Welcome to the online home of Tim Challies, blogger, author, and book reviewer.

Tim Challies

Challies on FacebookChallies on Twitter

Christian Living

June 19, 2014

It is going to take time—decades at least—before we are able to accurately tally the cost of our cultural addiction to pornography. But as Christians we know what it means to tamper with God’s clear and unambiguous design for sexuality: The cost will be high. It must be high.

We all know the cost will be high in fractured families and heartbroken parents, husbands and wives. Already we are seeing far too many of these and each one is its own tragedy. We know the cost will be high in the countless thousands of women who are used and abused in front of cameras so they can be violated for other people’s pleasure. That is a sickening tragedy as well. But an overlooked cost, and one that will only become clear in time, is that porn is stealing the best years from a million young Christian men and women. Porn is dominating their lives during their teens and twenties. It is controlling their lives during those years when energy is high and responsibility is low, when the world lies open before them and the possibilities are endless, when they are charting the trajectories for the rest of their lives. Their dreams and their abilities are being hampered and squelched by a reckless commitment to sin.

So many young Christians have stunted their spiritual growth through what I call pornolesence. Pornolescence is that period when a person is old enough and mature enough to know that pornography is wrong and that it exacts a heavy price, but too immature or too apathetic to do anything about it. Pornolescence is that period where he feels the guilt of his sin, but still enjoys it too much to give it up. He may make the occasional plea for help, or install Covenant Eyes (but keep a workaround for when he’s really burning up), or ask for an accountability partner. But he doesn’t really want to stop. Not yet. She may phone a friend on occasion or plan to speak to one of the older women in the church, but in the end her internal shame weighs heavier than her desire for holiness. So she continues on, night after night.

This is pornolesence, that period between seeing the sin for what it is and actually putting it to death, that period between the deep soul conviction of immorality and the stubborn commitment to purity. For some people it lasts days, but for many more it lasts for years. A lot of young people—too many young people—are growing up too slowly today. Their sexual awakening is coming far too early and amidst all the wrong circumstances, and it is delaying every other kind of awakening and maturing. It is especially delaying their spiritual maturation.

1 Thessalonians 4:3 makes it as clear as day: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” A Christian’s growth in holiness and his development in Christian maturity is directly and inextricably tied to sexual purity. A person cannot full-out pursue God while also full-out pursuing porn. It’s either/or, not both/and. God will not be mocked. God will not allow you to soar to spiritual mountain tops while you stoop in pornographic filth. God will not allow you to grow in Christian maturity while you wallow in your incessant pornolesence.

And I think time will prove that this is one of the gravest costs of pornography: It is stealing the best years from so many young Christians. It is stunting their spiritual growth and delaying their entrance into Christian ministry and service. These are the people who represent the future of the church—future elders, future deacons, future women’s ministry leaders, future youth leaders, future children’s workers, future mentors, future missionaries, future seminary professors, future defenders of the faith, future denominational heads, and on and on. But with each click, with each video, with each unblushing exposure to what God deems abhorrent, they choose to worship a god in place of the God. And all the while they delay their entrance into maturity, into leadership, into who and what God calls them to be.

If this is you, hear my plea: For the sake of Christ’s church, and out of love for Christ’s church, put that sin to death. Do it for Him, and do it for us.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

June 13, 2014

It’s not the best morning. Yesterday was election day here in Ontario and the results did not go the way I had hoped. We have the same government as the day before, but with a much clearer and stronger mandate. I find it a particularly troubling and even threatening mandate. In the aftermath I find my faith being tested. Can I find joy today? Am I going to believe Romans 13:2 today? “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” God knew this. God saw this. God allowed this. God instituted even these authorities. Will I believe it? Will I find joy in it?

Today is a good day to consider the nature of my faith and, even more so, the object of my faith. Last week I was reflecting on the faith of Abraham and observed this: True faith does not demand answers. We don’t need faith when we have all the answers. We need faith when we don’t have all the answers. We need faith when the way ahead seems unclear or intimidating, when answers are hard to find. Faith is trusting in someone who has the answers we lack. Faith is trusting in the goodness, in the character, of God.

This is the faith I see in Abraham when he assented to God’s demand that he offer his son as a sacrifice to God. God asked Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited son through whom God had guaranteed a multitude of nations and, even better, a Messiah. “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you” (Genesis 22:2).

The promise was made, the promise was fulfilled, and now God threatened to take it all away. But still Abraham obeyed. Why? Because of this: Ultimately, faith is not in an outcome, but in a person. Abraham’s faith was not in Isaac’s survival; his faith was in God. This means he could lose Isaac without losing his faith. He was so convinced of the goodness and faithfulness of God that he was willing to do what looked impossible. He would hold back nothing.

Later, in the book of Hebrews, we read more about Abraham. The author is boasting in God’s people, bragging about their faith, and he says this: “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

Quite simply, Abraham believed the promises of God because he trusted the character of God. He trusted God even when the way seemed so strange, so unclear, so contradictory. The Christian faith is sometimes lampooned as being a blind faith, but that is all wrong. The Christian faith is not a blind faith but a seeing faith. We have seen God and love God and trust him to such a degree that we do not need or demand all the answers. We trust and obey, even when we do not understand and even when we cannot see the finish line.

And today I find myself wondering this: Will I trust God even when the way is unclear and even when I do not understand? Will I joyfully submit to God’s will, knowing and trusting that he is good? Is my faith deep enough to say, “I don’t understand, but I know God is good.” Is my faith in an outcome, or is my faith in God?

I should take a cue from Abraham. God gave Abraham three days to walk from his home to that mountain where he was to offer up his son. But on that long and sorrowful walk where he must have been tempted to despair, Abraham was not brooding. He was not complaining. He was not lamenting. Instead, he was considering how God would use this for good. We are told in Hebrews that Abraham made up his mind that God could and would raise Isaac from the dead. When Abraham was being tested, he chose not to focus on the pain, but on the triumph, and spent his time imagining how God was going to work even this “for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I should do no less.

God remains. God’s promises remain. My trust in God remains.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

June 12, 2014

Do you ever have those days where you just want to sin? Sin looks delicious while righteousness looks distasteful. Sin looks satisfying and holiness looks frustrating. You wake up in the morning with a desire to do what you know you should not desire to do. Your heart echoes with what God said to Cain: “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you.” And your desire is for it.

What do you do on a day like that?

Take the Blame

“Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15). Sin takes advantage of your sinful desires by promising satisfaction in the expression and fulfillment of those desires. Take the blame for wanting to sin. You want to sin because you are a sinner!

Look for Satan

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith…” (1 Peter 5:8-9). Satan knows you are prone to sin and knows you well enough to know your specific temptations to sin. In the days you are being tempted to sin, you may well be facing his attacks. When sin feels extrinsic, like it is coming from outside as much as inside, prepare yourself to resist the devil.

Talk to God

“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. … praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:11, 18a). When tempted to sin, you are told to put on the whole armor of God—the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, and so on. Each of these pieces of armor is donned and deployed through prayer. You resist sin and withstand temptation through humbling yourself in prayer and by crying out to God for his strength.

Talk to Someone Else

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). Tell your husband or wife, your colleague, your friend, your accountability partner. Confess your desire. Make it as simple as it really is: “I want to sin today. Sin looks desirable; holiness looks boring.” Ask for their prayer in the moment and ask them to talk to you later to ask if and how you withstood the temptation. Just as they can pray with you now to plead God’s help, they can pray with you later to rejoice in his deliverance.

Preach the Gospel

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Preach this great gospel truth to yourself. As a Christian, you have been purchased by Christ. You belong to him. You are his. You have been given everything you need to resist—the ability and the desire. You are a new creation and both can and should behave as such. Preach the gospel to yourself and remember whose you are.

Resist the Temptation

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13). God promises that he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear, but that he will always provide a way of escape. He will provide a way, but you still need to take advantage of that way. Talk to God, ask him to make the way clear, and ask that he will give you grace to take it. Often resisting temptation is as simple as this: Don’t sin! Resolve that you will not sin and then follow resolve with stubborn obedience.

Rely on Patterns of Godliness

“Put to death therefore what is earthly in you … Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience … And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called…” (Colossians 3:5-15). The Christian life is a lifelong obedience of replacing ungodly patterns and habits with godly ones. We continually put off the old man and put on the new. When facing temptation you will be tempted to fall back into old tendencies and habits. Instead, reject the old patterns of ungodliness and rely upon and follow the patterns of godliness you have developed.

Give Thanks

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). If temptation is born out of sinful desire and false promises of satisfaction through what God forbids, the solution is to give thanks. Where temptation focuses on all you do not have, thanksgiving focuses on all you have graciously been given. When you are tempted to sin, thank God for his good gifts. When you have been delivered from the temptation to sin, give thanks for his enabling grace.

Image credit: Shutterstock

June 05, 2014

Last night I sat with a group of men from our church and talked about prayer. And, as usually happens, our thoughts turned toward unanswered prayer or prayer that is answered very differently than we had asked or hoped. Why are there times when God seems not to answer? If a good Father would never give his children a stone in place of bread, why does it seem like God sometimes does this very thing?

The best way I know how to answer is to point to the cross. God’s people wanted deliverance from oppression. They wanted a Messiah. They wanted a Savior. Then that Messiah came. That Messiah told them that he was there to deliver them. That Messiah triumphantly entered Jerusalem as the prophecies had foretold. And then that Messiah was brutally murdered.

What happened? What did it all mean? Was this the answer to their prayers?

I think of Jesus’ disciples in the aftermath of the crucifixion, as the sun rose on the Sabbath day and their conquering Messiah lay cold and dead in the grave. They must have been perplexed. They must have wondered. They must have been confused and overwhelmed. Or maybe underwhelmed. Was this the answer to their prayers? What had happened to the promise of victory? When would they receive the deliverance they had been promised.

The Sabbath day came and went. And then they came to the first day of the week and an angelic messenger telling them, “He is not here, but has risen.” The fog began to lift.

What Jesus would accomplish made little sense to them when he described it in advance; what he was accomplishing made little sense while he endured it; what he had accomplished became clear only when they could look back on it. They just needed to wait. It all became clear in time.

And we often find ourselves in the same place. When we pray, and pray earnestly, and praying desiring God’s glory and fame, we know that he will answer and will give what we desire most. But we need to be patient. Like the disciples, we need to look to past, present and future with eyes of faith, trusting that in time everything will become clear.

May 19, 2014

I enjoy a good war movie every now and again. I’m not talking about the senselessly violent ones that exist only to find new and creative ways of showing splatter and gore, but the realistic, or at least mostly realistic ones. There is something useful about those movies, I think, and something helpful about seeing war for what it really is, provided that the point is not glamorizing violence or brutality, but exposing us to the reality and the horror of human depravity along with the redemption that can be found in the midst of it.

Some of my favorite movies are the ones that show a remarkable feature of certain armies, and perhaps especially the American military: the resolution that no matter the circumstances, every soldier will be accounted for.

Many armies devalue human life, and devalue their own soldiers, by caring more for the group than for individuals, more for the army than for the soldiers. They will leave their soldiers in captivity, or allow their bodies to remain on the field. But the American military, and others like it, promise this: No man left behind. Whether you are alive or dead, your army will do all it can to ensure that you, or your remains, are accounted for. When you walk into battle, you do not need to fear that you will be abandoned, neglected, or forgotten. Your brothers-in-arms will fight for you, your superiors will battle on your behalf. They will risk their lives for yours. I can only imagine the comfort and security this brings as soldiers march toward the battlefield. After all, what could be more intimidating than the thought of being forever abandoned and forgotten?

On my flight to Australia they were showing Lone Survivor . I didn’t watch it all, but I have read the book and got the point of the film: one man had been left behind and U.S. military might was deployed to rescue him. (Spoiler warning!) The movie culminates in an American soldier busting into this man’s hiding place and assuring him that he is now safe, that he will not be left behind. The soldier, and the audience, then breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that he, too, is accounted for. 

And as the credits rolled I found myself thinking about the church, another place where I hope no man is left behind (or no woman, or no child, for that). We should expect no less from ourselves.

If your church is sharing the gospel and reaching out into tough places and difficult situations, it seems likely that it has become involved in all manner of problems. Your church will attract people who struggle with every kind of sin and they will bring sin and addiction and heartbreak into the church with them. They will be vulnerable, they will sometimes sin in big and blatant ways, they may well wander off for a time. The temptation will be to allow people to fall by the wayside, to allow the wanderers to wander indefinitely, and to go on sharing the gospel despite so much attrition. Sometimes it is far easier to go about your convenient life than to risk your time, your attention, or your comfort for one of them. Months later you find yourself asking, “Whatever happened to…?” They are gone, and you barely noticed.

No man left behind. I think of Jesus and his great prayer as his life and earthly ministry drew to a close. He prayed to the Father to say about the people that had been entrusted to him, “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost…” He knew his mission and he carried it to the very end. They could have wandered. By all rights they should have wandered and should have been lost. But he cared for them and he protected them to the end.

As Christians, we are charged with caring for one another—the shepherds first and every church member after them. It brings all manner of joy, comfort and security when we affirm, and when we insist, that we will not leave even one person behind. We will guard them, we will guide them, we will pursue them, we will pray for them, we will love them, we will pursue them to the very end. No man will be left behind.

May 02, 2014

Christians sing. As far as I know, there are not too many faiths whose adherents make congregational singing an integral part of their worship. But when Christians gather to worship, they inevitably sing. Colossians 3:16 gives Christians their orders: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We love to do this, to join together to sing out our joy before the Lord. While our practices may vary from church to church and culture to culture, and while we express this worship through different words and in a great variety of styles, we all make it a part of our meetings.

But I think there is one part of this verse we tend to overlook: the “one another.” If I could distill this verse down to its essence I would do it like this: We sing from the gospel, for one another, to the Lord.

We are to let the word of Christ, the gospel, dwell in us richly. When we do that, there will be a natural outburst of joy, gratitude and worship that will express itself in song. We will sing out our praises with thankfulness in our hearts to God. This is good. This glorifies God.

What we tend to overlook is the part about teaching and admonishing one another. We all know there is a vertical dimension to our worship, where our songs give us a voice to sing to the Lord in praise or in petition, in expressions of wonder or in pleas for his favor. Most of us think far less about the horizontal dimension of worship, where we worship for the benefit of our Christian brothers and sisters. The least-sung song is the song we sing for one another.

Yet the Bible tells us that when we stand and sing as a community of Christians, we are teaching and admonishing one another. When we stand and sing, we are not only singing to God, but are also singing for one another. When I sing, I am teaching and admonishing you; when you sing, you are teaching and admonishing me. Your words come to my ear as instruction and correction. At least, they should. If I am listening, they do.

Do you sing for the people in your church even as you sing to the Lord? Do you stand ready to teach and be taught? Do you stand ready to admonish and be admonished by the words you will sing and the words you will hear from the people around you?

If we are to take this horizontal dimension seriously, we need to rid ourselves of the mindset that says singing is primarily a time for me and Jesus, a time for me to commune with the Lord as I sing to him. Yes, that happens and yes, it is good to sing out praises and to enjoy the sweet fellowship with the Savior. But my whole posture of body and posture of heart will change if I am aware that I am singing for you and you are singing for me. If this is the case, I will pay attention to the words, I will engage, I will look around, I will listen, I will worship as part of a worshipping community. Haven’t you known the encouragement of seeing others worship, of hearing their words in your ears?

Very practically, when I sing, “Come, Ye Sinners” I will be singing it with an awareness that those words are falling on sin-deafened ears as a call from me to the person who remains lost in his sin. “Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power.” So turn to him! Don’t delay! When I sing, “Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon his shoulders,” I am singing it for you, telling you to look to Christ and in his suffering and death to see the love of the Father, “that he should give his only Son to make a wretch his treasure.” Be encouraged by the depth of the Father’s love!

Christian, you have the great privilege of worshipping in song, and in that song, the joy of blessing and encouraging your brothers and sisters even while you glorify God. Sing from the gospel, sing for one another, and sing to the Lord. It will transform the way you worship.

Photo credit: Shutterstock.

7 Things a Good Father Says
March 31, 2014

I think I may be leaving one phase of fatherhood behind even while I enter into another. My youngest child is just about to turn eight, which means that we are not only past the baby and toddler stages, but even nearing the end of the little kid phase. Meanwhile my oldest child has turned fourteen and is just months away from high school. All this change has caused me to think about fatherhood and the new challenges coming my way. I have found myself thinking back to the many models of fatherhood I have seen and admired through the years. What made these fathers admirable? What set them apart? What was it that they said to their children? From these models I have drawn seven things a good father says.

I love you. Few things are more important to a child than knowing where he stands with his parents. As I think back to my childhood, I remember several friends who lived with uncertainty in their relationship with their parents, and their fathers especially. They longed to hear words of love and approval. But I saw other kids who had total confidence in that love and approval. Often the difference was little more than three simple words repeated regularly: “I love you.” Men can be so petty, so prideful, and hold back those words. Yet there is no good reason for it. The more awkward it feels, the more urgent it is. From the dads I admire I’ve learn that a father needs to say, “I love you,” and he needs to say it often.

Let me kiss it better. Even as a young child I remember observing two different kinds of fathers in my church. When children fell and scraped their knees, there were two ways I saw dads react. Some fathers would pick up their children, set them back on their feet, and tell them to get over it. “You’re fine. Walk it off!” They wanted their soft children to toughen up. There were other fathers who would pick up their children, hold them in their arms, make a show of extending comfort, and say, “Let me kiss it better.” These were fathers who wanted their hard children to soften up. Sure, there are times to tell your child to walk it off, but there are far more times to extend love and concern through those childhood bumps and bruises and through the bigger sins and mistakes that come with age. From the dads I admire I’ve learned the value of saying, “Let me kiss it better” (though, obviously, as the children get older the wording changes!).

Come with me. There is so much in life that can be better caught than taught. Often the best way to train up a child is to let that child into your life. One father I admire taught me the distinction between being face-to-face with my children and being shoulder-to-shoulder. I saw this shoulder-to-shoulder parenting in my own father who often brought me with him on his errands or, even better, to his work. This allowed me to see the value of putting in a hard day’s work, and the value of building relationships with clients, suppliers, and so many others. It allowed me to see that work was an extension of the rest of life, and not a part of life that exists all on its own. The fathers I have admired are the fathers who say to their children, “Come with me,” and who welcome them into their day-to-day lives.

Please forgive me. Every father sins against every one of his children. He probably does it every day. Sadly, sin is every bit as inevitable as death and taxes. Fathers need to be in the habit of identifying their sin to their children and asking forgiveness. But as I think back, I saw this and heard of this in so few fathers. There are only a few I knew to consistently identify their sin and seek forgiveness for it. As I consider my fourteen years of parenting, I see far too little of it as well. The practice seems so much more difficult than the theory. The good dad is the one who humbly, carefully says to his children, “Please forgive me.”

Beat that Bad Mood
March 24, 2014

Over the weekend I came across a few different articles on a common theme: grumpiness. These were articles meant to offer guidance in those times—those inevitable times—when you’re in a bad mood and just can’t break out. While the articles had some helpful advice, they had this in common: They dealt with symptoms rather than root cause. They dealt with overcoming the manifestations of grumpiness instead of looking for the heart of grumpiness. Christians can do better.

I know a thing or two about bad moods. I am usually an upbeat person, but on a regular basis am forced to deal with a pretty significant case of the grumpies. I know how difficult it is to snap out of that bad mood. But even though it may be difficult, it is not impossible. Here’s how to beat that bad mood:

Go to the Gospel

If there is ever a time to preach the gospel to yourself, this is it. Reminding yourself of the gospel is the ultimate reality check. Reminding yourself of the gospel, and allowing those truths to cross your mind and heart, is reminding yourself of the deepest realities of the universe. You will remind yourself that you are a sinful person who deserves God’s wrath, that God himself entered this world as a man, that he bore all your sin and condemnation, that he suffered the wrath of God on your account, that he died the death you deserve, that he rose in triumph, and that all of his righteousness has been given to you. Some people say that when you’re grumpy you ought to meditate. They’re exactly right, except that instead of that Eastern mind-emptying meditation, you need that Christian mind-filling meditation, where you deliberately fill your mind with the truth of the gospel.

Call It What It Is

Having preached the gospel to yourself, you are now in a place to call that grumpiness what it is. It is sin. It is exactly the kind of sin Jesus had to die for. There is never an excuse for being grumpy. To be grumpy is to be bad-tempered and sulky, surly and peevish. You get grumpy when life has not gone the way you wanted it to, when others have interrupted your plans for a peaceful and easy life, when others have somehow irritated you. You may even just wake up grumpy for what appears to be no reason at all. Grumpiness works itself out in your mind, so you keep chewing over ways you have been wronged. You become irritable and short-tempered. You snap at others and excuse yourself. There is a category of righteous anger (“Be angry and do not sin,” says Ephesians 4:26), but there is never righteous grumpiness. Jesus was angry and indignant in the face of moneychangers in the temple and in the face of disciples who would tell children to get lost. But he wasn’t grumpy. Grumpiness is sin, plain and simple.

Give It a Name

You have acknowledged that your grumpiness is sin. That’s a great first step, but sin is a general term. You should now advance one step farther and give that sin a biblical name. Grumpiness isn’t a term the Bible uses, so it is far better to go with irritability, impatience, or unrighteous anger. Maybe all three. Those are the ways the Bible describes your grumpiness and in every case it describes it as sin. You may want to dress it up in all kinds of pretty clothes (“I’m just struggling right now” or “It’s fine, I’m just in a bad place”), but in the end it is simply one or more of those sins. By naming grumpiness as sin—the sin of unrighteous anger, or the sin of irritability, or the sin of impatience—you have allowed yourself no excuse and have put yourself in a position to deal with it properly. And the proper way to deal with it is to ask God’s forgiveness for it.

Note: I know this all sounds rather formal and wooden, but all three of these steps can be accomplished in all of ten seconds. It may be worth taking longer, especially when grumpiness becomes a pattern, but in the heat of the battle, this kind of thinking can be done in a very short time. 

Get More Done This Week
March 17, 2014

The law of entropy seems to apply to every area of life in this broken world. Without constant effort to the contrary, houses get dirty, gardens get overgrown, cars get rusty, habits get sloppy, children get unruly. If you leave it alone, whatever it is, it gets slower, not faster; sloppier, not neater; worse, not better.

Like everything else in the world, your ability to get things done is always spiralling toward chaos. If you allow yourself to coast for a few weeks, your life will get less orderly, not more orderly. Not only that, but you will soon find yourself neglecting the important tasks in order to focus on the urgent tasks. Before you know it, you’ll be off-focus and out of control.

Here are 8 ways to take control and get more done this week (and every week).

1. Plan Your Week

I know it’s a cliché but it really is true: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. If you don’t plan your week, you will only ever be reactive, responding to whatever concerns and opportunities arise. To take control of your week, you need to plan your week. Take a few minutes on Sunday evening to plan out your entire week, from Monday morning to Sunday evening. You don’t need to have something planned for every minute of every day, but at the least you should plan your work week. If you are married, it is best to do this with your spouse so you can be sure you are properly accounting for appointments, evening activities, and any other commitments you may otherwise forget. Make sure everything that happens at a specific time is on your calendar and that you have set alerts or reminders. Make sure that everything you need to do is in your task-management system (whatever that system is). Get as much as possible out of your brain and into your system.

2. Block Your Time

As you begin to determine what time you will use to accomplish your tasks, block time to specific tasks instead of general tasks. This may be something you can do at the beginning of the week, or it may need to be a day-to-day kind of task. You will need to be adaptable here, but simply blocking your week into work, family and sleep won’t do it. As you plan time, assign particular tasks to particular times. Plan that block from 10 AM to 12 PM on Tuesday as not only “Office Time” but “Write Bible Study.” Plan that block from 3 PM to 5 PM on Tuesday as not only “Meeting” but “Meeting With Marketing Team.” Take into account the times you are at peak productivity and reserve those for your most mentally-demanding tasks. I am at my peak in the early morning hours, so that is when I tend to do my writing or sermon preparation. By mid-afternoon I am flat out of energy and creativity, so this is when I tend to do my maintenance tasks and other chores that are necessary but routine.

3. Manage Your Tasks

An essential element of productivity is the implementation of, and reliance upon, a system that will get the list of things you need to accomplish out of your brain and onto paper or into software. You need to create a system and then rely on it. As you plan your week, and as your week unfolds, you need to use this system to capture, organize, and manage your tasks. When you reach the office on Monday morning and see that time in your calendar blocked off for “Weekly Maintenance,” your task management software should have a list of all those tasks waiting for you. As you receive phone calls and emails, and as you sit in meetings, you will constantly be adding new tasks that need to be done. Rather than relying upon your memory, you need to get all of these into your system so you will remember them and execute them at the best time. I am heavily dependent upon Things, a Mac-based application that syncs seamlessly between my computers and my mobile devices. Wherever I am, I have it with me. I always input my tasks with a verb followed by a colon like “Write: Email to Francis” or “Plan: Sunday Evening Sermon”. This keeps me from using my to-do list as a place to store random thoughts and forces me to make every task an action.

March 10, 2014

I’m so busy. You’re so busy. We’re all so busy. We’re so busy that we can’t possibly fit one more thing into our schedules, or one more relationship into our lives. That’s life in North America, or perhaps just life in the twenty-first century. In an article in the New York Times, Tim Kreider says that we all have a stock response: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” It may be a stock response, but it’s not a particularly good one.

I’ve noticed something in my own life that I find both interesting and disturbing. It’s this: People keep telling me how busy I am. People assume it. It might be because they just can’t imagine anyone being anything but busy. Or maybe it’s because I am giving off those busy vibes, somehow convincing people that I have way too much to do and way too little time to do it. I receive phone calls that say, “I know you’re so busy, and I’m sorry for taking more of your time.” I receive emails that say, “I’m so sorry for asking you this.” I even feel like I need to look and act busy since otherwise people may start to think I’m lazy. Are those the only options we’ve got: busy or lazy?

Here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself busy. When I speak at an event and do a question and answer session, I am often asked something like this: “How do you do all that you do?” My answer is usually something along these lines: “I actually don’t do all that much and live at quite a relaxed pace. This is because I’ve been deliberate in eliminating everything but the few things I want to give attention to: Family, church (both as a member and a pastor), friends and writing. What you see me do is just about all I do!” And that’s it. There just isn’t a lot more to my life than that. If my life is pie-shaped, then each of these things gets a slice of the pie and there just isn’t much left over at the end. I am okay with that. I don’t need time for much else.

This is not to say that I go through life free from all anxiety and without the stress of approaching deadlines. Neither does it mean that I spend my days surfing the web and chatting mindlessly on the phone. Not at all. I do my best to work hard in the times that I’ve set aside to work. I even measure my use of time every now and again so see where I am using time well and where I am frittering it away. I do my best to be fully present with my family in those times that I’ve dedicated to them. The same is true of friends and neighbors. I block off time to write and try to fill that time with as many words and as many ideas as possible. This is the ideal, though it is so difficult to maintain. One thing constantly wants to intrude on the other, so work times infringes upon family time and writing time falls into devotional time. But when I’m at my best, life is structured and life just isn’t busy.

Kreider makes an interesting point:

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

There are spiritual dimensions to busyness. There are spiritual consequences. Kreider says, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” There is truth in this. We can feel reassured by busyness and strangely comforted by it, even as it saps us of all strength and keeps us from feeling as if we are succeeding at even one of our responsibilities.

There is a cost to busyness, but there is a more subtle cost to being perceived as busy. When people believe that I’m busy, they also believe that I am unapproachable. This is what has disturbed me the most. People at church may want or need some of my time and attention, but because they perceive me as being so busy, they may be afraid or embarrassed to ask for it. My kids may want some of my time but believe that dad is too busy for them. This is what disturbs me most, that my busyness, or the perception of busyness, makes me less effective in the areas in which I want to do well. That cost is too high to tolerate. So let me say it again, primarily to reassure myself: I’m not busy. I have all the time I need to accomplish the things the Lord has called me to.

Note: This is an updated version of an article first published a couple of years ago.

Pages