No one enjoys second-guessing himself, what Warren Wiersbe called “doing an autopsy on oneself.”
It’s possible to work ourselves into the psych ward or an early grave by over-analyzing every single thing we do and questioning the motive behind each word we speak.
No one is suggesting that.
And yet, there is much to be said for looking back at what we did and learning from our mistakes and failures and omissions.
That’s what this is all about.
It’s best done in solitary. (One of the worst things we preachers do is to ask our wives, “How did I do?” Poor woman. She’s in a no-win situation. Leave her out of it.)
A recording of our preaching helps. (But we have to promise to stay awake during the playback.)
That said, I’ll get to the point.
What I hate most about my preaching is when I intrude too much into the message.
I hate admitting that I was trying to co-star with Jesus when the Holy Spirit called me to be a member of the supporting cast.
I’m remembering one time in particular….
At a funeral of a friend who was a longtime deacon in a former pastorate, I filled the message time with too much of me.
Now, I adored his family and, if I’m any judge, the feeling was mutual. So, feeling at home and among friends, I shared their grief at our loved one’s death and rejoiced in their confidence that he is with the Lord.
Instead of delivering a formal message that had been well thought out in advance, I shared memories of my friend and insights from Scripture that say so much about death and eternal life.
Nothing of this was wrong or out of place. If there is one thing I believe strongly, it’s in the integrity of the Lord Jesus Christ and His assurances for life eternal.
But the sermon was just “too much Joe.”
I can hear my voice now. “Let me share this verse with you that means so much to me. Honestly, I’ve never heard another preacher use it.” Then, trying to be cutesy, I said, “Psalm 17:15 is my own discovery. In the future, when you read it, think of it as ‘Joe’s verse.’”
Where did that come from? Groan.
I talked about my dad and his death and how our family copes with missing him.
That was unnecessary. It wasn’t offensive to them, but in retrospect seems to have been out of place.
I made a couple of half-hearted attempts at humor. Now, no one is against healthy laughter in a funeral and I hope that when one is held in my honor, there will be plenty. But the preacher doesn’t need to try to force the humor. Let it come naturally.
That’s why I prayed that the fifty or sixty in the congregation did not notice the ever-present reference to I, me, and mine. And, if they did, that they did not mind, or quickly forgot about it altogether.
No preacher wants to be a distraction. We all want our messages to point people to the Savior and strengthen their faith in the promises of God.
Paul must have had this in mind when he said, “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (II Corinthians 4:5).
A hundred years ago, pastors would work to cleanse their sermons of all personal references. Old sermon books have the preachers saying, “Pardon this personal reference” or “If I may be permitted a personal reference.”
I used to read such lines and grimace. “If the preachers only knew (I would think), this is the part of the sermon people will listen to most and remember the longest. Don’t apologize. Give us the personal reference, only do it well.”
Phillips Brooks famously described preaching as “truth through personality.” The preacher does not deliver God’s truth in a vacuum. Life in this world does not take place in a germ-free laboratory, and that’s a good thing. God uses the preacher and his experiences and his personality, flawed though they are, to communicate His message.
This works well so long as the preacher doesn’t intrude too far into the message in order to draw attention to himself. We are messengers, not the message. When we finish, what the recipients think of the messenger-boy has nothing to do with anything.
In writing–whether for publication or for this blog–I do what every other writer does: go back over the pages to tighten up the lines, shorten run-on sentences, strike out redundancies, and check spelling. One other thing I’ve found myself doing is taking out about half of the first-person-singular references. Sometimes that means changing “I” to “we” as in the first sentence in this paragraph. And at times, finding alternative ways of phrasing a sentence.
But preaching is not writing. We don’t get the chance to edit it as we stand before a congregation with an open Bible. We cannot do what the judge does in a courtroom when he orders the jury to “disregard the testimony of the witness.” The congregation hears us and cannot un-hear what we say.
This is live theater, so to speak. Real time.
As I see it–there it is again; it’s so hard to stop this!–there are several steps to overcoming this tendency to intrude into the message too prominently.
How to remedy this malady–
One: prepare better. Giving advance thought to the form of the message reduces the tendency to “wing it.” It’s in the “winging”–the adlibbing–that I tend to cross the line.
Two: pray about this very thing. “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). This recognizes that the Holy Spirit is as concerned (or more!) that the message should be free of too much self.
Three: constantly work on it. Control of the tongue and curbing the self are not gifts of the Spirit so much as they are works of righteousness.
Four: recognize the problem will not be resolved in one quick lesson. So, cut myself some slack when I fail, but keep trying.
I hope someone who reads this may find it helpful.
When the credits roll at the end of this production, if I’ve done well, all attention will be directed toward the Lord Jesus. No one will sit through the dull credits just to see who this bit player was. If this bit-player has done his work well, nothing else will matter.