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Christian Living

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.

October 29, 2012

Apple
I’ve said it often: I have a fascination with good writing that explores common issues or current events from a secular perspective. Time and again I find myself reading articles of this nature and enjoying the author’s perspective, but wanting him to go just a little bit farther, a little bit deeper, and to introduce the spiritual dimension. So many authors get so close to explaining the way life really works, and yet they don’t ever get to the heart. I love to take writing like that and to look at it in light of the Bible. The Bible introduces that missing component and ties everything together.

Tom Chatfield recently wrote an article for the BBC in which he looked at a subtle change he’s seen in the field of technology—a change that impacts each one of us, whether we consider ourselves technophobes or technophiles or somewhere in between. In the past couple of weeks, the news in the tech sector has been dominated by new products by fight-to-the-death competitors Apple and Microsoft. Apple took the wraps off a whole list of new products, including the long-predicted iPad Mini. Microsoft introduced their new tablet which is meant to out-iPad the iPad.

Chatfield looks at all of this and says that it is one more piece of evidence that there is a great shift going on right now in the way we perceive our technology and, therefore, in the way our technology is marketed to us. Where technology was once largely utilitarian with the emphasis on what it did for us, it is quickly becoming dominated by look, feel and lifestyle. “A shift pioneered by Apple but increasingly championed by all tech firms, it takes its cues from fashion, positioning tablets, computers and software as cultural beacons: stamps that immediately say who you are or, rather, who you aspire to be. If anything proves just how far technology is ingrained in our lives, it is this.”

Chatfield believes that what these phones and tablets and computers can do for us is becoming less important than how they make us feel and how they make others perceive us. “What’s on offer,” he says, “is a kind of technological sublime, promising not only the ultimate lifestyle accessory, but a place where the experience of living itself can be perfected.”

He believes that Apple is now a lifestyle brand as much as a technical brand. He may not give quite enough credit to the technical side of their devices (which, though beautiful, are also very functional) but his point stands. Apple sells us a lifestyle, they sell us an image, a self-identity. The competitors are just catching up, but are beginning to play the same game.

We can pause here and introduce biblical language. We see idolatry here—man’s desperate attempt to find meaning in someone or something outside of God. We bear his image, but long for something more. We are all on a desperate search for meaning and purpose and, ultimately, joy. All of these things are marketed to us in the form of a little glowing rectangle through which we can live such happy, such meaningful, such joy-filled lives. This is not to say that tablets or cell phones are inherently sinful, but that marketers can sell us more of them if they appeal to our sin natures, taking advantage of those deeply-held desires for significance. And this is exactly what they do.

October 24, 2012

Love the sinner, hate the sin.” That’s a well-worn Christian mantra, an expression of conviction that even while we stand firm on what constitutes right and wrong, we will continue to love those who do what is sinful. We use the expression to affirm love for others even while expressing that their sin is really, truly wrong.

The expression works in many contexts. I can love the alcoholic even while hating the alcoholism or, more rightly, hating the episodes of binging and acting out. “I love you. I really do. But I hate that you continue to indulge in these episodes of binge drinking and I hate the way you behave when you’re drunk.” This is the stuff of Intervention, the stuff of Dr. Phil. I can love the thief even while hating that he imperils his safety and freedom by taking what is not his. “I love you, but I hate that you keep stealing from people.” Non-Christians look at things much the same way, though they do not frame it with the word “sin.” We all know that there are times when we can disapprove of a person’s actions even while continuing to love and value that person.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” works in many contexts, but Christians are learning that there is one context, one very important context, in which it does not work quite so well. Some things that the Bible says are sin are very closely tied to a person’s identity, to their very understanding of who they are. There are not a lot of alcoholics who say, “I was born an alcoholic and will always be one. At heart, that’s who I am.” There are not a lot of thieves who declare that theft is an integral part of their identity and who celebrate it as the deepest part of their self-understanding. There are not parades to celebrate alcoholism and thievery. These are sins to be sure, but they are not the kinds of sins by which people identify themselves. Even those who do these things tend to acknowledge that they are wrong and try to clean themselves up by moving past them.

But other sins are very closely tied to identity. The Bible is clear that homosexuality is sin. As the designer of humanity, as the designer of gender, God has both the ability and the right to tell us what is consistent with his will and what is radically inconsistent. Homosexuality is inconsistent with his will and, therefore, sinful. Christians have long held this and have sought to hate the sin even while loving the sinner. Those words may help the Christian as he thinks about that particular sin, calling him to affirm the wrongness of the sin and at the same time to affirm the value of the person who commits that sin. But this phrase brings no comfort to the homosexual; because his sexuality is so closely tied to his identity, it is nearly impossible to believe that I can truly love him, even while I reject his sexuality. My words in effect say, “I love you; I hate you.”

A growing number of Christians are calling on us to understand that we’ve made this whole issue a little bit too simplistic. We’ve made it a little bit too neat and tidy and haven’t really pushed ourselves to look at homosexuality in light of culture’s celebration of it. They are by no means calling on us to abandon what we believe or to reject what the Bible says. Rather, they are helping us see it from a clearer, more realistic, more helpful perspective.

October 22, 2012

Last week my wife and I sat down and watched C.J. Mahaney’s keynote address from the Strengthening Your Marriage in Ministry event at Southern Seminary. His talk was titled “Marriage and Pastoral Ministry” and in it he shares with future pastors some of the lessons he has learned along the way and some of the very practical things he has done to ensure that his marriage remains strong even in all the trials and temptations of ministry. I am relatively new to pastoral ministry and being in ministry has required a lot of thoughtful adjustment to our lives and our relationship. Aileen and I found it a helpful talk, perhaps especially because we, too, have young children now and we’ve divided family roles much the same way the Mahaneys did. His description of their life together sounded a whole lot like our life together.

There was one thing C.J. said that generated a fair bit of discussion between the two of us. When talking about Carolyn, especially in the days when she was a stay-at-home mom with several young children in her care, C.J. said how he often commended her because her job is harder than his. He made this point stand out—Husbands, your role in life is easier than your wife’s and you ought to make sure she knows this. This is not an original sentiment; I can’t count how many men I’ve heard say this to their wives or how often I’ve read people commending this kind of statement: “My job is easy compared to hers.”

After we watched C.J.’s address, Aileen and I went out for lunch and I told her, “I don’t think your job is harder than mine.” I didn’t mean this as a judgment of how she goes about her responsibilities. I simply meant that in a subjective sense I don’t feel like it’s a true statement or one I could say with real conviction. She replied, “Do you think your job is harder than mine?” I don’t feel like that is true either. And as we talked I found myself expressing something like this: Our roles are so different, so complementary, that any kind of comparison is unhelpful. It doesn’t matter whose job is more difficult; what matters is that we each fulfill our role, our calling, with joy and with skill.

The fact is that I want to commend Aileen for what she does. She dedicates her time, her attention, her energy, to keeping this home and this family running. She is the one who takes the lead in getting the kids out the door in the morning, she is the one who arranges their lessons and drives them to the gym or the pool, she is the one who makes sure their homework is getting done, she is the one who takes the lead in keeping the house tidy and in preparing meals. I am not entirely uninvolved in these things, but in the breakdown of responsibilities, these are the ones that she has taken on and the ones she continues to take the lead on. Her life is not one of ease, but one never-ending responsibility. Her life is difficult enough that she has to battle to find joy and meaning in the middle of all of it.

October 17, 2012

I’m so busy. You’re so busy. We’re all so busy—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, perhaps because they just can’t imagine anyone being anything but busy, or perhaps 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, so sorry for taking more of your time.” I receive emails that say, “I’m so sorry for asking you this.”

But here’s the thing: I don’t consider myself busy. I recently spoke at an event and during a Q&A session was asked “How do you do all that you do?” My answer was something like this: “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.

This is not to say that I go through life free from all anxiety and without the stress of impending 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 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.

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.

October 15, 2012

One of the interesting and significant new realities of life in a digital world is that we are finding new and original ways of building community. There was a time when community was largely related to and dependent upon geography. Community was based on shared space, so our sense of belonging was tied to the people who were closest to us; our deepest commitments were to the local community.

The Internet has allowed us to expand our understanding of community so that we can have significant and ongoing interaction with people regardless of their location. Today my sense of belonging, my sense of identity, may be tied most closely to a community of people who share an interest but who relate only online. I may feel closer affinity with these people than with anyone in my own zip code or my own local church. Many of us have custom-built a community for ourselves based around a common interest.

This weekend a nearby church asked me to speak on “Missions in a Changing World.” They wanted me to focus on how we can be faithful in mission in a world that has been transformed by our new technologies. I found myself in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). There we see a lawyer who goes to Jesus to ask, “What is the most important commandment.” I suppose this man knows that he is meant to live a life that is different from the lives of people around him, and he is wondering how he is to do that.

Jesus gives him the opportunity to answer his own question. He correctly identifies that he is to love God first and, having done that, to love his neighbor as himself. But he immediately looks for a loophole, asking Jesus, “But who is my neighbor.” He wants to know who it is that he is primarily responsible to love.

September 17, 2012

As Christians we are adept at looking at the culture around us and seeing how it is violating God’s good standards when it comes to sexuality. Not too long ago, though, I was asked to reflect on the ways in which Christians may compromise God’s standards for sexuality—some of those hidden or sanctified sins in which we allow compromise in our lives, our marriages, our churches. I came up with five ways that Christians may compromise God’s standards for sexuality.

We compromise God’s standard for sexuality when we leave the gospel out of the marriage bed

Christians consistently have trouble extending the reach of the gospel from salvation all the way to sex. Yet the gospel isn’t just about that one-time commitment; it’s about how we live today and every day. It extends through every part of life.

The gospel says, Whatever my marriage is to be and whatever our sexual relationship is to be, it is to be a part of that portrait of Christ and the church. When I am considering sex in this way, I’m first asking, Would this look like an accurate portrait of Christ and the church? What reflects Christ giving up his life for his bride? What reflects the church joyfully submitting to Christ? This completely reorients us away from self, from self-love and self-service, and orients me toward my spouse. This portrait of marriage does not come to an end when we close the bedroom door.

When we compromise this standard we become bound by law instead of freed by the gospel; we have become self-focused instead of other-focused. Law is always focused toward self, gospel is always focused toward the other and, ultimately, toward God. If we allow ourselves to fall back into that age-old temptation of law, we will inevitably harm our relationship with the one we love most.

We compromise when we disobey the clear biblical command that in marriage we are to have sex, and that we are to have it frequently, willingly and joyfully

There is a difference between understanding the Bible and obeying the Bible. There is a difference between believing the gospel and living out the implications of the gospel. This is why so many of Paul’s letters fall into two parts; in the first part he talks theology and in the second part he talks application. There is a reason for this: he knows that good theology needs to be worked out in life and he knows that we can’t do this without the right gospel foundation.

There are many couples that fully believe what the Bible teaches about marriage, and they may even believe what the Bible teaches about sex within marriage, but they do not have sex together. One has refused for so long that the other has stopped even asking or trying. One has given up and let himself go and the other has lost interest. Together they have become disobedient and their compromise grieves the Lord. They claim to believe what’s true, but they refuse to practice it.

God places stipulations on the sexual relationship. You are allowed to stop having sex, but only for a limited time and only if that limited time will be devoted to prayer. That’s it! And yet every marriage goes through seasons of sexlessness and too many marriages just abandon the sexual relationship altogether. There is something in 1 Corinthians 7:3 that has always jumped out at me. Paul talks about “conjugal rights.” The Bible says very, very little about our rights. In most cases talk of rights is opposed to gospel. But in the marriage relationship we are told that a husband and wife have the right to one another, the right to one another’s bodies. Sex is not a suggestion, it is not just a good idea or a nice gift to give. Sex is a right because in God’s economy of marriage, it is a necessity.

What happens when we compromise God’s standards here? Well right from 1 Corinthians 7 we see that we allow the possibility of sexual sin in our spouse. A husband who denies his wife is not protecting her from sexual sin. A wife who denies her husband is not protecting him from sexual sin. Abstaining from sex is selfish and unloving and compromising. Yes, it will be your spouses’ fault if he or she falls into sexual sin because you have stopped having sex; but you will bear part of the responsibility. Have you ever considered that Satan’s great plan for you is that you would have as much sex outside of marriage as possible and as little sex within marriage as possible? God’s plan, of course, is just opposite to that—to have no sex outside of marriage and a whole lot of it within marriage.

There is another consequence: we are blatantly disobeying a clear command of the Lord and a command that flows from what is true of the gospel. The sexual relationship is not a little isolated pocket of Christian obedience, but something that flows right out of the gospel. Too many of us isolate sexuality from everything else in life.

And finally, when you compromise in this area you are denying your marriage a great means of grace. It can be helpful to look at sex as something like a marriage sacrament, something deeply symbolic that is far more than the sum of its parts. It’s far deeper than the physical, far more than just the act. We trust that in this act God extends grace to our marriage. We obey him and are right to expect his blessing. The marriage that forgets sex is like the church that forgets Lord’s Supper—it is weakening itself and denying itself one of the strange and unexpected ways that the Lord blesses it.

September 05, 2012

So many Christians live their lives racked with guilt and shame. They think back to the things they did, the sins they committed, whether two days ago or two decades, and they live under a cloud of shame. This shame hurts, it burns, it incapacitates. It raises this question: What is the place of guilt, what is the place of shame, in the life of the Christian? I want to take a shot at answering that question today.

We need to begin by distinguishing between guilt and shame. Here is how I differentiate between them: Guilt is the objective reality that I have committed an offense or a crime; shame is the subjective experience of feeling humiliation or distress because of what I have done. God has made us in such a way that sin incurs guilt and guilt generates shame. But there is a catch and a caution: Guilt and shame come in helpful forms and in paralyzingly unhelpful forms. Guilt and shame can be a good gift of God or a curse of Satan.

When I sin against God I may find that my conscience accuses me, that it convicts me that I have done wrong. My guilt, the realization that I have sinned, brings a feeling of shame. This guilt and shame is a good gift of God when it motivates me to repent of my sin, to look again to the cross of Christ.

When I repent of sin, I am assured by God that Christ himself has already dealt with the guilt of it. At the cross the guilt of that offense was transferred to Christ. He took that sin—the full, objective, legal guilt of it—upon himself to such an extent that my sin became his sin. Jesus Christ took every hateful thought and adulterous glance and spiteful word and every other sin upon himself. He took that sin to the cross and suffered God’s wrath against it to the point that justice was satisfied. This means that the offense has been truly and fully paid for. It is gone. I am no longer guilty before God!

But Christ did more than that. Not only did he take away my guilt, but he also gave me his righteousness. This is the great exchange of the gospel, that my sin was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to me. I am not only not sinful, but I am actually righteous. Because the guilt of the offense is gone, the shame is gone as well. Because that sin is no longer my own, the shame is no longer my own.

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