"Heal Thyself Physician"
The Difficult Duty of Sitting Under Your Own Preaching
I have been a pastor for little more than two years now, which means I am still a rookie, and one reality I still cannot reconcile is the notion of preaching to other people the myriad texts (all of them, so far) that I find exceedingly difficult to obey myself. I preach about slaying the deadly viper of pride, but I am proud of the way I exposited and communicated the text. I tell my people that they should pray without ceasing and yet my prayer life is too often as inconsistent as summer rainfall in Central Alabama. I preach about seeking God’s grace to lower the thermostat on our tempers and then bawl out my children in the car on the way home. You get my drift.
This past Sunday presented a prime example of the tension that grips me when preaching God’s Word, a tension that always morphs into a full-blown fear that each week behind the sacred desk I am a trafficker of unlived truth. The text was Matthew 5:9 from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Great verse. Great opportunity to talk about selflessness in relating to others, displaying both love to God and love to neighbor and the like.
One of my application points was as follows: “When we are in conflict with others, we must talk less and listen more. We must learn to turn the other cheek in the way we respond verbally to others.” Ouch. I get paid to talk. And in conflict with others, I struggle mightily to be like my Lord and turn the other cheek. I recently watched the Jackie Robinson movie, 42, and prayed that God would make me like that great man in the area of self-control. On the way home Sunday I kept thinking, “I just preached on peacemaking and my own pastor (that would be me) falls miserably short of God’s glory in this area. How are God’s undershepherds to come to grips with this daunting reality? How do we reconcile the all-too obvious truth that we are sinners preaching to sinners? How do we get our congregations over the notion that we are not popes, we are not monastics who descend from the cloister each week where we’ve been holed up, busy dodging the world, the flesh and the devil? Sin even dwells in monasteries because sinners live there. But many of the people to whom we are called to minister don’t really believe this about us, and when we sin, and we will, some of them write us off as phonies or Pharisees. In the early months of ministry in which I presently serve, a man told me I wasn’t qualified to be a pastor because I sinned. He seemed a bit stunned when I admitted that, though I believed his case for ministerial perfectionism unbiblical, I acutely felt the tension of my standing as a saved-by-grace-sinner calling other sinners to walk God’s inspired line.
Veteran pastor and counselor Paul Tripp, in his excellent new book Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, has ridden to my rescue by reminding me once again that I am, in the words of the great Puritan Richard Baxter, a dying man who is called to preach to dying men. I must sit under my own preaching and teaching. My weekly preparation must always be devotional and, if I am to survive this sanctifying meat-grinder known as the pastoral ministry, it must never become clinical. Tripp writes:
“Pastors, we’re all still a bit of a mess. We’re all at times very poor examples of the truths we teach. We all have the dark ability to expound a passage that lauds God’s grace and yet be a husband or father of ungrace in the car on the way home…You and I can define biblical humility but be proud of what we know and what we’ve accomplished…We are all capable of being self-righteous, proud, judgmental, controlling, easily angered, bitter, and demanding. We sometimes act as if we’re entitled to our blessings. We often forget how much we need everything we teach…We give evidence every day that we are people in the middle of our own sanctification, that we still need the moment-by-moment rescue of grace.”
As pastors, we differ from garden-variety pew-sitters only in this fact: we have the unique privilege—and profound advantage—of being called to study in significant depth God’s chosen sin-killing, heart-renewing, image-restoring agent: the Bible. Yes, we are our own pastors and we must listen to our preaching each week, which is to say, we must do far more than “handle” God’s Word—it must handle us as well. Thus, we must ask difficult questions about canceled sin that still clings to our hearts like barnacles on an old shrimp boat. We must ask God to use His Word to expose our besetting sins and hidden weaknesses so that we become more and more like Christ.
And we must remind our people that, despite popular misconceptions about the perfections inherent in God’s ministers, we are mere clay pots, Wal-Mart crockery, weak men who are in the midst of their own sanctification—just like the hearers of the very sermons we preach. We stand in desperate need of wave upon wave of grace to wash upon the shores of our lives every moment and we must not hide that from our people. But best of all, I do not have to be paralyzed by the expectation of perfection—whether it arises from my mind or the congregation’s— because Jesus was perfect for me. I am not worthy to be a minister, but Christ was worthy for me. I do not and will not measure up, but Jesus perfectly measured up for me. The gospel is true for God’s people in the pew and it is true for me, His minister, as well. Tripp writes:
“We must ask ourselves what the particular passage we’ve been studying reveals about our own hearts. Where does this portion of God’s Word call us to confession and repentance? What does it reveal about God’s character and plan that should reignite our way of living? How should we apply its perspectives, principles, and commands to our daily lives? As we prepare, we need to give our hearts time to grieve our condition and celebrate the gospel. We need to take the time to pray words of confession and commit to concrete steps of repentance. We all need to take advantage of the huge blessing it is to be called by God to spend so much time in his freeing and transforming Word.”
May God grant His ministers grace to hear and heed their own preaching.