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Sinning in the Pulpit

How to repent and preach at the same time
Sinning in the Pulpit
Image: Pearl / Lightstock

Have you ever given into anger while you're in the pulpit? Or how about vanity? Have you ever stretched the truth while you were preaching in order to drive a point home—but then, inconveniently, the Spirit convicted you of it on the spot? It's a heart-sinking moment when you see yourself stumble into unholiness while you're preaching the holy Word of a holy God. That realization not only can fog your brain and paralyze your tongue, it can also overwhelm you with guilt and drain your sermon of power.

As preachers, we know we're sinners like everyone else. But we face a unique problem with sin—sometimes we become aware of it while we're preaching God's Word.

Of course, we've all sinned in the pulpit without realizing it. Our faith has been too small or our ego has been too large. But mostly we overlook these things in the passion of the sermon. The real awkwardness comes in those moments in the pulpit when the veil is pulled back and the Lord shows us our sin. What do we do right then, before we even get to "amen" and the closing song?

I wish I could say this was an academic question for me, but it's not. Unfortunately, my struggle with sin doesn't go on hiatus when I open God's Word to preach. I suppose it's my own fault since I pray regularly that God would convict me of my sin. I just wish he wouldn't ever show it to me when I'm in the pulpit.

For whatever reason, sometimes the Spirit just makes it plain that we need to deal with sinning while in the pulpit. Here are a few thoughts on how to handle those awkward circumstances.

Preaching in the presence of God

Before getting to four practical approaches to this quandary, we have to remember who our audience is for our sermons. Paul writes about his preaching ministry that "we speak in Christ in the sight of God" (Col. 2:17). Our audience for our sermons is actually God. In the passage where Paul instructs Timothy on godly teaching, he reminds him "to do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15). So when we sin in the pulpit, we had best deal with it, since our primary audience knows it full well, and our sin can disconnect us from his presence and power, the very things necessary for effective preaching.

Pray during the pauses

When we become aware of our sin during a sermon, we can confess during the pauses. Like Nehemiah before the king, we can whisper a prayer to God in those brief moments between sentences. A simple "I'm sorry" often suffices, especially in circumstances where the offense is real but not public.

In the midst of preaching earlier this year my eyes landed on a person about eight rows back in the right hand section of seats. Right then and there, as I was speaking, my mind intentionally dragged up some evil thoughts about that person—and the Spirit convicted me of my sin instantly.

It wouldn't have been appropriate to draw attention to my sin, and yet I needed to deal with it. So I wrapped up that sentence as best as I could and paused before going on. During that brief pause, in the quiet of my own heart, I confessed my sin to God. I didn't do anything fancy—how could I with hundreds of eyes on me and only about 2 seconds! I gave a clear, quick, "Father, I'm sorry!" and that was it. But it was critical to enabling me to continue to preach with a sense of confidence and a sense of being in the presence of God.

Ask forgiveness later

I'll never forget the Willow Creek Church Leadership Conference when Bill Hybels, standing behind the pulpit, made an inappropriate comment about a group of guests from Mexico—I could feel the air leave the room. Later in the conference, Hybels got up and gave one of the most profound apologies to those brothers that I've ever heard. I was so powerfully impacted that even 13 years later I remember it vividly, while I've forgotten the rest of the conference. Hybels only grew in my esteem that day, and I felt privileged to see a real leader handling his sin in a humble, repentant way. He obviously took time after his blunder trying to get his head around what had happened and how to handle it. I'm convinced he did the right thing by going public with his apology.

When the Spirit convicts us of sin and we don't know how to handle it, wrestling with it afterwards is always appropriate. A trusted friend is invaluable in working through these situations. Ask him or her whether whatever occurred warrants a public apology. With that being said, only rarely is it wise for a pastor to get up the following week and address something from the previous Sunday. Usually, doing so draws attention away from God, but there are rare occasions to step up and own a public sin publically.

Ask for prayer in the moment

Recently one of our pastors stopped mid-sermon and asked the congregation to pray with him for faith. He told me later he sensed he had a strong word for the congregation and feared bringing it. The prayer time took only a moment and didn't distract from the message, and it not only led him away from sin, but it actually built anticipation and openness in the congregation.

I wish I could say this was an academic question for me, but it's not. My struggle with sin doesn't go on hiatus when I open God's Word to preach.

Asking for prayer mid-sermon can help a preacher flee temptation in the pulpit. Saying too much in these circumstances is not helpful—it can easily focus people on your sin and distract them from the message. But with proper restraint, pausing for public prayer (either led by the pastor, by a worship leader for the pastor, or silent prayer by the congregation for the pastor) in the face of sin can turn the spiritual tide in the pulpit.

Ask forgiveness in the moment

Earlier this year I found myself frustrated by the lack of openness I'd seen in the congregation over the previous few Sundays. As I was concluding a sermon with an invitation to married couples for prayer, I took a cheap shot and gave in to my anger. With a hard, sarcastic edge, I said, "What, do you think you have a perfect marriage, and you don't need prayer?"

With a gentle firmness, the Spirit let me know I had sinned. So I paused for a moment, feeling the sting of his correction. In that moment, James 1:20 flashed through my mind—"Man's anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires," and I realized that not only had I sinned, but that by doing so I was inhibiting the godly response I actually wanted from the congregation.

So I swallowed my pride and stated what was obvious to everyone. "That comment was sarcastic and not helpful. Would you forgive me for that?" After another brief pause to let people move past my comment, I started back up. With the same gentle firmness that I had sensed from the Spirit, I said, "Let's try that again—wouldn't it be helpful to have your marriage prayed over?" That was a particularly good Sunday for prayer ministry at the altar.

Responding in the moment is powerful but also dangerous. If we're not careful, our guilt can play tricks on us and we could find ourselves apologizing our way through entire sermons. The sins of motivation will always haunt us. Our selfishness and pride will seep into many of our sermons. But these are best dealt with in accountability relationships and personal confession. But when the sin is public, so should be the confession. When we have committed a spoken sin—especially untruths, arrogance or words in anger—it is appropriate to confess those publically on the spot.

Bill White is a church planter in urban Long Beach, California.

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