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Christian Living

October 19, 2010

Last week I wrote about Sex & Assurance of Salvation, using that post to bring together two ideas that had been floating around my brain. Today I want to do that one more time—I want to use a post to smash two ideas together.

Many Christians talk about seekers, those who are in the midst of pursuing God. Of course this is a little bit of a misnomer since the Bible makes it clear that no one truly seeks after God. As Romans 3 says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Case closed. Sinful man does not pursue God.

What this means is that no one initiates a pursuit of God—the kind of pursuit that would lead to salvation. Instead, it is God who is the initiator and the pursuer. It is God who seeks us. R.C. Sproul says “from our vantage point it seems to us that unregenerate people are in fact seeking after God. But God is not hiding. He is in plain view. His creation clearly and manifestly displays his glory. Fallen humans are not by nature seekers after God. We are fugitives from God, fully intent upon escaping from him.” We do not pursue; we flee. And there is a sense in which we do not need to pursue, since evidence of God surrounds us all the time.

Yet this can be hard to believe because it often looks as if unbelievers truly are seeking God. It seems, for all the world, as if they are truly seeking and yet not finding—as if they are seeking and God is keeping himself hidden from them. Aquinas offered an answer to this dilemma, and again, I turn here to R.C. Sproul. “He explained that the unbeliever desperately seeks happiness, peace of mind, meaning and significance in life, relief from guilt, and a host of other things we link inseparably with God. We make the gratuitous assumption that because people are seeking things that only God can give them that they are therefore seeking God.” So what, then, is the real situation? “People seek the benefits of God, while all the while fleeing from God himself.”

So what appears to be a pursuit of God may well be the exact opposite; something that seems noble may well be utterly evil. While it may seem that a person is pursuing God, he is actually simply seeking what only God can provide, all the while hating God himself.

October 12, 2010

One of the joys of reading widely is in finding interesting connections between things that might otherwise seem to be unrelated. Let me explain.

I recently read through R.C. Sproul’s book What Is Reformed Theology? Actually, I’ve recently read through almost all of R.C. Sproul’s books and have noted that he has several recurring emphases. One of these is the importance of a right understanding of God’s work of preservation. Of course this emphasis makes sense when you know that Sproul is a long-time teacher and defender of Reformed doctrine.

Sproul’s concern with understanding the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints is not purely a theological one; it is not simply that he wants to have his theology right. His concern is practical. “There is clearly a link between our assurance and our sanctification,” he says. “The person who lacks assurance of salvation is vulnerable to a myriad of threats to his personal growth. The confident Christian, certain of his salvation, is free from the paralyzing fear that can inhibit personal growth. Without assurance we are assailed by doubt and uncertainty with respect to God’s promises, which serve as an anchor for our souls.”

What Sproul wants people to see is that assurance of salvation, a doctrine which flows out of God’s act of preservation (Sproul says rightly that the doctrines may be distinguished from one another, but never separated), is critical to spiritual growth. Those who lack assurance that they are saved often become bogged down by concern for their salvation. They have trouble growing in their faith because they cannot see past the uncertainty about their own spiritual condition. And this makes perfect sense, right? It is difficult to grow in the deeper things if we are still wrestling with the very basics. This is why every Christian should seek assurance of his salvation.

October 07, 2010

Social MediaThere are many who doubt or downplay the relevance of the Old Testament to our times. Those people have probably never taken the time to read the book of Proverbs. I read from Proverbs almost every day and I am continually amazed at just how relevant this book is. It seems that wisdom is timeless. The lessons David taught Solomon speak to myself and my children as much as they did to the men and women of ancient Israel. The wisdom of God given to Solomon continues to ring loud and clear in my heart.

If Solomon were alive today and we were to ask him how we are to relate to one another in this digital world, if we were to ask him how we can honor God in our use of all these social media available to us today, here is how he might respond.

Count to ten before posting, sharing, sending, submitting. “Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20).” How many arguments could be avoided and how many relationships saved if people were only a little less hasty with their words? Before posting an article or before replying to a Facebook status, it is always (always!) a good idea to re-read what you have written and consider if your words accurately express your feelings and if expressing such feelings is necessary and edifying. And while I’m on the topic, a spell-check doesn’t hurt either.

Leave the fool to his folly. “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself (26:4).” There are times when it is best to leave a foolish person to his own devices rather than to try to change him. Sometimes it is best just to leave him alone rather than providing him more ammunition to work with. This means that it may be best to ignore the troll, to leave a rebuke unanswered, than to bait him and to suffer his wrath.

Expose folly. “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes (26:5).” Here it is—undeniable proof that the Bible contradicts itself! Are we to answer a fool according to his folly or not? Evidently this “contradiction” is deliberate and is in the Bible to show that there is no absolute law in this situation. There are times when folly must be exposed, either if the fool is one you believe is honestly seeking after wisdom, or if his folly will damage others. If a fool is impacting others, drawing them into his foolishness, he must be exposed for the sake of the church’s health.

Know when to walk away. “If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet (29:9).” There are times when you need to walk away instead of carrying on an argument. Foolish people have no real desire to learn or to be wise. Instead, they only seek opportunities to loudly proclaim the folly. Walk away so you can have peace. Shut down, log off, erase—do what you need to.

October 05, 2010

Over the weekend I came across some video of America’s self-proclaimed cheapest family. They got me thinking about frugality, a topic that is all the rage in Christian circles today (or at least in some Christian circles). I have discussed this issue once or twice in the past but want to return to it today. Why? Because a lot of people put a lot of effort into frugality and I think many of them do so without thinking deeply whether what they are doing is right or wrong. They are saving money and this must be good, right? I’m not entirely convinced. So hear me out.

One reality about frugality is that it is contagious. I think it can be especially difficult issue for women. When one or two women in a church emphasize frugality and talk of all the amazing deals they’ve been able to find—how they managed to find a lifetime’s supply of Baby Aspirin for $4 or how they’ve gotten 180 rolls of toilet paper for the cost of 18 rolls—other women may feel like they are being spendthrifts for paying full price. It is difficult to say, or even to believe, that there may be no inherent virtue in frugality. And yet I want to suggest that very thing: there may be no inherent value in it.

Frugality

September 27, 2010

It’s one of the inevitabilities of parenting—the kids just keep getting older and older. And every now and again I pause and consider and realize that my time with the kids is running out. My son is now 10-and-a-half years old, and in just a few months he will be exactly half the age I was when I got married. It’s entirely possible that I’m coming up to the 50% mark of the time he will be living in my home, under my direct influence. Panic!

This can be a difficult thing to think about. I look back on the ten years of parenting and see so many missed opportunities, so many times that I was not available to the kids. I look at where they are now in their spiritual development, in my knowledge of who they are, and I wonder if I’ve already blown it, if it’s already too late.

But at my best I know better than this. I know it’s not too late and that the best years are ahead. So when I recover from my momentary panic, I look forward to what lies ahead, and I especially look forward to increasingly regarding my children as friends. That is something I’ve seen from my friends with older children—that as the children grow up, they make the slow transition from kid to friend. And already I’m starting to see how that is happening. I’ll always be dad to the kids, but I will also be able to regard them as friends.

In the past few months I have been trying to be a little bit more intentional about spending time with the children, trying to grab the moments that exist and trying to create memories. Mostly I’m just trying to know them and to be known by them. And I know that one of the best ways I can do this is by spending time individually with each one of them.

The first thing I started doing was being deliberate about “daddy dates,” taking my kids, one each week, out for breakfast on Saturday mornings. Because the kids are in public schools we cannot do this on weekdays. But it’s a lot of fun to wake up early on Saturday and head to Denny’s (which, so far, is their breakfast joint of choice). So each Saturday I wake one of them and quietly head out for breakfast. The kids order something off the kids’ menu and I order the Grand Slam. We just sit and talk. It’s not a lot of time, but it’s a good time. It’s a time with no real agenda except to have the experience alone together. I don’t know how long they’ll continue to be impressed with Denny’s, but for now they think it’s awfully exciting.

I’ve also tried to find at least one more substantial thing I can do with each of the children once or twice in the year (outside of the fun things we do as a family). Last year I took my daughter to The Sound of Music (the musical, not the movie) when it was playing in Toronto, spending the money to make sure we could sit in great seats and see all that was going on. I take my son to a couple of baseball games each year, either just the two of us or with him and one of his friends. We try to time things in such a way that we hang out with a player after the game or find a way to get out onto the field or something else that’s kind of special.

As the children get just a little bit older I will begin to bring them with me to the occasional conference. I have seen lots of speakers do this and I’m looking forward to it as well—the travel and the experience will be very exciting for them, even if they get bored to death sitting in a convention center for 2 or 3 days.

One of the most ordinary things I’ve been doing lately is having one of the children help me with the after-dinner routine every night. Since my wife is generally the one who makes dinner, I’ve always taken it upon myself to clean up after we finish eating. And now that the school year has begun, I usually put together the next day’s bagged lunches at the same time. So what I have been doing is having one of the children join me in this each night. We will do dishes together, make the lunches together, and then do whatever that kid wants to do that night. Sometimes we will go for a walk together, sometimes we’ll read a story, sometimes we’ll play a computer game or turn on the Wii. But in any case, we do the work and then spend some time together doing something fun. This has quickly become a tradition that the kids love. Though they probably wouldn’t complain if we were to scratch the bits that demand work, they are so eager to spend time with me that even doing dishes suddenly seems like fun rather than work. (Similar to this but perhaps geared primarily to slightly older children, Brian Croft tells how he individually shepherds each of his children in this very helpful blog post)

So there we have just a few of the ways that I try to make sure I am being deliberate in spending time individually with each of my children. But I know that I’ve got a lot to learn. I’d love to hear from you about some of the things you do, or perhaps some of the things your parents did long ago, as they sought to love you and be loved by you. How do you ensure you are investing personally in each of your children?

September 16, 2010

Last night we received the shocking news that one of our next-door neighbors had taken his life just a few hours prior. He was only fourteen years old. Though he was a boy who suffered from Asperger’s and a few obsessive kinds of disorders, he was still, by all appearances, quite a normal kid—a reclusive one, but one who was still a presence in the neighborhood. Yesterday, while out with his mother, he threw himself off a building and fell to his death. We grieve for the family he left behind—for his mother, his sister and his two brothers.

Later today, when my children return home from school, we will need to tell them the sad news. It is a difficult thing to have to tell young children—that a child who lived next door took his own life. As I lay in bed this morning, wondering how I could best explain it to them, I thought back to an old blog post I had written. Though I wrote it seven years ago, it seemed somehow fitting to post it again today since the issues will be the same as I explain death to my three children, all of whom have been blessedly protected from its harsh reality through their young lives.

*****

My son is three years old and has recently begun to become aware of the existence of death. At only three he has far greater capacity to wonder and to ask questions than he does to understand. This makes it difficult and as his father I struggle to try to share with him what death is and how something so terrifying and so final can be made an occasion of wondrous joy.

Today while my wife was at a Bible study, Nick and I settled down to watch a movie. It was a children’s movie and at the end one of the central characters died. I watched Nick as this event unfolded. I could see his face fall and his eyes narrow as the character died. I saw tears form as he watched the loved ones gather around their fallen friend. He turned to me and with tears spilling down his cheeks sobbed, “Daddy, why did he have to die? When is he going to come alive again?” I pulled him to my lap and reminded him of heaven and told him that people who love God go to heaven when they die. I told him how heaven is a place where there is no more death, no more fighting and no more sadness. I told him that it is a place where we can always be with God and where boys and their daddies can be together forever. He tried so hard to understand, but how is a three-year old mind supposed to understand a concept as large and as unnatural as death?

September 13, 2010

The best defense is a good offense. I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before. Though initially meant for a military context, it has since been applied to all kinds of situations far beyond warfare. It has also been turned around so occasionally you will hear people say, “the best offense is a good defense.” Today we most often hear in the phrase in the context of sports, and now that football season is upon us—the sport of a thousand cliches—I suspect we will be hearing it a lot.

When it comes to sports, it is often the case that a strong offense is the best defense. After all, a team with strong offensive production denies the other team the ability to control the ball and to tally points. The phrase works well in sports like soccer or hockey where, especially in the game’s closing minutes, a team will attempt to control the ball (or puck) for long periods, knowing that this will keep the other team from scoring. But maybe it works best in football. Football is a sport I used to watch a lot and there were many occasions where I saw games where the first possession would last an entire quarter, or very close to it. As the team marched slowly up the field, with play after play, they maintained constant possession of the ball. The defensive team remained on defense and had no opportunity to put any points on the board. The best teams have this down to an art and have mastered the ability to take large chunks of time off the clock while accomplishing little more than keeping the ball out of the other team’s hands. In this case offense serves as defense. The offensive team plays defensively, not attempting to score points as much as they try to keep the other team from getting control of the ball.

The more I live this Christian life, the more I see that there is a spiritual level of truth in that old and worn phrase. The best defense really is a good offense. The best way to protect my heart and life is to be constantly on the offensive. It is in those times that I ease off, those times where I grow complacent and disinterested, that I am most prone to sin, most prone to wandering. It is in those times that I begin to lose battles. The words of 1 Corinthians 10:12 seem applicable: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” When I think I can stand on my own power I am priming myself for a great fall.

September 08, 2010

Occasionally I attempt to think back to all of the questions I receive from readers of this site. I try to think of things I have been asked many times but have never written about. One that came to mind recently is rather a simple question: Under what circumstances may I leave my church? Quite often I receive emails from readers who are concerned that their church no longer preaches sound doctrine or perhaps no longer offers skillful teaching. And they want to know if the Bible allows them or even compels them to move on.

We live in an age of consumerism and this leaves us accustomed to prioritizing our needs and, even more so, our desires, above all else. We march out of stores that do not carry the products we want at the prices we demand; we customize our lives, from the clothes we wear to the cell phones we carry. In all things we are sovereign, we are discerning consumers who demand that things be done our way.

But church is an area where consumerism ought to be the furthest thing from our minds. At church we are part of an involuntary community which is pieced together by God. We are placed under spiritual authorities and are to be subject to them. We need to be very careful, then, to examine our hearts and examine our motives before withdrawing membership from a church. Sadly, though, there are certain situations in which this becomes a necessity.

There are good reasons to leave a church and there are bad reasons to leave a church. I dare say that there are far more bad reasons than good reasons. There are times where you must leave and times when you may leave. In this brief article I want to point to a few of those good reasons. Perhaps another time I can focus more on the really bad ones.

You Must Leave

Most of the reasons you must leave relate to leadership. If the leaders of a church show contempt and disregard for the Bible and for sound doctrine, you are called to separate yourself from them. And it may well be that the only way to do this is to leave your church (though in some circumstances you may be able to have the leaders removed).

Here are four situations in which the Bible tells you that you must leave a church.

September 06, 2010

A few years ago there was a strike at a juvenile detention center that is near my house. The institution lies directly between my house and pretty much every place I ever drive to, so I had to go by it just about every time I set out. Every day the strikers would update a little sign to tell the world how many days they had been sitting outside, waiting for someone to meet their demands. That number ticked higher and higher. Eventually I figured that if 150 days had gone by and life within the jail was continuing just fine, the employer had learned to get along quite well without the staff. Nevertheless, they contained to remain outside; they continued their strike.

There would always be at least 6 or 8 people sitting at the end of the driveway that leads into the detention center. They would sit in the middle of the driveway so they could block any cars coming in, forcing the drivers to wait a few minutes. On either side of the driveway were little huts they had constructed of shipping crates, plywood and old blue tarps. By all appearances they were held together with nothing but gravity and a bit of frayed nylon rope. Outside each hut was an oil barrel loaded with wood to provide warmth on cool nights.

There was an assortment of garbage, broken lawn chairs, barrels, signs and other assorted trash scattered around the strike site. Any time I drove by the employees would be sitting on lawn chairs either kicked back reading novels or playing cards. For the first few days they held signs and waved at cars, but that stopped before long. For a while they held signs claiming that working conditions were not safe enough. Yet since they were striking for more money, I suppose they would have been happy enough to have those conditions remain the same or even deteriorate if only they were given a bit more money. Those signs eventually disappeared.

August 31, 2010

Facebook. In so many areas of life it’s no longer an if, no longer an option. With 500 million users it is quickly becoming a near-essential tool for families, for businesses and yes, even for churches.

The good news is that Facebook has a lot to commend it; there many things it does very well and thus there are many ways in which Facebook can assist pastors and other ministry leaders. The bad news is that there are also (and inevitably) ways in which it can hinder ministry if not used well. Today I want to look at Facebook as a ministry tool and suggest a few ways in which it can help and hinder. Because of practical limitations I cannot tell you how to go about setting up an account, but at least I can give some suggestions on what to do once you’ve already joined and started to be active.

One of Facebook’s great benefits for you, as a ministry leader, is that it lets you be where your people are. If you are like most pastors, you will find that your church members are not only members of Facebook, but that they are active members. This is where people socialize, where they entertain themselves and where (occassionally) they discuss serious issues. This is not to say that you need to be on Facebook in order to effectively minister to your people, but it does give you one more way of interacting with them, and one that can be very effective. Facebook is at its heart a social media, one used to coordinate communication and this is where you will find that it assists ministry. However, there are a few areas in which you will need to be cautious.

Use Facebook to Supplement Real-World Ministry

As you consider using Facebook in your ministry, or as you consider how you are already using it, spend a few minutes thinking about what Facebook has replaced. It is generally true of new technologies that they do not just add something to life, but that they also replace something that is already there. In the case of Facebook, it may well be that it is replacing real-world face to face ministry. Facebook builds social connections and in some ways enhances them; but it can just as easily diminish them as it replaces offline life with online. There is always the temptation to take the easy route (Post “Happy Birthday” on someone’s wall instead of calling him; Send an email instead of meeting him for lunch). Be sure that you are not allowing Facebook to be an easy way of getting around difficult ministry. And make sure you are not using it to disincarnate yourself, to remove your physical presence from people’s lives.

So as you use Facebook, be careful to use it in a supplementary way, a way that supplements your real flesh and blood contact with the people you are seeking to serve. Use it to share event information, to get people remembering last week’s sermons and thinking toward next week’s, to get people singing the songs you sing and praying for what needs to be prayed for. Use it to share photographs of great events and to encourage people to make contact with one another. The ways it can supplement ministry are nearly endless. But all the while use it to push yourself toward, not away from, face to face contact.

Learn, But Don’t Be a Stalker

There are parts of the shepherding ministry that are active and parts that are passive. This is to say that in many cases you will inadvertently encounter information relevant to your ministry—things you need to act on. You may be told by a mutual contact that there is an important date coming up in another person’s life or that someone has committed a grevious sin. You did not go looking for the information; rather, it came to you. There are other times that you will be more proactive in seeking out information. You may approach a person and ask how he has been doing recovering from a surgery or you may ask him how he has done in the battle against a particular sin.

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