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An Interview with Tim Challies

It was an immense privilege and joy to have the opportunity to speak with blogger, author, pastor and speaker Tim Challies. I have been reading Tim’s work for many years, and have been encouraged personally in my own writing journey because of him. I am very thankful for his words and pastoral heart. In 2020, Tim and his wife Aileen, experienced the sudden and painful loss of their son, Nick. Tim has written a book called ‘Seasons of Sorrow: The Pain of Loss and the Comfort of God‘ based on walking through this grief and sorrow. Have a read of our conversation below, and may it encourage you in your own life, or pass it on if you feel it could be of comfort to someone you know.

How did you come to know and love Jesus? What was your story of coming to faith?

I had the great privilege of being raised in a Christian home. My parents had come to faith just a couple of years before they got married. They were college students when they were introduced to the gospel through some godly Pentecostals on the campus of the university they both attended. They shared the gospel with my parents who had sort of heard it. My mom had heard it a little bit in her childhood. My dad had not as far as I know. Dad came to faith first and in his newfound zeal, he saw this girl walking on campus and decided to share the gospel with her. He went ahead and shared the little bit he knew. He didn’t really have much to say so he said, “I’m going to take you to some people who can answer your questions.” He took her to the people who led him to the Lord and they led my mom to the Lord as well. 

Not long after that they got married and started having a family. There are five of us. All five of us know the Lord. All five of us came to Christ relatively early and that was all through the influence of my parents. I don’t ever remember a time where I did not believe there was a God or I did not really believe that the God of the Bible existed. But there came a time in my youth where I had to really evaluate whether I was just following behind my parents or if I really believed this stuff for myself. When I was probably 13 or 14, I really came to the realisation or the conversion, that I really do believe this. Even if mom and dad are not going to follow the Lord anymore, I will.

How did your blogging ministry start? 

I had another privilege of being one of the early adopters of blogging when it was a new medium. I think most media, when they get introduced, the first people ‘in’ get the greatest benefit of it. We see that now with podcasting. There may be some better podcasts that came later, but the first ones gobbled up the great market share. I think the same is true of blogging, that because I was early in, people started reading it and formed the habit of reading it. There have been many blogs created since. Many have thrived and grown. Others have petered out. A lot of people have started and given up or started and tailed off. It is a hard thing to do to keep writing day by day or week by week, especially when there is most often little feedback, little response, or a clear sense you are doing something worthwhile. It’s like throwing things into the void. I know podcasts are much the same, and Substack newsletters and all of that. 

About a year in after I started my blog, I decided to form the daily habit of posting something new and did that for a whole year. I enjoyed that so just kept going with it. I think I just hit 19 years of blogging something every day. That doesn’t mean I write something every day, but it does mean I post something new every day. I took the brute force approach, putting so much of it out there that sooner or later, Google is going to send you to it. 

What motivates you to continue blogging as the digital landscape continues to change? 

I think there is still a lot of room for writers and bloggers. I still think it’s a useful medium no matter what the naysayers say. It has some advantages over something like podcasting in that it’s written, which is helpful. It’s skimmable which is helpful. Audio is not. It’s also really low-cost of entry. Podcasting takes a little bit more effort. Vlogging and YouTube takes a lot more effort and a lot more overhead. I think Substack and the idea of email newsletters has sort of picked up what used to be blogging, but I don’t think there is much of a better future for that either. A lot of that is because it’s not easy to monetise. A few people started the first newsletter, people subscribed and were willing to pay $8 a month to read them. But you’re only going to do that two or three times before your budget of reading newsletters is used up. I always think the first ones in have a bit of an advantage. 

Many Christian writers and bloggers can get discouraged from time to time. What would you say to them in terms of keeping going?

I guess you have got to evaluate whether it’s worth it because it does take a lot of time and effort. It’s not for everybody and as everybody runs the calculations in their life, what they could give attention to and then what they won’t give attention to because of writing, you need to do that math and figure out if it works for you. 

That said, all of us have seen a lot of benefit from blogs over the last 20 years since they sprang into being. I think it still is the minor leagues for people who wish to write books, proving to the world you can write, you will write and people will read what you write. I would encourage people to press on if it’s of interest to you. Don’t obsess with your stats and how many people are reading it. Just determine that you will do your absolute best to serve people, to serve others, especially other Christians. Write content that is meaningful, put it out there, and you’ll trust the Lord to use it. 

You have also written several books. Your most recent book Seasons of Sorrow is a real-time account of writing through the grief of the death of your son, Nick. Can you share what happened to Nick and how you wrote through this very painful time with hope?

Nick was 20-years-old, a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, working on his Master of Divinity to become a pastor, newly engaged to Ryn, and then very suddenly without warning, fell to the ground and died. We learned later that there was some sort of dysrhythmia or arrhythmia in his heart, and it kicked it into this unsustainable rhythm and he collapsed. Because there was no appropriate equipment available at this park where he was, nobody or nothing could save him.

Immediately we just had this realisation that the Lord did this. Whatever secondary means were involved, we knew that this was just the Lord’s will. I think part of that was it happened in such a dramatic, sudden, unmediated way. There was no bad guy in the story. There was no car that struck him. No gun that shot him. He just collapsed and was gone. We realised right away that the Lord had taken him. That was the beginning of this journey of grief. 

I think the book is ultimately hopeful because, for the Christian, death is ultimately hopeful. Death is horrifying and it is an evil intruder in this world, so we don’t need to romanticise death or pretend that it’s not truly, truly evil. On the other hand, the only way we’ll see Christ, unless we happen to be here at the time He returns, is through death. We must all pass that way. Our hope lies beyond death and so we both hate it and crave it; we both long for it and flee from it. If we as Christians are going to write about death, we have to write about hope. We can have hope because our Saviour has faced death and triumphed over it. Whatever hope we have is not based on our desires, our longings or anything else. It’s based ultimately in the historical fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

I do talk in the book about how in this Christian life we live with joys and sorrows. I compare them to two streams that flow through a valley. These two streams go side by side but they never join together to become one thing. So we carry our joys and we carry our sorrows and those things don’t negate one another. From now and all through life until we go to heaven, that will be the case for each one of us. That means we don’t need to act as if sorrows are necessarily evil or we should face them like good stoics and pretend they don’t exist or suppress them. We can carry those sorrows and say that this is truly sorrowful, this will never stop hurting, this pain will never go away. But at the same time, we can’t forget that there truly are joys in this life. I’m responsible to embrace and appreciate those joys and to give thanks to God for each and every one of them. 

One of the questions that many people ask during suffering is ‘why?’ You have shared in previous interviews that you did not waste time asking God ‘why?’ or expecting God for answers. You came to this suffering with a solid, theological understanding that God is sovereign, His providence is over all, and He is good. How can we know and trust God’s character in a practical way, moving from head knowledge to heart knowledge? 

When we come to times of suffering and sorrow, those are the times we need to enact our theology. A lot of what we learn about doctrine is pretty abstract until it comes to one of these situations. We can read all the parenting books in the world and that may be a good thing to do, but then we have children and we need to enact what we believe about parenting, or about marriage, or anything. Suffering and sorrow is the same. 

I think the first thing we need to really establish is: is God truly sovereign even over the bad things? Even over the things we wouldn’t wish for. The things that are related to sin like suffering, sorrow, illness, pain, death, loss. If we really have this very high view of God then we need to acknowledge then in some way, it is God who is sovereign over life and death. Somehow and someway God is sovereign over these things. He is sovereign over the end. We know that nobody but God can start a life. Nobody but God can end a life. But then He is equally sovereign over the means. Satan can attack, he can create these means as well, but ultimately he can do no more than God allows, permits or decrees. 

We need to hitch ourselves to something in our sorrows. In those times of great turbulence, we need to just fasten ourselves or anchor ourselves to something. To anchor ourselves to the sovereignty of God is absolutely crucial. To just realise that nobody has gotten one-up on God in the death of a child, in the recurrence of cancer, whatever it is. God is involved in this in some way. 

The other thing that I think we need to absolutely just establish in our minds is that God is good. He is up to something good in this world. His purposes are good. His decrees are good, even when they don’t seem good. Ultimately, all things work together for good. We start to read that back and realise that even the means are good. They don’t feel good and they don’t look good, but somehow God is doing something beyond our sight, and beyond our capacity to glimpse right now. 

If we push ourselves into the future and we start to look and live in that future and future goodness, and say in heaven “God did nothing wrong, in fact, God did everything right and perfect”, we start to live there now. We’ll look back on our lives and say “OK, all I can do is take by faith that somehow this is good.” I think that then gives us a great element of meaning and purpose to our suffering. So we can’t say this is nothing, this has no meaning, this has no purpose, this has no significance. Somehow God is using this. He’s calling me to something. Some duty that I need to perform in this for His glory. It calls us to be faithful in our suffering. To receive it as meaningful and precious from our God. We are His beloved children. He’s not going to give us anything ultimately bad or ultimately harmful. We receive it from His hand and we say “OK, I’m going to live with this in a way that brings you glory. I’ll do my utmost to receive it from your hand.” Just bow the knee and worship. 

What does surrendering to God in suffering look like? What is the ‘ministry of sorrow’ that you write about in your book?

I want to absolutely surrender in the sense that this is God’s world not mine. I’ve given Him my heart, I’ve given Him my life. I’ve really said “just use me however you see fit, and if I can serve You in suffering and sorrow, so be it. If You are going to take me this instant, so be it.” We are just acknowledging to God that He is free to use us in whatever way He wishes. 

But then, added to that, I do want to push toward the ministry of sorrow—that God calls us to something. If God was calling us to nothing, then we could see our suffering as meaningless or purposeless. But He’s calling us to something. He’s calling us to put on godly character, put on Christian graces, put on the fruit of the Spirit. It might just be ourselves and the angels that see it. It might be our children and nobody more than our children ever sees that. Or it could be the whole world. 

You think of Joni Eareckson Tada who received this great suffering and great sorrow from the Lord, and for years now has been so faithful to say ‘this was God’s will and look how I’m serving, look how I’m using this sorrow. Look how God equipped me for this ministry of suffering and service through suffering.’ Not all of us will have a ministry as big, broad and world-changing as hers, but that’s OK. God uses some of us in very small ways too, and even those are extremely significant.

You had a relationship with God before Nick’s death and you had that comfort that Nick also had a relationship with the Lord too. We know how important it is to spend time with Jesus. Can you share what your time with the Lord looks like? Did it change in the weeks and months after Nick’s death?

It’s varied a lot over the years, but for the last eight years or so it’s looked pretty much the same. I get up early in the morning and have a cup of coffee to wake up a little bit. Then I go for a walk. During my walk, I listen to three or four chapters of the Bible and then I pray for the rest of the walk. That has been my routine for years. It’s probably not the most intimate relationship with the Lord of anybody ever, but that’s not really my personality either. There are some people who are very relational beings and they like very warm, intimate friendships and I think they relate to the Lord a little bit differently. For me, it’s very much hearing the Word, and then just praying back to the Lord. 

After Nick died, for a time I found it very hard to devotions and things changed for a time. I found it very hard to relate to the Lord and I think Aileen (Tim’s wife) would say even more so. For a time she had to step back and say “OK, I need to reevaluate who God is on the basis of this.” It seems through our lives that God was just consistently inclined to give us whatever we wanted. Lives of ease and real joy on the whole. Suddenly, in this great sorrow, neither of us were going to revoke our faith but I think we did have to renovate it a little bit (to use words somebody shared with me once). That was true, just coming to this new realisation of who God was. But then, after some time, reforming those old habits.

We are just coming into winter here and so you pull out your old gloves and boots from the closet and you put them on, and you’re like “These things fit. I remember these!” That’s what good devotional routines are like I think. It just fits. It fits your life. It fits your faith. It’s good to go back to those habits and patterns. 

What would you say to someone who is wrestling with doubt, anger or disconnect from God?

I guess it depends a lot from individual to individual and the cause. It can be very helpful to speak to a pastor and work that through because sometimes it’s our sin that keeps us from our relationship with God. We kind of play like we want to relate to God, but on the other hand really want to hold onto this sin and are not willing to let it go. It shouldn’t come as a great shock then that we don’t have this vibrant relationship with the Lord. 

Another thing I would say is try not to compare your relationship with the Lord to other people too much. Sometimes you read about these Christian figures out there and it really seems that they have something that we don’t. I’ve often grappled with that because they do seem to have this relational intimacy with the Lord that I find I’m lacking in a lot of ways. But again, I think a lot of that is we express things differently, we feel things differently, our emotions are different, our personalities are very different.

I think if you build a relationship with the Lord in which you’re speaking to Him and He’s speaking to you, in other words, you’re praying and reading the Word, there’s that two-way communication. Hopefully those things are aligning themselves a little more so you’re hearing the Word and praying those words or ideas back, and being convicted by that, I think you will grow in your relationship with the Lord. God is always available to us. Sometimes we’ll need to stop sinning and really commit ourselves to Him. We can’t just play with God. But He’s very willing to enjoy that relationship with us. 

How can we come alongside and practically help someone who is walking through a season of suffering and sorrow?

I think the first thing is to measure how close you are to that individual. If there are a hundred other people who know that person better, that will change things, versus if this is your closest friend or family member. Especially in the early days, when somebody has experienced a very traumatic or very sudden loss, I think you have to realise that that person is probably going into a kind of brain fog for a time. They are really incapacitated by their grief and can use a lot of help and a lot of care. 

If you are one of their close friends or family members, that then falls on you as a real privilege and responsibility to care for them in that. That will probably involve caring for very physical or material needs, providing food, cleaning the house, driving the kids to school, and those kinds of things. Very basic functions can really fall away in those times of grief. Even in decision-making. A lot of people in those early days are not able to make good and wise decisions, and so offer to help people with decision-making by bouncing ideas off of you, if that’s helpful. 

I don’t want to downplay the role of prayer. Really getting on your knees and interceding for those people is such a tremendous help and blessing. If you can’t do anything else, you can certainly do that and should certainly do that. Either we believe in prayer or we don’t, so either it matters a whole lot or it doesn’t matter at all. So if you are going to pray, pray earnestly and pray faithfully. 

Over time, just expect they will start to regain a new sense of normal. It’s not your job to force them into that before they are ready. Just lovingly sticking with them into that time. A lot of people are very helpful in the early days, but most drift off and that’s fine and to be expected. But to be the kind of friend who says “I’m going to stick with you until the end here. I’ll never grow tired of your grief. I’ll talk to you about it whenever. Call me anytime.” I think those things are really freeing and helpful. 

When you are in your worst moments, you are probably not thinking a whole lot about loving and serving others. But if and when you can, just remember it’s a great privilege for those people to serve you. You are blessing them by allowing them to serve you. So if somebody wants to bring you a meal, let them bring you a meal. It’s a blessing to them to be able to serve you. So many people want to serve you, so to the greatest of your ability, in those hard moments, let them. 

It can feel tense when it comes to talking about death and the afterlife. How can we talk about death and life after death more and well amongst Christians and non-Christians?

We don’t talk about it as much as we would. Maybe part of that is because these conversations tend to get gobbled up in differences about eschatology, the return of Christ and the last days, so we don’t go there at all. The other thing is, our conversations about heaven can become really speculative. There have been a lot of books written where some of it could be true, but they are just so sure about so many things the Bible really doesn’t say anything about. Maybe we have been once bitten, twice shy about those ‘I went to heaven’ books where ‘I went to heaven and came back. Here is what heaven is like’ and some nonsensical description that’s different from all the other books. So maybe we have just drifted from it a little bit. 

Ultimately, this life matters so much and what we do here is truly significant. But this life is very, very brief for all of us. If we get our 80 years on this earth, we’ve got eternity awaiting us. We are in that sense preparing ourselves for what is to come. This is the training ground, the finishing school that prepares us for what is beyond. Alerting our loved ones to that, alerting our unbelieving neighbours to that, alerting our churches to that to those of us who are pastors, and really calling people to understand that there is life beyond the grave. There is life and there is death beyond the grave. I want to see churches really do more to prepare their people for heaven as the most ultimate reality. 

How can we tell others about the realities of eternity with grace and truth?

I think the one thing our society has been trained not to reject is personal experience. They have been taught to reject anything we say are objective truth claims. Heaven and hell exist. That’s easy for people to reject now. They almost do it flippantly without thinking about it. But when we go through times of suffering, that gives us the opportunity to speak. People will listen when you’re enduring something and when you’re then telling your story. That’s not the only way to do it, but I think it’s a way to do it. Even with things like funerals, our experiences of loss is to speak very personally. 

I think of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus cast those demons out of him into the herd of pigs. Here’s this man now free from demons and he said to Jesus “I want to go with you. I want to be your disciple.” And Jesus said “No. Go to your people and just tell them what I’ve done for you.” I think there is something to be said of those accounts of ‘here’s what I’ve gone through, here’s what happened, and here is the One who has helped me through it.’ I think we gain a hearing with friends, neighbours, family members, Christian and non-Christian alike when we simply recount our own stories. Even our unbelieving friends will read stories from our lives and read our accounts of suffering. That’s an ideal opportunity to point people to realities beyond. 

God is doing something in this world. He is bidding people to the ministries He has called them to. He is preparing and equipping us in that way. What if there are people in my church or in my neighbourhood who lose a child? I can go to them now. God has fitted me and equipped me for that ministry now, to reach out to them one-on-one, in a local context, which is a context that matters way more than any global or international Christianity. I can go to a neighbour and say “Hey, I’ve been there. Let me talk to you about what I endured and how God was precious to me through it.”

How has the gospel of Jesus Christ been your certain and blessed hope, in what would appear to a watching world to be a time of hopelessness? 

It’s my hope in the sense that if God could use the greatest evil that has ever befallen anybody ever, the cross of Jesus Christ, to accomplish the greatest good that brings most glory to God ever, which is the redemption of humanity, we hitch ourselves to that. Then we look at our own suffering and say if it’s true in that big sense, I am going to make an argument from the greater to the lesser, and say that absolutely proves that God can bring good. God can glorify Himself, even in this much smaller form of suffering. When we anchor ourselves in the gospel, which is to say we anchor ourselves in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have the interpretive key for our own suffering. Look at what God did on the cross. We are called now to bear our own crosses, to suffer well and wisely. I can do that, trusting and 100% convinced that God can and will use this in a way that serves other people and brings glory to His name. I know that because of the cross. 

A pastor, noted speaker, and author of numerous articles, Tim Challies is a pioneer in the Christian blogosphere. Tens of thousands of people visit each day, making it one of the most widely read and recognized Christian blogs in the world. Tim is the author of several books, including Visual Theology and Epic: An Around-the-World Journey through Christian History. He and his family reside near Toronto, Ontario.