“They Asked Me To” — Why I Write

Writing is how we serve.

A few weeks ago I finished the Leland Ryken’s biography of JI Packer, JI Packer, An Evangelical Life. I was especially intrigued and inspired by chapter nineteen, where Ryken focuses on Packer’s writing career, which resulted in hundreds of books, thousands of articles, and quite a few forewords and contributions to other volumes. What motivated this Anglican pastor to be so prolific?

Of course, Packer acknowledged that he loved putting words on paper. I recently interviewed Alister McGrath for an upcoming podcast and he told me the same thing: he loves to write. For Packer, this was a joy. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard work, but it was hard work that he enjoyed doing.

But there is something else in Ryken’s observations about JI Packer that has stuck with me since I closed the book. I was surprised to read that one of the most important theological voices for the church in the 20th century didn’t really have a master life plan to become a bestselling author. When asked, Packer said he wrote a lot “because they asked me to.” (I’m paraphrasing). I just love this. Packer saw his writing as a ministry to the people of God.

I came away really inspired by this. There will only ever be one JI Packer, but we can all apply his humble approach to his gifts to the work we do. I’m often asked why or how I write so much and honestly I’ve never had a good answer. But quite simply I’ve started just saying, “This is what I do. This is how I serve the church.”

Anyone with a byline on a book or a column would be lying if we say that we don’t want to see our work reach a wide audience. None of us would resist the bestseller list. This isn’t necessarily bad. If I work hard on something that forms a book, it must mean I think it’s a message people need to hear. And yet, if I chase this kind of success in a kind of obsessive, single-minded way, I can easily lose sight of the real reason Christian writers should write: because they ask us to.

I think about my brother-in-law who is a very skilled contractor. He loves what he does, building and rebuilding things. But he sees his gifts as a way of helping others. So he too does work “because they ask him to.” It’s really no different. I can’t fix a door jam or install a ceiling fan or remodel a bathroom, but I can write and speak in ways that might help someone grow in their faith.

When we string words together and form sentences and string sentences together and form paragraphs which then form articles or book chapters, we really don’t know how God will use what we’ve done. And not all of our work is good and lasting and beneficial. But if someone asks us to write on something in our area of expertise and we can use what we write to edify the body of Christ, we should do it. Writing is how we serve.

So, this is why I write articles and books and Bible studies and everything else. There are other motivates, obviously, like earning extra income to help my family and the sheer joy of creating new things. But overall, I want to seeing my work as a way of using my very limited set of gifts to serve Christ’s church. This not only helps me persist when I’m weary, but also helps keep my expectations for success realistic. This sense of calling can keep me from discouragement when sales numbers are low and keeps me grounded when they are high.   

This is why I’ve really tried, in the last few years, to make my writing more accessible to the average Christian. I appreciate those who write for the academy—I read their work regularly and appreciate their scholarship—but I don’t think that’s my primary calling. I believe my calling is to write for the faithful masses of believers who make up most of the body of Christ.

Sometimes simple writing is dismissed as fluff, but I think we can be substantive, yet simple, all without being superficial. I want to write for people who read Max Lucado and listen to K-Love and probably aren’t on Twitter. I want to help teach and apply the Bible so God’s people can learn and grow. Not everything I’ve produced or will produce always fits this category. I’ve written content on a big higher level for leaders that I’m proud of, but overall, my target is the laity.

Packer had four simple rules for writing:

  1. Have something to say.

  2. Keep it simple.

  3. Make it flow.

  4. Be willing to redraft as often as necessary to meet these requirements.

I like this. Start with a message that is brewing in your heart and soul and mind, write in a way that normal people can understand, make it flow and open your work up to your rewrites and the editing of others.

I don’t know who this newsletter helps. You may not be reading this as someone who lives writing as I do, but perhaps it helps you grow confident in your calling, whatever that may be. When we take our gifts and see them as what they are—gifts, not created by our own hand but received from a generous God—we are free to live for His glory and the flourishing of others.

This Week on The Way Home Podcast

Our culture tells us that the secret to personal happiness is following our hearts. But what if this path to personal happiness leads to a dead end? Trevin Wax, the senior vice president of Theology and Communications at LifeWay, joins me on The Way Home podcast to discuss the dangers of looking outward and inward for our identity.


Interesting Links

  • My friend Michael Wear writes a really good piece about Christians and voting. I disagree with Michael in terms of party affiliation, but he is right on when he says that our vote is not an expression of our identity. Important stuff here.

  • I also thought this video by Jonathan Evans (with a cameo by his father Tony) was helpful for Christians as well.

  • Bobby Jamison has a wonderful article about tolerating disagreement in the church. I really think this is vital for us. I’m grieved at the way Christians are embracing disunity.

  • The Atlantic has must-read on the devastating implications of closing public schools. I think it will go down as one of the most tragic public policy failures in the modern era.

What I’m Reading

  • I just finished a wonderful biography of Grover Cleveland.

  • I’m about to start a brand new biography of James Baker, one of the most consequential figures in the last 50 years in Washington, D.C.

  • And I’m nearly finished with Surprised by Oxford, a memoir by Carolyn Weber about her conversion while a student at Oxford.

Personal Projects

I’ve been writing a bit:

  • Facts and Trends has my piece on churches and the election season.

  • My friend Matt Brown published a piece of mine on religious liberty for Think Eternity.

  • And 9 Marks republished a chapter on conspiracy theories from A Way With Words

Other projects: The Characters of Easter is going to press. Which reminds me that Christmas is coming and if you or your church are interested in The Characters of Christmas book and study guide, be sure to get it.

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