Tony Reinke

Upcoming Changes to APJ

Audio Transcript

Hello, APJ listeners. Thanks for spending so much time with Pastor John and me over the years. We’re honored to be along on this ride of what God has done — and continues to do — through the podcast. It’s bigger than us.

It’s just me today, with an update for you about a few new programming changes to be aware of. And the first change is an announcement — an exciting one for us here at because we are now offering a brand-new John Piper sermon podcast. It launched in mid-April. Maybe you heard about it. It’s called Light + Truth. Be sure to subscribe to the new podcast feed to enjoy sermons from Pastor John’s pulpit ministry — classic sermons and new sermons, five days a week, all curated in a new podcast hosted by Dan Cruver. It’ll be a great addition to your podcast feed.

And with the addition of the new podcast come two changes to Ask Pastor John. The first is that we’re going to bring sermon-clip-curation Wednesdays to an end. That was a lot of fun, and you all sent me a ton of great clips over the years. Thank you for sharing those clips with us and sharing your memories too. Many of us have stories about unforgettable moments in life when a sermon from Pastor John met us in a moment of need. But sermon-clip Wednesdays will end in May. Instead of sermon clips, those of you who want to listen to curated John Piper sermons can subscribe to the new Light + Truth podcast.

And that brings me to change two. In removing the Wednesday slot, APJ is moving to two times per week. We will be publishing two episodes per week, now on Mondays and Thursdays. For a number of years now, we’ve been publishing on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Now we’re going to publish new APJs on Mondays and Thursdays. That change begins in June. Just wanted to give you a heads up.

Thank you for listening in, supporting us, and sending in your questions. Keep those coming, which you are — we have no shortage of questions ahead of us. In fact, we already have May and June and all of July, and much of August, now scheduled out with themes. It’s as busy as ever. And Pastor John continues to love investing his time in APJ. In fact, we were recently looking over his schedule for the next year ahead and his ministry commitments, and he said, “APJ remains a deeply satisfying investment of effort. And it’s probably the hardest thing I do.” Ha! Yes — not easy work, but deeply satisfying work. Amen. And I love working on this podcast, and we have much work ahead of us in this second decade of the podcast.

So those are the updates. Subscribe to Light + Truth today. And APJ moves to Mondays and Thursdays in June.

I’m your host, Tony Reinke. Thanks for listening to the Ask Pastor John podcast. We’ll see you soon.

Upcoming Changes to APJ

Tony Reinke shares two upcoming changes to Ask Pastor John in light of a brand-new John Piper sermon podcast called ‘Light + Truth.’

Death Can Only Make Me Better: Remembering Tim Keller (1950–2023)

Today Tim Keller entered the reward of his Master. In this special episode of Ask Pastor John, Tony Reinke shares a sermon clip from Dr. Keller on the joy of God in the face of cancer.

Death Can Only Make Me Better: Remembering Tim Keller (1950–2023)

Audio Transcript

Today we say farewell to our friend, pastor and author Tim Keller. Tim passed away in New York City at the age of 72. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2020.

Over the years, Dr. Keller graciously appeared as a guest on this podcast, leaving us with nine rich APJ episodes on topics like vocation (or work) and on the themes of prayer and solitude. I’m thankful for the time he invested with us.

Cancer, for Dr. Keller, was an old nemesis. Back in 2002, he was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, a battle he would fight between 2003 and 2004. God would heal and restore Keller, but not before thyroid surgery knocked him out of the pulpit for three months. A decade later, Keller preached a sermon on boldness in the face of death and recounted what he learned during that first cancer battle, opening up about his fears as he was rolled into the operating room. In that moment, he caught a glimpse of something otherworldly. He saw the sheer magnitude of God’s glory and God’s joy beyond this world of pain and suffering and cancer and death.

I want to play for you a sermon clip that comes to my mind on this day, celebrating his life, knowing he has passed into the presence of God and into God’s incredible, unspeakable joy that the rest of us are left longing for. Here’s Tim Keller, in 2013, answering this question: Where do we find courage for life’s scariest moments?

To me, my favorite version of this example of what real courage is comes out of this little passage near the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. If you’re one of the three or four people in the world who has never heard of The Lord of the Rings, it’s a story. There are these two little heroes. One is the master, and one is the servant of the master. Sam is the servant, and he loves his master. They’re on this terrible quest, and at one point, his master is imprisoned in a tower. Sam rescues Frodo, his master, largely by screwing himself up and saying, “You are not going to hurt him. I’m going to do this. You can’t stop me. I’m the great . . . here I come.” He does rescue him.

After that, they’re still on their terrible quest, and the danger is still very real. One night, Sam looks up into the sky and sees a star. This is in the book, not the movie. This is what the passage says:

Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart. . . . For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now . . . his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him . . . [and he fell] into a deep untroubled sleep. (922)

The author, Tolkien, is trying to say there’s a difference between defiance, in which you screw yourself up (“I can do it!”) — that’s still, in the end, not the courage you need, because you’re looking at yourself. Courage, on the one hand, is not looking at yourself and banishing fear. No, it’s just letting the fears play their role, and not letting the fears play too much of a role by looking away from yourself. “Okay,” you say, “but then to what?” It’s even in the text I just read. It was defiance, not hope. Hope.

When Paul met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, “‘Who are you, Lord?’ [I asked.] ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting’” (Acts 22:8 NIV) — the resurrected Jesus. When we were going through Acts 9, the first account of Paul’s conversion, we talked a little bit about this. When Paul realized that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead, suddenly everything broke open. Suddenly the meaning of his death made sense, and the hope for the future made sense.

If Jesus Christ really died on the cross, taking our punishment, and he’s now raised from the dead, now when we believe in him, not only are our sins forgiven, but now we have an incredible hope about the future. We’re going to be raised, and everything in this world is going to be put right, and there is not going to be any suffering or death. That is an astonishing hope.

As I said, the first part of courage is looking away from yourself. The world tells you, “Look at yourself and banish fear.” The second part of courage is looking toward hope, getting a hope. Real courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the presence of joy — so much joy that the fear plays its proper role. Well, how do you get that joy?

“Real courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the presence of joy.”

Before we get to that, let me just tell you there is a second way out there in the world that people are counseling each other to get courage. I think the primary way is this sort of “self-esteemism.” The primary way the world tries to tell you to get courage is this: “Just tell yourself, ‘No fear — you can do it!’ Summon up the blood and go do it.”

I do think there’s an alternate discourse out there, and it’s older. It’s more ancient. It goes back to the East. It goes back to the Greeks. Cicero, for example, who was one of the Roman Stoics, wrote a very famous couple of treatises on why you shouldn’t be afraid of anything, especially not death. You shouldn’t be afraid of death. He says, “Courage makes light of death, for the dead are only as they were before they were born. It encounters pain by recollecting that the great pains are ended by death. Others we can usually control, if they are endurable, but if they are not, we can serenely quit life’s theater when the play has ceased to please us.”

What he’s saying here is, “There is no reason to be afraid of anything, including not of death. Why? Because when you die, that’s it. It’s like before. You’re just not there.” What is he saying? You shouldn’t be afraid of anything, because you tell yourself, “I’m going to lose it all anyway. There’s no use crying over spilled milk. When you die, that’s it. I’m enjoying things, but everybody loses things.”

What are they doing? You’re still deadening your heart, aren’t you? There is a way of getting courage, not by deadening your heart to fear, but by deadening your heart to love. And it’s not just Cicero — I’ve read it in the New Yorker. So many smart secular people today say the same thing. “There’s no reason to be afraid of things. There’s no reason to be afraid of death. When you’re dead, that’s it. There’s no reason to be afraid of death.” Oh no?

What is it that makes your life meaningful? Is it your health? Partly. Is it your wealth? Partly. Is it your success? Partly. But what if you had those things and you didn’t have love? What if you had nobody in your life to love you, nobody in your life for you to love? It would be meaningless. What makes your life meaningful are the people you love and the people who love you. That’s what makes your life meaningful.

Now you’re going to stand there, Cicero (or whoever), and you’re going to tell me I should not fear a future state in which the one thing that makes life meaningful is taken away? All love and all loved ones are taken away. That’s the state. And you’re telling me I shouldn’t be afraid of that? Are you crazy? Of course we should be afraid of that. I’m sorry, but deadening your heart to love is just like deadening your heart to fear. It kind of works, partly, but I don’t know. It’s certainly not good for your heart.

Here’s a better way. George Herbert, a seventeenth-century Anglican priest — incredible poet. One of my favorite poems in the history of the world is his little poem called “A Dialogue-Anthem.” It’s a dialogue between a Christian and Death. Christian starts.

Chr.Alas, poor Death! where is thy glory?Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting?

Dea.Alas, poor mortal, void of story!Go spell and read how I have killed thy King.

Chr.Poor Death! and who was hurt thereby?Thy curse being laid on Him makes thee accursed.

Dea.Let losers talk: yet thou shalt die;These arms shall crush thee.

Chr.     Spare not, do thy worst.I shall be one day better than before;Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.

Do you want to be fearless? Do you want to look out there and say, “Nothing can really hurt me because of my infallible hope”? Do you want to look out there, saying, “Even the worst thing that can happen to me — death — can only make me better”? “Spare not, Death! Come on. All you could do is make me better than I am now.”

George Herbert has a great line where he says, “Death used to be an executioner, but the gospel has made him just a gardener.” All he can do is plant you, and you finally come up into the beautiful flower that you were meant to be. You’re just a seed, and death just plants you, and then you finally become who you were meant to be. That’s not courage the Ciceronian way. “Just kill your heart. Just say, ‘Well, we’re going to lose everything anyway.’ Just deaden it.” This isn’t Hercules. This isn’t King Arthur. This is Jesus.

“Christianity is the only religion that even claims our God has the attribute of courage.”

How can you be utterly, utterly sure you have that hope? How can you say to even death itself, “Spare not, do thy worst”? I can tell you how. You have to believe in the only God. There are a lot of religions out there, and they all claim “God, God, God,” but Christianity is the only religion that even claims our God has the attribute of courage. Why? Because when God became Jesus Christ, he became vulnerable. He became human. When he was in the garden of Gethsemane, when everybody was asleep and it was dark and there was nobody there and he realized what he was about to face.

I actually think the garden of Gethsemane is the place where you see the greatest act of courage in the history of the world, because by the time he got nailed to the cross, even if he wanted to turn around, it would have been too late. There he was, nailed to the cross. But that night, he could have left. In fact, he even thought about it. He says, “My soul is overwhelmed . . . to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38 NIV). What do you see in Jesus Christ? You see courage.

You don’t see him saying, “Bring it on.” The bloody sweat showed he was feeling fear. He wasn’t saying, “Come on.” What was he doing? We’re told all about it in Hebrews 12:1–3 (NIV):

Therefore . . . let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

There it is. He looked away from himself, and what did he look toward? Joy. What was the joy? The joy of pleasing his Father and redeeming his friends. The joy of that enabled him to have courage. Listen: if you see him courageously dying for you like that so you can say to death, “Spare not, do thy worst,” then you can have courage.

One of the few times I needed courage, God was very happy to give it to me, and it was very nice. When I was going under, being wheeled in for my only cancer surgery — I had thyroid cancer years ago — I do remember (it was so nice) I suddenly had this sense that the world is wonderful and the universe is this big ball of the glory of God, and we’re just trapped in this little tiny speck of darkness. And even that’s going to be taken away eventually. Therefore, no matter what happens now, whatever happens with the surgery, I’m going to be all right. My family is going to be all right. The world is going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right. It was very nice to have a moment of courage.

“By looking at the joy of what is now there for you, you’ll face whatever you have to face.”

I have to tell you, I haven’t had many of those moments. I can’t hold on to them. But guess what? The courageous Jesus Christ holds on to me and holds on to you. And if you look at him and the joy of what he accomplished through his courageous act — by looking at the joy of what is now there for you, you’ll face whatever you have to face.

“Real courage is not the absence of fear; it’s the presence of joy.” A moving testimony of the sheer magnitude of God’s glory. A clip from Tim Keller’s sermon titled “The Gospel and Courage,” preached on May 26, 2013.

A couple of years later, Dr. Keller took this story and wrote it into his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (2015). I want to read his published version.

There have not been many times in my life when I felt “the peace that passes understanding.” But there was one time for which I am very grateful. . . . It was just before my cancer surgery. My thyroid was about to be removed, and after that, I faced a treatment with radioactive iodine to destroy any residual cancerous thyroid tissue in my body. Of course my whole family and I were shaken by it all, and deeply anxious. On the morning of my surgery, after I said my good-byes to my wife and sons, I was wheeled into a room to be prepped. And in the moments before they gave me the anesthetic, I prayed. To my surprise, I got a sudden, clear new perspective on everything. It seemed to me that the universe was an enormous realm of joy, mirth, and high beauty. Of course it was — didn’t the triune God make it to be filled with his own boundless joy, wisdom, love, and delight? And within this great globe of glory was only one little speck of darkness — our world — where there was temporarily pain and suffering. But it was only one speck, and soon that speck would fade away and everything would be light. And I thought, “It doesn’t really matter how the surgery goes. Everything will be all right. Me — my wife, my children, my church — will all be all right.” I went to sleep with a bright peace on my heart. (318)

I trust that in his last days Tim was given this courage and this vision again of the magnitude of God’s joy enveloping everything else.

Dr. Keller escaped this speck of darkness for the high beauty forever beyond the Shadow’s reach and entered into the boundless joy of his master at the age of 72. Farewell for now, Dr. Keller.

Harnessing the Lightning: Tesla’s 3,000-Year Backstory

Today I get to share with you the 3,000-year backstory to Tesla electric cars. But the story doesn’t start here in Silicon Valley. For that story we need to cross the country to America’s epicenter of innovation in the 1740s, to New England, and to the time of Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod, for an electrifying story filled with lightning and thunder.

The Lightning Rod Arrives

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, churches built steeples high into the sky. And within those steeples they installed bells. And on those bells was often inscribed some form of the Latin phrase fulgura frango — translated, “I break up the lightning flashes.” Church bells did many things, including suppressing thunderstorms. It became a common practice, beginning in the medieval age and extending into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during a major thunderstorm, for local bellringers to climb up into the church’s steeple and ring the church bells loudly. By doing so they could — perhaps, perhaps — ward off the divine wrath and the devilish invasion in the skies.

That was the theory. But that theory was plagued by two design fails. First, the bells were cast metal. And second, those cast metal bells hung in the steeple, usually the town’s high-point. So, you can imagine how well this worked out for bell ringers! In France and Belgium alone, over the span of just three decades, nearly 400 bell towers were hit by lightning. Many of them burned down, killing more than 100 bell ringers (Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries, 341). In a twist of irony, during thunderstorms, townspeople were encouraged to keep their distance from churches — while the town’s pubs and shadier establishments almost always escaped untouched from the divine displeasure in the tempest.

So bell ringers were not fans of steeples in thunderstorms. But one man loved them. Benjamin Franklin. For him, the steeple was the perfect focal point for his lightning experiments. Franklin came to understand that “storm clouds contained electrical charges, notwithstanding their heavy loads of water.” Even though electricity was a fire, he theorized, “it was a different kind of fire, one that could coexist with water.” So, he developed the concept of a lightning rod to protect structures from fire by drawing off the electrical charge from lightning.

By 1750, he was proving his theory. He made little miniature houses and put gunpowder in them. Then, he’d strike the little house with a spark from a battery, and the mini-house would explode. On a second little house he installed a replica lightning rod, a wire, then struck the house with another spark. The house didn’t explode.

Theological Alarm Bells

But even as the evidence became indisputable, Franklin’s invention raised theological alarm bells. One pastor in Boston proposed that if you diverted God’s wrath of lightning into the earth, it would simply supercharge future earthquakes (Benjamin Franklin, 173). In fact, a major earthquake hit New England soon after Franklin began diverting bolts into the ground, seemingly proving this fear to be true.

John Adams, a future president, summarized what he was hearing from leaders in New England, that the lightning rod was “an impious attempt to rob the Almighty of his thunder, to wrest the bolt of vengeance out of his hand” (Stealing God’s Thunder, 111).

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the French, who loved Franklin, more eagerly adopted his lightning rod. But even there, the French pastor and famous physicist, Jean-Antoine Nollet, who bought in 100% to the rod’s effectiveness, refused to adopt it, saying the rod was, quote, “as impious to ward off heaven’s lightnings as for a child to ward off the chastening rod of its father” (Stealing God’s Thunder, 96).

To his dismay, Benjamin Franklin found himself locked inside a theology debate. “The more scientists knew about the workings of lightning and electricity, the less mysterious those phenomena appeared. The more one could control lightning’s fury, the less vulnerable the world seemed before God’s wrath” (Benjamin Franklin, 176). Franklin, it seemed, was stealing God’s thunder.

His lightning rods sparked a debate that split the eighteenth century. Is a lightning rod on a church steeple an act of faith? Or an act of God-thwarting unbelief? That’s the debate I want to settle today. Because if we can answer this, I think we will get clarity on electric cars and resolve one key tension Christians face here inside Silicon Valley, the epicenter of the most highly advanced technological society the world has ever known. And to understand our latest tech, we turn to an old book: the book of Job.

Where Is God in the Thunderstorm?

Job is an ancient book, perhaps the oldest book in the Bible. It’s about the sufferings of a man named Job — a kingly figure, a wealthy man, perhaps a local ruler. Then his life was upended, partly due to a major storm brought by Satan and permitted by God.

In Job we find the longest and most vivid sermon in the Bible on thunderstorms, from a young man named Elihu, the youngest of Job’s friends. Because he’s one of Job’s friends, we can put an asterisk on everything he says, though he seems especially trustworthy. But Elihu is not an infallible prophet. He’s not a professional theologian. He’s just a relatively trustworthy guy who affirms God’s sovereignty as he tries to figure out how weather patterns work. Elihu is a forerunner to Ben Franklin.

“Elihu is a forerunner to Ben Franklin.”

And so thunderstorms are a major theme in the book of Job. At the start, Job had 7,000 sheep and “very many servants,” but then a lightning storm hit, “the fire of God fell from heaven,” and it “burned up” his 7,000 sheep and “consumed” his many servants (Job 1:3, 16). So a storm of huge magnitude shatters Job’s life at the start of the book. And now we jump into the story at the end of the book. A second storm is brewing.

God’s Greatness from Afar

God will soon speak from this second thunderstorm, beginning in chapter 38. But in chapters 36 and 37 this thunderstorm is still gathering in the background. So imagine Elihu, the final human voice in Job, in the last speech of the book, setting up God’s dramatic entrance. That’s our scene. So, we find Elihu preaching on lightning as a thunderstorm brews behind him. Distant thunder is growling, the winds are picking up, the sun is shrouded, and lightning marches closer to Job. The storm is brewing. And God will speak from this storm, directly to Job. So this is the dramatic context of Elihu’s sermon we will study now in Job 36:24 and following.

In this thunderstorm we marvel at God, exult over his power, and witness his direct actions in creation. We pick up Elihu’s sermon here, as he speaks to his friend Job in Job 36:24–26:

“Remember to extol his work [thunderstorms],     of which men have sung.All mankind has looked on it;     man beholds it from afar.Behold, God is great, and we know him not;     the number of his years is unsearchable.”

So we meet the theme of this text: storms and God. God is eternal Spirit, wholly other than us. Ancient. Wise. A mystery beyond our understanding. But storms and natural laws are different. We can learn from them — within limits, Elihu says. The natural world is hard to understand, not because it cannot be known, but because it’s all happening from “afar” — far away, far up in the sky. Elihu wants to investigate God’s works in nature, but he can only see nature from a distance. We can understand the natural world today because we can zoom in closer. Weather balloons, drones, satellites, telescopes, microscopes — proximity is our scientific advantage. We can get close to storms. Elihu has none of these advantages.

God Is Invisible, Yet Present

And yet, this distance doesn’t stop Elihu from investigating God’s work over nature.

For he draws up the drops of water;     they distill his mist in rain,which the skies pour down     and drop on mankind abundantly. (Job 36:27–28)

This is amazing! Elihu delivers a “proto-scientific description of the formation of rain”(Job 21–37, 869). It’s primitive, but he’s on to atmospheric water cycles. He does not understand evaporation as we now understand it, but he’s pressing into a natural phenomenon with the scientific curiosity that will eventually lead to the discovery of evaporation — a law set in place by the Creator. So he’s inquiring into the atmospheric phenomena at play.

And as Elihu works to figure out storms, notice that he clings to two truths: God is invisible, but majestically present in his creation. That’s what I want you to see all over this text. We can’t see God; but we can see his acts.

So Elihu investigates nature, far off and full of mystery. But he knows this much: Every lightning strike is fired directly by God and is aimed at a specific target. That’s what we see next.

Present in Every Lightning Bolt

Can anyone understand the spreading of the clouds,     the thunderings of his pavilion? [There’s natural mystery here.]Behold, he scatters his lightning about him [where lightning bolts are, there God is]     and covers the roots of the sea. [More literally, he uncovers the roots of the sea — a lightning strike hits the sea and illuminates that underworld for a flash of a moment.]For by these [bolts] he judges peoples;     [and] he gives food in abundance. (Job 36:29–31)

So Elihu doesn’t fully understand the weather patterns. But he knows enough to see that rain gives food to all creatures — and that blessing is connected to lightning, and that lightning is connected to God. So on one hand, yes, the lightning expresses God’s displeasure. But lightning also expresses God’s love. Lightning judges. Lightning feeds. Lightning is complex, as we will see in a moment. But in every bolt, God is present, according to this incredible statement:

He [God] covers his hands with the lightning     and commands it to strike the mark. (Job 36:32)

God’s hands are charged with crackling lightning. You can’t help but think of Zeus and his thunderbolt — the most powerful, unrivaled weapon feared among all the pagan gods. Or the storm gods of Elihu’s age, who held lightning bolts in their hands (Job, 358). Those fictional characters are one-dimensional. But the living God of the universe truly holds thunderbolts in his hands. And not only does he hold them, he shoots them. And not only does he shoot them, he aims them. And not only does he aim them, this forked, zigzagging fire from heaven nails its bullseye every single time (The Book of Job, 480).

God never misses. And this is what led to the utter confusion of Bible-believing Christians in New England. The town bar is never tasered. But the church bells are bullseyes. What gives?

God Speaks Through Lightning

Whatever else lightning is, it’s never less than the presence of God shown to us in the natural world. God is here. He is speaking.

Its crashing declares his presence;     the cattle also declare that he rises.At this also my heart trembles     and leaps out of its place. (Job 36:33–37:1)

Thunder from the skies triggers a thunder inside Elihu’s chest. It does for us, too, right? This past summer we were driving home late in the desert, watching cloud-to-cloud strikes of a huge thunderstorm west of Phoenix — 20-mile-long bolts of lightning flashing like silent strobe lights across the black sky. And my son said, “Every time I see that, something inside of me moves.” Yes! Same for Elihu. Lightning sets off an internal thunder inside us.

Keep listening to the thunder of his voice     and the rumbling that comes from his mouth [that deep growl you hear in the distant storm as it marches close].[Until] Under the whole heaven he [God] lets it go,     and his lightning to the corners of the earth. (Job 37:2–3)

Ever felt that? Lightning hitting in every direction around you? North, south, east, west. And when a bolt flashes and hits especially close — what do we do? We count. One one-thousand, two one-thousand . . . boom!

After it [after the bolt] his voice roars;     he thunders with his majestic voice,     and he does not restrain the lightnings when his voice is heard.God thunders wondrously with his voice;     he does great things that we cannot comprehend. (Job 37:4–5)

“Whatever else lightning is, it’s never less than the presence of God shown to us in the natural world.”

Again, Elihu is not saying that we cannot understand nature. He’s saying that we cannot fully understand God’s purposes in nature. And we certainly cannot stop God’s fire from the sky. We sense our powerlessness (The Book of Job, 480). And yet every peal of thunder is the voice of God speaking.

God’s Purposes in the Storm

Back to Job, who is suffering in dust and ashes. Job’s “bitter” complaint was that God had left him in the dark and disappeared (Job 23:1–9). But Elihu corrects Job. God didn’t abandon Job. He is no absentee Creator. God is here. God’s closeness echoes in the skies in every peal of thunder — a point made in all four seasons.

For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth,’     likewise to the downpour, his mighty downpour.He seals up the hand of every man,     that all men whom he made may know it.Then the beasts go into their lairs,     and remain in their dens. (Job 37:6–8)

By inclement weather, God seals the hand of every man. With his storms, he zip-ties our hands and places us under house arrest. Or as the NIV says: “he stops all people from their labor.” Blizzards and monsoons shut people inside their homes and beasts inside their caves.

Guiding Creatures Where He Wants Them

So God commands dumps of snow and torrents of rain. Why? Because he is positioning (and repositioning) each of his creatures as on a chessboard. In all four seasons, God uses his creation to guide the work of man. Major weather disruptions are one of God’s means to guide his creatures to where he wants them (The Book of Job, 480–481).

Delayed flights. Cancelled meetings. Viruses. If God chose to keep us all shut inside in 2020, it was no hard thing for him to pull off. God governs the business of his creatures through his created order — and very often through weather patterns. He governs our travels through snow, ice, lightning storms, power outages, flooding — you name it. All the seasons are included here. But winter especially.

From its chamber comes the whirlwind,     and cold from the scattering winds.By the breath of God ice is given,     and the broad waters are frozen fast. (Job 37:9–10)

Showing His Presence and Control

And then of course, again, God wields lightning.

He loads the thick cloud with moisture;     the clouds scatter his lightning. (Job 37:11)

Again, we’ve seen this. Elihu is on to evaporation. Water goes up, makes clouds thicken, and then lightning strikes, and that same water pours back down (Job 36:27–28). Elihu gets that. The NIV translates this verse, God “loads the clouds with moisture; he scatters his lightning through them.” So God shoots lightning from his hands. And he shoots them through an atmospheric channel (Job 38:26). Elihu is doing something remarkable here by making two points at the same time. (1) The unseen God is here. (2) His presence is mediated in the natural laws that govern the skies. He’s here. He’s in charge. And he’s leading storms like a leashed dog.

They turn around and around by his guidance,     to accomplish all that he commands them     on the face of the habitable world. (Job 37:12)

Bolts of Correction, Blessing, and Love

God harnesses the storm — leads it, directs it, so that every lightning bolt fulfills his will for creation. So what is his will? Three things, in verse 13.

Whether for correction     or for his land     or for love [ḥesed],     he causes it to happen. (Job 37:13)

So beyond God’s repositioning of his creatures, lightning fulfills his will in three other ways.

One, he uses bolts to chasten and correct sinners.

Two, he shoots bolts to rain down blessings on the thirsty land to feed all his creatures, including us.

“Lightning expresses God’s ‘hesed’ — his loyal love.”

Three, he sends bolts “for love.” Lightning expresses God’s ḥesed — his loyal love. Undying covenant love. So, if you can only imagine God and lightning in a one-dimensional context — like Zeus, some angry god firing off a pistol of lightning to whomever aggravates him — you’ll miss the love of God.

None of this means that it’s easy to interpret what each storm means, says Elihu. We know that God sends the storms. But we don’t know exactly why. And trying to figure out God’s intent in providence is a dangerous task. God’s will is complex. So Elihu is throwing serious side-eye to Job’s older friends who tried to draw definite conclusions from Job’s misfortunes.

Realigning Human Attitudes

Now, finally, as the storm builds up to God’s speech, Elihu makes eye contact with his suffering friend Job.

Hear this, O Job;     stop and consider the wondrous works of God.Do you know how God lays his command upon them     and causes the lightning of his cloud to shine? (Job 37:14–15)

Job desperately needs to realign his attitude. But what can change Job’s attitude in suffering? Consider the wonders of God in the natural world. Here’s a preview of what God is about to unleash in Job 38–42. He will speak to Job from a storm to remind Job of wonder after wonder after wonder in creation.

Traveling from Job to Tesla

But we end Job’s story here. Elihu is trying to understand lightning. He’s an observant man of faith. He trusts God. He marvels at the patterns in the atmosphere. He’s the Bible’s Ben Franklin, but with better theology. And he’s asking his friend Job, “Job, do you know how lightning works? Do you know about the electricity in the clouds, like batteries that hold a charge until it’s time to fire a bolt? Can you explain how water and fire coexist in the sky? No.”

For Job these are great mysteries. But for us? Not anymore. We understand how a lot of it works. And that’s where the tension with science arises. And so we need to move from Elihu to Ben Franklin to Nichola Tesla and down to the Tesla Model X and to the brand new F-150 EV truck, fittingly called the “Lightning.” Let me do that with six brief takeaways.

1. God fires every lightning bolt. He never misses.

God shoots lightning from his hands to a bullseye every time. Elihu makes this clear, and his words are confirmed by other Old Testament texts — namely Psalm 135 and Jeremiah 10. For some, this is news to you — a missing piece of your theology. God is present in lightning bolts. That’s not pagan superstition. That’s biblical orthodoxy.

2. God fires every lightning bolt through atmospheric channels. He ordains the means.

God shoots lightning from his hands to a bullseye every time, but this sovereign marvel does not stop Elihu’s curiosity. He still searches for the atmospheric means God uses in thunderstorms. Providence drives him into natural science, not away from it. Elihu is both trying to unriddle the mystery of God’s providence in the storm, and he’s trying to unriddle the atmospheric mechanics of a storm. And he’s doing both at the same time.

You can pursue science and believe in God without contradiction. So Elihu is simultaneously seeking to decipher the voice of God and atmospheric physics; the invisible world and the visible world; the spirit realm and the physical realm; the laws of providence and the laws of nature. He’s modeling faith-filled science, because these two worlds work in tandem.

3. God governs every natural law. We ignore them to our peril.

God governs his creation “by certain fixed laws.” Do those laws bend “and make allowance for” our mistakes? No, says the nineteenth-century preacher Charles Spurgeon: “Every violation of them is avenged,” Spurgeon says of the laws of lightning, offering this grisly example.

“The simple countryman, in his ignorance of the laws of electricity, is overtaken by a pelting storm, and to escape from the drenching rain he runs beneath some lofty tree to screen himself beneath its spreading branches. It is a law of nature that elevated points should attract the lightning: the man does not know this, he does not intend to defy his Maker’s natural law, but for all that, when the death-dealing fluid splits the tree it leaves a senseless corpse. The law does not suspend its operations though that man may be the husband upon whose life the bread of many children may depend, though he may have been one of the most guileless and prayerful of mankind, though he may have been utterly unconscious of having exposed himself to the force of a physical law of God, yet still he dies, for he has placed himself in the way of a settled law of nature, and it takes its course.”

The natural law is fixed. Be dumb with lightning and it will cost you — perhaps your life (MTPS, 22:13–15). Don’t be dumb with the fixed natural laws. That’s dangerous and deadly. Fear nature. Fear God.

4. Fear drives our inventors.

Necessity is the mother of invention. And so is fear. One way God ignites science and innovation is through fear. He uses all sorts of human desires to motivate our discoveries of creation, but fear is a biggie. Our fear drives us to understand, and understanding leads to discovery. So why do we understand electricity today? Because humans faced the sheer power of lightning, and were motivated to engineer. Fear drives man into God’s created patterns. And that fear is how you end up with the lightning rod.

5. Lightning rod strikes obey God.

So if God commands each bolt, it would be an act of unbelief to divert that bolt with a lightning rod, right? That’s the question we are back to.

And the answer is, no. Actually, God teaches us to make lightning rods. To divert the lightning is not an act of unbelief — but one that can be made in faith. This is because, as theologian Abraham Kuyper writes,

“When God accumulates electricity in the clouds and the possibility increases of a lightning strike that might endanger the lives of a family or their property, we are not only permitted but obligated to apply every means available to avert or at least mitigate this danger. It is none other than God himself who has included within nature this means to divert the lightning.… And when a dangerous bolt of lightning travels down along the metal rod and terminates in the ground, it is God himself who guides the lightning along that rod and who smothers the enormous spark in the earth. Humankind does not do this, and Satan does not do this; it is God. And whoever honors God’s majesty in the lightning that flashes, yet does not honor the majesty with which God draws this flashing lightning to the rod, grounding and guiding it away, takes from God half the honor due him” (Common Grace, 2:596)

Realize this: No bolt travels harmlessly down a lightning rod unless God directs it that way, through the innovation of man. When the bolt travels down the rod, God guides it there. This is the key theological point missing from 1750 New England, and for many Christians today — who fear that human innovation strongarms God, or makes him look weaker. No. That’s a myth. New tech never bullies our sovereign God. It reveals more of him, his patterns in creation, and his generosity to us. Leading to point 6.

6. No one sees God’s love in lightning like we do.

Once Ben Franklin proved decisively with a kite that clouds hold an electric charge, like a huge battery in the sky, he opened a floodgate of new human innovation. We could make battery farms. We could envision man-made lightning bolts to power cities. And “the power we now recognize in electricity God had already hidden in nature from the very hour of paradise.” The electrified age was hidden by God in the lightning bolt from the beginning of time. “In due time,” innovators were ordained to discover electricity, and to electrify cities and industries, although in doing so we “actually added nothing new to creation as such” (Pro Rege, 3:34).

The power was there all along. And if we had failed to harness electricity, we would have deprived God of the honor due to him. Electricity was hidden for millennia in the lightning bolt, a harnessed power that changed the world forever. In electricity we give God glory for lightning in ways that lightning alone cannot accomplish. Human innovation, the harnessing of this creation, magnifies the Creator’s brilliance more than a simple lightning storm. That’s the highest value and purpose possible for human tech — to disclose more of the Creator’s brilliance.

So Ben Franklin didn’t steal God’s thunder. No. He discovered lightning — diverted it — and introduced the world to electricity at the scale of what could eventually power cities. Electricity was not invented by Ben Franklin. Nor did it originate by inventors with the last names of Watts, Ampere, Volta, Faraday, Ohm, or Tesla. No. These innovators were raised up by God, at the right time, to discover and to divert and to harness what was hidden in plain sight from the beginning of creation. God was hiding electricity all along in lightning. Electricity was hidden in the bolt, awaiting discovery. And once we did, the age of electrification began — a watershed moment in human history — the electrified age — and it added nothing new to God’s creation! It was there all along. God used the fear of lightning to drive us to discover what now powers this room.

The natural lightning bolt that tears through the sky, and the artificial lightning bolt in the power plant that causes our lights to work right now, are equally from God. Yes, he uses means. Yes, he uses clouds. Yes, he uses power plants. But if Elihu were here today, he would say: Behold the love of God in the lightning bolt coursing through the wires of Silicon Valley, a power hidden in creation from day one in the lightning bolt. So why does your smartphone have power right now? The loyal love of God — his ḥesed.

God Over Lightning and Electricity

Let me attempt to summarize it all — and it’s a lot. Human fear of God in lightning drives us to discover the love of God in electricity. Elihu had no idea how much of God’s love to us was charged into the lightning bolt. He could never have predicted God’s love to thousands of COVID sufferers whose lives would be saved by ventilators. He could not have imagined God’s love in millions of heart defibrillators and pacemakers. Or in lights, air conditioning, dishwashers, computers, smartphones, televisions, electric cars—all the electrified things we take for granted every single day. All of them originated in the first cause of the electrified age—in the lightning bolt.

Elihu could never have imagined that the electricity hidden in lightning is animation, a life force, an invisible force coursing through wires to power farms, cities, homes, tools, industries. And now it’s nearly impossible for us to imagine life on this planet without electricity. Most of our jobs and hobbies and ministries are only possible because of it.

So, the challenge for us is this: Don’t ignore the God of the lightning bolt. Don’t take electricity from creation without giving your awe to the Creator who created every bolt of energy. Don’t hear the voice of God in lightning and then grow deaf to his glory and his love to us in the electricity powering our lives every day. As we see in Elihu himself, the utter transcendence and all-sufficiency of God does not stop us from investigating natural causes. It pushes us into the science of understanding how the means work. So we study physics and quantum physics. We study atmospheric phenomena, we harness those powers, then we use them to disclose the glory of God.

So don’t be dumb with electricity. Don’t stand under a tree in a lightning storm. And don’t use electricity to ignore the God who patterned electricity and who gave you this gift from his kindness. Put lightning rods on your steeples. Redirect the lightning. Harness its power. Make electric cars. And use every watt of power to do what lightning has always intended to do: to showcase the majesty and uniqueness and beauty of the Creator, who loves us lavishly with good gifts.

Innovation Exists by God’s Design

He may use you to discover the genetic cure for cancer, or he may use you to weaponize a superravager, but he disposes of every innovator as he pleases in his wisdom. We are each accountable for our volitional decisions and our sins. But make no mistake—each and every one of us finally fulfills the Creator’s purpose for our lives.

Innovators Create by Divine Appointment
Many of the sharpest Christians, who rightly celebrate God’s providential governance over all things, tend to wrongly assume (in practice) that his reign ends somewhere around the boundary lines of Silicon Valley. In reality, innovators—both virtuous ones and nefarious ones—are created by God. Scripture protects us from the myth that God is trying his best to stifle and subdue the unwieldiness of human technology. No, for his own purposes God creates blacksmiths and warriors, both welders and wielders of new tools. Our most powerful innovators exist by divine appointment.
More troubling, many of the world’s most powerful technologists imagine that they have transcended their need for God. And it is their common agnosticism or atheism that explains why Christians today often adopt a negative view of technology. The godlessness of Elon Musk reminds us that the closer you approach Silicon Valley, the fewer Christians you’ll find. The percentage of professing evangelical adults in the US (25.4 percent) drops in California (20 percent) and plummets in San Francisco (10 percent). And the percentage of adults who read Scripture at least once a week in the US (35 percent) sinks in California (30 percent) and plunges in San Francisco (18 percent).1 We assume that God must be withdrawn from such a place. But Isaiah corrects this assumption. The pagan societies where the ancient smith and ravager operated make San Francisco look like it’s part of the Bible Belt.

What does God think of human technology? Tony Reinke explores how the Bible unseats 12 common myths Christians hold about life in this age of innovation.

The rejection of God and the accumulation of innovative brilliance doesn’t give you the power to operate apart from God, like a queen on a chess board who thinks she can move anywhere she wants, impervious to the Master’s ultimate plan. Your innovative brilliance is how God is choosing to wield you in the world.
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Is Technology Holy or Worldly?

How can Christians live faithfully in the day of Big Tech? In ‘God, Technology, and the Christian Life,’ Tony Reinke explores God’s relationship to the innovations of our age.

Is Technology Holy or Worldly?

Audio Transcript

Hello, everyone. Tony Reinke here with a solo episode — just me today. An exciting day for me today because my new book is out: God, Technology, and the Christian Life. That’s the title, and I get to share with you a few thoughts today on why I wrote it.

I’ve dreamt of writing this book for several years. Back when I wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, it proved hard to write, harder than I expected, because I couldn’t find a baseline theology of technology that would root my thinking with smartphone habits specifically. I came to discover a theological gap in how Christians think about modern-day technology, which surprised me.

Without that foundation, I had to build one of my own. So, I wrote a little ten-page introduction in the smartphone book, and I called it “A Little Theology of Technology” (pages 29–39). Some big categories had to be in place before we addressed Steve Jobs, his iPhone, and our social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

I also knew this smaller theology of technology would need to eventually become a larger theology of technology. And I knew, if I could pull this off, it would serve a need in the church in the tech age. But I would have to answer one massive question: What is God’s relationship to Big Tech? What does he think of smartphones, and space travel, and nuclear power, and agricultural innovations, and on and on? I had to answer that huge cluster of questions. Are the innovations we use today from God? Or is it all a product of godless worldliness? Because what we do with our technology will never be clear if we cannot answer this more fundamental question.

Bigger Theology of Technology

So, I am thrilled to announce that my fuller theology of technology is written, published, and now out from our friends at Crossway Books. Soon I will be, Lord willing, inside Silicon Valley, busy with four events spread over two days across the Bay Area, to celebrate the book launch and to give away hundreds of free copies. It’s never about book sales. It’s about books distributed. So, we are giving away hundreds of copies of my new book to key leaders inside Silicon Valley, something possible because we have generous ministry partners making those giveaways possible. So, thank you for your support! You make it possible for us to do this.

Your prayers would be greatly appreciated for those events, if you think of me, on January 25th and 26th. One event, on that first day, January 25th, is scheduled to be livestreamed online. Watch Desiring God’s social channels for details if you want in on that. I’ll be talking about the origins of electricity and jumping into a huge theological debate that Ben Franklin accidentally stirred up in New England. It’s a great story. I’ll be sharing it on January 25th. And we are launching my book through our friends at Westminster Bookstore, our official retailer. There you can get the book for 50 percent off. Check it out at if you’re interested.

Hard Reset on Tech

So seven years ago, when I began writing my smartphone book, I came to see that the church lacked a basic framework for evaluating technology. This is tragic because, on the one hand, it breeds a Christian dystopianism, where it seems like one key to holiness is to shun innovation, or at least never say anything nice about it — furrow your brow, squint your eyes, turn up your nose, be suspect of all new tech like you would treat a new R-rated movie. That’s godliness.

But it’s not godliness. It’s a mindset that often leads to a type of wannabe agrarian who lives with this air of anti-technology about him, but who also has an iPhone and drives an SUV and sees no irony in it.

On the other hand, without a clear framework for approaching tech, it also breeds a Christian who eagerly adopts every new gadget from Apple without working through any of the consequences of how the new, shiny device will serve him or undermine his life. Both of them — the wannabe agrarian and the eager adopter — tend to live from a flat, overly simplistic view of the world.

So, I came to discover that the church could use a hard reset. In understanding God’s relationship to science, innovation, and Silicon Valley, we need to take this whole topic and unplug and re-plug it back in. That’s how I typically fix electronics problems. And that’s what I’m trying to do in this new tech book. It’s a restart. Power down. Power up. Let’s clear the cache and start from scratch.

Calvin’s Scaffolding

But it also means returning to an age when theologians began building the scaffolding for the vision that we need today. I’m particularly thinking about the French Reformer John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Calvin was a Reformer — he sought to bring reform to the church. And he did reform the church in many important ways, three of them significant for how Christians relate to science and industry.

First, Calvin destigmatized wealth. He distinguished the sin of loving and hoarding wealth from the virtue of capital employed for the good of society at large. That was big, especially when a dominant vision of peak spirituality was the monk in a desert monastery. Calvin said, “No, you can be a shining example of godliness as a wealthy Christian who stewards that fortune selflessly to employ others, to grow industries, and to serve needs.” And of course, that’s where new innovations originate — from industrial wealth. So, Calvin unleashed diligent Christians to pioneer new businesses.

“Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered.”

Second, Calvin unhitched the church from what Rome attempted to do, which was to adjudicate major scientific discoveries. He said, instead, “No, the Protestant church will preach Christ and him crucified. Scientists will do their thing without the church meddling in their business as the final arbiter.” When you remove the threat of heresy for observable phenomena, it changes the church’s whole relationship to science, it encourages new discoveries, and it encourages Christians to make those discoveries.

Third, and maybe most importantly, Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered, a vision we simply call “common grace.” He said there were two plans enacted by God. God was unfolding his plan for the church — “uncommon grace” or “special grace” in Christ, in his gospel, and in his people. But God had a second plan — a “common grace” for the growth of society, economics, and industry. And Calvin went so far as to say that the same Holy Spirit that regenerates us is the same Holy Spirit that causes profitable human culture and scientific discovery and innovative creativity among Christians and non-Christians alike. Amazing.

Fifty Years That Changed Everything

Calvin’s remarkable vision of the world would later find its highest expression inside the world’s greatest watershed of human innovation. When we speak of tech today, we often make the mistake of limiting our discussions to Apple gadgets, computers, smartphones, smartwatches, electric cars, robots, AI, and things like that. But the story of tech stretches way back to past centuries. One of the most important came in the late 1800s.

Three hundred years after Calvin died came a fifty-year span of human innovation in which everything changed: 1863 to 1913. During this generation, cities were electrified. Light bulbs replaced candles in homes. Electrical motors came to power industry. Music was first recorded. Photography was first employed. Video recordings were invented, made, and movies projected. Airplanes first lifted off the ground. Huge iron, ocean-worthy vessels connected continents. Gas-powered engines began to pop. Cars replaced carriages and family horses. Tractors replaced farm horses. Typewriters replaced pens. The QWERTY keyboard layout we still use today was invented. Telegraph wires began sending electronic messages at unthinkable speeds over unbelievable distances. Wireless radio waves united mass audiences by live broadcast. Medical advances in germs and vaccines ended many awful killing diseases and viruses.

Literally everything in life changed between 1863 to 1913 — advances in science and medicine and travel and shipping and communications and industry, permanent changes that continue to shape our daily lives today.

With all this new innovation speeding along at full tilt, Christian thinkers leaned in and asked the key questions: What does it mean to be a people of faith living inside such a massive, life-altering technological revolution? How are we to think of these endless scientific discoveries and new innovative promises? Where does it come from? Is this innovation of God? Is it of the world? Is technology godly? Is it godless?

Inside this tech era, a writer by the name of Abraham Kuyper took up these questions and returned to Calvin’s old vision. Kuyper was a journalist, theologian, and one-time Dutch prime minister. He knew the world, he knew politics, economics, industry, and he experienced this great, watershed technological revolution firsthand. And he knew his Bible well. And he came to see — like Calvin three centuries earlier — that God was still governing the story of human innovation by his Holy Spirit in his gifts of common grace.

Dystopian Visions

So, it seemed like the church was progressing well in understanding innovation in the nineteenth century. But this technological revolution, these fifty years, with all its incredible promise and progress, was abruptly followed by World War I, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. And it became really clear, really fast, that for all our new innovative powers to heal, humanity had also mastered the art of massacring at a scale never before witnessed.

The conversation over God’s common grace changes when your tech can now incinerate 100,000 people in the hyperblink of a nuclear explosion. Theologians would have to account for new powers of mass destruction. Following two world wars, then the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the church’s theologians changed their tune. The tenor of the Protestant conversation about human technology veered dystopian. Our theologians more likely demonized technology in Babel-like categories — innovations as agents of power, dominance, inequality, and mass destruction — rather than as expressions of God’s Spirit and gifts of his common grace.

Reclaiming Common Grace

And so, without diminishing very legitimate concerns, I’m bridging back, over two world wars, to a vision of God’s common grace in which there were both tech warnings alongside a healthy dose of Godward thanks for the technologies that adorned daily life. Those must exist together: warnings and appreciations. And they do — they hold together nicely when we turn our attention to the Bible.

So, we need to look afresh at the origins of industry and the birth of human innovativeness (as we find them in Genesis 4). And we need to see where technologies — the actual material technologies themselves — emerge from the created order (as we discover in Isaiah 28). And we need to look at God’s relationship to the most powerful and dangerous technologists in the world (as we see in Isaiah 54). And we need to look at how man so easily idolizes his technological powers as idols and false saviors (as we see in Psalm 20). There are idols at play, but the incredible generosity of the Creator is also at play in giving us a universe loaded with oil and gas and electricity and uranium and metals and plastics and silicon and computer chips and the sixty natural elements that comprise our smartphones. All our innovations are owing to the incredible generosity of our Creator.

“For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God.”

In other words, the challenge is to reclaim a vision of human innovation in which we see God’s common grace once again. For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God. And so, I’m asking, Which is bigger? Is Big Tech bigger than your God? Or does your God dwarf the powers of Big Tech?

We know the right answer in our heads. But do we believe it — truly believe it in our hearts? Because I fear when it comes down to practice, for many Christians, Big Tech seems stronger than God. So, we get insecure and threatened by tech, because we hold a vision of a god bullied by the power players inside Silicon Valley. That must be reversed. And it’s not reversed by demonizing tech, but by seeing the gift of God in the tens of thousands of innovations we use daily and take for granted, not to mention for the layers of innovations at play for you to hear me right now. All of these are gracious gifts of common grace.

This Book Is For You

I wrote this book for non-Christians, for Christians, for techies, for non-techies. And I’m launching it inside the belly of the beast, inside Silicon Valley. But you don’t have to live in a tech center to see its relevance. We all live in the tech age.

Ultimately, I want all the innovations you take for granted every day to turn your eyes to see the generosity of our eternal, unchanging God. So, you can imagine my thrill when Pastor John took time to read my book slowly, and then said, for him, it was “a worship experience.” That’s my aim. I hope you’ll join me in worship. God, Technology, and the Christian Life — my new book — is now out.

23 Tips from 23 Years of Book Reading

I’m honored to be here at Colorado Christian University this morning. The purpose of my talk is to share 23 lessons about reading I have learned from 23 years of reading nonfiction books. Some of these lessons will be new to you. Most of them won’t be. And they’re all in the book I mentioned, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books.

Well, the distinguished biographer David McCullough once recounted the following story from the early life of Theodore Roosevelt:

Once upon a time in the dead of winter in the Dakota Territory, Theodore Roosevelt took off in a makeshift boat down the Little Missouri River in pursuit of a couple of thieves who had stolen his prized rowboat. After several days on the river, he caught up and got the draw on them with his trusty Winchester [rifle], at which point they surrendered. Then Roosevelt set off in a borrowed wagon to haul the thieves cross-country to justice. They headed across the snow-covered wastes of the Badlands to the railhead at Dickinson [North Dakota], and Roosevelt walked the whole way, the entire forty miles. It was an astonishing feat, what might be called a defining moment in Roosevelt’s eventful life. But what makes it especially memorable is that during that time, he managed to read all of Anna Karenina [Leo Tolstoy’s 900-page novel]. I often think of that when I hear people say they haven’t time to read.1

We haven’t time to read 900-page novels, much less 200-page nonfiction. Partly we can trace this back to a moment when Roosevelt was fourteen years old, when Samuel Morse, of Morse Code fame, sent the first telegraph message from D.C. to Baltimore in the spring of 1844. His message was a biblical exclamation: “What hath God wrought!” (Numbers 23:23).

Well, we know what the telegraph wrought: a new opportunity to shrink data down into fragments, sentences, and phrases. The telegraph became the private text message, which became the public tweet.

Attention-Candy Addicts

Born into the world in the spring of 1844 was the microspectacle — a tiny fragment of information, sentences, and phrases — eventually leading to images and videos — all spread at lightning speed across the globe. And the faster our media delivery systems became, the more efficiently those spectacles were delivered to the handheld devices in our pockets.

Viral phenomena shrinks into smaller and smaller micro-spectacles until we find ourselves hopelessly addicted to our smartphones. Now we scan videos, scrub ahead, jump ten seconds forward in search of the snap ending. Sports become four-second clips. Movies become five-second GIFs. The tornado chaser’s footage becomes a dramatic twenty-second video.

And we love it. Focusing our attention for too long is hard. Our brains love little snack breaks, and the digital media companies know it. We are targets of attention-candy that fits nicely into our appetite for something new, weird, glorious, hilarious, curious, or cute.

“The iPhone is a chemical-driven casino that preys on our base desire for vanity and our obsession with train wrecks.”

We also love anything that pertains to us or our likes — it feels like people are giving us attention. The iPhone is a chemical-driven casino that preys on our base desires for vanity, ego, and our obsession with watching train wrecks. We love the ego buzz of social media. And we never stop hungering for Turkish delight-sized bites of digital scandal.

“Mobile is a great market. It is the greatest market the tech industry, or any industry for that matter, has ever seen,” said technology analyst Ben Thompson. Why? “It is only when we’re doing something specific that we aren’t using our phones, and the empty spaces of our lives are far greater than anyone imagined. Into this void — this massive market, both in terms of numbers and available time — came the perfect product.”

Smartphones make it possible for the attention economy to target our little attention gaps as we transition between tasks and duties. Our attention may be slightly elastic enough to fill up every empty gap of silence in our days, but in the end it’s still a zero-sum game. We have limited amounts of time to focus in a given day, and now every second of our attention is getting targeted and commoditized.

Attack on Concentration

The potency of the digital spectacles today is a new phenomenon, but distracted attention is nothing new. Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper felt something similar with an emerging new media, back in 1911. Long before AI algorithms learned to rearrange our social media feeds to addict us, magazines hooked readers with entertaining feature articles. The problem, Kuyper said, was that you barely had time to read one issue before another issue of randomly collected feature articles arrived in the mail.

Magazines were not troublesome because they were bad. They were troublesome because they were so addictive. And in luring readers to endless stream of feature articles, it raised a spiritual problem. Kuyper wrote, “Each of us must, on the one hand, exert ourselves to participate in the life of our time, while on the other hand we must continue to protect the freedom of our mind and force it to concentrate on what matters.”

If readers cannot concentrate on what matters, they become “constantly occupied with all kinds of things, not because this is what they seek or want, but because all of this [content] attacks them, overpowers them, and occupies every corner of their heart and thoughts unasked.” The coming of the magazine marked a tsunami of fascinating content that simply overwhelmed the human powers of input.

By contrast, Kuyper said, the life of faith demands focused recollection: “It should not be forgotten that all religion is a penetration with the innermost part of the soul into the unity of all things, in order to comprehend the unity of the One from whom everything comes. For that reason, to take delight in godliness you must ascend from the many, the varied, the endlessly distinct, to the coherence” of all things.2 Without focus, without the power to see coherence, faith dies.

God Wrote, We Read

That’s very interesting, but is Kuyper right? Does so much ride on coherence? Is it biblical? That’s the bigger question. To answer that, let’s take a moment and think about this with Bibles open to Ephesians.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this [Paul’s epistle], you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles [along with Jews] are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory. (Ephesians 3:1–13)

“The mystery of the gospel was written down. Can a higher tribute be paid to the discipline of reading?”

So how are we to understand ancient prophecies, Israel’s role in redemption, the mystery of Christ, his global gospel, the church’s start, the purpose of the church’s existence, the fact that the world exists in order to house a church, our new boldness before God, the nature of spiritual warfare, and the ultimate purpose of the Creator for his creation? How do we understand all this? By reading Paul, as he puts the story of the Bible together for us. The mystery of the gospel was “written” down (Ephesians 3:3). Can a higher tribute be paid to the discipline of reading?

The life of faith is the life of comprehending unity. And what’s written in Scripture is given to us so that, when we read, the people of God can comprehend “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Ephesians 3:9) — namely, the ancient prophecies, Israel’s role in redemption, the arrival of Christ, his cross-cultural gospel, the beginning of the church, our new boldness before God, the dynamics of spiritual warfare, and the existence and purpose of creation itself. The Christian’s brain needs to comprehend this macro unity.

Not only the church, but also our culture — and the entire educational system — is facing a crisis of the mind. The immediate is crowding out the ultimate. So Christians are ones who are always learning how to learn, and yet the pressures against serious reading are all around us. Secularism is one of them, so too the individualism of social media.

23 Tips for Better Reading

But for the remainder of our time together I want to get very practical. I’ve been a serious book reader for 23 years, and I want to give you 23 practical tips to consider, particularly when it comes to reading nonfiction.

These are lessons I have learned myself. They help me. Maybe they will help you. Maybe they will help you parent. Again, this is in my book Lit!, so I’ll run through them rather fast. Be inspired for the lifelong cultivation of reading skills. That’s what I hope to impart.

1. Read Daily, in the Gaps

Social media does one thing well: it fills up every gap of life with things interesting and eye-catching and scandalous and awe-inspiring and interesting. We can reclaim those gaps for reading.

And those gaps really add up. Most people can find sixty minutes each day to read. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t: fifteen minutes in the morning, fifteen minutes at lunchtime, and another thirty minutes in the evening. At this pace, you can devote seven hours to reading each week (or 420 minutes).

The average reader moves through a book at a pace of about 250 words per minute, so 420 minutes of reading per week translates into 105,000 words per week. Most books today are about 60,000 words long. Assuming you can read for one hour each day, and that you read at around 250 words per minute, you can complete more than one book per week, or about 60 or 70 books per year. It’s very doable, and that’s just in redeeming the gaps of life.

2. Redeem Each Environment

When I started thinking about the situations where I seek to capture reading fragments, I began to see that certain settings favored certain types of books. Here are a few of those places:

Desk reading: I haul myself out of bed, pour some coffee, and head to my desk. Here is where I meet with God through Scripture and often where I dive into commentaries on the Bible and theology. Most of my serious devotional reading is done at that desk in the early morning hours.
Coffee shop reading: The longest and most difficult books, the books that require the most caffeinated attention, I bring to the coffee shop on my days off. There I invest two or three hours of reading with singular focus. Once the earbuds are in place, the music begins, and the cover is opened, the world around me fades away.
Barbershop reading: My barber has twenty magazine subscriptions, because people waiting for him have free time to read. I never go to the barbershop without a book. I find that I can read just about any type of book in this setting.
Lunch-break reading: At work, I can often read a brief devotional in small fragments of time. I keep an array of books within arm’s reach at work, including a copy of The Valley of Vision at my desk. I often take fifteen minutes during my lunch break for a brief devotional. It’s a great time to recalibrate my heart in the middle of the day.
Evening reading, when my brain is fried: At night when the sun is down, and my brain is shot from the day, I can read historical novels and biographies. For me, this is the best time to read about the lives of others.
Bedside reading: In defiance of feng shui experts, I keep a stack of books next to my bed. These are books that I read in the thirty minutes before I fall asleep, and each of the books can be read in short chunks. These are not books I intend to read from cover to cover, but only to read a few parts of. I replace the stack of books every couple of months.
Travel reading: I travel a bit, but it took me a while to figure out how to make the most of my travel reading. For a while I traveled with light fiction, thinking that a novel would be perfect. But my reading never got any lift. While trying to read novels in the vibrating hum of a jet fuselage, I found myself nodding off and losing interest. Later I discovered that at thirty thousand feet, my life seemed to come into focus. Once I made this discovery, I began to limit my carry-on to business books, Christian living books, and books that gave me just enough instruction to stimulate reflection and planning about my family, my job, and my life priorities. I step off the jet with pages of thoughtful personal reflection, a renewed energy for life, and a clear focus on my primary goals.

3. Ruthlessly Curate Your Reading List

Several years ago, my wife and I both came to understand that if we were going to preserve our ability to read long books, we needed to not only read in the gaps of life, but also needed to get away to read books. We had small kids. I worked online, submerged in social media. All of life was conspiring against this habit of reading books well. So we decided to set aside time each year and go on a “reading retreat” with a stack of books. Now, I certainly recommend the practice.

But what was especially fun, leading up to that trip, was that my wife and I could bring only printed books. No e-books. You had to physically travel with your book selections. And especially when we began doing these trips with carry-on bags on commercial jets, we narrowed those titles down to two or three books. One trip, I brought only one title.

Now, these restraints have led us to become ruthless book curators. A few weeks out, my wife and I would buy — or get from the library — a stack of ten new titles, pick through them, sort them, rank them. We would whittle them down, down, down, until we had our chosen few. For all seasons of life, that’s a great discipline. Curate your reading list carefully.

4. Learn to Speed Read

Many mature readers will grow comfortable with a broad range of reading speeds: from a quick skim of the text, to a close study of the text, to a deep meditation over the text. On one side this means training our brains to read more quickly. Learning how is not complex, and you certainly don’t need a speed-reading course to do it.

One simple way to read faster is by running your finger under the text as you read, increasing the speed of your finger across the page until you are pushing your eyes to read faster than normal. In other words, use your finger like a stuffed rabbit zipping along in front of a sprinting greyhound. Keep running your finger faster until you begin reading more comfortably at that speed. At first this may feel awkward, but over time, this reading speed may become easier.

Due to differing comprehension speeds, not every reader will be able to read faster. And that’s okay, because a lot of books should not be read quickly anyways. But if you can learn to read faster, go for it.

5. Slow Read

On the other side of the spectrum, mature readers must also be comfortable reading slowly. Book reading is not all about burning through prose. Sometimes the best way to read a book is to gear down and read slowly and meditatively.

“Reading can be painful. Learning to read isn’t like learning to walk; it’s like learning to play a piano.”

In this situation, beware that impatience can rear its ugly head, make you feel guilty for not reading faster, and eliminate the joy from your book reading. Often our frustration with slow reading stems from a wrong attitude — of viewing books as a task to be accomplished, not as a difficult pleasure to be enjoyed. Reading, especially when we are just getting started, can be painful. Learning to read isn’t like learning to walk; it’s like learning to play a piano. It’s not natural.

So don’t give up too easily on a book that requires slow reading. Sometimes the best books require patience. Get comfortable with the slow pace, even if it’s a pace that is a lot slower than others.

6. Install a Transmission

Mature readers know when to read quickly and when to read slowly. Reading is like driving a moving truck through mountain highways. There are times to chug uphill in a low gear, and there are times to coast downhill in a high gear. Each book has its own terrain.

Our reading speeds will change as we read, because different sections in books will be like muscling uphill or cruising downhill. Over time, you will begin to sense the terrain of a book, and you will learn how to use different gears. Just be aware that the terrain can change. Some parts of a book can be read more quickly than others.

7. Anticipate

Before you begin reading a book, determine its purpose in your life. Why are you reading this book? What makes it better than the tens of thousands of books you had to ignore to read this one? Is it (1) part of your spiritual diet, (2) for personal change, or (3) just for fun? Determining clear reading priorities is critical.

Once the reading priorities are clear, then it’s time to ask specific questions. I encourage readers to write five to ten specific questions they would like the author to answer. By posing questions to a book before you begin, you establish an objective basis for why you are reading this book in the first place. As you read, those questions will make it easier to determine if the book is achieving this purpose.

8. Determine the Author’s Orbit

Which direction do you want the author to pull you? Do you want the author to pull you into the book (centripetal), or do you want the author to push you out of the book (centrifugal)? For example, if you read a book to simply delight in literary beauty, you want the author to pull you in, to hook your mind and heart with rich imagery.

On the other hand, if the book is for immediate personal change, you want the author to push you out, so you can unhitch from the book for personal reflection and application. The force of a book is shown by how well the author moves the reader along the intended route.

Determining which direction we are seeking to move is important. The business books I read are always centrifugal, pushing me away from the book into personal reflection. The leisure books I read are often centripetal, pulling me into the book for literary delight. Knowing this difference will shape the way you read (and respond to) books.

9. Run a Background Check

Before I read a book, I run a quick search online to browse book reviews, find concise summaries, read endorsements, and check for any high-profile blurbs that have been published about the book.

This step acquaints me with the authors I read. Who are they? Where do they work? What worldview do they represent? This critical step helps to prepare me for what I am about to read and can alert me to the author’s motivations. This background check requires only a few minutes of my time, and it is time well invested.

10. Grab a Pen

I buy copies of my print books, because I’m a strong believer that you should write in books, and write in them with a pen. Gasp! A book-mutilator! I keep a pen close. It’s good preparation, and it puts me in a posture of expectancy.

Without a pen in hand, I forget the thoughts that pass through my mind. Out of habit, I grab a pen before I grab a book. I have a whole chapter in my book, Lit!, devoted to marginalia and explaining how I do it. Write in books. Do it.

11. Slowly X-Ray the Book

Before I begin reading the first page of a book, I invest thirty minutes to ask broad structural questions. Adler, in his famous book on reading, writes, “Every book has a skeleton hidden between its covers.” I am trying to x-ray for that skeletal structure.

First, I study the table of contents, noticing how chapters build on one another. Second, I scan the book and its section headings. Third, I read the chapter summaries and even the concluding chapter. Anything that looks like a concise summary gets read first. (Confession: I typically read the final page before the first page.) Only then am I ready to begin reading the introduction.

Readers are tempted to dive right into the first pages, but it takes patience to x-ray a book. The time spent slowly inspecting a book is a rewarding investment. This step has protected me from wasting time reading mediocre books. Take time to x-ray for the skeleton, and take as much time as you need to do it well.

12. Determine a Reading Strategy

After I x-ray the book for its structure, I have a good sense of the book’s main points. Now I must determine how I want to read it. Different books must be read in different ways. Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” That is very true. So what should I do with a particular book?

After a slow inspection of a book, I have four options:

Chew and digest it like a steak. This approach says, “Yes, this appears to be an excellent book that will answer the questions I have asked. I want to read the book carefully and intentionally, cover to cover.”
Swallow it like a milkshake: “Yes, this appears to be a helpful book that will answer my questions. I want to read the entire book, but quickly. I don’t want to invest too much time on this single book.”
Sample it like a cheese platter: “Yes and no. Portions of the book seem to be unrelated to my questions. Other sections are pertinent.” There is nothing wrong with reading only portions of a book or specific chapters. By doing this you keep your book reading focused, and this focus can protect you from losing interest. Most importantly, this choice will protect you from the common myth that books must always be read from cover to cover. Not so. Some great books in my library are there because of one or two chapters.
Spit it out like expired milk: “No, this does not appear to be a book that will answer my questions, or at least not as well as another book might. I will move along and look for a replacement.”

Mature readers learn to engage different books in different ways.

13. Jog Past the Questions

Let’s say you choose option two, to swallow the book at a quick pace. This is how I usually read nonfiction books. Now that I have a general idea about the structure of the book, it’s time to read. I begin reading chapter 1 and keep moving along at a quick reading pace. If something is confusing or does not make sense to me, I make a small mark and continue reading.

In the margin of a book I mark anything that I initially disagree with or question. At the end of the chapter, I return to the marked sections. Often, by the time I have read through to the end of the chapter, many of those initial questions have been answered by the author. I can save time by not stopping every time I have a question.

14. Note the Progression of a Chapter

As you read, pay close attention to the section headings and structural indicators like “first,” “second,” and “finally.” This internal structure is important and worth noting. If these are not marked with clear headings, you may want to make them obvious by underlining or circling them as you read along. Especially in old books and books that lack section headings, I note the structural indicators in the margin. These indicators are like street signs that guide me through the author’s development of a point in a chapter. I make those markers clear.

15. Discover the Thesis

Every nonfiction book has a skeleton because it has been developed from a core thesis, a sentence to summarize the author’s main point. Every chapter should also have a thesis statement. Sometimes the thesis is easy to see.

For example, in a new biography I was reading, the author asks in the introduction, “Why another biography on this person?” His thesis is embedded in that single paragraph. Sometimes it’s not this easy to find. If you can find the thesis for the book, underline it or put an asterisk in the margin. If you discover the thesis of a chapter, circle it and make a note of where you found it. Keep the thesis statement in the forefront of your mind, and watch how the author supports and defends it.

16. Know When to Quit

Even if you decide to read a book from cover to cover, this decision is not a vow. The evaluation of a book cannot wait until the book has been completed, and there comes a point when the reader must stop. Often a book’s value (or lack of value) is clear in the first few chapters. So how far into a book should a reader go before quitting?

This is where the one hundred-pages-minus-your-age rule comes in handy. This rule states that readers should start with one hundred pages and subtract their age. If you are twenty years old, you should give a book eighty pages before quitting. If you’re fifty years old, give it fifty pages. The more years, the more reading experience, the less time you need before you can close and shelve a book. And it means that, when you are one hundred, you are free to judge a book by its cover.

Often readers don’t stop reading because they don’t have “permission” to stop. You have permission. The only book you should read entirely is the Bible. All other books must prove their value along the way. Don’t allow unfinished books to pile up in a mountain of guilt. Show patience with a book, but cut the ties when necessary and move on.

17. Mark the Gold

I read nonfiction books in order to make discoveries, either about myself or about a particular topic. The time I invest in reading is paid back in bits of information — sometimes only paragraphs, sentences, or phrases — that change the way I live and perceive the world. It’s a sweet wage for the labor. John Piper once explained it this way:

What I have learned from about twenty years of serious reading is this: it is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two. I do not remember ninety-nine percent of what I read, but if the one percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the ninety-nine percent.

When one percent of what you read is life-transforming gold, the labor of sifting through the other ninety-nine percent is not troublesome. Whenever I read these nuggets of gold, I mark them and add them into a database I keep on my computer.

18. Collect and Store the Gold

Some people collect coins and baseball cards. I collect other people’s thoughts. When I read an important sentence or paragraph (the one percent), I mark it and then later return and copy it into a topical database on my computer. If you have a poor memory (like me), you will need a place to collect the sentences and paragraphs that you hope to retain for the future.

How exactly you go about collecting these insights may look different. Some readers use a photocopier and folders. Others use a handwritten journal. I use Evernote and a simple Microsoft Excel database. I collect quotes, which I type out verbatim, and organize them by topical categories and refined subcategories. I can tell you from personal experience, a captured thought that later finds expression in a real-life situation will boost a desire within you to continue reading. Whatever process works for you, find a way to store the gold.

19. Paraphrase

Before we can embrace the author’s arguments or reject the author’s conclusions, we must first understand what the author said. This is the role of paraphrasing. At the end of a chapter, paraphrase the chapter’s content. In one sentence, what was the main point of the chapter? At the end of the book, restate the main point in two to three sentences. The goal here is not a critique but a simple restatement, as objectively as possible, of what the author attempted to communicate.

20. Answer “Why?”

An author has taken time to address the topic, a publisher agreed to print it, and you bought (or borrowed) the book. So why did the author write it? Why did the publisher print it? Why did a bookstore stock it? Each of these questions must have an answer. As you read, those answers may emerge in the author’s language. Your job as a reader is to find the answers. Often an evaluation of a book is informed by answering these important “why” questions. Why does this book exist?

21. Find the Holes

It takes discernment to evaluate what the author has written, but it requires highly advanced discernment to determine what the author has left unwritten. Often a book’s fatal flaw is not that the author said something poorly, but that the author failed to say something essential. So what was left unsaid? What pieces were missing from the book? The questions that you write out before you begin reading become very useful at this point. By returning to your initial questions, you can determine if the author missed anything on the topic.

22. Let the Dust Settle

After you have completed a book, stop and give yourself time before making a final evaluation. Like driving a pickup down a gravel road, reading a book kicks up a lot of dust (details) in the brain, and it’s helpful to let the dust settle before we evaluate the book. Often the book’s value will become clearer after a few days, after your mind has processed the details. The thoughts that linger in your mind about a book are the thoughts that you want to capture. Go back and write those thoughts in the inside cover of the book or in a notebook.

23. Compare and Contrast Books

If we select books with specific priorities in mind, we will inevitably read books with overlapping content. Mature readers compare their books. After reading, answer a few more questions in the front cover, such as: Is this book better or worse than the other books I have read on the topic? Is it more helpful or less helpful? Where did this book contradict another book? What content was covered that other books neglected? The best books, the books that cover a topic most thoroughly, are the books we respect, cherish, reread, and recommend to our friends.

So those are my 23 tips for reading nonfiction, pulled from 23 years of reading nonfiction. All these skills, I believe, will make us more discerning readers, better thinkers, better Bible readers, and better able to do what Paul calls us to do: to hold together God’s immense plan for his creation and his bride, the church.

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