“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”
—Proverbs 16:18 (ESV)
If you’ve preached more than, say, 25 sermons, you’ve almost certainly had the experience. Saturday evening you sit back in your desk chair, look at the sermon you intend to deliver the next morning, and marvel, “Is it possible? Have I really created the perfect sermon?” You begin to imagine the weeping masses falling down at the altar after your sermon pleading, “What must I do to be saved?” You picture J.I. Packer who, for some unknown reason, just so happens to attend your church that particular Sunday, turning to the man next to him in the pew saying, “I’d gladly exchange all my learning if I could move men’s hearts like that simple preacher.” You honestly start wondering, “Let’s just say I’m invited to speak at the next Together for the Gospel conference…”
Sunday morning comes and you bound into the pulpit with a spring in your step, a smile on your face, and confidence in your voice. You’re prepared and eager to be a guide to the blind, a light to those in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children. But then the sermon begins. Ten minutes in, all your deacons have fallen asleep. Fifteen minutes in you’re thinking, “This is not going well at all. I hardly understand what I’m talking about.” Sweat begins pouring down your brow and you’re sure somebody must have forgotten to turn the AC on that morning. A few minutes later you begin seriously contemplating, “Maybe I should just call it quits right here and send everybody home early.” By the conclusion of your sermon you’re hoping your mother will let you move back into the basement since you’re fairly certain the parsonage will be vacant soon. The sermon you thought would ring forth like thunder from the heavens keeled over like a dead duck. What happened? The Lord has simply been faithful to His promise: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
While the scenario I just described is obviously somewhat exaggerated (emphasis on somewhat), I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve had this sort of experience many, many times in my relatively short career as a preacher. The Lord has taught me firsthand that He will not share His glory with another, including those who preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. And while I’m certainly slow to learn, my hope for this post is to communicate some of the lessons the Lord has taught me from these experiences with the goal of saving you, my brother-pastors, from the same humiliating fate.
In no particular order, here are some reflections for fighting pride as a preacher:
Prayerfully examine your heart daily for pride and repent quickly.
Pride is one of those sins that can infect your soul subtly (Proverbs 12:15). You may not realize it is there until you’re doing and thinking grotesque things. This temptation to pride is all the greater for those of us who regularly stand before crowds and congregations. Therefore, brother-pastors, you’ve got to be proactive in the war on pride. As part of your daily prayer time, include maybe two or three minutes of self-examination, looking for expressions of pride in the last 24 hours. Renounce these, repent, and claim the blood of Jesus for forgiveness and cleansing. If I could suggest a resource here, every pastor should prayerfully work through C.J. Mahaney’s Humility: True Greatness. It will give you much food for thought for fighting pride.
Cultivate distrust for your own evaluations of your sermons.
For whatever reason, preachers can be the worst evaluators of their own messages. As I illustrated above, some sermons I thought would change the world turned out to be absolute duds. Sometimes while I’m preaching I’ll think I’m experiencing the unction of the Spirit but afterward the response is, at best, ho-hum. The opposite has also been true: sermons I thought were terrible or incoherent, God chose to bless in a powerful way to the hearts of my hearers. The overarching lesson is to be suspicious of your appraisals of your sermons. By all means, do your best in the preparation and delivery of your messages, but leave the results entirely up to God.
Grow in your realization that your sermon is entirely dependent upon God’s sovereign grace.
This is perhaps one of the top five lessons I’ve learned since assuming my role as preaching pastor of our church. Everything rides on God’s sovereign grace! I can put in 20 hours of exegesis, synthesis, and homiletics, but if I wake up Sunday morning with a pounding headache, it’ll be worthless. More importantly, if God doesn’t draw near to us by His Spirit through His Word to open hearts, to convict and give repentance, the best sermon will fall on dry bones. Sometimes the Lord gives His blessing on your sermons and sometimes He withholds it, and He has every right to do both. Therefore, be mindful that all our preaching, and indeed everything we do in pastoral ministry, is entirely contingent on a sovereign work of God’s Spirit. If I could suggest some resources here, two books that well understand this essential but neglected truth are Al Martin’s Preaching in the Holy Spirit and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Preaching and Preachers. It’s appalling that most books on preaching say little to nothing about the work of the Spirit, but these two volumes hit the nail on the head.
Pray desperately for an outpouring of God’s Spirit.
This point is an obvious application of the previous truth. If our sermons are entirely dependent on God’s sovereign grace, it stands to reason that we preachers should be diligently pleading with God throughout the week that He’ll pour out His Spirit come Sunday. Dedicate part of your daily prayer time to specifically praying for your upcoming sermon. Enlist your family members, congregation, and pastor-friends to beg God’s blessing on your preaching. After the sermon is over, pray that God would cause the Word to continue to percolate in the minds of those who heard the message. Something John Bunyan once said may apply most directly to preaching: “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” For more thinking on this point, I recommend E.M. Bounds’ classic Power Through Prayer [originally entitled Preacher and Prayer]. But be forewarned; reading it may make you feel compelled to quit the ministry.
Exercise faith in the truth that God’s normal means of salvation and sanctification is the ordinary sermon.
Twenty-first century America is a culture of mindboggling technological feats, instant access internet, massive political rallies, and huge entertainment productions. Osama bin Laden can be eliminated halfway around the world and it’s on the news minutes later. One unfortunate side effect of this is that we begin to assume that it’s dramatic expressions and experiences that change the world. We have little place in our thinking for the slow, methodical, persevering mentality of the farmer. This kind of thinking can creep into the church with the result that we subtly begin to assume that it’s only the jaw-dropping, goose bump-producing, once-in-a-decade sermon that truly changes God’s people. This, in turn, leads us to think that if we don’t hit a homerun every time we preach, we’ve disappointed our people or failed as preachers. Realize, brother-pastors, in God’s mysterious providence, He more often than not uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary (1 Corinthians 1:26ff.). He more often uses base-hit sermons than homerun sermons to bring in the runs. Most of us will never preach a Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God; most of us will never be a John Piper or a Martyn Lloyd-Jones; but that’s okay. That’s actually God’s plan. If you’re faithfully expositing the Word, week after week, year after year, even if you’re an ordinary preacher, God’s Spirit will do His work. Sinners will be saved and the saints will be built up. And the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.
I trust these lessons are of some help to you, brother-pastors. Again, my hope is to spare you some of the humiliation the Lord has brought me through. As you preach the Word, in season and out, beware the perils of pride.
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