The Hardest, Best Thing for a Preacher to Do

(Please don’t miss my story at the end of this article on how the principles in this article work together.)

Malcolm Gladwell is speaking at a forum in New York City soon. The promotion describes him thusly:

The Canadian-born ‘New Yorker’ staff writer Malcolm Gladwell is the author of such best-selling books as “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” and “What the Dog Saw.” Gladwell is known for taking a unique perspective on seemingly well understood topics and generating new patterns of thought about them. This provocative thinker joins Luminato to share his latest brainstorm.

Do you ever read a sentence and a day later, it’s still with you, hounding your steps, disturbing your sleep, probing your spirit? That’s what that description of what Gladwell does did to me.

He takes seemingly well understood topics and generates new patterns of thought about them.

Anyone who can do that–who can show us a different perspective on something we thought we knew well and then can draw fascinating conclusions from it–that is someone I want to know.

You probably already know this writer. Many of my friends cannot wait for Gladwell’s latest books and eagerly snap them up as they hit the bookstores. There’s something about his unique way of looking at things that produces “aha!” moments and leaves readers gasping, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

In “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell wrote about how little things can make a big difference. What turns an unusual clothing item into a hot new fashion trend? What are the forces at work to cause strange shoes to go from being oddities worn only by oddballs one day to (ahem) Birkenstocks the next?

Gladwell tries to find the precise act when that change occurs. He calls that moment the tipping point.

In “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” Gladwell focuses on intuition. Far from being a glorified hunch, he says intuition is the result of long hours of work and searching and concentration. His examples are worth the price of the book.

“Outliers” is his latest hot book. Subtitle: “The Story of Success.” Gladwell examines achievers for what they have in common. He says we should not ask “what are these achievers like?” but “where are they from?” That is, what went into making them different from the rest of us? He finds commonalities for them.

Okay, pastor. Malcolm Gladwell is your new role model from now on. Go forth and do with your ministry what he does with the mundane things of everyday life.

Look at the elements of your work you know backwards and forwards and see what you might have missed. What have you overlooked because of its familiarity?

Let’s assume you are a pastor, either the preaching/teaching/leading pastor or a staff member pastor in charge of worship or education or youth or children.

Now, what are the components of your work? The answer would include all of the Bible with its stories and teachings, your theological education past and present, the daily tasks of study and planning, administration and ministry, the books and magazines you read, the conferences you attend, and such.

Now, think about their interconnectedness. Their interrelatedness. What they have in common, how they fit together, what each says to the other.

Hard to do? That’s too big a chore for most of us who are not used to trying to get our minds around such a gargantuan subject.

So, let’s narrow it down. Next step.

Pay attention the next time a scripture story takes hold of your imagination and will not turn it loose.

That’s one of the ways the Holy Spirit draws our attention to a text in which He wishes to teach/instruct/lead/convict us.

I’ve actually had a passage of Scripture make me angry. While reading a psalm, one verse in particular seemed to jump out at me. I spoke out loud, “That’s stupid. What does that mean?” A few minutes later, in my prayer time, the Spirit opened that verse and showed how it was the very answer to the burden that had driven me to scripture-searching and prayer in the first place.

The Lord drew my attention to that text by making me angry. (A poor reflection on my spirituality, I reluctantly admit.)

Usually the way it works with me, however, a text or Bible story will be intriguing. I will read it and think, “That is fascinating. Wonder why that’s in the Bible?” I continue reflecting on it for days, treating it like a Rubic’s Cube, turning it over and over, trying to unlock its mysteries.

Gradually, it hits me. Or, the sealed door opens up. Choose your metaphor.

The Lord wanted me to see something about ministry or life that He had in that passage. As it began to unfold, it was exhilarating.

Now, as you reflect on all that story or text contains, ask what other applications it contains.

Do the principles in that story apply elsewhere? Can you think of people in the Bible who illustrate that same lesson but in a different way? Anyone illustrate its opposite effect?

This is not the work of an afternoon. From start to finish, the entire process may take weeks or even months. However, the finished product will be life/ministry-changing and will be part of who you are from then on.

All right. Here’s my story.

1) I found myself intrigued by the story of Asahel, nephew of King David, found in II Samuel 2:12-23. The younger brother of David’s generals Abishai and Joab, he is described as “fleet-footed as a gazelle.”

Civil war is raging throughout Israel as the son of the late King Saul, Isbosheth, and his supporters are fighting David for the throne. A battle took place at “the pool of Gibeon.” At the end of the day, David’s men had won the contest. If anyone was killed, we’re not told.

Now, the battle over, everyone left for home. That’s when Asahel gets a bright idea.

Like a lot of young people, he seems to have been impatient with the older generation. They moved too slowly for him. Asahel analyzed the situation and decided–correctly, I think–that if Ishbosheth’s general, Abner, were taken out of the picture, the rebellion would cease. So, he decided to take care of that.

The rest of the story tells how Asahel pursued Abner up the hillside intending to kill him. However–and this is fascinating–the youth was without weapons or armor (2:21). How he expected to kill Abner is anyone’s guess.

When Asahel reached Abner, the old veteran warrior apparently never even turned around. He thrust backward with his spear. It entered the soft part of Asahel’s body and came out the back. The youth bled to death on the spot.

It’s a tragic story. Instead of inspiring his countrymen the way his uncle David had done years ago as he defeated Goliath, the story says “whenever anyone came to the spot where Asahel died, they stood still.” No doubt they thought, “What a waste of a fine young life.”

That’s the story. As I say, it would not leave me alone. So, what, I kept asking myself and the Lord, is it saying?

Eventually the Lord showed me. Asahel is a perfect model of the immature believer. He has great strengths and abilities and knows what they are. He uses them well. The problem is that, like most youths, he also has glaring weaknesses and no clue as to what they are. So, he goes forth planning to use his strengths and gets defeated by his weakness.

2) Eventually, as I reflected on the story of Asahel, this formula for reaching one’s full potential or achieving success–whatever we wish to call it–began to formulate itself in my mind: I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses. I use my strengths and I guard against my weaknesses.

What were Asahel’s strengths? He was young, athletic, a runner. He had a great heritage, with David as his uncle. He was daring, perhaps a man of faith.

He had numerous weaknesses. He was inexperienced in battle and exercised poor judgement. Abner gave him great counsel, but like many a passionate youth, he could not take advice. He had no armor and apparently no weapon.

Did he use his strengths? He did.

Did he guard against his weaknesses? He did not. In fact, had we asked, he would have replied that he had no weaknesses that he knew of. That was his problem, of course.

3) So, how does this formula apply to all of life or to other characters and teachings of Scripture? Or does it?

It does indeed. In fact, it fits beautifully with quite a number of characters and stories in the Bible.

Here is the end result, which we’ll not go deeply into here for want of time or space.

As David faced Goliath, he illustrates the formula beautifully. David walked out into the Valley of Elah that day, fully aware of his strengths: his faith, his skill with a sling, his experience facing lions and bears; and also of his weaknesses: his size (so he would not be wearing King’s Saul’s armor which was several sizes too large!) and his inexperience in hand-to-hand combat with giants.

David used those strengths: he took out his sling and began selecting stones to fling at the Philistine giant.

And, he guarded against his weaknesses: he refused Saul’s armor, and he stayed way back out of reach of Goliath.

Then, there is Mephibosheth, the son of David’s best friend Jonathan (II Samuel 9). He illustrates both negatives: a man who had strengths but did not use them and had weaknesses he did not know them.

Mephibosheth was the last of the lineage of King Saul and thus–to his mind at least–a wanted man. He was lame in both feet, the result of a childhood accident (II Samuel 4:4). And he was living in fear outside the country.

What this sad man did not know was that his father Jonathan had provided for him in a pact he and David had made years earlier, that the survivor would care for the other’s offspring. So, here is Mephibosheth with all kinds of good things in his favor, but he knows none of them. What he does know is all the negatives.

Okay, still with me? Mephibosheth does not know his strengths, so he does not use them. He knows only his weaknesses, and they are killing him.

Finally, I was looking for a man who knew neither his strengths nor his weaknesses. Such a person would be a stranger to himself, unaware of what he could do and should never try. It hit me: that’s the Simon Peter of the Gospels.

Take Matthew 16. In this single chapter, Jesus compliments Peter for his spiritual discernment (vs. 17). That’s his strength. Then, a few minutes later, Jesus rebukes Peter for being a dullard and even calls him Satan (vv. 22-23). His weakness.

At this point in his life, Peter knew neither what his strengths were in Christ nor what his weaknesses of the flesh were. Thus, he was hot and cold, up one day and down the next.

4) The final result looks like this:

IMMATURITY: I know my strengths and use them; I do not know my weaknesses and thus do not guard against them. (Example: Asahel in II Samuel 2.)

INVINCIBILITY: I know my strengths and use them; I know my weaknesses and guard against them. (Example: David facing Goliath in I Samuel 17.)

INFERIORITY: I do not have a clue about my strengths, so do not use them; I could talk all day about my weaknesses–I have so many–but do not guard against them. (Example: Mephibosheth in II Samuel 7.)

INCONSISTENCY: I do not know my strengths and I do not know my weaknesses. Sometimes I use my strengths and sometimes not; sometimes I guard against my weaknesses and sometimes not. (Example: Simon Peter in Matthew 16.)

5) At this point, all this is, is a nice Bible study. So it has to be applied to everyday life. How does this apply to your personal life or to the lives of public figures in the news? How would it apply to those teenagers you work with in your church? the deacons? parents?

Before leaving this, let’s point out that Goliath himself is a wonderful case study in this formula. He had great strengths: size, brute strength, experience in battle, great weapons, a shield-bearer running in front of him, and armor to envelope his massive body. However, he has one glaring weakness which David has spotted: in order to see out his helmet, he has an opening there. And that opening is just the right size for one of David’s stones. And that’s where he aims.

When the Apostle Peter said Satan roams to and fro like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour (I Peter 5:8), it takes no great imagination to figure that he is looking for our weaknesses so he can focus his attack there.

That’s how it’s done, pastor. At least, that’s how I do it. You’ll have your own way. The Holy Spirit is great about doing something different in each individual. That’s part of the fun of working with Him.

Now, think about the part of the ministry that is bothering you the most, the scripture story that has captured your heart, the aspect of the Lord’s work you have the most trouble with or fun doing. See if the Lord is up to something.

7 thoughts on “The Hardest, Best Thing for a Preacher to Do

  1. My husband and I were just talking about how to take a section of scripture and prepare for a lesson with it and this really sums it up so well.

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