I’m not certain the average Christian recognizes how many pitfalls there are in preaching. Of course, you don’t need any special training to recognize when a preacher is truly struggling with a sermon. We can feel that. And, anyone with even a little Christian experience is aware that pride can be a temptation to the preacher. In fact, the apostle Paul took special note of pride and Satan’s snares when listing qualifications for pastors (1 Tim. 3:6).
But there are other challenges to the preacher’s life that may be less obvious. Take, for example, trust. I suspect that most preachers regularly fight to put their trust in the correct place when it comes to their preaching. Maybe that’s just me, but I’m probably not alone. It seems to me it’s easy for the preacher to trust himself even when he doesn’t intend to.
Here a few ways that can happen:
- Trust Our Preparation
This is tricky. I believe in preparation. Preaching is hard work and a lazy man shouldn’t do it. In addition, good preparation can and should produce a certain kind of readiness and confidence. But we should never trust our preparation as if it were sufficient for preaching. We must never rely on our exegesis, our homiletical discovery, or our time in commentaries. Those are all necessary, but they can fail.
- Trust Our Spiritual Condition
Sometimes a preacher may look to the welfare of their own soul. If things are going well in their soul, they tend to believe things are likely to go well with the preaching. So personal devotion becomes a kind of preparation that we trust. And in that way the preacher becomes a “professional Christian” of sorts. But what about the dry season’s in the preacher’s life? If we slip into trusting our spiritual condition then it’s likely our dry seasons make us less confident in the pulpit and more uncertain about our labors. But God uses a depressed Elijah or a weeping Jeremiah as effectively as He uses a rejoicing apostle in a Philippian jail. We should tend our own souls very carefully (1 Tim. 4:16), but we should not trust the report when it comes to our preaching.
- Trust Our Gifts
I could be wrong, but it feels like trusting and emphasizing someone’s “giftedness” has become more popular in the last decade or so. You hear it quite often: “He’s unusually gifted” or “He is such a gifted preacher.” Praise the Holy Spirit for giving gifted people to the church (Eph. 4:11)! But over-reliance on “giftedness” has led some men to under-prepare or ignore the state of their souls. A multitude of sin may be covered beneath outward “giftedness” and some churches may come to prefer “gifted men” rather than godly men. Though our gifts may make room for us before kings (Prov. 18:16), our gifts cannot bear the weight of the gospel-preaching ministry. Don’t trust them; steward them.
- Trust Our Inspiration
This is difficult for me to express well. But sometimes the preacher finds a point in the text, a powerful insight or application, and they begin to trust that “aha!” in their preaching. It’s amazing how some idea can overwhelm us during the preparation of the sermon and we begin to think, “This will be powerful!” And we build our sermon around that point, sometimes losing track of the text itself. In the preaching moment, we build our way to that insight as a kind of punch line we trust will carry the sermon. But the people don’t need our insights; they need God’s word. And sometimes those insights are really just for the preacher, the Lord breaking through the monotony of our preparation to—get this—speak to us preachers! Let us not trust our insights more than we trust the plain explanation and application of God’s word.
- Trust the People’s Comments
Perhaps the most perilous moments in a preacher’s life are those 20 minutes spent after the service greeting the people as they leave. Smiles are exchanged, hands are shaken, prayer requests are given, jokes are told and feedback is delivered. How the preacher handles the feedback determines a great deal. Critical feedback can crush. Positive feedback can puff up. Everything from despondency to pride grows right there at the church door. Our people mean well. Their encouragements are meant to help. Even discouraging comments, when viewed properly, are often meant to strength. We must learn from it all and keep serving in love. But the one thing we must not do is trust after-sermon comments as some final measure of how faithful or effective our preaching is. We don’t (or shouldn’t!) preach for an “Amen.” We don’t (or shouldn’t!) preach in the fear man. We don’t (or shouldn’t!) begin to think that those few comments (and they are few) represent the entirety of the church or the entirety of God’s work. The Master works His plan well beyond the sight of men. So we shouldn’t ultimately trust the comments of our people, or even our own assessments.
Where to Put Our Trust
In the final analysis, in our fight to place our trust in the correct place, we have to take our cues from the word of God itself. Of the many texts that could be cited, let me suggest two well-known passages.
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)
14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16 to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17 For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ. (2 Cor. 2:14-17)
Isaiah reminds us that God’s word accomplishes what He pleases. It shall not return void or empty or ineffective. That’s good news for the preacher! Let God’s word do the work. In the battle to place our trust in the proper place, let us place our trust in the word of God!
Paul reminds us to also place our trust in the God of the word. We are not sufficient to preach Christ in ourselves. We are not sufficient in ourselves to stand between the competing aromas of death and life, between the perishing and the saved. And if we try, we may find ourselves “peddlers of God’s word.” Instead, we cry, “Who is sufficient for these things?” and we answer, “Only God!” We need only be “men of sincerity” who “in the sight of God… speak in Christ.” He is our strength, our sufficiency, and our hope.
Brothers, let us trust the word of God and the God of the word, not ourselves.