As I indicated in my last post, preachers need to take good care of their primary “instrument”–their own souls. And doing soul care takes making some commitments. I highlighted one of these commitments in the previous post (“I will cultivate a devotional life bigger than my sermon preparation). Here are two more:
I will seek to avoid whatever sullies my soul
Nothing blunts a preacher’s effectiveness like sin. Not fatigue, failure, sickness or suffering. Sin, in any of its overt or covert manifestations, interrupts fellowship with God and hinders the flow of the Spirit’s power through us. What’s more, as Sam Storms observes, sin desensitizes us like “spiritual Novocain, numbing one’s heart to the horror of self-centeredness and rebellion again God” (Packer, 96).
No wonder John Owen warned Christians, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”
As preachers we must keep sensitive hearts towards God, allowing His Spirit to quickly alert us when we are being tempted to sin or have given way to it. I’ve found this means being vigilant not only to the more overt manifestations of sin, but also to the more covert compromises that sully my soul.
Susanna Wesley—John Wesley’s mother—wisely taught her children to see sin as anything that caused them to fall short of the glory of God: “If you would judge of the lawfulness or the unlawfulness of pleasure, then take this simple rule: Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God and take off the relish of spiritual things—that to you is sin.”
Remembering Susannah’s words has led me to stop reading a best-selling novel because, in order to keep reading, I was having to silence my conscience. At other times, I’ve opted to forgo watching a movie that is critically or popularly acclaimed knowing that it would mess with my mind or sully my soul. It has meant pulling away from watching my favourite NFL team because I sensed I was becoming too absorbed with their success or failure. I remember a Sunday evening communion service when, as the elements were being passed, I was rehearsing the plays that cost my team the game. Football was obscuring my sense of God and taking the relish off spiritual things. Today, I find I can watch my favourite team play and it no longer has the same hold on my heart.
My point in all this is not to impose personal standards on others. Legalism is both unbiblical and unproductive (Colossians 2:20-23). My point is pastors must prioritize the maintenance of our spiritual lives in practical, personalized ways.
Some will hear this and chafe. Won’t this make us spiritual Luddites, awkwardly out of step with those we are trying to walk alongside of in ministry? Won’t we miss out on some of the good things in life?
Perhaps. But I would counter with a question: How important is it for you to have your instrument (your soul) in top spiritual condition? How important is it that your congregation hear the message of the gospel sung as clearly and beautifully as your soul can sing it?
I will preach the Gospel to myself every day–especially Sundays.
No matter how committed we are to walking in humility and holiness, we will stumble at times. It’s impossible to walk through this fallen world and not dirty our feet and muddy our souls. Our sense of God will become obscured at times. We will lose the relish for spiritual things.
And yet, Sunday will still come as scheduled. Sunday comes whether or not our sermons are ready. And it comes whether or not our souls are ready.
If I had to choose, I’d much rather step up to preach with my sermon unfinished than my soul unprepared. One of the worst burdens a preacher can carry is standing to preach knowing he can’t honestly sing, “It is well with my soul.” Preaching with a sullied soul leaves you feeling like a poseur not a preacher.
That’s why as preachers we must not only preach the gospel to others, but we must begin by preaching the gospel to our own souls. On Sundays when our souls are clouded over by grief or guilt, we must preach the gospel to ourselves before we preach it to others. We don’t presume upon God’s mercy and grace, but we still preach it to our own hearts.
As preachers, we are right in seeing personal holiness as a prerequisite for faithful and fruitful proclamation of God’s Word. We must constantly heed Paul’s instruction to Timothy: “Watch your life and your doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16). If we are to be “useful to the Master” we must be cleansed (2 Timothy 2:20-21).
But the subtle danger for us as preachers is that we forget our usefulness is still based on God’s grace. Jerry Bridges is right when he reminds us that on our worst days we are not beyond the reach of God’s grace and on our best days we are not beyond the need for God’s grace (see his book, The Disciplines of Grace). Preaching the gospel to ourselves helps us remember God’s grace.
So when our sense of God is obscured by foolish or sinful choices, we must come back to the cross, claiming the gift of forgiveness Christ procured for us through His death and resurrection. When we are tempted to feel our sins and failures render us unworthy and unusable to God, we remind ourselves that we are forgiven not because of the depth of our sorrows but because of the death of God’s Son (Ephesians 1:7). We don’t earn our way back into God’s good graces. We come boldly, by faith through grace, to find grace and mercy in our time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
Preachers need to preach the gospel. Starting with ourselves. Especially on Sundays.
In Conclusion. . .
Back in my university days, I didn’t grasp why my vocal teacher was so insistent on protecting her vocal chords. Now I get it—not as a singer but as a preacher. As you only get one set of vocal chords, you only get one soul. Personal soul care is not a luxury but a necessity for any of us who desire to stay in top form so we can give out the beautiful music of God’s Word.