The Spiritual Importance of Becoming an Emotionally Healthy Preacher
Key issues to address as we look beneath the surface
All preachers know that we need to prepare our souls to preach, but what exactly needs to enter into that preparation? Obviously it is not enough simply to punch the clock in prayer for a certain period of time, so what should we pray about? How do we discern the condition of our own souls? In this insightful interview with Peter Scazzero, author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nelson) and The Emotionally Healthy Church (Zondervan), we learn specifics about essential places to turn our attention as we prepare our hearts to proclaim God's Word.
PreachingToday.com: You've written two books on what you call emotionally healthy spirituality. Could you provide a brief overview of what you mean by that term and why it's important?
Peter Scazzero: Basically, it's a paradigm for how ordinary Christians can experience real transformation in Christ. It's taking people beyond outward changes and moving into the depths of their interior life in order to be transformed.
We look at this process in two broad strokes. First, we say that every Christian should have a contemplative life. Simply put, that means that each follower of Christ needs to cultivate a deep relationship with Christ—without living off other people's spiritual lives. That requires slowing down and structuring your whole life in such a way that Christ really becomes your Center.
Secondly, emotionally healthy spirituality means that emotional maturity and spiritual maturity go hand in hand. It's simply not possible to become spiritually mature while you remain emotionally immature. And emotional maturity really boils down to one thing: love. So if you're critical, defensive, touchy, unapproachable, insecure—telltale signs of emotional immaturity—you can't be spiritually mature. It doesn't matter how "anointed" you are or how much Bible knowledge you have. Love is that indispensable mark of maturity. Emotionally healthy spirituality unpacks what that looks like.
Why is there such a glaring need for this approach to our life in Christ?
I think it addresses some missing components in the way we approach discipleship, especially in the West. We can be very intellectually driven. We can also be driven by success and big numbers, so the idea of living contemplatively—sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary in Luke 10—feels very counter-cultural to many of us. It's counter to our church culture as well, especially if you're a pastor. That's why this has such a huge impact on preaching: it starts with the transformation of the person in the pulpit.
So how does emotionally healthy spirituality change a pastor's approach to preaching?
That's probably best summed up by the 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas, who said that all of our preaching or teaching should be the fruit of contemplation. In other words, as a preacher I don't just study and exegete a text; I don't just find good stories to illustrate the text; I also let it pass through my life in such a significant way that the Word has transformed me—not just on the surface but in the depths of my heart. I am a different person because I've been steeping in this text all week long. I've sat at the feet of Jesus. That's the fruit of contemplation.
To me, that's the foundational issue for preachers. In my travels throughout North America, I think the great problem with preaching today is that most pastors don't take the biblical text and sit with Jesus. So we're preaching "great" sermons—clever, interesting sermons—but I'm not sure those sermons are changing people's lives on a deep level.
So how do we see real transformation in people's lives through our preaching?
Again, it begins with the preacher. To change people's lives deeply through the Word, the preacher's life has to be transformed first by that Word. At this point in my ministry I rarely preach on a text that I haven't been meditating on all week long—and the goal is to allow God to transform me, not just write a good sermon. So before I get up to preach, the text needs to have changed me first.
For instance, I went for a four-mile walk today, and the whole time I was meditating and praying about my preaching text—the story from Mark about blind Bartimaeus. At times I was struggling with the text, wrestling with how it intersects with my life. By the time I get in the pulpit, I've often memorized the passage. Of course I still do my Greek and my Hebrew word studies, but as I enter my 26th year of preaching, I spend a lot more time praying the Word before God. I spend more time asking and listening to him about how he wants me to approach the text.
In your books you say that our lives are often like an iceberg—there's a lot underneath the surface, but it's largely hidden from us. How does that apply to what you're saying about our preparation for preaching?
As preachers the problem is that we usually don't take the time to look beneath the surface of our lives, at the rest of the iceberg, the 90 percent that people can't see. I know that I can easily ignore the immaturity and worldliness in my heart. As a result, I can diminish my preaching text because I'm stunted in my own relationship with Jesus. But when we wrestle with a biblical text, when we let it explore the hidden parts of our lives—that's when real transformation starts to happen.
For example, a couple of weeks ago I preached on John 21, where Jesus tells Peter, "I tell you the truth, when you were younger, you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but when you're older you will stretch forth your hand and someone else will dress you and lead you where you don't want to go." Before I preached that verse, I had to let it sink into my own life. As I prayed about that verse, listening to the voice of Jesus to me through that verse, I realized how often I make plans without consulting him. God started peeling off the layers of my false self: Pete, are you really looking for happiness in security, control, and power, like Peter? Like him, are you just trying to do your own thing and go your own way?
I had to wrestle with the fact that a big chunk of my ministry has been focused on my will. In the end, God brought me to a new place of surrender to him and to his will.
Every week I need to listen to the Lord like that. The Word needs to pass deep into my life—underneath the surface. And that will bear fruit in my preaching. I can't get that from a book. You can't read that in a commentary.
Do you think part of our emotional-spiritual immaturity comes from getting too wrapped up in the preacher's role—that our identity is tied too closely to our sermonic success?
Absolutely. Number one, I need to be preaching to myself first. So every week I need to remind myself that I stand before God based on the righteousness of Christ alone, not on whether I preached a good sermon. So if someone says, "That sermon stunk," or "That sermon didn't hit the mark for me," I don't need to get depressed or defensive. I can just say, "Okay, tell me why it didn't hit the mark for you." I don't expect to hit a home run every week. I offer God the best I have, and I let the rest go.
One of the best things I have to offer people is what God is doing in my life through this text. I look for a clear outline with solid points and good illustrations, but they're not my highest priority. My highest priority is to be centered in the love of Christ. If I'm too concerned about what people think of me and how the sermon is going to come off, I don't think I'm ready to preach that sermon.
Since you started focusing more on transformational preaching, what other changes have you seen in your sermon preparation?
I definitely spend a lot more time thinking and praying through the sermon application. What difference will this make in people's lives? What does this passage say to the single mom, the stressed-out executive, or the questioning teenager? When people walk out the door, what are they going to do with this text?
Often I see two extremes in sermon application. There's the ultra-practical, how-to, "Four Steps to a Happy Marriage" type of sermon that's almost all application. Those sermons are often theologically and historically empty. But then there's also the exegetically correct sermon that has little practical, everyday application. These preachers haven't allowed the text to pass through their own lives.
For example, when I'm preaching on blind Bartimaeus, I have to think about the fact that we have six blind people in our congregation. How does this passage apply to their lives? My point can't just be that Jesus heals the blind, so come and get healed right now. I need to wrestle with this text and apply it to the lives of these real people. That's hard work—whether your church is rural, suburban, or urban. It takes time. Honestly, I'm not sure how I'm going to apply this text, but I know I need to apply it to myself first. At this point in my sermon prep I can sure relate to the people in the crowd who kept telling Bartimaeus to shut up. I also want to be more like Bartimaeus—desperately crying out to Jesus even when everyone around me is telling me to be quiet. Those are definitely points to explore as I seek to apply this text.
In one of your recent blog posts you wrote, "Unknowingly, some pastors use their flock as extensions of their own needs and ambitions." How do you think pastors can "use their flock" when it comes to preaching?
I've often heard preachers say things like, "I have a fire in my bones, and I have to preach." But if you look underneath the surface of their lives, they're preaching has a lot to do with their own issues and needs. They are thinking about how they're performing: What do people think of me? Did people like my sermon today? If that is the case, the whole process of preaching focuses on us, not God and his people.
It happens in subtle ways, too. A while ago I had to pull aside one of the guys in our preaching team and say, "I have to tell you that you crossed a line in your sermon last week. At one point you were really funny, and you had people rolling, but it seemed like you started working the crowd on a level that wasn't appropriate." It wasn't a terrible issue, but it definitely felt show-offy—and it detracted from the flow of what God wanted to do through him.
As I look back on my own preaching, I wish I would have had someone to pull me aside and help me look underneath the surface of my life as a preacher. I learned so many things the hard way. Now I constantly tell younger preachers, "If you want to be a great preacher, learn Greek and Hebrew, learn a lot about church history; but first and foremost, learn to be with Jesus, develop a deep prayer life, know yourself well and learn to love people." I've heard some brilliant sermons, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to see that the sermon was more focused on the person in the pulpit.
But how do you preach powerful sermons when you know you haven't arrived yet, when you know your life is still raw or immature? Let's say you're preaching on forgiveness, and you're struggling to forgive someone as you prepare the sermon. How should you approach that as a preacher?
That's the real beauty of preaching! Those are the most powerful sermons—when we know we're still in the process of growing in Christ. That's when God can really show up. You're going to preach the truth—the truth about Scripture and the truth about your life. Obviously, you're not going to say, "I'm struggling to forgive Joe Jones in the fourth row because he sent me a nasty letter this week." But during my sermon prep I'm going to feel the hurts of life—pastors take a lot of hits—and I'm going to feel how impossible it is to forgive anyone. I can't do it in my own strength. Left to myself, I don't love my enemies.
That's why brokenness before God is so crucial in our preaching. Obviously, I hope I have some spiritual maturity, but on the other hand there are probably people in my church who are further ahead of me on the path of forgiveness—or many other issues. I'm not up in the pulpit saying I have this all figured out. In my preaching I'm always communicating: I'm a fellow traveler just like all of you. God has been teaching me some things through this text, and I'm struggling with this truth just as you are. I stand by the grace of God just as you do. You better not put me on a pedestal because I'm not worthy of being on a pedestal. If you put me on a pedestal, you'll be disappointed.
But you can still speak God's Word with authority. You can preach on forgiving your enemies, because it's true. "Jesus told us to forgive those who trespass against us because we're going to get hurt every day. So choose to do good to those who hurt you, even when you don't feel like it." But I can also say, "Friends, this is impossible. I know because I've tried. Only God can help you do it. It will take a miracle—but God wants to give us the miracle of forgiveness."
So preaching from brokenness and weakness isn't just a technique or a preaching strategy. It has to flow genuinely from your life.
I've been a Christian for 36 years, but I'm still such a beginner. "We're always beginners," as Karl Barth said. The cross is starting to make more sense to me these days—that the Christian life is all about being crucified with Jesus so that he might live through me. I love the Apostle Paul's view in 2 Corinthians 10-13. Paul was clear that he was not a super-apostle. He had a thorn in the flesh, yet he delighted in his weaknesses. That's a counter-cultural, even un-American approach to preaching.
There are some great speakers in the church today. I'm in awe of the gifts that some people have. But I feel like one of my contributions to the preaching conversation is this idea of preaching from our brokenness and weakness—that God's power flows through that. If God has given you great eloquence, then use that gift; but don't ever let that gift cloud where true power comes from. Ultimately, it's the rawness of your life and your encounter with God's grace that becomes one of your greatest preaching gifts.
Actually, gifted preachers are the most in danger. They can get by, and people love it, but it's also possible that nothing significant is taking place. You can draw a crowd of people, but in terms of spiritual transformation little is actually happening.
Here's the key principle behind preaching that leads to transformation in Christ: You can't bring people on a journey that you haven't taken. You can tell them about the journey, but they could read that in a book. But if you go on a journey with Jesus that has real depth, it will come out in your preaching. If you've been sidetracked from that journey with Christ—building a big church, or gaining people's approval, or being so busy you can't even think straight—I would say that God is telling you to slow down so that you can be with Jesus. Your people need you to spend time in prayer. Your people need you to be with God, so you can bring a real Word from God.