How do I feel about preaching? To say, “I love to preach” seems too simplistic. I love to eat pasta, hang out with my wife Martie, play golf, or drive a fast car. But do I love preaching? Well, maybe…? It depends!
Preaching is not like anything else I love to do. I do not agonize over eating a great dinner, spending time with my wife, hitting a perfect drive, or nailing the accelerator. But I do agonize over preaching. I don’t have to dig deep to do most of the things I love, but I have to dig deep to preach.
Most of the things I love don’t bring my worst insecurities to the surface. They don’t tighten my gut on a Friday night or ruin an otherwise good Saturday. Although I love preaching, I usually have the nagging thought that the sermon I am about to preach could still be improved. Even after preaching, my anxiety level can remain elevated because I forgot a key transition or muffed the introduction.
I’m never plagued about how to grip a putter when I golf, but I am often haunted by the thought that there may be something pivotal in the biblical text that I have not yet seen. As I preach, I agonize about how to articulate the message in the most compelling way.
The Agony of Preaching
I am haunted by the words of my professor and mentor Howard Hendricks, who warned me that one of the worst sins is boring people with the Bible. It is certainly challenging to convince “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” church members that what I am about to say is more important than what they would like to think about for the next forty minutes.
Preachers are human, and humans wrestle with ego. When you give birth to one sentence at a time, articulating something so intrinsically a part of your soul, there is always a certain risk. It is a blow to a pastor’s ego when he walks by the most spiritual people in the church, huddled in the foyer after the morning message, only to overhear them talking about the great insights of their favorite radio preacher. Of course, preaching is not supposed to be about egos, but there is nothing like preaching to remind you that you have one.
As someone who lives in the suburbs, I love to cut my lawn and edge my driveway with precision. There is something satisfying about standing back and thinking, “There, that’s done. I’m great with how it looks!” I never feel that kind of satisfaction with preaching. When someone asks me if I’m ready to preach, my response is always, “Not really!” I never feel completely ready. There always seems to be a more interesting illustration, a clearer transition, a better thought about the historical and cultural context, on and on, forever and ever—with no amen! Preaching is the ultimate in open-ended art form; it can always be improved.
Preaching never feels like it is over and done. I can walk away from a lousy golf game and get on with my life, but I can’t walk away after a poorly preached sermon and forget it. I can’t tell you how many times I have preached and afterward promised God I would never embarrass Him like that again.
Why is it that when I feel I have preached a really good sermon, it sometimes seems to go nowhere? And, when I feel I have not done so well, God often sees fit to use it in someone’s life? In moments like these, I comfort myself with the reminder that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). God often uses my inadequacy to keep me appropriately humble. A public display of weakness in the thing that people expect me to do well isn’t very comfortable. I don’t enjoy being humbled. But preaching has a way of doing that to me.
My Goal is Preaching
I must remind myself that the goal in preaching is not be a great preacher but to be an effective preacher. Hitting this goal consistently is a complicated, multifaceted enterprise that plays with my head and my heart. I am humbled when I remember that God even spoke through a donkey in the Old Testament.
Saying I love preaching seems too simplistic and too flippant a way to speak of such a profound responsibility. I am awed by the magnitude of the responsibility. I am the middleman in a divine encounter between the Almighty God and sinful humanity. When I think of preaching as a matter of crafting my own words into what God wants me to say, it is a terrifying and weighty pursuit.
I am always aware that preaching is serious business. It entangles us in a myriad of conflicting emotions and self-deprecating thoughts. Preaching demands our best, even while it reminds us that we are not up to the task. I feel a kinship with Bruce Thielemann, who writes, “The pulpit calls those anointed to it as the sea calls its sailors; and like the sea, it batters and bruises and does not rest…. To preach, to really preach, is to die naked a little at a time and to know each time you do it that you must do it again.” 1
Yet the reality, as strange as it may seem, is that I do return to it again and again. Not because I have to, but because I want to. No, actually, I preach because I love to. I’m not sure I can even explain my ambivalence. But I know this. After thirty-six years of “dying naked a little at a time,” I still love to preach. To me, in spite of all the challenges and nagging insecurities, preaching is the sweetest agony in the world.
A Key Reason to Love Preaching
Whether you are an aspiring preacher or a seasoned veteran, let me try to describe to you what drives us to publicly fall on the sword of our inadequacies Sunday after Sunday and somehow love it all the same.