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Christian Living

August 05, 2013

I often regret making broad statements, but I think most Christians in North America and the rest of the developed world will probably agree with a statement like this one: There is too much complacency in our lives and in our churches. I recently received a question from a group of pastors who had been discussing this topic: “How do you deal with complacency in your own life and in the life of your church?” They had various answers for the first part of the question, but found themselves stuck on the second half. I thought I might take a shot at it.

But first, we do not want to be Christians who are un-complacent. The Christian life is not avoiding negative qualities as much as it is pursuing positive qualities. Therefore, we want to be Christians who are zealous, for zeal is the opposite of complacency. “Zeal” is a word that was once an important part of the Christian vocabulary, but has since diminished.

Sometimes the best approach to a question like this is to find people in history who have modeled what we are missing and to see what they had that we lack. To find zeal as an emphasis and to find zeal on display, we can travel back a few hundred years to the Puritans. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones dedicate a whole chapter of A Puritan Theology to the Puritan emphasis on zeal. I want to trace just a little bit of what they learned.

None of us is without zeal—we are all zealous about something. We are zealous for this sports team or that one, we are zealous for this brand of cell phone or that one. “Zeal runs in our veins for what we love and against what we hate.” What we want as Christians is zeal that is properly motivated and properly directed—a truly godly zeal. John Reynolds defined Christian zeal as “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men.” If we assume this desire and concern is not merely feelings but action, it describes the very opposite of complacency. Zeal is like a flame that brings a pot to a boil—it causes our affections for God to come to a boil so that we pursue what delights him and fight against what dishonors him. Zeal is spiritual heat, spiritual energy that flows out through the godly characteristics of love, joy, hope, peace, and so on. It is not a grace on its own as much as it is a quality that affects every part of the Christian life, making us zealous in the way we love, zealous in the way we express hope, zealous in every area and every characteristic and every fruit of the Spirit.

The Puritans identified four means through which God stirs up the Christian’s zeal. These means are equally applicable to individuals and churches. What may surprise you is how unsurprising they are. There is no great trick to zeal; rather, it is simply taking advantage of God’s ordinary means.

July 24, 2013

A short time ago I wrote about how I had learned to embrace my dependence upon my wife and to celebrate my need of her. The Lord provided me with a helper for an obvious reason: I need help. There is still part of me that hates to admit this. I value independence and self-reliance and other such dubious virtues. Admitting dependence and need comes hard to me. Yet as life goes on, that need and that dependence become increasingly obvious to me and, undoubtedly, to those around me.

Just a few weeks ago I was at an event and due to speak just a few minutes later. Yet I found myself in my hotel room, in a state of near panic, unable to conceive of how I would cross that room and open that door. This isn’t quite the norm for me, but it also isn’t all that unusual. I called Aileen who immediately knew what to do: She spoke truth to me, reminded me of what I had been called to do and assured me that I could do it; she prayed with me and she prayed for me. And then everything was okay again. I felt like a building that had been about to topple, but then someone dug underneath it and poured a new foundation. It was still leaning a little bit, but now it was resting on something strong enough to support it. Or like an athlete (that metaphor is kind of a stretch for me, I know) who managed to hobble across the finish line only because he had someone else to run beside him, to cheer him on, to give him a shoulder to lean on.

And I realized in that moment that one of the most significant ways Aileen helps me is by strengthening me. She gives me strength I simply do not have without her. It drew me to this exploration of the word helper that appears in Susan Hunt and Ligon Duncan’s Book Women’s Ministry in the Local Church:

God ‘helps’ by defending the weak (Exodus 18:4), seeing and caring for the suffering (Ps. 10:14), supporting (20:2), shielding and protecting (33:20), delivering from distress (70:5), rescuing the poor, weak, needy, and afflicted (72:12–14), and comforting (86:17). These are strong, relational, nurturing, compassionate words. They are covenant words. They characterize our relationship with God and with one another.

Supporting, delivering from distress, rescuing the weak, comforting: those are exactly the ways in which Aileen comes alongside me and helps me. These are exactly the things she does for me and the things she delights to do for me. These are the things I need her to do.

July 22, 2013

A good laugh is one of life’s good gifts. Happiness is an emotion we like to participate in as a group, and especially so when that happiness overflows into laughter. We will gladly pay good money to sit in a theatre and allow Jim Gaffigan or Brian Regan make us laugh for a couple hours. And in the aftermath just the words “hot pockets” or “girth units” is enough to get us laughing again.

Laughter is best shared. A funny moment isn’t nearly as funny when we experience it alone. So we re-enact our favorite comedy sketches. We tell our funny stories. We recount the comedic exploits of our children. We tell the embarrassing tales from other’s peoples lives and sometimes from our own. And when we do that we share the laughter and join in it together. It’s such a pleasure.

We are all comfortable sharing laughter. But there are other expressions of emotion—even good and healthy emotions—that we are not comfortable sharing.

Take sorrow, for example. Every man knows that tears are private. Men laugh in a group but cry alone. “He is hilarious” is a compliment; “He is a crier” is an insult. “He is hilarious” praises him for being manly while “he is a crier” criticizes him for being unmanly.

Why is it that laughter is lauded and tears are shameful? Why do I share my laughter and hide my tears? Why do I laugh aloud and weep silently?

No one wants to share a good cry like they share a good laugh. I will laugh during a sermon, if there is something to laugh about; but I won’t cry if there is something to cry about. I will laugh during a funny movie, but I won’t cry during a sad one. I express my happiness for all to see and a stifle my sorrow so no one will see. I will sing my worship with visible joy, but I will not sing my worship with visible sorrow.

July 17, 2013

When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. They call this maxim “Maslow’s hammer” and it is meant to make us consider the way we use our tools. Tools like hammers and tools like Twitter and Facebook. The fact is, we live with and through our tools and in some way are almost inseparable from them. Our self-understanding and the way we view the world is always closely tied to the means through which we experience life.

Social media is one of our newest tools and in its near-omnipresence it has quickly become one of the most powerful and one of the most important. It is our new hammer and when we hold that hammer it causes us to see all of life’s experiences as nails.

Social media has had the strange effect of changing the way we experience life. It quietly convinces us that the value of an experience is not inherent; rather, the value of an experience is relative to its social media usefulness. This is true not only for the things we do, but the thoughts we think and the facts we learn and even the Bible verses we read. We begin to rank everything in relation to its value as news. We deem these things valuable if we can somehow package them up through social media, share them with others, and receive the feedback of our friends and followers.

And so a valuable experience is one I can distill to 140 characters and tweet, or one I can photograph and share through Instagram, or one I can record on Facebook. An experience I can’t capture and share is one that just isn’t all that interesting or important. As I go about life my mind is constantly asking, “Can I tweet this?” “Can I instagram this?” “How can I get this onto Facebook?” The hammer is always looking to pound a new nail.

Pause & Apply: Some experiences are too full to distill to 140 characters and too rich to capture in a photo. Sharing such experiences through social media serves only to cheapen them. Do not allow yourself to ruin a beautiful moment by seeing it primarily as an opportunity to share it with strangers.

July 15, 2013

The Bible tells me I am to store up treasures in heaven. It tells me there are eternal rewards for decisions I make in this life and it tells me I should desire these rewards and act accordingly. And yet sometimes I feel the desire for reward is a sign of spiritual weakness rather than strength, like that is for lesser Christians and that I should grow beyond it. I struggle with the idea that I am to be motivated to obey God in this world by the promise of reward in the next. It has always struck me as wrong, as something a little bit less than noble, that I would obey God not purely and solely out of a desire to obey him, but out of a desire to increase my eternal reward. Have you ever wondered about that?

Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? Somehow in my mind it seems like the reward must negate the joy or the purity of obedience, and especially when it comes to the way I handle money. Shouldn’t I want to give out of the joy of obedience? Shouldn’t I want to give simply because I love the God who commands me to give generously?

Randy Alcorn has helped me as I’ve pondered this. In his book Managing God’s Money, he refers to God granting eternal rewards for faithful obedience “the neglected key to unlocking our motivation” and digs up plenty of biblical proof that our Bible heroes were motivated by this kind of reward. He offers Hebrews 11:26 as a simple example: “He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” And, of course, we know that the Apostle Paul was also running with his eye on the prize—the crown that would last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Both men were doing the obedient thing on earth with a view to eternal reward.

Even Christ endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He humbled himself knowing that he would soon be exalted. He, too, found his motivation in the eternal reward that would await him—in this case the glory of his Father as he is worshiped by a church washed and redeemed. This challenged me. If I maintain that it is wrong to be motivated by rewards, I am bringing an accusation against Christ, suggesting that he was wrongly motivated. And I bring that same accusation against Paul and Moses and others.

July 10, 2013

For a long time now I’ve had a fascination with what we might refer to as ordinary Christianity, Christian living for the rest of us. This kind of a life stands in contrast to the demands of so many of today’s bestselling Christian books, books that tell us we ought to live extraordinary lives, crazy and above-and-beyond lives. Some of these authors tacitly (or even blatantly) suggest that ordinary must be synonymous with apathetic and that all these comparative and superlative terms—this-er, that-er—are synonymous with godly. But when I look to the Bible I just don’t see it.

The Bible gives us those well-known big-picture commands, the meta commands for the time between Christ’s resurrection and return. “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That Great Commission tells us the what but does not give us a lot of instruction on the how. How do we do that in our daily lives? How does this look in the home and in the office and in the church? Can normal people living normal lives do all of this?

Answers come all through the New Testament and I find it fascinating that concern of the biblical writers is how to be ordinary, how to be normal. In their minds being ordinary offers challenge enough and to be normal is to honor God. Ordinary Christians carry out a Great Commission in ordinary ways through their ordinary lives.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul addresses a group of Christians he loves. He had received an encouraging report about them and sends them a letter to address some of their specific concerns. Many of these concerns are related to daily life. This is a mature church, Christians who had embraced the gospel with enthusiasm and who had preserved that gospel, growing in maturity, growing in strength. And when Paul tells them how to live a satisfying, God-honoring, Great Commission-fulfilling life, he writes about things that may seem so mundane: sexual purity, love between believers, diligence in all of life.

It is this final command that jumps out at me. Paul tells them, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.” When he tells them to aspire to live quietly, he is essentially telling them, “work hard to live quietly” or “make it your ambition to be without ambition.” At our guilty worst we might want to hear him say, “Sell everything you own, move to the most difficult of all mission fields, give up your life for the gospel’s sake—that is Christian living.” But he does not. He tells them to live a quiet and unremarkable life, to be content to be unnoticed, to avoid meddling in other people’s affairs, and to settle into a life of hard work. To do all this is to please and honor God.

July 03, 2013

She just seems so much easier to live with than my wife.” It was a conversation over dinner between sessions at a conference, a conversation in a state far from home. The man felt his heart drawn away from his wife or, perhaps more accurately, toward another woman, a woman who was not his wife, a woman in his church, a woman who was another man’s wife. He believed these thoughts were involuntary, that the ideas were extrinsic to him, that Satan was tempting him with a sin perfectly suited to his weaknesses, to his heart idolatries. He was battling hard to keep the temptation from turning into fantasy, and from there to action.

“My wife is difficult to live with at times. She is needy. She is complicated. And this other woman seems so easy to figure out, so simple to live with.” He saw it not as a judgment of his wife as much as a simple statement of fact: it is difficult to make a life with another person. On the one side he had a woman who needed so much from him and on the other side he had a woman who looked like she would only give without taking. He knew it was a lie, he hated every thought that drew his heart toward her, and yet day after day it crept up and presented him with what promised to be an easier path.

We shifted the conversation away from his wife, away from the other woman, and toward Christ. Sometimes it is difficult to see how the gospel applies to life; sometimes it is not difficult at all.

The Bible tells us that a man is to love his wife in such a way that he imitates the love Christ has for his church, for his people. And if there is anything at all we know about Christ’s love for his people it is this: it is a love that will never end. Though we may stray for a time, he will draw us back. Though we may give up on Christ, he will never give up on us. His love will endure. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

Christ’s love for the church provides the model of a husband’s love for his wife. This is the deepest kind of challenge for the Christian husband. Christ will never grow so worn out that he will shift his attention toward someone else instead. His heart will never stray. His affections will never waver. He will never grow so weary of us that he moves on.

I could hardly blame him if he did. There must be people out there who would prove a lot easier to deal with than me. There must be people out there whose hearts are less sinful than mine, who would progress in holiness faster than I would, who would worship more wholeheartedly and who would live with greater gratitude. And yet he has chosen me, he has set his love on me, and nothing will cause him to abandon me. He will never give up.

This husband is called to love with that same endurance. He is called to love with the same hope, the same dedication. The security he has in Christ is the security his wife must have in him.

This is the gospel. This is the display of the gospel in marriage.

July 02, 2013

One of the great promises of heaven, a promise that I long to see fulfilled, is that what becomes old and tired in this world will always remain new and fresh and exciting in the world to come. The declining joys of this world will be ever-increasing joys in the world to come. Niagara Falls will send chills down my spine every time I see it; the Grand Canyon will cause me to gasp in delight, not just once but for all of eternity; the night sky will move me to praise God for his greatness each and every time I look up. Nothing will get tiring, nothing will get old, nothing will be just the same time after time after time.

What is it that causes me to grow weary of things that are good and even things that are so very good? How could I build up such hardness, such spiritual resistance to God’s greatest gifts?

God called Adam to name each of the animals, and paraded them in front of him one by one. He saw two of this animal, two of that, two of another, and through it all realized that there was no helper fit for him. He could not possibly have been lonely, living there in that perfect world. And yet he realized that he was incomplete. God caused him to fall into a deep sleep and there, when he awoke, standing before him, was the perfect complement to him, the perfect mate. In wonder he exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He praised God for his marvelous provision.

But then Adam sinned. He fell for the deception of the devil. And when God called out to him he turned on that woman, he turned on that gift and said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He turned on that gift, hated it, and in that moment hated the one who gave it.

Jesus called Peter to be one of his disciples. Jesus simply said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And Peter followed. For several years he followed, walking in the steps of the man who claimed to be the Messiah. He followed him all the way to Jerusalem, even proclaiming, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

But then danger came. Suddenly that Savior did not seem so mighty. And when the people said to Peter, “You were with Jesus of Nazareth,” he cursed and swore “I do not know the man!” He turned on that gift, hated it, and in that moment hated the one who gave it.

Why are we like this? Why am I like this? Why do I marvel at something for a time and then grow weary of it, grow complacent toward it and even come to despise it? How do good gifts become old and tired gifts?

June 26, 2013

I think it is a question every Christian would all like to ask God, given the opportunity. It is an honest question. A humble one, I hope. If you have the ability to immediately destroy and remove all of a Christian’s sin the very moment he puts his faith in Jesus Christ, why don’t you? Why didn’t you?

There is always a good bit of debate in the Christian world about exactly how God sanctifies us and how human effort relates to divine work. Whatever we believe about sanctification, we know it is a lifelong battle and we know it is a difficult one. The difficulty is related to the extent of our depravity, the fact that the effects of sin extend to our every part, to our minds, our hearts, our wills, even our bodies. We could give every moment of every day to the battle against sin and still die as deeply sinful people. Every Christian will die much more holy than he was when he first put his faith in Jesus Christ, but a lot less holy than he would like and probably a lot less holy than he would have imagined.

The Bible is indispensable in sanctification. Literally. You cannot and will not grow in holiness without reading God’s Word without submitting yourself to God’s Word, without applying its truths to your life. And yet the Bible does not zap away sin any more than my salvation does. I have discovered in my own life that there are not a lot of texts in the Bible that instantly obliterate a particular sin. Rarely do I hear a text preached and see an instant, substantial advance against a sin. Never do I read a text and see my sin immediately and irreversibly melt away.

Rather, the Bible provides the categories for my sin, it displays my sin in all its ugliness, it displays holiness in all its beauty, it exposes me as a sinner, it convicts me of my need to do battle against this sin, it gives me the desire to destroy it, it arms me to do so, and gives me hope through the gospel that this sin—even this sin with such a grip on me—is powerless before the indwelling Holy Spirit. And then begins the long and difficult task, the moment-by-moment battle, of killing it, of going back to the Bible again and again and preaching its truths to myself, of relying on the Spirit, of calling out for his help, of waging war against my own flesh, my own desires, my deep-rooted habits, my mind, eyes, ears, heart, hands, feet, and everything else I am.

June 24, 2013

But he hasn’t got anything on!” This is the cry of the child at the end of Hans Christian Anderson’s little tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The vain emperor believed he was wearing the finest garments ever created, garments woven of the finest silk and the purest gold thread. He believed he was wearing clothing so beautiful that only the best and brightest in the land could see it. These garments could distinguish the great and mighty from the ignorant and troublesome, for only worst of the hoi polloi would be unable to marvel at their magnificence. The emperor had been bamboozled, but he would not admit his ignorance, he could not admit it, and instead forced himself to believe he was wearing clothes; his noblemen did the same, for to state the plain truth would be to admit unworthiness. The emperor paraded through the city, showing off his finery before the adoring masses until finally a child cried out, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

“Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?” said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, “He hasn’t anything on. A child says he hasn’t anything on.”

“But he hasn’t got anything on!” the whole town cried out at last.

The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, “This procession has got to go on.” So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn’t there at all.

I have been thinking about this old tale and seeing how in many ways it is applicable to living as a Christian in this world. This is a world of naked emperors and their adoring, deluded fans.

It took a child to call it all a ruse. It took a child because only he had nothing to gain from playing along with the fiction that the emperor was wearing the finest clothing ever woven and the greater fiction that the emperor was wearing anything at all. Where his parents and the noblemen had so much to gain from playing along and so much to lose from speaking the truth, the child did not. He could speak freely and declare the truth without guile.

The Bible is that child. The Bible describes things as they really are, free from fear, free from sin. As the emperor marches, the Bible evaluates him, discerns him, describes him, and tells the truth about him. Christians are the crowd. We are easily beguiled so that as the crowds swarm and cheer, we begin to see the form of clothes, the color, the patterns. But then we look to the Bible. The Bible is like a pair of glasses that allow the Christian to see the world from God’s perspective. We look at the world through the Bible, and are forced to cry out with it, “But he hasn’t got anything on!”

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