One Sabbath morning, I preached from the text, `My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ and though I did not say so, yet I preached my own experience. I heard my own chains clank while I tried to preach to my fellow-prisoners in the dark; but I could not tell why I was brought into such an awful horror of darkness, for which I condemned myself. On the following Monday evening, a man came to see me who bore all the marks of despair upon his countenance. His hair seemed to stand up right, and his eyes were ready to start from their sockets. He said to me, after a little parleying, “I never before, in my life, heard any man speak who seemed to know my heart. Mine is a terrible case; but on Sunday morning you painted me to the life, and preached as if you had been inside my soul.” By God’s grace I saved that man from suicide, and led him into gospel light and liberty; but I know I could not have done it if I had not myself been confined in the dungeon in which he lay. I tell you the story, brethren, because you sometimes may not understand your own experience, and the perfect people may condemn you for having it; but what know they of God’s servants? You and I have to suffer much for the sake of the people of our charge….You may be in Egyptian darkness, and you may wonder why such a horror chills your marrow; but you may be altogether in the pursuit of your calling, and be led of the Spirit to a position of sympathy with desponding minds.
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.
It is that time of year again. Excited teams of Vacation Bible School volunteers are lining up to put on a meaningful week of ministry for kids. What many do not realize is that, like the five stages of grief, there are emotional stages to working VBS, and we do not want you to be caught off guard.
Below you find the emotional cycle upon which you are about to embark.
Here is what you need to know about each stage:
I can’t wait until VBS!
At this point, you are slightly delusional, but your excitement is honorable. You are about to embark on an important, and, for some kids in attendance, a life-changing ministry.
This week is going to be great!
Monday has finally arrived, and you have a picture in your mind of a week full of beautiful moments where you will be surrounded by children who were born without sinful natures.
What was I thinking?
It is here that you begin to realize that the image you had in your mind does not entirely line up with reality. From the kid who consistently confuses craft time with snack time, to one who thinks every Bible question should involve a discussion of his fidget spinner collection, things do not go as smoothly as planned.
Am I even human anymore?
By Thursday you are exhausted, and the spiritual vision becomes even more cloudy. You truly begin to wonder if this is making a difference in the life of these kids. After all, Perilous Pete, as you mentally refer to him, continues to be disruptive regardless of the fact that you continue to guide him lovingly.
Glad that is over!
This stage is often the shortest-lived. It is usually recognized right about the time the final assembly closes in prayer. You are spent and ready to go home and hide for a week. Then Pete, now known as Precious Pete, runs up to you, gives you a big hug and says “Thank you, I didn’t know Jesus loved me, but I do now.” At this point, you immediately jump back into the first stage of the cycle.
VBS is a ministry, and we should never expect it to be easy, but like all ministry, it will always be worth it.
Both men had a fire in their eyes with Jesus at the center, but their flames were different. Have you ever noticed that you can listen to someone talk about Jesus, but as they are saying all of the right things, there still seems to be a disconnect? While others you run into always seem to be able to focus you like a laser beam on what truly matters.
When I see it in churches, I sometimes call it the programmatic versus the spiritual, but I doubt that is the best way to describe it. The problem is that it is hard to put a fine point on it because the programmatic is not wrong in itself. Even spiritual churches have programmatic elements. I think I use the word programmatic because it sometimes feels that way. The leaders appear to be doing what they know they should be doing, but they do not seem to be doing it in a way that tells me that they believe their very lives depend upon the Gospel they are preaching. So what makes the difference? I suppose it all comes down to the hearts of those involved.
The first man, a church leader, had a fire in his eyes and Christ was at the center, but Jesus seemed to be a means to an end. Everything surrounding the ministry where he labored was orthodox. People came, heard the word, and were often even blessed by his preaching, but in his heart, he was building his own kingdom. A place where the people would revere his name; a place where he could leave his legacy. His faith was real, but he still seemed to have one foot planted in the world, and it showed. Well, not to everyone. There were many in the congregation with hearts split between heaven and earth as well, and they did not seem to notice.
They did not notice, at least, until they got a chance to hear the second man begin to speak because the fire in his eyes was pure. Where the first man had the tendency to view knowing Jesus as a means to building his ministry, the second man saw knowing Jesus as the goal. He had found the Pearl of Great Price and was willing to sell all he had to have it (Matt. 13:45-46). Christ was beautiful to him so that is what he pursued. His ministry was something he did to show the world the beauty of Christ so others could know Him too. There was a love for his Lord in his eyes that made you want to know your Savior the way he did.
Two things seemed to separate these men and their ministries. The first had to do with their reliance. The first one worked with a high degree of self-reliance, where the second one knew his weakness so well that he dared only to rely on Christ. The second aspect had to do with their focus. The first, to some degree, still had his mind set on the things of the world. Even when he preached on setting your mind on things above, he did it with a heart that hoped he was establishing his own glory. The second man had been broken. His heart had been set free from this world. He knew it could no longer satisfy, so he had given up pursuing its glory a long time ago. One seemed to be walking home and calling others to go with him while the other appeared to be fairly content in this strange land.
Here is what I noticed in their preaching, to take a thought from Jayber Crow, one of them was troubled enough to have something worthwhile to say. One was unable to show us the emptiness of even the glorious things of this life in comparison to Christ because he had yet to see their vanity. The other one felt a shuddering within him, that knew that the things of this world were trembling all around us. No matter what the topic, his words and actions shone like a spotlight on our glorious Savior and our true homeland.
So what about you? Where is your heart? Is Jesus the end you seek, or a means to an end? Are you awake enough to feel the frailty of this world convulse beneath you to such a degree that you dare not place your hope in it? We aspire to be like what we find beautiful. May your love for Jesus compel you to grow into His likeness, because if we have no desire to be conformed to His image or make his name known, we may not truly find Him beautiful like we say we do. We may still have our hearts set on this world. May God show us its vanity compared to Himself and turn our eyes heavenward. May we be troubled enough by this world to have something worth saying, and if we are too comfortable, may the Lord shake us from our slumber. May we be able to acknowledge that we are strangers and exiles on the earth.
For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. – Hebrews 11:14