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Spiritual Noise

It's not just crying babies that keep people from truly hearing a sermon. It may be reasons spiritual and mysterious. What can we do about it?
Spiritual Noise

"Can you hear me now?" This statement was made famous by a series of commercials by Verizon Wireless. The commercials had fun with the frustrating experience of a bad cell phone connection. Cell phone owners know this experience well. The voice on the other end of the connection starts to fade in and out so that only parts of syllables and ends of words are heard through the connection. The cell phone owner keeps walking around, trying to find a posture that will allow the communication to flow unbroken between himself and the caller on the other end.

Preachers understand this procedure well. Disconnected communication can happen in the pulpit-pew connection just as much as in a cell phone conversation. From the pulpit our implicit question is, "Can you hear me now?" We try various things in order to find the best possible connection with our hearers. But why do bad pulpit-pew connections happen in the first place?

While preachers do not often use the term noise as communication theorists do, preachers readily recognize the analogy. The pulpit-pew connection can become filled with static and dead space due to "noise" on the line.

"Noise" refers to conditions that foster misunderstanding of the speaker's message. Noise can occur in the speaker, the message delivery, and the hearers. Natural reasons for noise, such as language use, generational expectations, emotional conditions, cultural assumptions, dress, and foggy thinking are apparent, but the pulpit-pew connection can become noisy because of something beyond these natural elements of misunderstanding.

Sin as Noise

First, the pulpit-pew connection can be lost because of the sinfulness of the speaker or hearer. A preacher may wisely take into account and adequately untangle natural barriers to his message, such as postmodern concerns and cultural ways of listening and yet his hearers may willingly refuse to listen—not because they misunderstand, but because they do understand.

Preaching noise can result from something other than natural misunderstanding.

Sinful noise demonstrates itself with what the Bible calls a hardened heart. Hardened hearts come in at least two shapes. The first is shaped by an intentional stubborn resistance. It is the intentional folding of the arms and frowning of the mouth. For example, "When Pharaoh saw that there was respite, he hardened his heart and would not listen to them" (Exodus 8:15).

The second shape of a hardened heart is formed not by intentional malice but by frustrating ignorance. It is accompanied by the shrugging of the shoulders and the scratching of the head. Mark says, "For they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened" (Mark 6:52). Of this same event, Jesus asks them, "Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?" (Mark 8:17).

Preaching noise can result from something other than natural misunderstanding. Preachers need to learn how to address the hardened heart of malice or ignorance that does not respond even though the message has been clearly presented.

Devilish Noise

Second, noise can have a devilish source. Devilish noise is often identified by the Bible as "blindness." For example, the apostle Paul refers to this "devilish" reason to explain why some people are not responding to his preaching of the gospel:

By the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God. Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. (italics mine, 2 Corinthians 4:3–4)

Devilish noise describes the misunderstanding that arises in the first soil of Jesus' sower and seed parable. "When anyone hears the Word of the kingdom and does not understand it," says Jesus, "the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart" (Matthew 13:19).

In addition to learning skills that overcome the natural noise of their age, preachers must learn how to communicate in light of the devilish blindness that has the capacity to repel natural skills and clarity.

Divine Noise

Finally and mysteriously, noise can have a supernatural source that is divine. Charles Spurgeon, for example, comments regarding the failure of one of his sermons:

Some may imagine that want of study brought me into that condition, but I can honestly affirm that it was not so.… The simple fact is, "The wind bloweth where it listeth:" and sometimes the winds themselves are still. Therefore, if I rest on the Spirit, I cannot expect that I should always feel his power alike. What could I do without his celestial influence? To that I owe everything.… In the one case the Holy Spirit went with the Word; and in the other case he did not. All the heavenly result of preaching is owing to the divine Spirit sent from above.[1]

Divine noise is identified by Spurgeon as a withdrawing of the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament, divine noise is perhaps identified with a parable. "Why do you speak to them in parables?" his disciples asked Jesus. Jesus answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.… This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand…"(Mark 13:10-13).

Sometimes the Spirit who blows where he wills may delay, for his purposes, our expected outcome for a sermon.

Implications for Our Preaching

First, we need to remember that significant factors in the preaching event are beyond our control, so we must retain a spirit of humility and trust in God when it comes to the results of our work. We cannot control the outcome. We cannot control God or Satan or people.

But we do have significant spiritual influence. Our preparation for sermons requires intentional praying. Only the authority of God can overcome sinful or devilish noise. Only God can release what he has delayed.

The prayers of Paul offer preachers a checklist for prayer during sermon preparation.

  • Pray for the illumination of the Spirit for yourself. Paul asks the Ephesian believers to pray that "words may be given him" (Ephesians 6:19) as he proclaims the gospel. Paul speaks elsewhere of the importance of using words taught by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:13).
  • Pray for the illumination of the Spirit for your hearers. Paul asks the Colossian believers to pray that "God may open for us a door for the word" (Colossians 4:3). Paul asks similarly of the Thessalonians, "Pray for us that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored" (2 Thessalonians 3:1).
  • Pray for clarity. Notice that the one whom Peter said was sometimes hard to understand (2 Peter 3:16) asks God that he may make the gospel plain and understandable to people (Colossians 4:4). There is a kind of clarity that is God-given to help people understand.

In addition to prayer, our sermons require attention to different kinds of hearers. Some are hardened out of stubbornness, others out of ignorance. When asking a conscience-oriented question during a sermon, such as, "Do you pray?" anticipate four possible responses. These are the stubborn yes and the stubborn no along with the ignorant yes and the ignorant no. The former requires confrontation and motivation. The latter requires encouragement, information, and time. In essence, then, after asking, "do you pray?" you will choose which possible response to address. In other words, not every resistance to your message is due to an intentionally stubborn heart, as in Pharaoh's case. Sometimes the stubbornness is due to ignorance and time, as in the disciples' case. We must take this into account.

Finally, the content of our message must remain "the mystery of the gospel," and our task must remain "making the gospel clear, as we ought." Because some noise refers to sin and the devil, only God's Word as the sword of the Spirit is adequate for victory. In our attempts to translate into the language of our culture, overcoming natural noise, we must remember that spiritual noise is still our ultimate obstacle. God's Word is uniquely fitted for overcoming this obstacle. God's Word gives his preacher's power to be heard.

[1] Lewis Drummond, Spurgeon: Prince of Preachers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 1992), 280.

Zack Eswine serves as Lead Pastor of Riverside Church and as Director of Homiletics, Resident Scholar of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.

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