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October 01, 2014

Today I am continuing this series on getting things done. Yesterday we saw that we exist to bring glory to God, and that, as Christians, we bring glory to God when we do good works for other people. Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14) and now calls upon each one of us to “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). Therefore, “productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God.”

This definition of productivity calls us to action: We need to structure and organize our lives so that we can do the maximum good for others and thus bring the maximum glory to God.

I mean to get very practical as we move forward today, but first I want to address one misconception about productivity and lay down one challenge.

One Misconception, One Challenge

The misconception is that productive and organized people always hit their deadlines, never have to request an extension, and never feel a crunch at the end of the week. But this is not the right way to measure productivity. Why? Because God is sovereign and we are not. Our responsibility is to plan, organize and execute to the best of our ability, but to realize that circumstances and providence may interrupt and delay even our best-laid plans. There are better ways to measure productivity, and we will discuss those later. For now, though, I simply want you to realize that God has a way of interrupting our plans and that even the best plans may fail.

And here is the challenge. There is really no great gain in being a productivity monster and constantly wiping out massive lists of things to do if the rest of your life is out of control. Productivity—doing good—has to extend to all of life, not just to one part of it. It has been widely shown, and it has been my experience, that when we emphasize one major habit, others inevitably follow. Displaying self-control in one area of life somehow shores up self-control in others. So consider taking this challenge: If you want to have an organized life and get things done like never before, commit to exercising three or four days a week. Or commit to the daily disciplines of reading the Bible and praying. Pick at least one major habit and pursue that even while you pursue getting things done. (Learn more)

And now it’s time to get practical.

Areas of Responsibility

We all have complex lives in which we are constantly attempting to strike a balance between competing demands. We have families, churches, hobbies, and jobs, and all of them are competing for the same 168 hours we are given each week. Though time is finite, the possibilities for using that time are near-infinite. Productivity depends upon brokering peace between each of the different things we could do at any given moment.

The path to peace involves first defining our areas of responsibility. Now hold on. I know some people are going to think this is not practical enough, and they want to get straight to to-do lists and organizing information. We will get there. But not yet. Bear with me, and you will see that this is as practical as anything that follows.

Each of us has areas for which we are responsible before God, areas for which he will require an accounting. We are all responsible for the care of our bodies and souls, parents are responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of their children, husbands are responsible for provision, church members are responsible to extend love to the other members of the church, and every Christian is responsible for caring for the poor and for sharing the gospel. And that is only scratching the surface.

Here is what I want you to do today. I want you to think carefully about your areas of responsibility and list them. Now here’s the challenge: You need to have everything you are responsible for in life encompassed in one of these categories, yet with as few categories as possible. You will need to think about all of life and try to create broad categories.

I have structured my life into five areas of responsibility:

  • Personal
  • Family
  • Social
  • GFC [Grace Fellowship Church]
  • Business [Web site, speaking engagements, books, and so on]

There is no responsibility I have in life that falls outside of these five areas. If I am asked to be something or do something, if I am asked to dedicate time to something, it will fit into one of them.

I will tell you more about those categories in a moment, but first, a word of clarification: As a pastor, I am able to combine both my vocation and my local church involvement into a single category of GFC. You may need to have one category for work and another for church. You may also wish to have a category for your hobby if you are heavily involved in it, or a charity or ministry if you dedicate a lot of time and attention to it. Your areas of responsibility may be very different from mine and vive la difference!

FlagAction: Create a list of your areas of responsibilities.

September 30, 2014

They are questions I receive often: “Do you ever sleep? Do you work all the time? Do you ever stop?” There seems to be this impression among certain people that either I am an unrepentant workaholic or that I am remorselessly neglectful toward life’s other responsibilities. The truth is far less sordid: I have invested a lot of effort over many years in learning how to simplify life and how to maximize productivity. I love to make the best use of my time and energy, and I am constantly fine-tuning the systems that allow me to remain that way.

Today I am beginning a series of articles that will share some of what I have learned along the way. I do not really know how to teach how to get things done except by allowing you into my life and into my systems. I intend to give examples from my own life, not because they are necessarily the best or only way of doing things, but because they work for me and may give you something to build from. You can take those examples as far as you want, and adapt them so they work for you. If all goes well, we will look at systems and tools and organization and planning, and all kinds of exciting things. But first we have a little groundwork to do.

It all begins with an understanding of our purpose in the world. What follows is a brief “Productivity Catechism” that provides a foundation for everything else I will say. It is only when we properly understand our purpose and mission that we can excel at systems and tools and all the rest.

Q. Ultimately, why did God create us?

A. God created us to bring glory to Him.

“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).

“…[I]n order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11).

Q. How can we glorify God in our day-to-day lives?

A. We can glorify God in our day-to-day lives by doing good works.

“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).

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).

September 29, 2014

I found an old video of my son, a video I did not even know we had. He was two, playing at his grandparents’ house while Aileen and I were at the hospital, waiting for his sister to arrive. He spoke in a little baby voice, talking about his “wittle sistow” who was in mommy’s tummy. It almost broke my heart. Wasn’t it only yesterday that he was two years old? But then how did he get to be six feet tall, and when did he start to shave, and what on earth is he doing in high school? What happened?

I consider it one of the great tragedies of life: All those things I will leave undone. All those things I mean to do that I will never do. All those things I will begin but leave incomplete. All those things I long to master that I will not even be able to start. All those things I will actually do, but do partially or badly.

I am an ambitious person and when I’m not busy I’m bored. Not can’t-stop, can’t-talk, can’t-breathe busy, but simply keep-going, be-zealous, push-hard, take-life-seriously busy. Having lots to do keeps me structured, it keeps me organized, it keeps me honest. That’s where I like to be and that’s where I am at my best.

But doing takes time, and time is a fleeting resource. It is a finite resource. When I use time in one way, I cannot use it in another. When I give time to one thing, I take away from something else. To prioritize one area of life is to de-prioritize all the rest.

When I give more to the church and the people of the church, it means I give less to the writing I love to do. When I increase my writing, I take time away from my family. If I give a lot of time to family, that time comes from something or someone else. I always come up short. There is never enough time to do all the things I want to do, never enough time to learn all I want to learn, to be all I want to be. At some level, I fail at everything.

I love the book of Ecclesiastes, and especially its closing chapters. In chapter 12 the Preacher calls to the young man—maybe his younger self—and says, “Remember your Creator before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain.” He describes life as a day that extends from dawn to dusk, and here, in old age, he sees his own life as dark, as gray, as a day that is about to give way to night. And I can’t help but believe that he is looking back on life and seeing so many of those things that will remain undone, projects that will remain incomplete, dreams that will remain unfulfilled. If he was young he could claim, “This is only a setback! Better days are ahead.” But now the best days are behind him. The sky darkens. The night falls. That is life in this world. Life is a vapor, dust that rises for a minute, and is blown away by the wind. There is no author more gut-honest about life than this Preacher.

Life is a vapor, too short, too fleeting. But I believe this: I may not have time to do everything I would like to do, but I have all the time I need for those things that God expects me to do. If there are 168 hours in a week, I know that God has not given me 169 hours of responsibility. If there are 24 hours in a day, God has not given me 25 hours of work.

The call, then, is to find the best things I can do with the time allotted to me, while waiting for the great day when time will no longer be finite, when opportunities will no longer be limited. It is to prioritize those few things I can actually accomplish, and to learn to let go of the rest. It is to live the life God has for me, and not to attempt to live a different life altogether. It is to obey the words of God: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). Evil, and far too few. No, that’s not it. Evil, and just enough to do all He calls me to do.

Clock image credit: Shutterstock

September 22, 2014

It’s is God’s grace to you if your church is messy. I heard those words come out of my mouth yesterday as I was guest-preaching at a church close to home. I said them, and I believe them. At least, I believe them most of the time.

I love my church. I love the people I gather with week-by-week. They are fun and safe and easy to be with. But who said church should be safe and easy?

Yesterday, when I was at that church, I preached on the parable of The Lost Sheep, which is actually a parable about a kind and loving shepherd (see Luke 15). Like so many of Jesus’ parables, this one was told in the presence of two groups of people—people who were convinced of their own badness and people who were convinced of their own goodness. And in this case Jesus was speaking primarily to those good and religious people.

The parable is simple: A sheep has wandered off and the shepherd will not rest until he has found it and restored it to himself. And I thought about that sheep, wandering lost and alone in the wilderness, and that shepherd who went looking for it. There are so many different ways that shepherd could have reacted when he finally found it.

  • He finds his sheep and rebukes it: “You stupid, ignorant sheep. How dare you wander off from me?” No. He doesn’t rebuke it.
  • He finds his sheep and punishes it: “You dumb, disobedient sheep. I’ll teach you to wander off!” No, he doesn’t punish it.
  • He finds his sheep and is disgusted by it: “You are filthy and smelly! What on earth did you get into? You go clean yourself up right now and I’ll come back later.” No, he doesn’t make it clean itself up.
  • He finds his sheep and sells it: “I can’t have a sheep like you polluting my flock. Do you know how you made me look in front of everyone else?” No, he doesn’t get rid of it.

The text says, “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.” When that shepherd finds his sheep, he cares for it. He hoists that big, heavy, dirty sheep onto his shoulders and carries it home, rejoicing all the way. He carries it home and calls his friends and throws a party to celebrate.

The point of the parable is that God loves to save the lost. He loves to save sinners. He doesn’t save those who are righteous and whose lives are all put together, he saves those who are just plain bad.

If God is in the business of saving sinners, we need to expect that church will be full of sinners—those who are still wandering and those who have only just been found. If our churches reflect God’s heart for the lost, they will be full of people with problems, full of people showing the consequences of a lifetime of wandering. And this means that church may not be a safe and easy place. It may not be a place full of people who have it all together. It may be messy. It should be messy. Thank God if it is messy.

September 15, 2014

I find addiction, and the bondage of addiction, to be very difficult to understand. It seems like overcoming addiction should be so simple, and especially for the Christian: Instead of doing that thing, how about next time you just don’t do that thing? Instead of opening that bottle, keep it closed. Instead of buying those pills, buy some groceries. Instead of typing in that web site, type in a different web site. Instead of walking through the doors of the casino, choose not to even go near the casino. If only it was so simple.

To treat addiction so simply is to misunderstand its very nature. I said recently that Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Virtue is easily one of the most fascinating books I have read recently, and in that book he tells us why addiction is far more than making bad choices instead of good choices. Addicts are not simply satisfying a need or following habits, though they are doing those things as well. Addicts are actually seeking the good life, and are convinced it can be found in and through the addiction. Dunnington says it this way:

We are neither taught nor inclined to think of addicted persons as being actively and passionately engaged in the pursuit of the good life. We tend to think of them as persons who have checked out of the game or who are positively bent on destruction. But this is not so. I maintain that addictive behavior can tell us more than almost any other kind of human behavior about what human beings most deeply desire. 

Addicts are expressing a universal desire, but are doing it in a more “sold out” way than most other people. If most people pursue the good life in a halfhearted way, addicts pursue it full-out.

Addiction, then, might be understood as the quest for … ecstatic intoxication. The addicted person, recognizing her own insignificance and her own insufficiency to realize perfect happiness, seeks to be taken up into a consuming experience, longs to be the object rather than the subject of experience, craves to suffer happiness rather than produce it.

“Ecstatic intoxication.” That is what addicts desire, whether the intoxication comes through a substance or an experience, through the rush of the drug or the rush of the sexual experience. In either case, addicts long for that consuming experience and convince themselves it can be found in drugs or alcohol or gambling or pornography or in whatever it is. In this way we see that addiction is actually a failure of worship.

Addictions are addicting just to the extent that they tempt us with the promise of such a perfect happiness, and they are enslaving just to the extent that they mimic and give intimations of this perfection. The depth and power of addiction become more intelligible as we come to see addiction as a counterfeit of the virtue of charity. As such, addiction is appropriately described as a failure of worship, a potent expression of idolatry in which we pursue in the immanent plane that which can only be achieved in relationship with the transcendent God. The cunning and allure of addiction is in fact brought out just to the extent that we see how stunningly addiction enables addicted persons to achieve [imitations] of the goods that right worship makes possible. Such a display demonstrates that addiction can most fittingly be characterized as an enactment of the striving of human persons to attain on their own the flourishing, integrity of self and ecstatic delight that is only to be received through right relationship with God.

Addiction is worship, a failed attempt to find in substances or experiences what can only be found in God. How can you see evidence of that worship? By the way the addiction becomes the means to elevate and interpret any experience.

The fact that anything can count as an excuse to use is a function of the power that addiction has to incorporate every aspect of an addicted person’s life into its own rhythms and rationales. It really is the case for the alcoholic that the good times are vacuous without alcohol, that the hard times are unbearable without alcohol, that loneliness doesn’t feel lonely with alcohol, that loving relationships are mediated by alcohol, that success can only be celebrated with alcohol, that only alcohol can insulate from rejection and so on. To be an alcoholic is to enter into such a relationship with alcohol that everything else in life makes sense only if it is accompanied by alcohol. … [A]ddiction transfigures the most ordinary activities into meaningful transactions.

Do you see it? The Bible calls us to incorporate worship of God into all of life’s rhythms and rationales. The hard times are unbearable without God, loneliness doesn’t feel [as] lonely when we are walking closely with God, loving relationships are mediated and enhanced by shared love for God, success is best celebrated with thanks to God, a relationship with God insulates us from rejection, and so on. To be a God-worshipper is to enter into such a relationship with God that everything else in life only makes sense if it is accompanied by him.

The addict is not merely following deeply-ingrained habits and physical desires, but seeking the escstasy of worship. The problem is not the desire to worship—we are created to be worshippers—but the idolatrous object of that worship. The addict looks elsewhere—anywhere—for what can be found only in God. The addict’s foremost failure is a failure of worship.

Image credit: Shutterstock.

Faith Hacking
September 14, 2014

I love to find and share practical methods or techniques for living the Christian life—ways other Christians live out their Christian faith day-by-day. As I speak with people, as I read books, as I listen to sermons, I am always looking for these tips which I call “faith hacks.” I am going to share another one with you today. It comes from Jerry Bridges and deals with the important disciplines of preaching the gospel to yourself.

Bridges has written in several of his books about the importance of the daily practice of preaching the gospel to yourself. In The Discipline of Grace he writes, “When you set yourself to seriously pursue holiness, you will begin to realize what an awful sinner you are. And if you are not firmly rooted in the gospel and have not learned to preach it to yourself every day, you will soon become discouraged and will slack off in your pursuit of holiness.” He also gives an overview of the practice: “To preach the gospel to yourself, then, means that you continually face up to your own sinfulness and then flee to Jesus through faith in His shed blood and righteous life. It means that you appropriate, again by faith, the fact that Jesus fully satisfied the law of God, that He is your propitiation, and that God’s holy wrath is no longer directed toward you.”

But it is in Respectable Sins that he gives the practical example from his own life. Here is how he preaches the gospel to himself every day:

Since the gospel is only for sinners, I begin each day with the realization that despite my being a saint, I still sin every day in thought, word, deed, and motive. If I am aware of any subtle, or not so subtle, sins in my life, I acknowledge those to God. Even if my conscience is not indicting me for conscious sins, I still acknowledge to God that I have not even come close to loving Him with all my being or loving my neighbor as myself. I repent of those sins, and then I apply specific Scriptures that assure me of God’s forgiveness to those sins I have just confessed.

I then generalize the Scripture’s promises of God’s forgiveness to all my life and say to God words to the effect that my only hope of a right standing with Him that day is Jesus’ blood shed for my sins, and His righteous life lived on my behalf. This reliance on the twofold work of Christ for me is beautifully captured by Edward Mote in his hymn “The Solid Rock” with his words, “My hope is built on nothing less, than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Almost every day, I find myself going to those words in addition to reflecting on the promises of forgiveness in the Bible.

What Scriptures do I use to preach the gospel to myself? Here are just a few I choose from each day:

As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:12)

“I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” (Isaiah 43:25)

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)

Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:7-8)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

There are many others, including Psalm 130:3-4; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 38:17; Micah 7:19; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13-14; Hebrews 8:12; and 10:17-18.

Whatever Scriptures we use to assure us of God’s forgiveness, we must realize that whether the passage explicitly states it or not, the only basis for God’s forgiveness is the blood of Christ shed on the cross for us. As the writer of Hebrews said, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins (9:22), and the context makes it clear that it is Christ’s blood that provides the objective basis on which God forgives our sins.

That has been his daily practice for many years. Why don’t you make it part of your practice, and see the difference it makes to begin each day reminding yourself of who you were, and who you now are in Christ.

Do you make it your practice to preach the gospel to yourself? If so, what have you learned? How do you go about it?

September 12, 2014

There were two weeks left in summer vacation. For another two weeks, the kids would be off school and out of class. For another two weeks they would experience the freedom they long for through ten months of every year. For another two weeks they would be dead bored.

I remember my summer vacations fondly. I remember them as times I roamed free and spent all day every day with childhood friends. We wandered woods, and drifted down streams, and discovered the world around us. And, of course, there were the vacations, mostly spent at a cottage four or five hours from home—close enough to be accessible, but far enough to be a vacation.

But, realistically, I know I must have spent a lot of my summer moping around and whining to my mother, “I’m bored.” Parents try to help their kids through the summer, to keep them entertained. But most parents don’t, and just plain can’t, keep up the excitement for two full months.

There were two weeks left in summer vacation. Two of my kids were sprawled on the couch in dejected boredom, wishing they could just watch a little more Netflix or play a little more Flappy Bird. One of my kids was wide-eyed, staring into the pages of a book. And it occurred to me: Curious people don’t get bored. People with a deep sense of wonder don’t get bored. People with a deep desire to appreciate the world around them and to learn its secrets—these people have developed a resistance to boredom.

This realization came a little too late in the summer to do me much good, but it is one I have been thinking about ever since. It makes me see that the challenge with our children is not to find things that will entertain them, but to find wonders that will impress them. The challenge is not to pile up things for them to do, but to find things that will evoke that sense of curiosity, that desire to know more.

And the same is true with me. I am rarely bored because I am endlessly curious—there is always something to discover, something to learn, something to understand in a deeper way. Each of those things that evokes my curiosity soon generates projects to accomplish, and these propel me through most of my life. There are always facts to learn, ideas to pursue, projects to complete. Each of them is beautiful in its own way—the beauty of historical events, the beauty of an idea understood in a new way, the beauty of accomplishment. They all make my heart beat just a little bit faster.

But in those times I do experience boredom and am tempted to mope around like a disgruntled child—in those moments I can identify a distinct lack of wonder. In those times of boredom I have lost the awe, the wonder, that generates curiosity. I have lost the ability, or the desire, to be moved by beauty. The problem in these times is not that I have nothing to do; the problem is that I have nothing to pursue.

I am convicted that this has been the deepest and longest-lasting impact of Steve DeWitt’s excellent book Eyes Wide Open—It has helped me to identify and delight in beauty, to follow that beauty to wonder, to follow wonder to worship, and to enjoy it to God’s glory. He says it so well:

Beauty was created by God for a purpose: to give us the experience of wonder. And wonder, in turn, is intended to lead us to the ultimate human expression and privilege: worship. Beauty is both a gift and a map. It is a gift to be enjoyed and a map to be followed back to the source of the beauty with praise and thanksgiving.

Bored picture courtesy of Shutterstock.

September 10, 2014

I think it may be the Calvinist in me, or maybe it’s the inner bibliophile, but for some reason I’m quietly convinced there is no problem that can’t be solved with a few facts. If only you knew what I know, you’d change your behavior. If you would read what I’ve read, if you would listen to what I’ve listened to, you would see the impropriety of what you’re doing, and you’d stop doing it. Virtue is just a few simple facts away.

If only it were so simple.

I am a problem-solver, and my default means of solving problems is through information—I am quick to distribute books, and quick to recommend sermons or conference talks. Struggling? Read this. Looking for life-change? Try these conference talks. I apply the fix to myself, and I apply the fix to others.

None of those things are bad, and none of those things are wrong. Conferences and sermons and books can be life-changing. But they often represent the easy way out. And they often represent the less effective way.

I was thinking about these things already when I got punched in the head by words from Kent Dunnington, author of the wonderful book Addiction and Virtue. Dunnington provides a long, dense, philosophical, and powerful argument that addiction is really a kind of habit. He is convinced that the Bible and the Christian faith offer a robust understanding of this kind of habit, and that the gospel offers the best hope for overcoming it. But even as he argues this, he has to grapple with the reality that when it comes to addiction, 12-step programs are often far more effective than anything the church offers. And, of course, he has to ask why this is.

Much of his answer settles on the fellowship and community that comes with a 12-step program. These words, coming in his closing argument, hit hard:

The church fails to provide sustaining and transforming relationships for addicted persons in its midst wherever and whenever it buys into the modern assumption that growth in virtue is a product of learning abstract principles whereas friendship is a private endeavor that is based on “similar interests.” Such an assumption is in direct opposition to the biblical understanding of friendship. Although affection characterizes many of the friendships portrayed in the Bible, affection is ancillary to the animating center of friendship, which is nothing less than the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friend (Jn 15:13). Such friendships are not optional for Christians … For Paul, friendships of accountability and training are central to growth in holiness.

What is true of addicts is true of all of us, to some degree. We are all battling addiction to sin. What the church fails to provide addicts is what it fails to provide all those who are battling the deep-rooted habits of the flesh.

What makes 12-step programs so effective despite vague or even antagonistic notions of God? To large degree, it is the fellowship of addicts or alcoholics, who walk together, and battle together, against a common enemy. They develop transformative friendships based not on doing fun things together or sharing common amusements, but on the growth and development of virtue. They form and foster deep, meaningful, lasting friendships that pursue the good of others through the growth of good habits, patterns and behaviors.

Here’s the thing: Addicts are not transformed by learning facts. They do not find freedom by acquiring and applying abstract principles. Not only, at least. They find freedom by surrounding themselves with a community of people who are pursuing the same goal and who will pursue it with them arm-in-arm. They see the principles lived out in others, and learn to imitate them.

As Christians we form communities in which every individual is in need of transformation. We need facts and principles to guide and motivate us, and God provides those through his Word. We hear those principles from the pulpit and encounter them in our daily Bible reading. But we also need to see those principles, to surround ourselves with living examples of those principles. Otherwise church is simply a place we gather to hear preaching about Christ, rather than a fellowship of people displaying life in Christ.

Maybe what we need is need fewer books, and more friendships, fewer abstract principles and more applied principles. We need to be less willing to say, “Read this and call me in the morning” and more “Walk with me and I’ll show you. Come into my home and watch. Come into my life and see.” If it is true that in the Bible “friendships of accountability and training are central to growth in holiness,” There is a necessary application: “Mentoring programs in the church ought not to be something parishioners must seek out but rather something so prevalent that parishioners would have to intentionally avoid them.” Is this the case in your church? Is this the case in your life?

Every church is a community of recovering sin-addicts, fellow sufferers who are longing for freedom. Freedom comes through principle taught and principle displayed. Who needs to hear you say, “Walk with me. Let’s learn to be like Christ…”

(Note: I’m sure I will have more to say about Addiction and Virtue in the future, but for now, do consider reading it. It’s a difficult read, but the final chapter makes it all worthwhile.)

Fist-bump image credit: Shutterstock.

September 09, 2014

A couple of years ago an unknown person hacked my GMail account. I had been lazy, I had used a low-quality, low-security password, and I paid the price. Within seconds the person had changed my password, locked me out, and deleted all my archived email. I tried everything I could to attract the attention of Google’s support team, but to no avail. It was only when I asked for help from my Twitter followers that I regained access to the account. In other words, if I didn’t have so many Twitter followers, I would have permanently lost my account.

This event and a hundred headlines convinced me of the need for better security. Recent news stories have once again shown the importance of properly securing accounts, apps and services behind best practices. Here are 5 steps you need to take to protect yourself online.

#1. Use Good Passwords

Surely you know by now that a bad password is, well, bad. You make a criminal’s life exponentially more difficult if you determine you will use stronger and better passwords. Of course it’s not always quite so simple, as there is endless debate over what constitutes a good password. But whatever camp you represent, a good password is one that protects your account and one that you can actually remember.

I think xkcd gets it roughly correct here, though. Find a password that is long but also easy to remember. Four random words strung together will protect your account better than a much shorter string of random numbers, letters and other characters; a mnemonic device of some description should help you remember those words. As he suggests in his comic, consider putting together a silly little story or scenario to help you retain it. You can use this random word generator to get you started. If you want to kick it to the next level, consider Jesse’s advice. (Also, make the first or last letter a capital since some sites require at least one upper-case character.)

So go ahead and make yourself a password and, for now, write it down on a piece of paper. We will get back to it in a minute.

#2. Use Unique Passwords

Creating one good password is a good start, but if you want to be ultra-secure should consider creating unique passwords for each of your important accounts. We can consider this an optional step if (and only if!) you are going to be sure to follow step #3 below.

If you want to be ultra-secure, here’s how to proceed. I’m sure you have a number of low-security accounts—they don’t have much personal information, they don’t have access to your credit card, and so on. For these accounts you can maintain a single password that spans all of them. But for each of your accounts that would really hurt to lose, you should consider a unique password. Otherwise, a criminal who gets that one password will have access to all of your accounts and, trust me, he’ll try. You probably have a lot of these accounts that really matter: email, Evernote, iCloud, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, banking, Paypal, and so on.

So go ahead—figure out the sites that need strong, unique passwords, and get to it. Create those passwords, write them on your piece of paper, and visit each site to change your account accordingly.

#3. Use Two-Factor Authentication

By now you have (hopefully) created unique and high-quality passwords for each of your important sites. Or, at the very least, you’ve got one great password that is protecting all of your accounts. Already you’ve gone a long way to protecting yourself online, but there is still some work to do. The next thing you’ll want to do is find which of your sites and applications support two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication is a login system that requires a password plus another piece of information before you can access an account or change any of its information (hence the “two factors.”) The second piece of information is usually a code that will be generated by your mobile phone or sent to your mobile phone. You’ll find two-factor authentication supported by Google, Apple, Evernote, Dropbox, Facebook, Twitter, and most other major services. It will take a minute or two to set up each of them, but it is time well-invested. Once you have done this, a criminal not only needs your login name and password, but he also needs access to your cell phone (at least in theory).

September 08, 2014

I am sure you have heard by now that a group of hackers invaded the private accounts of a list of celebrities, found their photographs, and released them to the public. The celebrities were young women, the photographs were nude or semi-nude, and the shots were meant to remain private. The end result is that millions of people have now seen and enjoyed revealing photographs that were intended only for these women and their most intimate acquaintances.

We could talk about the folly of taking nude photographs, and the inappropriateness of such moments shared between two people who are not married (which, I assume, is the context of most or all of the photographs). But I think such a focus would be to miss out on more important matters.

When I read this story I felt a deep sadness for these young women. These women are victims, and they are victims several times over.

They are victims of the crime that hacked their accounts and stole their photographs and displayed them for the world to see. We acknowledge this, but I want us to acknowledge a deeper kind of victimization.

They are victims of the millions of virtual voyeurs who are looking at photographs that were meant to be kept private. And they are victims of all the people who are using those pictures for the purpose of sexual titillation or just plain entertainment.

But there is still another aspect of their victimization I want us to see: The very fact that these women took these photographs in the first place is proof that they are victims of the world, the flesh, and the devil. I assume they were all willing participants in these photo shoots, but they were victims even in their willingness—victims of those forces that makes them believe they are nothing more than their beauty, their sexiness, or their sexual desirability. They are victims of the lust that drove them to inappropriate sexual relationships outside of marriage. When we understand sin, we understand that a person can be a willing participant and victim at the same time and in the same act.

When I speak to people about pornography, I always try to highlight this point: As Christians, we ought to have the highest compassion for people who are victims of sin. The young man who looks at pornography is enjoying someone else’s victimization. Whether the woman on the screen was raped into porn or whether she is a fully-willing participant, she is a victim of evil, controlling forces. And the young man who looks at her on the screen is joyfully participating in her victimization. He takes advantage of a victim for his own sexual satisfaction. That is a shameful, abhorrent evil. And those who looked at the stolen celebrity photos are every bit as guilty.

As Christians we are called by Jesus to love our neighbors as ourselves—we are to have compassion on them for their sin and folly. Whatever else we see in this sad story, let’s see this: As Christians, we must refuse to participate in further victimizing those who are victims of sin.

(In case it needs to be said, I did not look for or look at any of those photos in preparing this article.)

Hacker image credit: Shutterstock.

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