Blood, Sweat and Tears

‘Do you enjoy preaching?’     

Almost every time I preach, at least away from home, someone asks me if I enjoy preaching. The question generally comes just after the service and I always deflect it. I’m too raw just then to talk seriously about the call, and in any case it is usually a polite enquiry; others have more urgent issues to discuss. So I say yes, I do enjoy preaching.

And that is true, if slightly misleading. Of all the stages in the homiletic process, the actual preaching of the sermon is the one I enjoy most often. Sometimes I can see God’s Word doing its work in people’s lives as I look at their faces. Often there is that wonderful, powerful, dangerous, sense of being completely present in the moment, at once totally in control of all that is happening and totally controlled by the inevitability of the preaching event. Yes, I enjoy preaching.

But preparing to preach hurts. And having preached hurts. And that’s where the ‘enjoy’ question becomes more complicated.

The pain of preparation

Preparing to preach hurts – for me, at least. It hurts in two different ways. One is a good sort of hurt: every worthwhile sermon has cut the preacher’s heart before it goes near the congregation. The other is just pure pain, as we rip ourselves apart to find something to offer to our people.

Every time I prepare a sermon properly I find the message confronts and convicts me before it ever goes near my people. The text warns against idolatry, or commands humility, or whatever. I wrestle with it in the study (or, often enough, on the train to somewhere), struggling to make the connection: how does this text speak to my people? And then, of course, it hits me. And I mean that it hits me. Like a club. With spikes.

Here is the idolatry or the pride that needs condemning. Right here. Rooted deep and flowering abundantly in my own heart. At that point, I confess, I usually run away, hide from the text, look for another message to preach. God is brutally merciful, however, and after a while I get back to the text, put the sermon aside, do some repenting and reassessing, and then return to my preparation, far from perfected, but now able to preach the sermon that needs preaching.

That’s the good sort of hurt.

The other? An old line suggests that ‘preaching is truth communicated through personality.’ To preach, we need to give ourselves to our people. To preach well, we need to give the depths of ourselves to our people. And – for me – that hurts.

I teach homiletics, and I teach my students the old neat lies about first doing your exegesis to find a message, and then writing your sermon to communicate it. I teach them like that because I don’t know how to teach the chaotic realities of sermon preparation. I don’t tell them about the mess. But there is a move in that mess, a move from finding something to say (even if you keep refining it all the way through) to finding a way to say it (even if that was never absent from your thoughts from the beginning). And in the finding a way to say it, in communicating truth through personality, you’ve got to put your heart and soul on the line.

And that hurts. It hurts because it is an act of self-disclosure that is inevitably humbling and shaming. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd. I remember 1979 when they released The Wall. In the dystopian vision of the album, the final indignity, the ultimate sanction, was to ‘be exposed before your peers’, a sentence achieved by the tearing down of ‘the wall’ that protects us from the rest of humanity.

Every worthwhile sermon I have ever preached, in nearly three decades of preaching, has been an act of self-exposure, a tearing down of ‘the wall’ of personal protection, a tearing down of ‘the wall’ of respectability and competence, a deliberate act of exposing my own sin and my own failure before people I desperately want to like and respect me. For me that’s where ‘the pain of preaching’ really lies.

I have a journal from two decades ago in which I wrote about the feeling of writing a sermon. I described it then as reaching down inside myself to grab handfuls of my own viscera, ripping them out and arranging them on a plate to serve to my people in the hope that they would approve. Open-heart surgery meets Masterchef, with the twist that we get to dissect our own hearts, with blunt instruments, and without anesthetic, and then to present our raw wounds daintily for criticism.

I may not have been in a good place when I wrote that, and it was certainly never intended to be shared. But, two decades on, if I am honest, it still rings true for me. To prepare to preach well hurts, still, just like this. Prepared, prettified self-exposure is what is needed, and it costs me – it really costs me – to offer it.

Maybe I suffer here where others don’t. I score very high on the ‘introvert’ side of the Myers-Briggs test. But plenty of preachers are introverts, and plenty of extrovert preachers have their limits in self-disclosure, and so I assume I am not abnormal. I suspect, in fact, that the index of pain in preaching is not introversion; it is pride.

I find writing sermons an exercise in self-torture, and I think I can describe that reality: to preach well – to speak the truth in a way that will awaken recognition, and so conviction, in others – we have to expose the good pain I have already talked about, to allow our people to see the truth of our own failures. We have to expose our brokenness, we have to move from speaking the words of God to sinners to speaking words of confession and repentance as a representative sinner, we have to show our own brokenness to our people. To write a sermon worth preaching we have to plan all that self-disclosure in exquisite detail, and then follow through. And that hurts.

There’s a line in a song that goes, ‘I will offer up myself, in spirit and truth…’ I do that, every time I preach properly (to my shame, there are other occasions). I offer up myself. Not the person I would like to be. Not the person the people listening believe me to be. But myself. If I had no pride, this would be release; in reality, it is excruciating.

But it is also powerful.

I speak here only from my own experience, but the sermons that have cost me the most have been the most effective. I think of a sermon I have preached many times; preaching on prayer, my preparation has – always – led me to weep for my own prayerlessness. In my delivery I have, by God’s grace, often been able to speak as one convicted by this word, even as I speak as one speaking conviction, and, always, the response has been powerful. I find that exposing my own brokenness with honesty brings healing to the brokennesses of others. By God’s (severe?) grace, I am multiply broken, and so, by God’s grace, my honesty can bring healing to many.

But it hurts – how it hurts!

The pain of having preached

And then there is the pain of having preached. The sermon is over; in some churches, a final hymn is being sung; in others, prayer ministry is being offered; where is the preacher? If she is anything like me, she is, in the quiet of her own heart, suffering, regretting, repenting. In one of the truly great books on preaching, William Sangster commented that the preacher always sits down after the sermon thinking, ‘Next time, I shall preach!’ That is the pain.

We know, if we understand what we do, that we have failed. We know what the Word of God can do, and we know that, in our hands and mouths, it has not done that. Maybe we saw that our arrows of application were aimed at the wrong targets. Maybe, in the moment of preaching, we drew back from something risky we had planned, and so never fired the arrow. Maybe we just missed the target. Whatever; we sit down knowing that we just had a chance to do something of eternal significance, and we did less than we could have, less than we should have.

And we feel like that after the best sermons. I remember once, a conference platform, a congregation of several thousand, a dream text (Esther 4:14, ‘for such a time as this…’). I preached; Juliet Kilpin, who is just better at this stuff than me, did the appeal after the sermon. She did a great job, making up for some of my deficiencies. I sat on the platform, watched the aisles fill (I discovered the next morning that 271 people had come forward in response); I looked at the folk still sitting in their seats.

It was a good sermon – I’ve preached it several times since – but it was not a perfect sermon. A joke was misjudged; the beginning was not right; I lost courage and pulled the ending slightly. It was a good sermon, but it could have been so much better. A couple of hundred people came forward. Several thousand people did not respond. It was a chance missed.

Another sermon, a few weeks back, to a congregation of perhaps thirty, students this time, with their lives ahead of them. I thought I knew what was needed; I got it wrong. Another chance missed. Could a life, or five, or ten, or even thirty, have been turned to Christian service? Of course – that is the power of the Word. Was one? No. That is the failure and the pain of the preacher.

What we preachers do matters. It matters more than anything else. More than election results. More than medical treatments. Certainly more than the academic stuff I give most of my life to. That is the privilege of preaching – we all know it, when someone responds, when a life is turned, in a moment or over many years. But that too is a part of the pain of preaching, when someone doesn’t respond (even if others do), and we know that, under God, we could have done better.

To preach is to suffer. This should be no surprise; we serve a crucified King. To not preach is to suffer more, for those of us called to the task (Jeremiah spoke for us all: the Word is like ‘a burning fire shut up in my bones’ – Jeremiah 20:9, NASB). I wish we were more honest with each other about the pain, though; in the body of Christ, our calling is never to suffer alone.


Author Bio

Steve Holmes is the Head of School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, a Baptist minister and author. He blogs at steverholmes.org.uk and tweets as @SteveRHolmes.