No preacher worth his weight enters the pulpit without some distress. There is a heaviness to delivering the word of God that is unlike anything else. Even if the preacher is one who is naturally jovial and brings humor into the pulpit, the man moved by the Spirit of God will tremble under the gravity of what he is doing.
I do not hold the office of pastor, but I do preach occasionally, and I teach the Bible regularly. Though I do not know the full burden these pastors carry, I do know, in part, that preaching is often accompanied by a sense of dread that weakens them to their very core.
What is it that causes this? It is the holiness of God. To stand in the pulpit as a representative of God to His people is a weight and responsibility that can only properly be done in the power of the Holy Spirit. To stand there in the power of the flesh, or to trust in our own oratory skills is a sin.
Preaching, when done correctly, almost always begins with anguish. The greatest preachers will always ask, “Who am I to stand and proclaim Your word?” They know they meet the qualifications of pastor or elder as laid out in the scriptures, and they know God has called them to this, but they also know they need to be fed the word of God as much as any person in the congregation. Due to their sinfulness, their lives depend upon the gospel they declare just as much as anyone to whom they will preach.
This acknowledgment of need is the only foundation for a great sermon. The pastor will often find himself studying the word of God until the passage he is covering begins to feed his soul. He studies the text to make sure he faithfully understands the intent of the biblical writers: the intent of God Himself who inspired those writers. From there he begins to see the treasure that lies within and how it speaks to the heart of the believer. If the word of God has not fed the soul of the preacher, the preacher will not be able to feed those to whom God has called him to minister.
Oh, but once his soul has been illuminated to the power of the word, and once God has strengthened his soul, the message begins to burn in his breast until it is able burst forth in proclamation. Once the message ignites the heart, this is when the preacher knows he is ready to preach.
Though the trembling remains, once the Lord brings the preacher to this point, there is a change in the distress. Instead of cautioning him, it now compels him. The fear of the Lord not only causes dread but as Proverbs tells us, “In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence (Proverbs 14:30).”
This confidence in God is one of the places the preacher finds great delight. He now has full confidence, not in himself, but in the God who laid him prostrate before His holiness, then brought him to his feet by the power of His word. It is here that he can stand liberated from the fear of man, and in full freedom proclaim the message the Lord has given him. There is no better place to be, and there is no higher calling.
Many of you reading this may never preach a sermon in front of a church congregation, but a similar distress and delight experienced by a preacher can be experienced by you as well. Christ has called us all to minister to those around us. Our sinfulness has broken us before our holy God, He has strengthened us with His word, and He has called us to comfort others where we have been comforted (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). This distress and delight can take place in a Christian’s writing, music, art, and a variety of other acts of service.
With contrition, spend time with Jesus, and He will speak to you through His word, and once that message begins to burn within you, He will put someone in your path, or send you to someone who needs to hear His truth. A voice that trembles before the Lord because of His holiness and has found full confidence in His word is a voice the Lord often uses to resonate into the heart of the hearers. In this God is glorified which is our greatest delight.
There are tensions in the Christian life which are the direct result of knowing Jesus. These are tensions we are meant to feel. They seem to be two desires pulling us in two different directions, but in reality, they are two balancing forces driving us toward holiness and happiness. One of these tensions is the desire to depart and the eagerness to live. Paul expressed it this way.
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. – Philippians 1:22-26
Every believer will long to die and be with God from time to time. Conflicts, persecutions, and illnesses can cause us all to long for home, and during those times, we are often more willing to depart than usual. The problem is, if we only long to die and be with our Savior in times of trouble, then maybe we desire to avoid difficulty more than we desire to be with Christ.
When the scripture talks about longing to die, it is talking about our desire to be with Jesus, and this yearning should be something that is steady in times of pleasure as well as in times of pain. To be with Christ should be our daily desire, and if going through the door of our enemy death is the only way, then death becomes our hope.
At the same time, we are to be eager to live, because to live is also Christ. Every moment of life, whether it be lived in weakness or strength, pain or pleasure, or joy or sorrow, can be a testament to our glorious Savior. Some of the greatest men and women of the faith were men and women who lived in constant weakness and hardship, yet their lives were beacons pointing the world to Jesus.
Since Christ is both our desire to depart and our desire to live, we should never desire one more than the other. Both longings provide us with a balance that keeps us steady. To desire death more than life is to neglect Christ’s work in this world through our lives and shows us that personal peace is more important to us than Christ. At the same time, desiring life over death produces a fear of dying which indicates that being with Christ may not be our true desire.
Both the fear of death and the desire to die to escape difficulties, to the neglect of our calling, shows us that Christ is not our greatest hope. Both of these errors will produce a discontentment in us which will be revealed in times of trouble. During those times, we will be tempted to seek our answers outside of Christ. Only if Christ is our greatest longing will we both long to die and be eager to live, and in that we will find joy in any situation.
For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus. – Acts 21:13
“We do not regard it to be soul-winning to steal members out of churches already established, and train them to utter our peculiar Shibboleth: we aim rather at bringing souls to Christ than at making converts to our synagogue.”
“In the next place, we do not consider soul-winning to be accomplished by hurriedly inscribing more names upon our church-roll, in order to show a good increase at the end of the year. This is easily done, and there are brethren who use great pains, not to say arts, to effect it; but if it be regarded as the Alpha and Omega of a minister’s efforts, the result will be deplorable.”
“Teach gospel doctrines clearly, affectionately, simply, and plainly, and especially those truths which have a present and practical bearing upon man’s condition and God’s grace. Some enthusiasts would seem to have imbibed the notion that, as soon as a minister addresses the unconverted, he should deliberately contradict his usual doctrinal discourses, because it is supposed that there will be no conversions if he preaches the whole counsel of God. It just comes to this, brethren, it is supposed that we are to conceal truth, and utter a half-falsehood, in order to save souls. We are to speak the truth to God’s people because they will not hear anything else; but we are to wheedle sinners into faith by exaggerating one part of truth, and hiding the rest until a more convenient season. This is a strange theory, and yet many endorse it.”
“To try to win a soul for Christ by keeping that soul in ignorance of any truth, is contrary to the mind of the Spirit; and to endeavour to save men by mere claptrap, or excitement, or oratorical display, is as foolish as to hope to hold an angel with bird-lime, or lure a star with music. The best attraction is the gospel in its purity. The weapon with which the Lord conquers men is the truth as it is in Jesus. The gospel will be found equal to every emergency; an arrow which can pierce the hardest heart, a balm which will heal the deadliest wound. Preach it, and preach nothing else.”