Preaching presents a myriad of temptations. We pastors are often unaware of the truth of our heart as we approach the pulpit on Sunday morning. We are solely focused on our exegesis or our homiletical approach. However, as we arrive at the pulpit God is calling us to discern the temptations of our heart. In the first post of this series we explored the temptation of originality. Now, we will explore the second temptation.
Temptations #2: Mastery
The pursuit of excellence in one’s vocation is admirable. Preaching the gospel is indeed a great responsibility that must be taken seriously. We want to do what we do well. We want to master our craft. However, the drive toward “mastery” must never lack equal attentiveness to the heart. As pastors it is imperative that we pay heed to the deep beliefs that are often driving our desire for mastery. My fear is that many pastors spend more time honing their preaching skill-set via workshops, classes, books, etc. than they do prayerfully considering the posture of their heart. As we spend the week of preparation finding the perfect story, practicing the sermon and strategizing our delivery at times we neglect to consider what is driving us to deliver a “great sermon.”
Where does this temptation come from?
One of the fundamental reasons we succumb to the temptation for mastery is a desire for control. We mull over the perfect joke and painstakingly search for the right story because we want to maintain control. We want to control how people receive us as we preach. What if people think we are not as gifted as another preacher? What if people think we don’t know the Bible well enough? We want to control how people experience and respond to the sermon. We believe if we just say it the right way we can evoke the right response. Ultimately, we take responsibility for what only God can do. This need for control is vividly on display as pastors spend their entire work week preparing for their sermon while neglecting to “be with” the very people they are preparing the sermon for.
Another reason we succumb to the temptation of mastery is insecurity. We approach the pulpit with a deep need for validation. Ultimately, our identity (value, worth) is defined by how charismatic, powerful, effective, etc. a preacher we are (or are perceived to be). However, our identity is not found in what we do or how well we do it. Our identity is found in what Christ has done and how well he has done it. As those who are in Christ our identity is secure. We are beloved children of God. As one who has spent many years devoted to theological education I most certainly see the value in knowing God’s Word. I believe that rigorous exegetical and doctrinal work is profoundly important. However, a temptation I have seen in myself is to have mastery over the content of my sermon. This is often born out of the deep belief that I must be “right”. It is a belief that my value or worth is based on whether I have the proper interpretation or theological position. My identity is tied to what I know and what I say.
A final reason we succumb to the temptation of mastery is defense. Often times our insatiable drive to control the content of our sermon is born out of not only a need for validation, but in part vindication. As I mull over a theological conundrum or wrestle with the right way to articulate something in my sermon preparation I have noticed this deep desire to “get it right.” Of course, this is not all bad. We are called to be faithful to God’s Word. However, at times I have noticed in myself a more neurotic texture in this need to get it right. I am focused on my “critic.” A defensive posture is driving me toward mastery of my sermon. Perhaps we have experienced criticism in the past and we want to ensure it never happens again or perhaps we can think of specific critics who we know will be in the audience this coming Sunday and we want to guarantee we are right and they are wrong (and that they know it!). The goal of the sermon is no longer transformation of people’s lives, but rather a sense of accomplishment in proving we know what we are talking about.
Exhortation to my fellow man
Perhaps the temptation toward mastery is my issue alone, but my guess is that other pastors face the same challenges I have discovered in my years of preaching. So, if indeed this is a common temptation how can we guard our heart against it? First, may we relentlessly pursue the personal side of ministry. It is imperative that we carve out space in our week to simply “be with” people; listening and attending to the spiritual journey of those in our congregation. Second, we must constantly recollect our heart in our true identity. I want to suggest that there is profound value in spending time every day recollecting our heart in prayer in the truth of our identity as children of God. Lastly, I would strongly suggest that we regularly pray for our critics. Perhaps we can think of specific people in our congregation currently or maybe there are people from our past whose criticism has impacted us and formed pockets of defense. It is imperative that we honestly explore those areas of defense in prayer, but I believe it is also imperative that we pray for grace and peace in the lives of our critics.