When You're in Pain
When we go through extended pain, we will often have to preach about things we don't resonate with at the time.
— Haddon Robinson
Denver Seminary was hit with three lawsuits in the late 1980s. In one case, a former student had sexually molested a boy, and the family sued the seminary. Two others involved a former professor who had gotten inappropriately involved with a counselee.
For one of the cases, I had to give a deposition. I had no idea what to expect, but I wasn't worried because neither I nor the seminary had done anything improper. With our lawyer at my side, I walked into the room where the deposition would take place, where we met four lawyers from the prosecution.
The questioning began, and I quickly came to a frightening realization. The four lawyers across the table were ruthless, and my lawyer was out of his depth. They were wolves, and he was a lamb. This was the first time he had handled such a case, and he had not prepared me for what happens at a deposition.
Only later did I learn the legal strategy behind such depositions. The prosecution knows that even if you are innocent, law suits can bring financial ruin. Insurance companies are wary of juries, and they stand to pay out $100,000 even if you win your case. So they're often willing to settle out of court even if you're innocent.
All the action, then, takes place in the depositions. That's where the prosecution tries to strike you with fear and make you settle out of court.
In my case, they did a good job of it. My deposition lasted two days. The first day prosecution lawyers grilled me for nine hours with question after question, doing everything they could to cast my answers into a negative light, twisting my motives, questioning my integrity.
Since then I have talked to others who have endured a deposition, and they have said it was the worst experience of their lives. It certainly was for me.
But that was only the beginning. The seminary's insurance company at one point said I personally wasn't covered by the school's policy. (I was also named in the suit). At one point, my lawyer (my new lawyer!) said, "They don't have a good case against us." But he knew that in this day anything can happen in court, so ten minutes later he advised, "You ought to take all your assets and put them in your wife's name. They can still get them, but it makes it harder." So our retirement savings all went in Bonnie's name.
Meanwhile, a former employee of Denver Seminary began to spread untruths about me throughout the community, which damaged my reputation. I had no effective way to respond.
The pain Bonnie and I suffered during those months was devastating. Frankly, I didn't respond well. Like the apostle Paul, I struggled with "conflicts on the outside, fears within." And yet I had to keep preaching, at chapel, in conventions and churches where I had been scheduled for months and years in advance, and later as interim pastor at Grace Chapel in Massachusetts.
All pastors go through times when they must preach through pain. How do you preach when you don't feel like it — when you're distracted, unable to focus, when your family is in turmoil or your health is failing or detractors in the church are launching artillery rounds in your direction, when you're going through loneliness or feelings of failure?
Dangers in the Tunnel
Going through extended times of pain feels like walking a dark, cold, damp tunnel. The tunnel of a preacher's pain has some unique dangers.
First, we can end up using the pulpit for self-therapy. One's style of preaching can change during a crisis. Often, along the way, a suffering pastor preaches a sermon that is nine-tenths his painful story and one-tenth Bible. Listeners identify with the sermon and are moved.
The pastor hears a favorable response to the message, and the next week, because it's difficult to study at such a time, he decides once again to share from his heart. The message is based primarily on his experience, with a sprinkling of Scripture thrown in. Again listeners respond warmly.
Soon he sets a pattern. He is now in danger of preaching weekly from his experience rather than from the Bible. Instead of experiencing what he preaches, he is preaching what he experiences. Preaching becomes a catharsis for his pain.
You cannot make the pulpit a place for self-therapy very often without paying a penalty. Parishioners don't come to church every Sunday to hear the wrestlings of the pastor's soul. They're not unsympathetic, but after a while the weekly service becomes an emotional downer. People don't follow for long leaders who can't handle their emotions.
Another danger is using the pulpit as a sniper's perch. If our pain comes from a church conflict, the temptation is strong to use the pulpit to take a bead on opponents.
Let's say Deacon Bill Jones is out to get the pastor. In the sermon the pastor quotes the verse "Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm."
"We all know what this is like," the pastor says. "There will be times when we want to go forward for God, and others will stand up in a business meeting and call the congregation back to the past. We need to follow God as did the apostle Paul, even when others try to block our way."
The pastor never mentions Bill Jones, but anyone in the know sees right through the comments. They'll be upset that the pastor used the pulpit as a weapon, especially if they feel Deacon Jones's opposition has merit.
If our church is in conflict, we have to take care that people can't read into our comments an attack we never intended.
Furthermore, we can fail to preach the full counsel of God. When we're in pain, we tend to think everyone is in pain. Even if we never mention our personal troubles, our preaching can become strictly an ambulance service focused on crises. Those who are healthy, moving up in their businesses, and feeling strong in the Lord, won't get much out of our preaching.
I went with my daughter to the movie Wall Street several years ago. Gordon Gecko, one of the key characters in the film, was a successful, even ruthless, player of the stock market.
After the movie, my daughter said, "Daddy, what if Gecko said to you, 'You're a Christian. What can you say to somebody like me? You have one hour to give me your best shot.' What would you say to him?"
She gave me pause. Sometimes the church doesn't know what to say to the Gordon Geckos of the world. We can only speak to them, it seems, after they have fallen. Yet, the Scriptures speak both to the weak and the strong. I don't intentionally ignore successful people in sermons, but that's easy to do when I'm in pain.
When we're suffering, we need others to remind us there are more preaching themes than depravity, grace, faith, and prayer. We need to preach also about righteousness, God's sovereignty, justice, outreach, and other fundamental doctrines. Just because some themes aren't feeding me at the moment doesn't mean they no longer are good food for others.
Preaching in the Dark
Some painful situations are naturally shared with the congregation: the death of a loved one, serious illness.
Other situations require discretion: financial problems, marriage stress, conflict on the board, a moral lapse. Even if we never mention such problems, our preaching changes as we walk the tunnel of pain.
As I was living through this intense period of pain at Denver Seminary, several people said they sensed more tenderness and sympathy in my preaching. That is certainly what I felt. If anything good for me came out of this painful time, it was the overwhelming sense of my need of God. I felt completely vulnerable. Although I was not guilty of any legal negligence or failure, I felt more in need of grace than ever.
When prosecutors hammered away at my motives and conduct, when others spread slander and rumors, it forced me to examine my life. I looked into my heart and saw that in spite of my legal innocence, I was like every other person, a sinful human being with impure motives much of the time, in need of God's grace all the time.
One sermon I preached while "in the tunnel" was the parable of the Prodigal Son. I talked about the Father: not worrying about his dignity, his heart filled with grace and acceptance, he ran to meet his son, the prodigal. "I just want you to know the Father is running to meet you," I told the congregation. "His arms are open wide, and he's not angry with you. More than anything else, he just wants you to come home. He says, 'I don't care if you're covered with mud and manure. I don't care how you smell. Welcome home! Welcome home!'
"If that's where you are this morning, I want to welcome you home. Come up here, and let me welcome you home."
One woman answering that appeal told me, "I've been in church and heard invitations all my life. There is no way in the world I would go forward in a church. But I wanted to come. I wanted to be welcomed home."
During a conversation with a work associate, I shared the ideas from that sermon, and she began to weep. She is a fairly controlled person. "Never in my life," she said, "have I felt the full meaning of that parable."
Such reactions weren't due to any new preaching technique or profound insight on my part. I had experienced God's grace anew, and the power of that grace simply came through, without my consciously striving for it to happen.
Pain and the Pastor's Family
Our families share the darkness when we walk through pain. They see us at our best and worst. And then they see us stand before a congregation and preach the will of God. Our families won't question our sincerity if we avoid two mistakes.
First, don't imply that what ought to be actually is in your life. A preacher's responsibility is to declare what Christians ought to do. We teach others to read their Bibles and pray daily, have family devotions regularly, share their faith at every opportunity, pray for our nation's leaders, give as much as possible to missions, sacrifice for others, live unselfishly. At the same time, few if any pastors do all that Christians ought to do.
That's no surprise and no problem, if we're honest. It's only a problem if we imply otherwise. And it becomes a major problem if we have pain in the family.
If we suggest in our preaching that we have all the answers, that our faith is unshakable, that "all you need is Jesus," that we have it all together, and meanwhile our family sees us in doubt, anger, and confusion at home, they'll conclude we are hypocrites and doubt the reality of what we preach.
When I went through my experience at Denver, I was not a model of unwavering, unquestioning faith. I went through times of deep discouragement. My family saw me go through those times. If I had stood up Sunday after Sunday and said, "When you go through a trial, put your faith in God. Don't waver. Don't doubt," I would have lost a lot of credibility with them.
Better to say something like, "When we go through trials, we need to put our faith in God. At times we may waver. At times we may doubt. But we need to pursue faith. Only by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can we keep our footing when we feel we're slipping."
Second, don't illustrate with your best moments and imply that's the norm. For several months, a pastor suffers unrelenting attacks from his elder board. It gets the best of him. Embittered, he comes home each night and at dinner complains to his family about the latest criticism and speaks disparagingly about various board members.
One night in the middle of the conflict, by contrast, he says to the family, "We need to pray for the board members and their families. No doubt they have pain in their lives that is causing them to be negative toward me."
The next day and for weeks to come, however, the pastor falls back into bitter comments when with the family.
Later the pastor preaches on praying for enemies and illustrates by saying, "As you may know, we went through some disagreements here at the church several months ago. During that time God helped my family to sit together at the dinner table and pray for those who had personally attacked us."
He's telling the truth, but he's implying that the ideal was the norm. He probably isn't intentionally trying to mislead the congregation; he's trying to inspire them with an example of doing what is right. But he is in danger of embittering his family, who have seen his ambivalent behavior.
Preaching When You Don't Feel Like It
Pain makes it hard to concentrate on anything but our problems. It distracts us, confuses us, and saps our energies, leaving us feeling like we don't want to prepare sermons or get "up" for preaching. Preaching through pain requires that we do two things: compartmentalize and filter.
When we go through extended pain, we will often have to preach about things we don't resonate with at the time. We will talk about the sovereignty of God when we feel everything is out of control, or about confidence in God when we ourselves are struggling with unanswered prayer.
At those times, we need to fulfill the calling to preach the Bible. We preach what the Bible says, not what we feel. We, on our own authority, based on our own experiences, may not be able to say, "All things work together for good," but we can say, "God's Word says that all things work together for good."
In a sense, sometimes we have to compartmentalize our experience and feelings. At those times, we may not interact personally with the text or illustrate from our own lives. That's reality.
At such times, it's appropriate to recognize publicly the ambivalence between the text's great promise and the human condition. If you're preaching through the Psalms and come to a place where the psalmist says, "The Lord has rewarded me for my integrity, for the cleanness of my hands in his sight," but you feel the weight of your sin, you can say: "Perhaps you feel like the psalmist today. You're not perfect, but you're forgiven, and you're trying by his grace to walk with God. You feel like praising God that he is a God of justice who rewards the righteous and repays the wicked. You can do that. Others of you will feel a great sense of failure—I know I often do. You can't say with integrity, 'I've served you with my whole heart.' You're feeling instead like the 'chief of sinners.' So this psalm doesn't express how you're feeling today. Still, the psalmist is at a place all of us want to be at times. So let's all listen in, and see what we can learn."
We also need to filter. If we always keep a sermon "out there," we eventually lose our sense of authenticity. If we just keep hammering together what I call "dog house" sermons — let's see, I need three points that begin with the letter T — without living in those sermons, we get hollow. On occasion we need to filter our preaching through our experiences, choosing sermon texts that resonate with what we feel, sharing some of the tough lessons we are learning even if we never tell the story behind them.
In years past, when I would read the parable of the sheep and the goats at the judgment, I felt like a sheep. I had faith in Christ; I visited friends in the hospital; I gave to World Vision.
When I went through the tunnel, I felt totally unworthy of salvation. For the first time, I read that parable and noticed that after Christ commended the sheep, they responded, "Who, me?" They didn't know they were sheep. They didn't feel like sheep.
I came to the conclusion that if I get into heaven, it's because God says I'm a sheep, not because I feel like I'm doing what sheep do. It's all grace.
I began preaching that passage. I felt I had to preach it because it reflected my heart; it made some sense of what I was going through.
After the three lawsuits against Denver Seminary were settled, my lawyer met with the faculty to explain all he could not explain during the trials. He told the faculty, for example, that the president of another seminary had gone over all the testimony and seminary records. He testified that he would have handled the situations just as I had. After all the facts came out, some of the faculty contacted me to say that meeting had vindicated me.
The whole thing is behind me now, though my life will never be the same. And neither will my preaching.
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