A Conversation With Tim Challies

I’ve never met Tim Challies. At least not in the flesh. But I can safely call him a good friend.

Ah, technology.

See, I met Tim a few years back now online. Nearly all of our communication has been through email or IM. I scoured the annals of my inbox and discovered that one of the first conversations we had was about technology: website and logo design. We were both working to master this blogging platform called Movable Type and needed all the help we could get. So it’s rather fitting that my conversation with Tim today would focus on two of our shared interests: technology and faith.

It’s been five years since that first email thread and Tim has been working hard. Though he’s stepped back a bit from web design, he is now ministering as an ordained pastor at Grace Fellowship in Toronto. He is the author of several books. And that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he continues his impressive habit of writing something daily at Challies.com. (He’s written every day since October 31, 2003!) His consistency and his voice have inspired and encouraged many, many people.

This is a bit of his story:

J: What was it like growing up Challies? Were you like Timothy, having been taught the Holy Scriptures from childhood or did your spiritual training come later in life? Were your parents influential in your appetite for books?

T: I grew up in a Christian home. My parents had been converted in their college years, met and married quite quickly. On their honeymoon they ended up in Switzerland and stumbled across a little place called L’Abri. They spent some time there with Francis Schaeffer and it gave them a thirst for good, scriptural, foundational knowledge. They had been saved into pentecostalism, and after meeting Schaeffer they ended up Presbyterian. So they came back to Canada and then went back to Europe and spent another year at English L’Abri which at that time was run by some of Schaeffer’s children. So they got that really good, scriptural foundation to their faith. And they raised us that way.

They raised us in the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition; but they raised us very much with the knowledge that we needed to personally turn to Christ and couldn’t just depend on them or just be “church people” but had to be true believers.

They both loved to read and read a lot, and that was certainly modeled from day one. So I learned to read by watching my parents read.

J: Did you discuss books growing up?

T: Yeah. My parents read voraciously; but mostly they read either the Bible or commentary or biography. My parents were never into Christian-living type books. They’re not into the kind of books I write actually. They tend to digest biography and history and things like that—a lot of church history—and just draw lessons from there, which is a great way of doing it, I think. So I didn’t grow up watching them read Sproul or MacArthur; I grew up watching them read history, read biography and then try to take those lessons and apply them to their lives and help us apply them to our lives.

J: That’s interesting. You said they didn’t typically read the kind of books that you write. Have they had the opportunity to read your books at all?

T: They have, yes. And well, of course they like them. They’re proud and all of that, but it’s not their natural kind of reading. They tend to read almost entirely non-fiction and they read a lot of biography. Though my mom also loves children’s books. She reads a lot of kid’s history books. She says if you read those, you get a good overview that only cover the most important parts of a person’s life. So if you’re wondering if you want to read about someone, why not pick up a 20-page kid’s book and get a good overview instead of going right to the 800-page biography.

J: Tell me a bit about your spiritual journey. I ask this question because I had my bouts with doubt probably more frequently than I care to admit. I’m just curious: has faith always been easy for you or have you wrestled with doubt?

T: My parents were good at preaching the gospel to us and making sure that we knew that we needed to personally trust in Christ. They never pushed us that way, never shoved us saying: “you’ve got to do this.” They just kind of waited for each one of us to come around. I’ve got three sisters and a brother and each one has at one point made a very credible profession of faith and is now living as if that were true. So my parents did something right there I think.

I think my conversion probably happened when I was about fifteen. Up to that time I had always been a good kid; I had never gotten into much trouble. None of us kids had ever really rebelled and did the whole drinking and partying scene—nothing like that. But it was around fifteen or so when I started to see that I had just been following along behind my parents and—I’ve always said that this was me making the faith of my parents my own. Which is to say that I had always been raised as a Christian, I’d always been raised to believe that God existed. But here I was suddenly becoming independent—or maybe at last becoming independent—and thinking “Well, I now have to make this decision for myself. Am I going to keep living my parents faith or do I actually believe it enough to live it on my own?

So it was around fifteen or so that I think I was truly converted.

J: I have a similar story, raised in a Christian home; but I found that college was a very tumultuous time for me, in terms of doubts. I don’t know if it was just a lot of voices coming at me from all different directions. Did you ever experience any of that?

T: You know, I never did. I never had any doubts that God existed. Never had—or at least not that I can remember—any serious doubts of God’s existence or of His love for me or of His desire for me to turn and repent and follow Him. All those things were taught to me from a young age and I never had any cause. I guess the Lord was gracious and I never really wrestled with those sorts of doubts that a lot of people do. My college years were—I can’t say that I was an exemplary Christian at the time, but certainly I never deviated there from my Christian commitment. Not in a serious way.

J: That’s great… that’s a good testimony. So you are the father of three beautiful children.

T: Correct. Well, two beautiful ones and one that’s just kind of average.

J: [Laughs] I won’t ask you to tell us which one that is. Last month, you wrote a blog post about leading your children in personal devotions. I found it extremely helpful. What else are you doing to help make it easy for your children to follow God—because it sounds like you had very good example set by your own parents?

T: Yeah, I think I’m learning a lot of lessons from my parents. My kids go to public school. We don’t homeschool them as many of our friends do. Many of the people who read my website are homeschooling now and we’ve never felt that’s the right thing for our family. So that almost leaves us behind other people that can make Bible a part of their school curriculum. We’re not able to do that, so we try to make up for that through personal devotions, leading them in that, and through family worship. We try to read the Bible together and discuss it and pray, even just for a few minutes.

Another thing: I try to have my kids be friends with other adults in the church. I’ve gone to the point of asking certain guys in our church, “Would you just spend a bit of time with my son? Would you invite him over some time? Would you be in his life? Would you be a friend to him?” And I think that’s been very valuable as well, to ask some of those older guys to have serious conversation with him and to ask about the state of his soul and things like that. That can be very valuable.

Because you remember what it was like? You remember back to your childhood? Your parents have the most credibility in some ways, but they also have the least credibility in some ways, right? Having those questions and those answers coming from another trusted source is very, very valuable.

J: Absolutely—and it’s biblical. The elder teaching the younger.

T: Yeah, and another thing I found is when my children have big questions, I like to say, “Why don’t you go talk to Pastor Paul about that?” I’m their father, I’m a pastor, but I love it if they get in the habit of… I say to them, “If you’re sick in your body, you go to the doctor. If you’re sick in your heart, go talk to a pastor. Let him talk to you about that. So that’s been very valuable, helping them see the value of getting used to speaking to pastors when they’re wrestling with big questions.

J: Your site describes you as a blogger, author, and book reviewer. You were also recently ordained as an elder at your local church, Grace Fellowship in Toronto. If you had to choose one of these roles, which one would it be?

T: I’m an associate pastor—a pastor without a title right now. But just recently I was asked to come on as a full-time pastor there, so I’m the pastor of everything the other pastor doesn’t want to do. So that leaves him doing most of the preaching, and I’m doing a fair bit of administration stuff and some counseling and I love that work. And I love the writing. So those two things, for me, really go hand in hand. One really feeds the other and then it cycles back.

I want to be a good father. I want to be a good pastor. I want to keep writing. If I gave up writing, I think I’d go crazy. It’s really my outlet. It’s the way I think things through. I’ve often said I really don’t know what I believe until I write about it. That’s how I work issues through. And so those are the three things. Book reviews are just part of the writing.

So I’ve just tried, over the last little while… I’ve just seen the value of simplifying, trying to do a few things very well. For a long time I was doing a lot of things very poorly, and that’s just no better.

J: Following up on your comment about book reviews: you’re well known for your book reviews, so this question will probably be pretty easy for you. What book has had the greatest impact on you personally?

T: That would probably be John MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel. I read that quite a few years ago. After Aileen and I got married, we moved out of the town we had grown up in and found a Baptist church. Here we became Baptists along the way having lost Presbyterian roots. So I ended up in this church that I later found out I could describe as a “church growth” kind of church. Along the way I picked up MacArthur’s Ashamed of the Gospel. I’d never really heard of MacArthur before, so this was a new thing for me.

And that book just completely undid me. It showed me the church I was in—it described it very, very clearly. Then it called me to something more, called me to a church that was really founded upon the gospel and completely unashamed of the gospel. That book was really the start of my journey back towards a more Reformed faith. It really gave me a whole lot to think about and eventually to write about.

J: So what authors would you say has had the most impact on your writing style?

T: I love the writings of R.C. Sproul. If could just pick any one author and just read his books again and again, I think I would pick him. I love the way he explains things. I love the way he draws the meaning out of Scripture. I just find him really, really exemplary there and I want to be like him in that way. MacArthur has also been very formative in his own way.

Then in terms of writing style—if I could write like Malcolm Gladwell, I would be very, very happy. I just love his way of taking seemingly obscure things and small examples and making them so readable and so brilliant.

J: I always get nervous taking a job doing something I love because I’m always afraid I’m going to grow tired of it. It’s the old “familiarity breeds contempt” dilemma. It’s obvious between your blog, Discerning Reader and your work with Cruciform Press that you love books—have you gotten tired of books? How do you avoid book fatigue?

T: Yeah, I do get tired of books and sometimes I’ll go several weeks or months without picking one up or barely reading. That’s difficult—books arrive here every day. Most people want me to read their books, so it’s a little difficult to just leave them for a while. But I do get tired of reading, especially in a very narrow field, reading in the Christian living, spiritual-growth genre, it gets kind of tiresome pretty fast because there aren’t a lot of people penning original thoughts, but there a lot of guys who are writing about those few penning those original thoughts. A guy like Piper is pretty original, but then there are ten or fifteen people imitating him. So it can be a little difficult that way.

So what I do is try to mix it up. I tried to read well outside the Christian field. There are some brilliant writers and really valuable reading to be done out there. Occasionally, I’ll pick up some fiction or just try to mix it up as much as I can. And then if I do get tired, the Bible doesn’t mandate that I have to read a book every day or every week; so I can find some freedom not reading as well.

J: Switch gears and watch a movie?

T: Actually, my wife and I are more into mini-series than movies. I don’t have the attention span to watch two-hour movies any more.

J: Well, mini-series feel like more of an investment… there’s more payoff at the end.

T: I guess so, yeah.

J: At what point in your mind did you cross the line between blogger and book author? I’m sure there a lot of people—vociferous bloggers—who are considering book authorship. Did you have to be convinced or was it something you’ve had a desire for?

T: I never really had a desire to write a book, I don’t think. I never set out to be an author. I never set out to be a blogger, either. I just started writing and putting it out on the Internet and found out later on it was a blog. So I didn’t set out to write a book. I think today the blogosphere is like the minor leagues for publishers. They’re looking out there and seeing who’s gathering readers. And if you can get an audience and show that they’re going to read what you write, you’ll get a book deal. It’s pretty simple. The economics of it are such today that publishers expect you to bring an audience. It used to be, I think, they’d find a good author and say, “You write a book and we’ll find an audience.” Today, they want you to bring the audience with you.

So that kind of happened through my site. Crossway came along a few years later, after I had started and asked if I’d had thought about writing a book and I said, well, why not. I just looked at what I had been writing over the last few years and saw it all pointing in the direction of discernment and it seemed to make sense. And then, after the first book, if it sells, then you won’t have much trouble writing more.

J: Do you think it’s more difficult financially to be a book author or a blogger? In other words, is there more money to be made as a blogger or as a book author or does it just depend?

T: It’s hard to know. They’re very different in their economics. Blogging probably returns the most regular payout in that you can run some ads and link into some affiliate programs. You tend to get a growing stream of income; whereas books tend more to be a couple times a year you’ll get a check. It tends to be a little more sporadic.

J: Sounds like it’s related to the production, right? Because with blogs you’re producing small chunks daily, but with books it’s one massive output.

T: Right.

J: So tell me, when you held that book in your hand—the first printed copy of your first book for the first time. How did you feel? Did you want to take it out in the back and shoot it or were you overjoyed?

T: I thought it was going to be a real moment. But in the end, it really didn’t do much for me. I looked at it and I thought, “Eh, well there it is” and that was that. I thought maybe angels were going to sing or something, but no it really wasn’t that kind of experience. I just kind of shrugged it off.

J: Be honest… did you read your book after it was printed?

T: I did not. By the time I’m done I don’t have any desire to read the book again.

J: Hopefully, there are no typos.

T: Hopefully, yeah. When there are typos people tend to point them out to you. It’s a little bit depressing.

J: I’m sure. On Twitter, probably.

T: [Chuckles]All over, yeah. I was talking with an editor once who said she’s never seen the perfect book yet. She hasn’t at least missed one mistake. I guess that was the case with mine as well.

J: In your latest book The Next Story—it’s such a fascinating topic—you talk quite a bit about the intersection of faith and technology. How do you think the recent surge of information available to us is changing us? Specifically, do you think it’s making us more intelligent individuals or just lazy thinkers?

T: I would lean more toward lazy thinkers. It’s certainly not making us any more intelligent. I think what we’re doing along the way is replacing the ability to find facts with actual knowledge of the facts. We tend to think that since we can immediately access anything makes us smart. We can know whatever we want. Think about some of these quiz shows. What does trivia even mean anymore when I can just go online and find it in a second?

But yeah, I think we are becoming lazy thinkers, for sure. We’re not filing facts away in our mind anymore the way we used to. If I can always get the Bible on my iPod, what on earth is the point of putting that Bible into my mind? What’s the point of pondering the Scripture or storing it up in my heart when it’s always there in my pocket? And I think that’s true of all disciplines. What’s the point of memorizing anymore, it seems like something we no longer need.

J: That’s interesting. I was reading an article recently—I can’t recall where—about how true intelligence wasn’t necessarily having information stored in your head, but knowing where to find that information.

T: Right, and that’s knowledge today. Knowledge means how to find it and where to find it. Knowledge in the old days used to mean that you actually had the knowledge in your head, in your heart, in your mind. When you think of the distance between data and information and knowledge and wisdom, you move up the train. Wisdom is where you take all of that data and information and knowledge and then you live it out in a biblical way. There’s true wisdom. But if you don’t have knowledge first, then you don’t have any ability to convert that to wisdom.

So presumably, as time goes on, we’ll be increasingly foolish because we have so little knowledge.

J: I imagine, too, it would be harder if you only know how to access information and don’t actually have that information immediately available to you, it’s harder to make intelligent decisions immediately.

T: Of course. And how do you know that information will always be available to you? I was reading a study a while ago: 1000 college students were asked if they could go for a couple days without media. All media were taken away: cell phones, TVs, everything. They were asked to go about their lives. And what they found: first off, they didn’t know what to do because they didn’t have their phones, their computers, their TVs, or movies.

They also found they didn’t know how to get in touch with their friends anymore. They didn’t know where their friends lived or even how to get a hold of them because they didn’t have cell phones to tie them all together. So as soon as they took all that stuff away, they weren’t only bored, but they were also really helpless. They didn’t know what to do. It just shows the amount of dependance we have upon technology, even for simple life functions like meeting up with friends.

J: Sure. You have to realize the irony, of course, this being said by someone who’s gotten successful by being a blogger.

T: Oh, I realize there’s great irony! I’m not saying that we’ve got to jettison all of our technology. All of this technology is here to stay, there’s no point of getting rid of search engines and cell phones and even Wikipedia as much as that might be a good thing. They’re here to stay, so the question isn’t can we roll the clock back but how are we going to live virtuously and wisely as Christians in this kind of a world. And I don’t think a lot of Christians are really thinking in that direction. They’re not thinking with discernment about all of these things.

J: One of the other byproducts of technology and living in an intensely multi-tasking society is this fragmentation of the mind, something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to. In your own life—because you’re on Twitter and Facebook—how do you handle this fragmentation—and I lion full would even call it distraction—in your own life, in your own mind?

T: I handle it with varying results, with varying success. Sometimes I’m good at it. Sometimes I’m very poor at it. When I’m at my best, I’m trying to focus on one thing at a time which usually means shutting other things down or turning them off. So if I want to prepare a sermon, I’ve got to turn off Twitter and I have to shut down email. One interesting function that OS X Lion brings is the ability to do full screen. Finally.

J: It’s funny, I thought you were going to mention how Lion automatically closes programs that you’re not using.

T: Either way. But you can go all out and full screen your screen writing app and when you’re done with that you can full screen email and then full screen your reading app. Maybe that will help a little, I’m not sure. But I do think that we’re fragmenting our minds and as time goes on, we really desire that fragmentation. After a while, the distraction is something we feel uncomfortable without just like… you know, like if you’re in a noisy room after a while and someone turns off the fan or the air conditioner and you almost want it back on because it was background noise. I think that’s kind of where we’re at. When all of the distraction disappears, we almost don’t like it now. We’re so accustomed to it; it’s so much a part of who and what we are.

J: What’s something you’re doing right now that just thrills you?

T: I still love writing my blog every day. I’ve been doing it every day for seven or eight years or something silly like that. I always—almost always—look forward to it and love doing it. And I’m getting to preach the next three weeks in a row and then a week off and a week on and a week off and a week on. I’m really enjoying preaching. I never thought I would. I really do enjoy it. It’s a real thrill being able to sit in a scripture all week and then stand before a bunch of people and say, “Let me tell you what God’s been teaching me this week.”

An interesting lesson I’ve learned along the way is that you spent all week in a scripture passage and you are just so excited to tell everybody what you’ve learned. Then you show up at church and nobody else is that excited. You can be all the way through the sermon, just pouring out your heart, and you can see most people are rather unmoved. And maybe that’s a bit disconcerting until you realize that you’re usually the same way when somebody else is preaching up there. So, just an interesting little lesson I’ve had to learn and apply.

J: I put together a list of brief questions I want to fire off: a short answer will suffice. What is your favorite word?

T: Justified

J: What’s your least favorite word?

T: Pass [Laughs]

J: That’s my least favorite word too. What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

T: Teaching, maybe.

J: What profession would you not like to do?

T: Mailman… as I watch the guy walk by here in the scalding heat.

J: Describe for me the most delicious meal you’ve ever eaten.

T: I’m not used to answering these kinds of questions! It would have to be at a little steak place in Louisville where we were told to order anything we wanted on the menu. Which we did.

J: What is your main fault?

T: Pride.

J: What fault are you most tolerant of?

T: Pride.

J: What does happiness mean to you?

T: Experiencing and enjoying God’s favor.

J: What does misery mean to you?

T: Living deliberately outside of God’s will.

J: If you could summarize your life into a motto, what would it be?

T: Maybe I could go with Newton who said, “I don’t know much but I know I’m a great sinner who is loved by a great Savior.”

If you want to get to know Tim a bit better, I encourage you to read about his story as he tells it.