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Preaching, criticism and emotions

This week I’ve had to ask myself some pretty hard questions about my preaching. Here’s how it all unfolded.

On Sunday, I preached at our evening service. One part of the application of the sermon was to mission, in particular, support staff for gospel proclamation – teachers for missionaries’ kids, accountants and business people, mechanics, etc. In the time we’ve been at our church, I’ve rarely heard the call to the mission field given or its need profiled so I knew it was a risky venture but I felt that it was a valid application of the passage and a necessary one for our community and I’d checked it with my pastor.

On the night, I got quite a bit of negative feedback. One person implied that I’d been graceless in my call; another that what I was profiling was not a real need – aid organisations can take care of it and we should just stay here and give money.

I was crushed. I was embarrassed to think that I’d been unclear but I was mortified to think that I had failed to communicate that we participate in Jesus’ mission out of love, not guilt. To make matters worse, I discovered that our locum (temporary senior pastor), whose approval I desperately wanted, had preached on the same passage in the morning and read the passage completely differently. I felt like a total failure.

People close to me pointed out that part of preaching is copping the flak when people don’t like what you say – especially when it’s of the Holy Spirit. That raised a question of my own resilience. Do I have what it takes to withstand that? My assumption when my preaching is criticised is that I’ve done something wrong – this time I thought I should have prepared better / read the passage more closely / spoken clearer / not been on a hobby horse, etc. Maybe I’d got carried away in application and overstepped the mark. I was sure that it was a clear lesson to me on not being proud in my giftings but humble in serving. And it may be. But it could also be a lesson in declaring the word of God faithfully and taking what comes with that, learning to answer to God, not to humans.

Yesterday, I found out that our locum hadn’t thought my sermon was awful after all. He thought it was fine – apparently he quite liked the application though he didn’t particularly connect with my style. And all of a sudden, I felt so much better about it, like a huge wave of relief had flooded through me. Should it have mattered that much?

I’m a classic ENFJ in personality: “their offices may be cluttered but they’re organised in the arena of interpersonal affairs.” The idea of others’ disapproval (humans or God) that can’t be resolved drives me wild! One of the things I fear becoming is someone who is unteachable and doesn’t listen to others. Another great fear is that I will use the Bible to pursue my own agenda. And so when I receive criticism of my preaching, I want to listen to it, to be taught and to check what I’ve said. But every voice is not equally valid. And I need to work out which voices to listen to. I think it’s OK to feel better after gaining a little approval from our locum – he’s an older father in Christ, a good voice to listen to.

Every morning I pray these things:

Give me the strength, clarity and courage to do the good works you have planned for me to do today.
Incline my heart to your ways.
May my lips be a well tuned harp to sound your praise.
Preserve me from the love of power in the ministry you have given me.

But the tough thing is learning to look for God’s approval over anyone else’s, even in these things. Maybe I should add that to the list. How do you navigate this issue? How do you look for God’s approval, above others?

Categories: Church Ministry & mission Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

9 replies

  1. Its a big thing to be aware that we are preaching for man’s approval and not Gods. It’s also true that we need mutual encouragement. It’s a real root that we need to be prayerfully aware of…..

    It’s also symptomatic of the success syndrome within church…. we are successful as pastors because of the numbers we have…so we become driven to pastor larger churches… in reality a lot of the time the root cause of this to not so much to glorify God…rather its so we can feel successful and liked…covered over in Christianese of course.

    I liked your self disclosure, very encouraging.

  2. This is a never ending struggle for me, and unfortunately I haven’t managed to find a great solution as yet. Thankyou for sharing, what an encouragement to know I am not alone. It is when I come back to God’s word and realise that he uses humans who are by very nature sinners that I am reminded that it is for God alone that I must live and be used despite my failings.

    If Abraham had sought mans approval instead of God’s he never would have taken Isaac and tied him to the altar as a sacrifice, yet only a few chapters earlier we see him telling the Egyptians that Sarai was his sister so he wouldn’t be killed. We aren’t the first to struggle with this issue and God is faithful in teaching us through it.

  3. Thanks for a great post. It’s also really timely for me; last Sunday I had to do the children’s talk in a special combined Don Carson service (meaning, of course, that Don Carson – who I had heard preach wonderfully six times by that point – would be present and listening during said children’s talk), and was completely terrified in the lead up!

    It was hard not to notice that I prepared more fully than usual – for example, in reading commentaries (usually only done if I’m really confused by the passage) and asking people to help me think of ideas. (Why don’t I do this anyway? Pride, laziness and time-constraints, of course. Looks like I’ve got some praying to do about the first two.)

    Thankfully, I was both supported and confronted about this by the Christians around me. They understood the extra pressure presented by hundreds more listeners than usual and a special, theologically awesome guest preacher. They also made me realise that said guest is also just a person, and especially:
    I do children’s talks quite comfortably in front of God (creator and sustainer of the whole universe) all the time!

    Having said that, I was also filled with relief with every positive comment I received (too much relief, perhaps?). And I agree with you about helpful feedback from the right people. I think it’s a discernment thing – why are they saying this? What is their motivation for thinking that? How might God feel about that particular aspect of my preaching/service?

    When you think about it, how do I know what God thinks about my work? He’s the one I need to please, but as far as I can tell that’s about faithfulness to him, his gospel, and to my brothers and sisters… what did God think about the illustration I chose, or the way I went on about twenty seconds too long at the end? I don’t know. But I know he’s got loads of grace for me…

    So my still-baking attempt at answering ‘how do you navigate this issue’, would be: other Christians can be soo good for perspective. But also: self talk! “God’s opinion is the one that matters. He’s in control and can work in people. I just need to be faithful to him.”

  4. Rob Bell taught on the subject of how those who preach and teach handle criticism at a conference I went to last summer. The sermon was titled “The One Thing I’ve Never Heard Someone Talk About That Has Changed Everything for Me.” I believe that the DVD from the conference should be released shortly. His main point was that we need to learn how to be great at forgiving and as Craig in comment one said, we preach for God’s approval. If you can get your hands on it when it is released it could help you process some of this stuff.

  5. it’s hard isn’t it!
    i struggled with this a great deal in first year teaching (esp. Christian studies @ school!) & leading community group(s), and still do (in other contexts) too; sometimes with criticism from others, self-criticism and simply the fear of getting it wrong. It’s so very easy to blame ourselves, and I wonder if that’s something specific to women – turning on ourselves when something goes wrong.
    in my struggle to move past this, i’ve just worked on praying ‘God, let me be faithful to your teaching, and should anything i say be incorrect, let it fall away and be forgotten. Let my words act as a seed that is planted and let them bring people closer to you’.
    I think it will be a lifelong process though… :p
    Is ur sermon up on the website yet? and have fun on the retreat!! wish i was coming…

  6. “The idea of others’ disapproval (humans or God) that can’t be resolved drives me wild!”

    Story of my life Tamie! I suppose technically that’s the downside to being an ENFJ, but I’m not prepared to admit that there is one.

  7. In my first ever real job (oh so long ago!) we had a piece of paper on the wall in the tea room that said “in order to avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing”. If nothing else, you stirred thought. We have treasure in jars of clay, but still treasure nonetheless.

  8. Thanks for the great post Tamie! I’m a massive approval-seeker, so its comforting to hear someone share their heart on this topic. Here’s two typical “Pete the psychology student” observations that might be relevant.

    – The parts of a person’s personality that cause them greatest distress in lacking the approval of others is likely the very same personality feature which causes others to misunderstand/disapprove of them. (That’s coming from my own experience!)

    – The feeling of disapproval is often sparked by criticism from others. That criticism usually comes from others who are self-critical due to fear of disapproval. Therefore, your own self-criticism and your own feeling of disapproval are both part of an underlying cultural sickness of mutual approval-seeking. Therefore, it won’t work to seek God’s approval on your own. Communities must do it together…and as they do, they will see that in Christ we already have His approval, and the culture will be transformed. So this is both an individual problem and a corporate problem, which I think needs to be dealt with both individually AND corporately.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  9. Hey Tamie,

    Thanks for sharing your experience, sister. Preaching is an exhausting thing in every sense except aerobically, and sometimes that too. But by far, for me, the emotional exhaustion that comes with having my identity caught up in my abilities is the worst. I’m so with you!

    On the other hand, I’ve had to be careful how to think about my preaching.

    My tendency is to identify myself with my abilities. To find identity in what I can do. I find that this is where most of my nervous energy comes from when preaching. It’s not just that I care what people think of me, it’s also that I allow how good a job I do to define me. I reckon this is one of the really ungodly attitudes that I have and have been working to rid myself of.

    Instead, having my value and worth firmly secured in Christ, I reckon we should do our best to preach his word faithfully, winsomely (hate that word but too lazy to find another) and convictedly and then wait to see what God does with the Word through the Spirit.

    Having said all this, the only thing that really makes me preach well is having done so much work on the exegesis that I could pretty confidently add the prefix “Thus says the Lord” to the beginning of the sermon. If I can’t do that, most other things fall apart including my emotions. Because if I can’t walk around that room afterwards and think “it’s not my message they’re dealing with, it’s God’s” then I do feel self-conscious. And perhaps rightly so.

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