by Frank Turk
(for the record, my Challies book graphic there is the worst ever, but my Photoshop computer is unavailable as I type)
I've known Tim Challies for a long time, in internet time. As I think about it, I think I have known him for about 4 years, dating back to the first time I ran into him at James White's #prosapologian chat channel. And frankly, since I have met him, I have been mostly jealous of Challies.
I mean, Tim's a nice guy. I mean "nice" in a kind of 21st century Ricky Nelson sort of way, except he doesn’t pretend to know how to sing. Ridiculously nice. And he works in an industry which I find fascinating – the internet. And he has a blog – he was actually my inspiration to start blogging, so if you're looking for someone to blame ... anyway, Challies and I go way back – and now he's written a book, so now I'm really jealous of him.
Challies and I have had our moments, however good-natured they usually are at the root. At one point, his mom was worried that I was really mad at him, so we had to lay off for a while. And these days I can admit that Dan and I are little, um, vexed about Tim's general reluctance to link to or mention the TeamPyro blog – but you know what? That's life.
I say that to admit something, or to give full disclosure at least: the dust that got kicked up at Justin Taylor's blog last week over "who is this Challies that he can write a book on discernment" really lit me up.
Tim has apparently been hard at work on a book which clearly has a ton of research invested in it, and the topic is "discernment". You'd think the Baptist separatists, internet puritans, and church purists would be salivating for such a thing, but it turns out that they don't have to read a book to heap criticism on it – they may merely say "ecce homo" in a sort of disapproving way and be done with it. No sense reading a book by (hrmph) "Challies", my dear brother: "Challies" is merely an anagram for "lach lies", which is of course Scottish for "lake of lies". And when you play the audio book backward, you can clearly hear the reader say, "sing hymns to the devil". "Challies"? Whatever good could possibly come from "Challies"?
To be fair to these who were not fair, Steve Camp did apologize for his part in the unfortunate series of events, but you know what? I have said this privately to others and I'll say it publicly here: that looks a lot more the tithe on the discern-mint and the civility cumin than it does like making right with Challies and, frankly, the long list of those who endorsed the book who were "reproached" (that's a nice way to say it) by people who frankly have little or no accountability for what they are willing to say in public.
We review that piece of recent history and my association with Challies to say this about his book: it all unravels to show exact how badly a book on the Discipline of Spiritual Discernment is needed today. It turns out that there are frankly armies of people who need some kind of instruction on this topic because they don’t have grounding in their local church or their educational training. A book on the Discipline of Spiritual Discernment which people have read and implemented in their own faith-lives would have put the brakes on things like impugning the reputations of men like Al Mohler, John MacArthur and Mark Dever, and on throwing rocks at Challies for not being "certified", "qualified" or otherwise "acceptable" to write this book.
Challies vindicates himself from the charge "not qualified" almost immediately in his work here by demonstrating, above all, that he takes the philosophy (or dare we say "theology") of his book serious enough to employ it in the work itself. For example, in his first chapter, not only does he outline the negative example of those who do not have spiritual discernment, he emphasizes the positive examples of what spiritual discernment means to one's spiritual health -- from scripture. And let's be clear: he doesn’t merely drop in verse numbers and give a cursory affirmation. He gives thoughtful exegetical consideration of the texts he employs, seeking to catch the context and the finer points for the reader to consider.
Before I extol the virtues of Challies' book, I did have a few complaints – mostly aesthetic. Personally, I'm a reader – I like to read, and I like to think about how a writer says what he says. Stylistically, Challies' book is written rather stoicly – maybe purposefully so. I mean, I know Tim, and this book is like the serious, cautious, very formal, somewhat-characterless version of Tim Challies. It seemed to me as I read this thing that Tim was really working overtime to make sure "he" didn’t say anything – that is, he wanted to speak in a way which was intentionally impersonal.
And for a guy writing his first book, and that book being on the critical subject of how to tell your left hand from your right, spiritually, maybe he deserves credit for being that reserved. But it's sort of a tough read not because it's so academically dense. It's a tough read because I felt like I was getting the android version of Challies telling me about the things the human Challies programmed him with. No offense Tim – it's a stylistic choice, and when you write your next book you can be more, um, like you.
But that said, one of the great strengths of this book is that it's not written at the grad-school level. It's written at the popular level in spite of its high-brow attributes of subject and scripture indices. Its vocabulary is accessible and frankly simple. Tim's examples from history and current events are intriguing and his use of one in particular to sort of weave the themes of the book together was really good and useful – it makes your brain engage the subject matter in a "apply to me" way and not just a "apply to them" way. You know: you can read this book, no matter who you are. The question is whether you will read this book.
At this point, I feel like I need to dump a bunch of teasers into the bandwidth here so that you get a taste of Challies' work first-hand so you can sort of taste and see – because summarizing his chapter headings and giving you an outline is merely an encouragement to sort of "get" his point and then skip the book as something for people who have a less-mature faith than your own.
I'll give you one blurb, and then my unadulterated endorsement:
Understanding and obeying God’s will is not instantaneous. Because discernment is not given immediately and in full measure, understanding and obedience will require dedicated effort. Thankfully, as we have seen, the power and ability to discern are given at the moment of conversion, so we can have confidence that with effort even a new Christian can be discerning. All Christians must seek to understand and obey God’s revealed will. We are not to concern ourselves unduly with the secret will, for we will never be able to know it fully or finally. [as Dave Swavley has said,] “We should not be concerned with the sovereign will of God when we face a decision (except that we need to be ready to accept whatever the Lord has planned).When Tim says "all Christians" and "guidance we need", he doesn’t mean "the other ones who are off the apple cart": he means you and me, reader. And he's right.
The guidance we need for our choices does not have to be somehow mined from the mysterious and unknowable plan devised among the Holy Trinity in eternity past. Rather it is a relatively simple process of finding out what the Bible says and doing it.” We cannot and should not expect God to make known the full details of his plan before we follow in humble obedience. Obeying God’s will is a relatively simple process of uncovering the truths of God so we might do the will of God.
You should read this book. Especially if you think you're already qualified to turn the tables over in the temple. Next week in this same space on my normal Wednesday, I'll publish an interview with Tim as part of his "blog tour" promoting his book. Stay Tuned.
And by the way, Happy New Year.