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.
First, we should love to preach because you and I are wired for preaching. In the classic movie Chariots of Fire, the Olympic runner Eric Liddell says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” 2 My spiritual gifts are bent toward preaching, and when I preach I feel His pleasure. This should be true for you if you love Jesus and are gifted to preach.
It is wonderfully rewarding to hear people tell you how God has used the message to impact their lives in a strategic way. If you and I have this spiritual gift, we should use it to honor Him.
Preaching is a way to bring glory to God. Preaching offers the opportunity to proclaim the nature, ways, and will of God on a regular basis so that all of the radiance of His surpassing glory can be comprehended and adored.
My Top Three Reasons
If you were to ask me to give my “short list” of reasons I love to preach, three others would be at the top of my list—and perhaps yours, too.
1. Being a voice for God in a world of distracting and destructive voices.
Preaching, as it is meant to be, is not an exercise in sharing our thoughts with interested people. Thankfully! After many years of talking, I find that what I think is important and interesting is not always as compelling to those who have to listen to me. I hate to tell you how many times I have launched into a discourse on some topic I thought would be gripping to my listeners, only to watch their eyes glaze over. More than once, I have dogmatically shared my opinions, only to realize later how wrong I have been. To be honest, I sometimes tire of hearing myself talk.
However, I never tire of telling people God’s thoughts. His words are always compelling, relevant, and more importantly, always correct. Preaching is the one verbal exercise I can do with confidence. Only when I preach God’s Word can I be sure that my words are indisputably true, and, if acted upon, are as transforming as they are profound.
The tricky part is making sure that I am preaching God’s thoughts and words, and not simply something I would like to say. The hard word of exegesis—understanding the true meaning of the text in its historical, grammatical, and cultural context—is essential to preaching with confidence. It is not always easy. I have studied many texts that at first blush seemed to contain a great sermon idea, for which I have both a passion and a bunch of killer illustrations, only to have the dream of that great sermon die on the battlefield of exegesis.
No matter how tempting it was to try to revive the original sermon idea, integrity demands that I preach God’s intention in the text. There is no power in preaching what I wish the text would say. The power comes only when the sermon is aligned with what God is saying in the text. His Word, not mine, is the sword that plunges deep into the heart of the listener, piercing all the way to its hidden intentions and motives (Hebrews 4:12).
Preaching that is effective and powerful is the intentional commitment of the preacher to connect the head and heart of the listener to the central message of the text in a way that enables the hearer to understand what the passage is saying about the message of the text and to communicate appropriate ways to help the listener implement the proclamation point of the text in relevant aspects of their lives.
People want to hear a word from God. If our thoughts are not the thoughts of God as expressed in the text, then we have missed the essence of preaching. I have become painfully aware that my preaching must always be about “Thus saith the Lord!” not “Thus saith Joe!” When I was a student in seminary, Haddon Robinson often told our homiletics class, “When you are done preaching, if someone disagrees with you, your sermon should be so deeply rooted in the text that you can tell them that their disagreement is with Scripture, not with you!” That’s great advice!
In 2 Timothy 4:1–2, Paul commands Timothy to “Preach the Word!” The Greek term in the text translated “preach” is the word “herald.” In the ancient world, a herald was one who took the edict of the king and declared it to the villagers of the kingdom. A herald who wanted to keep his life didn’t go to the villages and say, “The king has a thought that he wants you to discuss and see if you think it is worthwhile.” Or, “What I wish the king would have said…” He didn’t dare. It would have been a breach of his calling and an abrupt end to his career. A herald simply declared, “The king says…!” He represented the will and wishes of the king and carried the authority of the king to communicate it without apology. This is the privilege and power of great preaching.
Preachers join the grand legacy of the prophets of the Old Testament, who for good or ill shamelessly and courageously served as middlemen in a divine informational transaction. Their message was aimed at repentance and the realignment of lives gone out of whack. Being a modern “prophet” is a good thing. People desperately need to hear from God!
Lots of voices are vying for the minds and hearts of God’s people. Most of them are counterproductive and contradictory to God’s voice. But no voice is as dangerous as the inner voice that responds to our own desires and shapes our decisions. We are fallen creatures. Too often our first instincts are wrong and destructive. We do not lean toward forgiveness and love for our enemies. We tend more toward greed than generosity. Our hearts rush to serve self instead of others. We believe we have an inherent right to joy and happiness in the here and now. We think suffering is unproductive and something to be despised. Is it any wonder our relationships fail, spiritual expectations are not realized, and we remain empty and disillusioned with life?
Thankfully, God’s Word helps us with these impulses. The preacher is an agent of transformation when he speaks the Word and will of God.
God’s voice is counterintuitive and countercultural. Whether it’s on talk shows or in self-help books, classrooms or chat rooms, from neighbor chatter to church folk sharing their thoughts, God’s point of view is rarely expressed. He warns us that there is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Prov. 14:12). I love the thought that when I preach, I am bringing God’s voice back to center again. His voice desperately needs to be heard.
The prophet Isaiah speaks of the readiness of God to receive and restore those who have wandered from His thoughts and His ways when he writes: “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isa. 55:6–8).
If you visit Staunton Harold Church in Staunton, England, you will find an inscription praising its founder, Robert Shirley: “In the year of 1653, when all things sacred were throughout the nation destroyed or profaned, this church was built to the glory of God by Sir Robert Shirley, whose singular praise it was to have done the best things in the worst times…”
In this godless age, preaching has to be among the best things you can do in what many believe to be the worst of times. I pray that the same will one day be said of my ministry and me.
2. Talking about the real, compelling Jesus.
Through the years I have discovered how easy it is to tire of myself. I tire of the insecurities that hound me, of the sins that defeat me, and of the words I wish I could take back. I tire of the foolish decisions I have made, of being tempted to think too well of myself, and of my tendency to fail repeatedly.
Yet I never tire of Jesus. I find Jesus more compelling, more adventuresome, and more troubling (in the best sense of the word) than anyone I have ever known. Each day I serve Him He proves to be more worthy of my adoration than before.
And I love to tell others about Him.
I love to help people wake up to the fact that when life is “all about me,” it backfires. But when it is all about Jesus, even our greatest accomplishments become like dung, compared to the surpassing value of knowing and experiencing Him (Phil. 3:1–11).
I love to lead people to the true Jesus—to the Jesus who is more than a meek and mild hero of history. I want them to know the Jesus who was a tough and determined revolutionary, who came to overthrow the regime of hell and set the captives free. I want them to see Jesus as He really is, intriguingly radical and truly authentic—to recognize that He had nothing but warning for religious hypocrites and scorn for Bible bureaucrats. This Jesus loved sinners. He came to heal the sick, to help the hurting, and to restore the lost. He made losers winners. Tough men dropped everything to follow Him, and women felt safe with Him. By observing His life and listening to His teaching, we too can learn how to really live, right side up in an upside-down world, and how to really die. By knowing Jesus, we can die to ourselves and live to God.
I love to invite others to care for the kind of people Jesus cared for—the marginalized, the weak, the despised, and outcasts of this world. I love helping people get their heads on straight and their hearts back in line. I love being a part of the process of allowing Jesus to dominate our thoughts and our ways, so that our broken lives can announce the reality of His kingdom and the radiance of His glory.
I love to ignite the spark of hope in the unbeliever’s heart by telling them that Jesus loves them and died so they might be forgiven. I tell them that Jesus will liberate them from their sins and that Jesus alone is someone they can follow without disappointment.
Knowing that God will be at work though the preaching of His Word.
It has happened many times. I am sure it has happened to you as well. After you have given birth to the sermon—in public for all to see—someone approaches you and tells you word for word what they heard. “It was just what I needed,” they say. “Thank you so much! It was such a blessing.” At this point most preachers press the rewind button only to discover that they never actually said that—something close, perhaps—but not that! What does a preacher do in such a case? Does integrity demand we say, “Sorry, I never said that, so scratch the blessing”? Or do we acknowledge that there is a supernatural dynamic to our preaching?
In a mysterious way, beyond our comprehension, the Holy Spirit takes our words and runs them through the grid of the listener’s life, customizing the application to a needy heart in order to make a difference.
If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, who empowers us and energizes God’s Word, I would quit today. There is no way I could stand before people Sunday after Sunday and talk to them for thirty to fifty minutes and expect them to listen to me, not after being stimulated all week by a high-tech, special-effects world. How can a preacher compete? A preacher can’t. Not by himself.
But we can be assured that the supernatural work of the Spirit probes deep into hearts in a way that is “living and active.” God’s Word is “sharper than any double-edged sword; it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). The preacher can now know that in spite of the odds he is up against, God is at work.
I preach to see the light of discovery in the eyes of a listener…to see a tear of relief or repentance roll down a cheek…to see a genuine nod of understanding. I preach to have my listeners tell me that God has used my ministry to make a difference in their lives and then to hear how God used His Word for His glory and their gain.
I preach with the confidence that even when no one tells me what is going on in his or her heart, God knows and his Word meets listeners right where they are. I preach to hear what I have heard so many times before, that the passage I chose to preach was exactly what they needed.
Hearing that God has used our preaching to touch the lives of others is encouraging. We live for those affirmations. But I find it awkward to respond to such compliments. I could say something like, “Thanks, I really worked hard on that sermon and I’m glad you liked it.” But that doesn’t seem like a good plan. God doesn’t it take it lightly when we steal His glory. I remind myself that it is God and His Spirit who have been at work in spite of me. I remind myself of the gifts He has given me, the education He has permitted me to have, the opportunities He has granted, the wife with whom He has blessed me, the abundant mercy with which He covers my persistent failures—the list is long. If it weren’t for all these things, my preaching would be in vain. I am nothing without Him. Really! I cannot take credit for the gain He brings to people when I preach.
Hence, my problem. What should I say when someone wants to tell me what God has done through my ministry?
I have learned not to reject my listener’s words of appreciation. God has been at work in their lives, and it is important for them to express thanks for the impact my ministry has made. So I listen with a sense of appreciation and say something like, “Well, we know where all of that came from. But thanks, your words are a real encouragement to me.”
I often tell them that I pray God will use me to make a difference in somebody’s life and if that has happened with them, then God has answered my prayer. But my all-time favorite answer is, “See how much God loves you? I had no idea what you needed, and God laid that on my heart just for you. How good is it that He loves you that much! Thanks for telling me. It’s a great encouragement!”
While I want to transfer the gratitude to its proper destination, my heart is overflowing with joy that God would see fit to use me in a divine connection between His heart and theirs. It’s what I love about preaching!
When the Preacher Disappears
Some time ago I sat in a congregation where people were going to microphones in the aisles to describe what God had done in their lives through the ministry of that church. One man addressed the pastor, “Bill, ten minutes into the sermon last week you disappeared and I heard from God.” There could not be a more profound compliment for a preacher than that. When His Word is preached, God rolls up His sleeves and gets to work.
This is why I love to preach!
I don’t understand the current climate that downgrades preaching to a brief closing thought at the end of extended worship. Nor do I understand those who say that preaching is “arrogant.” If I am only preaching my own thoughts, then perhaps they are right. A sermon based on the authority of my own thinking is indeed arrogant. But if it is based on God’s truth clearly seen in His Word, and carefully proclaimed by the prophet-preacher, it is not arrogant. What we preach is then strategically important. Truth is not found in community. Truth is found in the God who is true and in His Word, which is truth. For reasons best known to God alone, He has enlisted preachers to join in the enterprise of conveying His Word to His people.
I have preached enough to fully understand that getting God’s Word to His people is a demanding task. I must extract God’s ideas from the text and craft them into a sermon that speaks to the head and the heart. I want my audience to know that I am in touch with their struggles. Delivering the goods while staying on top of my insecurities and shortcomings requires an unshaken reliance on God. Preaching is a demanding assignment, but I love it just the same!
I love it when the light of exegetical discovery illuminates the text. I love sensing that I am, at last, emerging from the dark cave of wondering what I will say in the sermon.
Every preacher knows the excitement of feeling a sermon grow within, like an embryo developing cell upon cell. It is an excitement that flows from the increasing awareness that we have something to say from God for His people—an excitement that gives way to a sense of urgency and confidence. Urgency makes us passionate about the message of the text, and confidence empowers us to preach that message with boldness and authority.
Simply put, good preaching is the art of bringing glory to God by delivering a word from God to His people in a way that touches them where they live and leads them to where they should be living. When I sense that I have found that word, it takes on a life of its own in my soul. It is then that I can’t help myself. I must preach. At that moment, I know I am almost ready to preach. And when I am ready—almost ready—I love to preach!