In my first year of university I was a music major with an emphasis on voice. I quickly learned I didn’t have what it takes to be a premier vocalist. First, there was the small matter of talent. Or more accurately, the lack of it. I just didn’t have the raw abilities that could be refined into something musically sublime. But there was another problem. I wasn’t ready to commit to the rigours of keeping my vocal chords in top shape.
My voice teacher viewed her vocal chords as a fine instrument, the vocal equivalent of a vintage Stradivarius. She understood that if she damaged her instrument, she wouldn’t be able produce vocally. If her throat became sore, she couldn’t soar. So she made commitments she saw as both logical and necessary. They struck me as austere and extreme. For starters, she wouldn’t have lunch in the school cafeteria. It was way too noisy, causing her to strain her voice to have a conversation. So she didn’t join other students and faculty for lunch.
Noisy restaurants aren’t inherently evil, but they can be hard on your voice. And if you are banking on keeping your chords in top condition, that’s a problem. As an eighteen-year old, I wasn’t about to skip lunch in the cafeteria, or sit there silently, just to protect my vocal chords. That seemed unnatural. Even oppressive.
At the end of my first year of university, I switched my major from music to ministry.
Over the years, I’ve come to a better appreciation of what my voice teacher was thinking. I’ve come to see her extreme efforts to protect her voice as a practical expression of her commitment to being at her best vocally so she could make beautiful music.
As a preacher I have a primary instrument as well. And it’s not my voice. It’s true that I use my voice and have had to learn to treat it well to avoid vocal strain, especially when preaching multiple times on a Sunday. But my primary instrument as a preacher is my soul—the non-physical part of my being that has the job of capturing and conveying the message of God’s Word. My soul is my Stradivarius, the instrument God has given me to give voice to His gospel.
Like my voice teacher, I need to keep my soul—my instrument—in good shape or I will be a poor preacher. People may still hear me, but I won’t be able to play the music of the gospel in a clear, compelling manner. So there are three commitments I’ve made that combine to help keep my soul prepared for preaching. Here’s the first.
I will cultivate a devotional life bigger than my sermon preparation.
As a preacher committed to exposition, my sermon preparation necessarily gets me into the Word of God. What a delight. Can you believe we preachers get paid to study God’s Word? Many weeks, the biblical study I do for sermon preparation is spiritually enriching for my soul. God’s Word begins its work in me—I’m the first hearer of the message.
Having said that, I have found it important to have a devotional life in the Scripture that is larger than my sermon preparation. So I begin each morning reading and studying a passage in Scripture I’m not preparing for a message. I come to God’s Word to hear His message to me, not to get a message for others. I come as one of His sheep, not one of His shepherds. Sometimes what I glean in this time will later make its way into a sermon, but that’s not the focus.
I fear that without regular time in God’s Word separate from sermon preparation, I might gradually become a “professional Christian.” I could develop a utilitarian approach to God’s Word—seeing the Bible only as a tool for getting sermons ready to preach.
To protect my soul against coming to Scripture only for work and not worship, I must have unhurried time to linger in God’s presence, listening very personally to His voice, as it comes to me through His Word. Here is where I commune with God in secret. Here is where my soul is shaped in private ways that ultimately show up in the public arena of life and ministry.
George Mueller, who lived a busy life leading an orphanage and preaching the gospel, once wrote that his number one job each day was to get his soul happy in God. A devotional life bigger than my sermon preparation helps my soul be repeatedly filled with the goodness and glory of God.
Next week, I’ll highlight two other commitments that help a preacher do personal soul care.