence of hell.

I Will Deny the Testimony of the Church

If I am to deny the existence of hell, I will be denying what has been the near-unanimous testimony of the Christian church through the ages. From the church’s earliest days until today, hell has been understood as a place of conscious, eternal torment. The Westminster Larger Catechism offers an apt summary of what Christians have long believed: “The punishments of sin in the world to come, are everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God, and most grievous torments in soul and body, without intermission, in hell fire forever.” Though this was formed in the days of Reformation, it depends upon the testimony of Christians who came before. And it informed generations that followed.

If I am to deny that hell is a real place, if I am to deny that hell is that kind of place, I will be turning my back on two thousand years of Christian history—on two thousand years of brothers and sisters in Christ who had great knowledge of Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit. I’ll grant that there are times this is necessary; there are times that many Christians are wrong about many things. But such a decision must be made with great fear and trembling and only on the basis of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.

I Will Deny the Gospel

I cannot deny hell without utterly changing the gospel message. The message of Christ dying for the lost in order to save their souls will be meaningless. If there is no hell, there is really nothing to lose. And so heaven and hell must be brought to earth, they must be seen as present realities rather than future ones. The Baptist preacher J.L. Dagg said it well: “To appreciate justly and fully the gospel of eternal salvation we must believe the doctrine of eternal damnation.” If I am going to deny eternal damnation, I must radically rewrite the gospel. Gone is the gospel of sinners who have committed treason against God and who call upon themselves God’s just wrath. There are many gospels I can put in its place. But what is clear is that this gospel, this gospel of a substitutionary atonement must be a casualty. This gospel stands and falls upon the existence of both heaven and hell. Take away either one and you gut the gospel; it becomes meaningless and nonsensical.

If I am going to give up hell, I am going to give up the gospel and replace it with a new one.

Let me close with some words from the great theologian Robert Dabney. What he says here I believe as well. “Sure I am, that if hell can be disproved in any way that is solid and true, and consistent with God’s honor and man’s good, there is not a trembling sinner in this land that would hail the demonstration with more joy than I would.” It’s not that I want hell to be true, but that the Scripture makes it clear that it is true. It is not for me to dismantle the doctrine or to deny it; I am simply to believe it and to live and act as if it is true.

I posted a version of this article in 2011. Image credit: Shutterstock

February 10, 2015

We tend to react to new technologies in one of two ways: Wide-eyed terror or breathless excitement. Some people look at that new gadget and see it as the enemy, the latest in a long line of innovations that really only undermine our humanity or captivate us with bells and whistles. These people are suspicious and usually longing for times that have long since gone by—times when technologies were just so much simpler. Other people look at the new gizmo and see it bursting with the possibility of happiness or enrichment or social advancement. These people are exuberant and always longing for the better and happier times ahead—times when technologies will be just so much more advanced. Neither one is thinking quite right.

Last year I spoke at a conference with Matt Perman and he helpfully summarized a key concept when it comes to technology: Technology is wealth. Technology is a form of wealth and, like every other form of wealth, one that Christians are responsible to steward. If technology is wealth, we are the richest generation that has ever lived. You are richer than you think.

As Christians we are in the business of doing good to others. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). That is our calling and our privilege as believers: To bring glory to God by doing good to others, and to bring more glory to God by doing more good to others. In Christ we have been freed from sin so we can now do good works—not the works that earn us salvation, but the works that display our salvation. Little wonder, then, that in his letter to Titus Paul can command us to be good works zealots, to be utterly consumed with doing good deeds.

Opportunities to do good come at a million different moments and in a million different forms, but the theme is always the same: looking and living outside ourselves to do what benefits others. We give of our skills, our talents, our money, our energy, our possessions, and even that most precious of commodities, our time. We faithfully steward all of these things, attempting to use them in a way that glorifies God.

And that brings us back to technology. If technology is wealth, we are responsible for faithfully stewarding it by using it to do good to others. Technology offers countless opportunities to do this. This was true of past technologies: the technology of the Roman road allowed missionaries to move quickly, spreading the gospel across the entire known world; the technology of the book allowed even the most common person access to God’s Word; the technology of radio broadcast the good news about Jesus to the world’s most distant regions. However and wherever new technologies have arisen, Christians have used them to do good to others and bring glory to God. Not only that, but Christians have felt responsible to use them to do good to others and bring glory to God.

Not one of these technologies was perfect. Each one of them changed us in some unfortunate and unforeseen ways. Still, Christians used them and used them well. And today we are responsible to use our abundance of technologies well. This does not necessarily mean that we need to fully and unthinkingly embrace whatever is new and innovative and shiny. It does not mean that every form of technology is good and worthy of our time and attention. However, it does mean that we at least need to evaluate whatever is new and innovative and shiny. We need to evaluate with our eyes wide open, looking for the inevitable strengths and equally inevitable risks that come with that technology. And we need to consider how we can best use this newfound technological wealth. These technologies are ones we can and must use to do good for others and bring glory to God.

So take a look at the abundance of technology in your church, in your home, and in your pocket. Consider just how wealthy you are. And then ask the question: How will I use this extravagant wealth to do good to others and glorify God?

Image credit: Shutterstock

February 09, 2015

As a dad, I pray for each of my kids just about every day, and I take it as both a joy and responsibility to bring them before the Lord. Praying for the kids is a helpful way of training myself to remember that they are his before they are mine, and that any good they experience will ultimately find its source in God himself. And I believe that prayer works—that God hears a father’s prayers for his children, and that he delights to answer those prayers. One of my most common prayers for my girls is a pray for their protection. Here is how I pray for God to protect them.

From them. I pray that God will protect my girls from themselves. After all, for all the dangers they face in life and all the trials they will face in the days and years ahead, the vast majority of those trials and temptations will arise from within. I ask God to protect them from their own sin and unbelief, from their own hard-heartedness, from their own fleshly desires. I pray that he will save them from themselves and then cause them to grow to be more like Christ.

From me. I pray that God will protect my girls from me, from their own father. I fear that my selfishness or my negligence could harm them, or even that my ignorance would expose them to some kind of sin or danger. I feel a great swell of love and affection for both of my girls, but also see so much sin and ugliness within myself, and fear how my sin could harm them. And so I pray that God will protect them from the worst of me and only ever allow me to be their guardian and protector.

From others. I pray that God will protect my girls from other outside influences. I pray that they would be good friends, have good friends, and not be unduly influenced by foolish acquaintances. I pray that their teachers would be for them and not against them, and that they would teach them what is right and good. I pray that God will guard them against any of those people who may today or some other day begin to plot evil against them.

From Satan. I pray that God will protect my girls from Satan. I know that the devil knows my girls, and that he sees their spiritual progress, and the he loves to do all he can to choke out the gospel before it can really take root and bear fruit. I know that he desires their utter death and destruction. This is his great and wonderful plan for their lives—to bring them to complete ruin, and to do it through endless waves of temptation. So I pray that God will protect them from Satan and from all of his power.

From himself. And finally, I pray that God will protect my girls from God. Ultimately, God saves people from himself. R.C. Sproul says it well: “The grand paradox or supreme irony of the Christian faith is that we are saved both by God and from God.” I long for God to protect my girls from his own wrath which he must pour out on those who will not put their faith in Christ. And so the deepest saving my girls need, is to be saved from God. And I pray again and again (and explain to God that I will continue to pray again and again) until he saves my girls by himself, from himself, for himself, and to himself.

Image credit: Shutterstock

February 06, 2015

My time of prayer began today with a verse from Isaiah. Right there, on the very first card I saw, was one of my favorite texts. The Lord speaks to his people and assures them, “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:25). God looks at his sinning, sinful people, reminds them that they are his, and assures them that he loves and longs to extend his mercy to them.

This is the best kind of God—the best kind of Savior. He is a God who acknowledges all that is wrong about us, and is both willing and able to do something about it.

Imagine the God who is able to do something about our sin, but unwilling. He could blot out our transgressions—he knows how it can be possible and he has the ability to make it happen. But he has chosen not to, and all of humanity will be lost. That is a God of pure and utter justice, perhaps. That is a God who treats us exactly as our sins deserve and who gives no less and no more. But that is a God who proves he has no capacity to display love and mercy, or perhaps just has no desire to display love and mercy. That is not our God. “Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you…” (43:2).

Imagine the God who is willing to do something about our sin but unable. He loves his people and longs to blot out their sin and remember those sins no more. But he can’t. He doesn’t know how or he doesn’t have the ability. His justice far exceeds his mercy or his desires far exceed his abilities. His longings go unfulfilled because there is no possible way for him to reconcile himself to sinful humanity. That, too, is a God of justice, but a God of hopeless and helpless justice, whose love goes unrequited and,  who for all of eternity, will be unable to love and be loved. That is not our God. “I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. …
I declared and saved and proclaimed…” (43:11-12).

But our God is able to save. Our God is willing to save. And so he assures his people, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (43:1-3). That is our God.

Image credit: Shutterstock

February 04, 2015

I have friends who like to ensure that they are constantly reminding themselves and others about the grace of God. The way they do this is to append a simple phrase to many of their sentences. What was at one time a deliberate decision has, over time, become a habit. A good habit, I think.

“How have you been lately?” “I’ve been doing well, by God’s grace.”

“How did you do with your personal devotions this week?” “By God’s grace, I read and prayed every day.”

“You asked me to pray about your battle against sin in this area. How did it go last week?” “It went really well, by God’s grace.”

It’s easy to overlook a little phrase like that. It’s easy to let it be little more than background noise, quickly filtered out. But a couple of weeks ago it was like I heard it again for the first time: “By God’s grace.” It’s a beautiful thing! It is an acknowledgement that without the sweet grace of God, the very opposite would be true. It is an acknowledgement of utter dependency upon God.

I am healthy today, instead of deathly ill today, only because God has extended grace to me.

I was able to spend time in the Bible this week, and I was able to be committed to prayer this week, only because God reached out to me in his grace. Without that grace I would have run far and fast.

I did not succumb to that ongoing temptation this week, and instead was able to do those things that honor God, and only because God gave me the grace to put off sin and put on righteousness.

Without God’s moment-by-moment grace I would be this way, but with the existence of God’s constant, powerful grace, I am this way instead.

By God’s grace.

Image credit: Shutterstock

February 03, 2015

We like to believe what we believe, and to believe it all the way. We like to prefer what we prefer and to hold our preferences high above the alternatives. We sometimes find ourselves expressing our beliefs and preferences in off-handed little comments that seem so insignificant to us, but can hit another person with unexpected force.

Reading the Bible is something we all believe in. We know it is good and necessary to remain in God’s Word day-by-day. If we are to obey God, we must know who he is and what he commands, and if we are to know who he is and what he commands, we must hear him speak, and if we are to hear him speak, we must go to the one source where he has promised we can always hear from him. And so we develop that discipline of daily Bible reading.

When we search the Bible we find that we must read, but we do not learn nearly as much about how to read. This is yet another area in which we have freedom, and in which one person’s practice may look very different from another person’s. And this is good. Vive la difference!

When I consider Bible reading, I see two broad approaches: one that aims for familiarity and one that aims for intimacy. Both are good, both are beautiful, and both have their place.

A few months ago I was at an event where I heard a leader condemn Bible reading plans like the McCheyne plan that requires reading 4 or 5 chapters per day. His critique was that these plans do not allow for deep consideration or meditation. He did not frame this as a matter of preference, but as a matter of right and wrong. But then I don’t have to go far to find people advocating and celebrating the many-chapter-per-day kind of plan and speaking ill of Bible reading that moves too slowly, so the reader bogs down in a text and never looks up to see the wider landscape. Again, we prefer what we prefer, and often bring far too much force to our preferences.

I love to grow in Bible familiarity. I appreciate the McCheyne approach of reading the Old Testament once per year and the New Testament and Psalms twice (Or even the Dr. Horner plan of ten chapters per day). This is drinking from the firehose of Scripture, and it is a beautiful thing. There are few better ways to understand the overarching story of the Bible and to see all those connections between Old and New, between shadow and reality, than to read it in this manner.

I love to grow in Bible intimacy. I appreciate the two-verse per day approach to reading the Bible—just a verse or two slowly observed and applied. This treats the Bible like a lozenge soothing a sore throat—something to be slowly savored and not quickly crunched up. There are few better ways to fully understand and precisely apply the Bible than to look deep into its words, to ponder them, and to work them deep into our hearts and lives.

I happen to believe we do best when we have a mix of both. So I generally stick to the McCheyne plan for my personal devotions. Then in our family devotions we read a short passage—often just a few verses—and push toward understanding and application. In church I hear the Word preached expositorily book-by-book and verse-by-verse, with focus on both interpretation and application. I read Christian books that often single out a verse or passage and provide a bit of explanation and application. In so many ways I surround myself with the Bible, sometimes pursuing familiarity and sometimes pursuing intimacy.

This is why I find it helpful to speak of “Bible intake,” a term I first encountered through Donald Whitney. It allows us to focus less on the particulars, and more on the simple joy and value of getting the Bible into our lives in as many ways as possible. Intimacy or familiarity—we simply can’t go wrong.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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