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Christian Living

December 12, 2012

It is one of my clearest memories of the whole hullabaloo surrounding The Passion of the Christ. I met a man who had just returned from a screening of the movie and with eyes wide he exclaimed, “It changed my life!” It is a phrase we hear all the time. It is a phrase that may express something true. But it was far too early.

It is not unusual to go to Amazon and find a book review that says something like, “I finished this book last night and it changed my life!” It is not unusual to hear the words used in the immediate aftermath of a powerful conference. Yet I always feel a measure of caution when I hear these exclamations. Books and movies and conferences truly can change lives, but we don’t usually know what has shaped us until much later on. Deep and lasting life change is rarely something that is measured in minutes or even hours.

Of course there are exceptions. There are some moments that really do change lives. This is true in salvation, the transformational moment in the life of every Christian where he is saved from death to life. There are others. A wife who suddenly loses her husband can legitimately and immediately say “this has changed my life!”

But when it comes to the Christian life and the long, hard work of sanctification, the influences that shape us most tend to be visible more in hindsight than in the moment, and they tend to be measured long rather than short. This has been my observation from reading biographies of great Christians and from witnessing the lives of very ordinary, godly Christians. It has been the experience of my own life. I am convinced that I have been shaped more by one thousand regular sermons than by any one spectacular conference message; I have been shaped by five hundred very ordinary Lord’s Suppers more than any one powerful moment of worship. Meanwhile, a million little moments that seemed so important at the time, so transformational, have been forgotten.

Have I had life-changing moments? Absolutely! Have I read life-changing books? Yes! How do I know? Because months or years later I can look back on those as defining moments that gave me a new level of understanding or helped change a specific aspect of my character. At the time I rarely realized the impact they were having. It is only in time that they have become clear. That just seems to be the way the Lord works in us in this very ordinary, but very awesome, Christian life.

December 11, 2012

There is a stubbornness to sin that surprises and disappoints. The Christian life is one of increasing triumph over sin, and yet even with the rejoicing there is so much disappointment, even with the victory there is so much failure, even while so much sin is put to death, so much remains.

One area of sin that continues to baffle and disappoint is my inability to consistently think rightly about other people’s motives. Perhaps it isn’t thinking about their motives as much as it is assuming them. I am amazed at my own proclivity to assume the worst of others, and especially those who have done the most for me.

I’ve been married to Aileen for more than fourteen years now. In that time she has been loving and loyal and kind and everything else a husband could desire in a wife. She has borne me three children, supported me through career changes, tolerated my sin, prayed me through difficulty, helped me be a man whose church can call him to be their pastor. And yet in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when she in some way displeases me, I can act as if she has never loved me at all, as if she has only ever treated me with contempt. In a moment I can throw out all those years of love and sacrifice and assume that she is now opposed to me, looking out for her interests instead of mine, interested in harming me rather than helping me. In a moment I throw away all these evidences of her love and behave as if she hates me.

It is the simplest things that do this. It is not grave sins or the gross immorality that call her into question in my mind. It’s the smallest things, the things that may not be sin at all. It’s being a little bit late when I want to be early, it’s asking a clarifying question when I want to plow ahead, it’s having a priority that is different from my own. And in those moments I forget our history, I forget her character, I forget that she is fundamentally for me, I believe that she and I are enemies. She displeases me and therefore she must hate me. I respond by acting hateful in return. Sometimes this works itself out in harsh words or harsh attitudes; other times it works itself out in sulking and complaining.

I know that I am not the only one who struggles in this way and, to be frank, I saw this sin first in others and only later in myself. Every pastor will attest that there are people in his church he has labored for and prayed for and sacrificed for who will turn on him when they are displeased (and meanwhile, he may be equally quick to turn on them when he feels threatened). Every parent will attest that children are equally quick to forget the years of love and sacrifice and to turn on their parents.

I hate this behavior in myself. I hate this sin. I’ve come to see that it is primarily related to love—or to lack of love. I’m sure pride is involved somewhere, and there must be other sins in the mix, but this is foremost about love. Here’s how I know: 1 Corinthians 13:7 tells me that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” This is how love is meant to work itself out in relationship. It transforms me so that I can now assume good motives instead of poor ones, I can now react with hope rather than suspicion. Yet my reactions show that love has not yet worked itself out in my character to this extent.

I love my wife. I love my wife more than I would have thought possible, and yet this sin proves that I love her a lot less than I ought to and maybe less than I think I do. If I loved her more and better, I would believe all things and hope all things. In that moment of displeasure I would not assume ill motives, but assume the best. In that moment of questioning, hope would resound instead of hate, trust would be displayed instead of anger. But this kind of love is too often lacking.

This is one of those times where thinking about the gospel is so helpful. As I think about Jesus Christ, I see the greatest example of love in the greatest act of love. As I look at this love, as I ponder it, as I meditate upon it, as I take its benefits upon myself, I necessarily grow in love as well. The love of Christ becomes my love, the benefits of Christ’s love become my benefits. I am transformed.

When I ponder the cross I see that I don’t love because I don’t yet understand how much I have been loved. So I look to the cross again. And again.

December 10, 2012

Just about every blogger can identify with the frustration. You write an article that is kind and well-reasoned and, at least in your estimation, displays the fruit of the Spirit’s work in your life. With some excitement you share this article with the world and, yet, within minutes, you face a barrage of comments that immediately turn it into a battlefield. The entire tone changes from kindness to all-out warfare. While bloggers have rightly been criticized for being too negative at times, blog commenters can be equally ruthless. You don’t have to keep a blog to be a large part of the problem.

A reader recently sent an email in which he identified just this issue in Christian blogs.

While the content of the articles of the blogs I read is usually discerning, gracious, loving, and “seasoned with salt, giving grace to those who hear”, the comment threads are commonly not NEARLY marked by the same Christlike characteristics, but are rather characterized by sarcasm, anger, backbiting, and sometimes, what even appears to be out and out hatred. 

I’d like to address this briefly today in the hope that I can help us all think well about how we interact online.

One of the strange realities of the Internet is that it gives us the illusion of being somewhere together, and yet at the same time it dehumanizes us. We speak of the Internet as “cyberspace“—a space or place where we go and gather. We tacitly understand that the Internet provides a level of interactivity that was not present in many of our previous means of communication. And yet even as we believe that we are actually somewhere together, we ignore the rules that govern the way we communicate when we are face-to-face. In this relationship mediated by computers and blogs, kindess, gentleness and self-control seem irrelevant.

Do you see the tension here? We feel like we are together in a real relationship, and yet we dehumanize the person we communicate with. This leads to exactly the kind of ugliness that reader identified.

There is one part of the problem. The second part of the problem is much older than the Internet: We underestimate the power and importance of our words.

December 06, 2012

Mayday is one of the few television shows that I really enjoy (I believe it may be called Air Disasters in the United States and Air Crash Investigations elsewhere in the world). It is a docudrama series about plane crashes, of all things. It sounds morbid, I admit, but I find it fascinating.

One of the episodes unravels the story of a plane that only narrowly averted disaster. The airliner had been flying along with everything appearing normal when suddenly it began to experience all kinds of strange problems. It gyrated across the sky, plummeting thousands of feet at a time and turning violently to one side. One and then two of the four engines stalled and failed, leaving the plane without the power it needed to maintain level flight. The pilot and copilot responded instinctually, doing their best to right the course of the aircraft. Meanwhile hundreds of passengers waited in abject terror, not knowing if they would live or die. The pilots fought valiantly and eventually found they were able to control the plane. Mysteriously, the engines restarted and were again able to provide sufficient power. The pilots directed the plane to a nearby airport and landed safely. Only a handful of passengers experienced serious injury, though the plane sustained heavy damage from the immense loads placed on it during the erratic flight.

In the aftermath, investigators found that almost everything that had gone wrong had been the fault of the pilots. When the plane encountered significant turbulence the pilots should have responded according to their flight training and according to the plane’s manual. Instead, they relied on instinct. And then, when the plane began to experience further complications, the pilots ignored the instruments that should have directed them to the source of the problem and the straightforward solution. They swung the plane violently from side to side attempting to right it because they ignored the aircraft’s instrument that told them where the horizon was and how to keep the plane level. They ignored the instruments that told them that their engine problem was not as serious as they thought. Blinded by the stress of the situation, they ignored the manual and did things their own way. It very nearly cost them their lives and the lives of hundreds of passengers.

Those pilots refused to trust their instruments, relying instead on their flawed assessment of the situation. Even though they thought they saw the situation clearly, they were in fact flying blind because they refused to heed the information conveyed to them by their instruments. In the book Polishing God’s Monuments Jim Andrews makes a similar connection when he reflects on a similar disaster.

What made this even a double calamity was the lethal convergence of two factors: bad weather and pilot error. The investigative report of the incident indicated the unfortunate pilot was flying in heavy fog. It went on to explain that when a pilot is flying in those conditions, it is vital that he rely solely on his instruments as opposed to flying “by the seat of his pants.” This is because without a visual point of reference, one’s senses can be easily fooled into thinking the plane is doing the exact opposite.

Though the pilot in this story was apparently quite experienced, he was notorious among his peers for having one fatal flaw: he tended to rely predominantly on the feel of the plane and his visual reference, rather than to trust the guidance of his instruments. In the report, his colleagues remarked that they could never understand why such a well-trained pilot was so disposed to this grievous error, though they warned that for new pilots, it’s not an easy skill to master.

Neither is it an easy spiritual lesson to learn.

We are prone to this same foolishness in our spiritual lives. Rather than trusting in the “instruments” given to us in the Word of God, we too often trust in our instincts and our internal guidance. Rather than relying on what is given to guide us and what is far more trustworthy, we rely on things that are always changing, always imperfect. As Andrews says, there is a difference “between walking by faith and walking by feelings—trusting our instruments rather than our sight or instincts. In the fog of life our feelings will mock our faith and fairly scream at us that God has walked out on us, but our instruments will always reassure us that he is still there, walking right beside us.”

This is not to say that our feelings are useless or that we should never heed them. God gave us feelings and emotion and even instincts for a reason; they often serve as useful guides to what is happening in our hearts. It sometimes seems that those who place the greatest emphasis on revealed truth are those who place the least emphasis on feelings; this should not be so. But we must always realize that only one of these is a standard. Only one is firm and unchanging. Only one is perfect.

The Word provides that fixed, unchanging, flawless standard. The Word is the instrument that will guide us and reassure is, even when the fog is heavy, when the engines have stopped and when we don’t know whether we’re going up or down.

November 28, 2012

Last summer I traveled to Prince Edward Island on Canada’s east coast to speak at a Gospel Coalition event. I was there with Mike Bullmore and Kevin DeYoung for the “Magnificent Holiness” conference. Mike spoke three times on the gospel and sanctification and used Romans 6 as his text. Of all he said, there is one line, one sentence, that I immediately wrote down and have been pondering ever since. It is this: “Trusting God for what he has done positions our hearts to trust God for what he has promised to do.”

I have written often of those authors and pastors who encourage Christians to preach the gospel to themselves every day. I see some of the value of doing this, though my practice of it is too sporadic. What such teachers want us to see is that the gospel is not merely the gateway to the Christian life, but the fuel of the Christian life. What they want us to understand is that the gospel is not simply defensive, the thing we turn to when we have sinned and are eager for some assurance of pardon. Rather, the gospel puts us on the offensive against sin and toward holiness. We ought to continually bring the gospel into our hearts and minds as a means of spurring ourselves to greater love for God which in turn generates a greater desire for obedience to him.

I do not remember all of the context surrounding Mike’s statement and I am sure it can be accepted and applied in many different ways. But as I ponder it and think about its application to my own life, I take it as a yet another challenge to be continually meditating on the gospel, to make the gospel my joy and delight. As I turn to the Bible to read the predictions and prophecies of the coming Messiah, as I consider the narratives of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, as I ponder the epistles where all of these things are explained and illuminated, as I consider the day of Christ’s return, my love for God and my trust in him must necessarily increase and thrive. As my love swells, so will my desire to do those things that honor him and bring him glory.

When I am fully trusting God for what he has done, trusting that Christ really did take my sin upon himself, that he really did pay the penalty for it, that I really have been forgiven, that I really am fully and finally reconciled to God—when I trust God in all of this, my heart is now positioned to trust God for what he has promised he will do today and in the future. And what has he promised to do? He has promised to make me holy. He has promised to sanctify me, to help me put sin to death and to replace it with joyful obedience. He has promised that the Holy Spirit is operating within my life to bring me into closer conformity with Jesus Christ. He has promised that the very same power that has saved me is now sanctifying me. Now I have hope and confidence that this really is happening and that this really can happen. I really can put sin to death, I really can grow in holiness, I really can grow in Christ-like character and look more and more like the One who saved me.

I simply cannot trust that all of this is happening and that all of this will continue to happen if I have no ability to trust in what has already been accomplished. However, when I trust God for what he has done, now my heart is properly positioned to trust God for all that he has promised to do. And, therefore, the gospel must be my joy and meditation every day.

November 27, 2012

Doug Nichols is a friend of mine through the Internet. He is the Founder and Director of Action International Ministries and in that role he travels all over the world promoting missions and evangelism. He emails me often and from all parts of the world with words of encouragement. He closes almost every email by saying, “Let me encourage you with this” and then shares a Scripture passage. I love it.

It was a long time ago, in the summer of 1966, that Doug was working for Operation Mobilization and was stationed in London during their big annual conference. He was assigned to the clean-up crew. One night at around 12:30 AM he was sweeping the steps at the conference center when an older gentleman approached him and asked if this was where the conference was being held. Doug said that it was, but that just about everyone had already gone to bed. This man was dressed very simply and had just a small bag with him. He said that he was attending the conference. Doug replied he would try to find him a place to sleep and led him to a room where about 50 people were bunked down on the floor. The older gentleman had nothing to sleep on, so Doug laid down some padding and a blanket and offered a towel for a pillow. The man said that would be just fine and that he appreciated it very much.

Doug asked the man if he had been able to eat dinner. It turns out that he hadn’t eaten since he had been travelling all day. Doug took him to the dining room but it was locked. He soon jimmied the lock and found some cornflakes and milk and bread and jam. As the man ate, the two began to talk. The man said that he and his wife had been working in Switzerland for several years, where he had a small ministry that served hippies and travellers. He spoke about his work and spoke about some of the people he had seen turn to Christ. When he finished eating, both men turned in for the night.

Doug woke up the next morning only to find out that he was in big trouble. The conference leaders came to him and said, “Don’t you know who it was that you put on the floor last night? That’s Francis Schaeffer! He’s the speaker for this conference! We had a whole room set aside for him!”

Doug had no idea that he was sleeping on the floor next to a celebrity, that he had told a man to sleep on the floor who had a profoundly important ministry. He had no idea that this man had helped shape the Christian church of that day, and really, the church of our day. And Schaeffer never let on. In humility he had accepted his lot and been grateful for it.

November 26, 2012

Through the weekend that follows Thanksgiving I have been maintaining a page that provides a round-up of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals that are of particular interest to Christians. This is something I have done for several years now, yet every year I do it with a bit of a guilty conscience. There are both benefits and drawbacks to publicizing deals like these. On the one hand, it is a means of connecting Christian retailers with people who may be interested in taking advantage of a few pre-Christmas deals, but on the other hand it may just feed the consumerism that is rampant both outside the church and within.

A couple of years ago Aileen and the kids teamed up to give me a Christmas gift they knew I would enjoy—a digital picture frame that I could keep at the office. I loaded it up with photos and can now enjoy looking at pictures of the family while I do my work.

We aren’t much for photography around the Challies home, and tend to haul out the camera only at special occasions. It just so happens, then, that the majority of the photos I see every day have been taken at birthdays and Christmas. Many of the shots show a child opening something. You can see the look of excitement and anticipation on the child’s face. If the shot is a wide one you might be able to spot mom or dad there, eager to catch the look of joy as the child sees that gift—that one gift he or she wanted to badly.

In most of those photos the wrapping paper has been removed enough that you can see the present beneath. It began with trucks (our son was born first), then went to Playmobil and then dolls and Lego and tea sets and easels and all kinds of other things. We do not go overboard on these occasions, but we do like to get each of the kids at least one thing they really want. So there are 11 Christmases represented there, and 27 birthdays, and all sorts of gifts.

But here’s the thing. I look at those pictures, the pictures of the presents, and realize that they are almost all long gone. They’ve all been forgotten and thrown away. Most of them, anyway. The Playmobil fell apart, the kids grew tired of it, and eventually we freecycled it. My son got bored of the trucks and we gave them to a friend. Or maybe they’re in a box somewhere in the basement. The dollhouse was just a cheap one and it didn’t last. All those things that were so exciting in the moment ended up lost and forgotten, tossed to the curb.

November 21, 2012

The current issue of The New Yorker has a long and unsettling feature on Rob Bell (that, unfortunately, I cannot link to as it is available to subscribers only). Written by Kelefa Sanneh and titled “The Hell-Raiser,” the article portrays Bell as a Christian leader who found himself searching for a “more forgiving faith.” Russell Moore has aptly summarized the article and some of the more salient observations of its author, including this one: “Throughout American history, the most successful church movements have not been the ones that kept up with contemporary culture, but the ones that were confident enough to tug hard against it.”

I always find myself alarmed when I read about Christian leaders who destroy their ministries through gross moral failure or gross theological failure. When I read of men whose lives and families and ministries have been shattered by either kind of disaster, I always wonder how they got there. Neither kind of failure arises in a moment or without a long history of small sins and unwise choices, with so many sins of comission and sins of omission.

The leader who is caught in a hotel room with the woman who is not his wife, the theologian who is found trolling the Internet trying to arrange a sexual encounter with a minor, the pastor who is arrested for soliciting the services of a prostitute—each of these men once loved his wife. Each of these men once promised to himself and to others that he would remain faithful to her and prayed for God to still his wandering eyes and heart. Each of them was sincere. And still they fell.

Did it begin with an unresolved argument? Did it begin with working hours that were too long and neglecting just the small tokens of love and appreciation? Somehow, over months and years, he drifted away from his wife, he fell out of love with her and into love with himself and his own lusts and passions. And then he followed those lusts and broke her heart and destroyed his ministry.

In the same way, gross theological failure does not rush upon a man. The man who apostacizes, who rejects the central doctrines of the faith—doctrines he once affirmed and celebrated—has also made a long series of sinful choices. The leader who denies the doctrine of the Trinity, the theologian who determines that Jesus Christ could not possibly have been born of a virgin, the pastor who denies the existence of hell—each of these men once held fast to these very doctrines. There was a time when they believed each of these things and were convinced that they would die for them. Each of them was sincere. And still they fell.

November 07, 2012

I have written often on the subject of knowing and doing the will of God. Sometimes, though, particular situations arise in which we need very specific applications of those general principles. A reader of this site recently asked me about how to think about how many children to have. Here is what he wrote:

The topic of deciding on family size and what’s right for your family has come up among ourselves and our friends. It seems different for everyone. On the basic level, we know that God calls us to be fruitful and multiply and we know that to be a parent is an unselfish act as you give your time to parenthood. Yet big families are not for everyone and can cause problems in certain situations.

Let me explain how I go about thinking through this issue. The first thing I look for is clear and specific guidance from the Bible. Is there a clear command in the Bible that tells me that I must have as large a family as possible? And conversely, is there a clear command in the Bible that tells me that I must limit the size of my family? To my knowledge and understanding there is no clear command in either case. In the absence clear and specific commands from God, I am now out of the realm of absolute right and wrong; I am now free from being blatantly disobedient if I choose to have two children or if I choose to have twenty children. But this does not mean that I can now just do whatever I feel like. 

In the absence of clear moral commands, my calling is to act wisely and to act in accordance with biblical principles, so my next action is to look to the Bible for principles that may guide me as I consider this issue. Here are a few that come to mind:

Be Fruitful and Multiply. God created human life and as one of man’s primary roles told him to “be fruitful and multiply.” It is our duty as humans to procreate and our special duty as Christians to fill the earth with people who know and love the Lord. Therefore it is reasonable to say that as a general principle God expects that a husband and wife will have at least some children.

Children Are a Blessing. The Bible is clear that we are to regard children as a blessing and not as a burden. Psalm 127 tells us that “children are a heritage from the LORD, The fruit of the womb is a reward.” Where our culture may see children as a financial, emotional or psychological burden, the Bible tells us that they are a blessing and a reward. Further, Many Children Is a Great Blessing. God gave no conditions to his command that we be fruitful and multiply. He did not say “multiply up to and including eight children at which point you must stop.” At the same time he did not say “be fruitful and multiply until you have exceeded two children.” We are given no rules about how many children are appropriate in God’s eyes. We do hear hints, though, that God approves of large families and that many children represent a special blessing. Psalm 127 continues, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, So are the children of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.” Many children represent many blessings.

November 05, 2012

One of these is unlike the others: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, niceness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. According to Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia, all but one of these is what he refers to as the fruit of the Spirit, which is to say, visible evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian. If you are a Christian, your life will necessarily be marked by this kind of character. But which one is foreign to the list? Niceness.

Joel OsteenHumans seem to be naturally drawn to niceness. Niceness is comfortable. To be nice is to be pleasant in manner, to be agreeable, to adhere to social conventions. We like to be around people who are nice at least in large part because we are comforted by their pleasant words or deeds and by their adherence to whatever social custom dictates. It is an attractive quality, but it can also be a deceptive one. It is, after all, an external trait, and one that has no necessary correlation with what is going on at an internal, spiritual level. Christians can be nice, but so too can unbelievers. The Holy Spirit may help us be nice, but niceness is not necessarily proof that we are living in the Spirit and by the Spirit. Some of the most evil people are also the nicest people.

Brian McLaren may well be the nicest guy around. He recently faced a good bit of criticism for leading a commitment ceremony following his son’s same-sex wedding—a ceremony that included “traditional Christian elements.” In the aftermath, McLaren was as nice as he has ever been. On his blog he answered a former fan who now understood that he could no longer see McLaren as a mentor. This person was reeling, trying to figure out who could now help guide him in his understanding of the Christian faith. McLaren’s answer was nice; it had the appearance of humility and genuinely sorrowful affection. Yet it was radically opposed to the Bible. He rashly changed the way we interpret Scripture, denying what the Bible makes so clear. If you allow him to, Brian McLaren will “nice” you straight to hell.

And he is far from the only one. Both the history of the church and contemporary Evangelical church are replete with nice people who are in complete rebellion against God. Is there anyone nicer than Joel Osteen? Yet is there anyone whose message has less of the gospel and more anti-biblical nonsense? You can watch him in this video, sitting with Oprah, receiving accolades, nicely, smilingly leading an eager crowd farther and farther from the cross. He is nice, but he, too, will nice you straight to the gates of hell, flashing that brilliant smile all the while.

Christians are called by God to stand firm on what the Bible says is true, no matter how counter-cultural, and no matter how odious to the spirit of the age. When Christians do this we are so often portrayed as being unpleasant or disagreeable, the very opposite of nice. We need to allow ourselves to be portrayed as not nice. We cannot afford to allow niceness to be a fruit of the Spirit along with the rest. It may be impossible to be nice when we stand with firm conviction on what the Bible says about marriage, about the value of unborn children, or any other area where culture conflicts with Scripture. We need to be okay with that, as long as the fruit of the Spirit is present in its place. If we are to be nice at all, we must first be full of love, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and the other character qualities that are genuinely reflective of the Spirit.

Niceness is not a bad trait. It is not wrong or sinful to be nice. But we vastly overestimate it and at the same time confuse it with those traits that matter so much more. It may be good to be nice, but it is so much better to be holy.

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