I thought about entitling this post, “The Pain of the Prophet,” but I didn’t want anyone to think that I was making myself out to be a prophet. I first had the idea about this article after preaching on Sunday and I wondered if what I felt after preaching was much of what the prophet felt when he was proclaiming truth to wayward Israel. I use to think that the prophet took great delight in saying the things he did. He got to stand for God and proclaim His truths to the people, both good and bad. That was naive thinking on my part and after preaching for 16 years, I’ve changed my mind. I think the prophets felt the heaviness of God’s truth before they proclaimed it, while proclaiming and after they had done so. God’s truth in the lives of believers is far to meaty to be flippant about. This is why so many of them struggled with what was being proclaimed. Think of Isaiah, and how he proclaimed the truth for five chapters of events, then found himself in the very Holy of Holies with God Himself. He was completely undone before the Lord and said, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”
Don’t think for a moment that this realization didn’t take it’s toll on Isaiah. Not that the toll it took was bad. It was very good for Isaiah to undergo the scrutiny before the Lord that caused him to realize his own sinfulness. He needed that scrutiny and pain that was brought about just as we all do. But don’t make the mistake of thinking it was easy. God’s work in our lives is never easy. Easy is what you get from the many flippant pastors who enter pulpits week after week in order to make every one feel good about themselves. Preaching God’s word is never easy, and rarely makes us feel good about ourselves. If it really works in us, we welcome the uneasiness it brings, or even the comfort that comes from His word because we know that the end result is better than being left alone. If we want to shine like gold for the Lord, He must turn up the fires of sanctification to burn away the dross.
This is what Isaiah was going through before the Lord. It is what Jeremiah went through when he wept. It is what the other prophets in the Old Testament had to deal with as they spoke to Israel in a manner that seems so harsh at times. That harshness was working on the prophets when they proclaimed those truths.
Preaching God’s truth is much the same way today. When a pastor faithfully preaches the text, it works on him more so than those in the pews, as it should.
I would love to say that every time I enter into the pulpit it is nothing but pure spiritual joy. But to say so would be a lie. There are times when I am filled with His love and joy that make preaching a pure delight. But there are other times when it is very hard to preach God’s word week after week. It is hard to open God’s word every week and truly proclaim it without it costing the one proclaiming it. For if we are truly proclaiming God’s word, then God’s word is working on us and in us as we prepare the sermon. That is hard. Having the Holy Spirit examine my heart day after day, line upon line of my sermon, word study upon word study, begins to take it’s toll after a while. Especially when the text applies to my life as well as the lives of those in the pews.
I once had a fellow pastor tell me after his two-year anniversary with a church that it was then that real ministry was beginning to take place. I know what he means. After about two years we really begin to get to know our congregations and get to see what they need in their lives as we pick out our sermon texts. This is where the heaviness comes from, preaching what we know our congregations need to hear. It may not be what they want to hear, but as the Spirit leads us in this selection, we must trust that it is best for them and for us.
It is on days like this when I pray and look at the text I am going to preach that I want to run from it. I want nothing to do with it. It is not as though I want to be disobedient to the Spirit’s guiding, but I know that what I’m going to preach will step on some toes, mine included. Being a guy who loves to be loved, that is a tough proposition. I try the old bit of pulling up an oldie but goodie. There are no oldies but goodies in preaching. If we are really going to faithfully preach, we need to wrestle with the text as God wrestles with us.
So much so, that there are times that I find myself crying out to the Lord more than I do writing a sermon. Take the words, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” They seem like easy words to read and easy words to mentally agree with. Yet God is not trying to get us just to agree with those words. He is working in us so that we live them out as His children are called to do.
Does that mean that those words apply to me as well as those in the pews? Absolutely! The Father allowed His Son to die on the cross and gave me His Spirit so that I could live up to those words. That means He wants me to truly bless those who have persecuted me. This is not some theological theory to be bandied about as a philosopher does inside the local pub or college class room. He wants us to live it.
It is for this reason that I wrestle with the text. I don’t want to live it. I don’t want to ask Him to pour blessings on those who have persecuted me in some way or another. I know that we can expect persecution from those who are not believers, but what about those from inside the church? What about those who attack because I do preach God’s word? What about those who are supposed to cherish the preached word of God, but somehow, despise it? Am I supposed to turn the other cheek when they attack me, and ask for God’s blessing upon them?
My flesh wants nothing to do with it. Just like the flesh of the world it wants revenge. The Holy Spirit will have none of that. To seek revenge is to usurp His place as the final judge, and while we will judge the world in that final day, it’s not the final day yet. If my flesh seeks that revenge, then I’m just as guilty as those who have wronged me. The battle continues.
As pastors, we must let the battle continue. We cannot shy away from it as difficult as it is. We must never distance ourselves from the words we preach for that leads to cold, lifeless preaching. We must own each and every sermon we preach from a personal standpoint of knowing the words we proclaim are meant for us as well. We should never go into the pulpit to preach “to” the people, but to proclaim His word for all who have ears to hear.
This is why we must let the Holy Spirit battle with us, to prepare us and get us ready for the proclamation that will take place.
For me, the battle usually begins sometime on Thursday afternoon when I begin my initial push to write my sermon. When the text is really cutting my heart, it lasts well into Friday and even Saturday. My lovely bride has watched me go through this many times. I will pray, and read, and pray some more, looking for a way out, asking God for some new direction. But He is resolute. In my spiritual exhaustion on Friday, I finally commit to another sermon and open up the file. I read it. “What a great sermon!” I think to myself. And it was a great sermon when I first preached it. Trying to fool myself into thinking I have found the solution, I call it a day.
Then my lovely bride asks me how the sermon is going. “Great!”
“What is it on?” she asks gently.
I tell her. We talk about it. Then at some point, she asks that deadly question: “Timothy, have you asked the Lord what He wants you to preach.”
I bark! “Come on! Of course I have.”
She lets me believe that I have. Saturday morning comes. I’ve rested. I open the oldie but goodie, and punt it before I can get past the first page. That is not what God would have me preach. I go back to the text I have wrestled with all week, and finally begin to write. I’m resigned to His words working in my heart as well. Yes, I will bless those who persecute me as He has called me to do. And I will preach His word, as He has called me to do. That is my ultimate blessing to those He has entrusted me with. I’m fortunate. Most look forward to my preaching, never knowing the struggle I go through to bring them the word. They appreciate it nonetheless.
Many will never know what the preacher goes through while trying to prepare a sermon. That is fine. It’s not their cross to bear. It’s mine.The pain of preaching is mine as well. That is the call He has placed on my life, and so many other men as well. We are to wrestle with the text and let the Holy Spirit work in us as we prepare, so that when we proclaim, we will not just be proclaiming God’s word in some distant fashion, but proclaiming God’s double-edged sword that has cut us to the bone as well. That is the pain of preaching.