PreachingToday.com: What about the experience of purity is unique for preachers?
Gordon Anderson: Preaching is an act of verbal proclamation, and verbal proclamation is a part of a spiritual world where words are not just words. Words are the embodiment of thought, conception, logic—communication, of course, but they also embody values, ethics, purity—the essence of a person.
Jesus said it's not what goes into a person that defiles a person; it's what comes out of that person. And that's a reflection on the fact that verbal proclamation participates in a whole lot more than just words that have meaning to communicate some kind of a message. So, a preacher is wrapped up in that world.
What are the consequences of the preacher's purity or impurity?
First, there is the law of sowing and reaping that functions in preaching—you will reap what you sow. Preaching is a participation in a spiritual operation. The way that I conceptualize it is a participation in a spiritual operation of creating reality with words. God speaks the universe into existence. Life and death are in the power of the tongue. I think it's in Isaiah where the prophet says that God had given him the tongue of a disciple that he might know how to sustain a weary person with a word. And that's not just backslapping and nice words—it is the ability to create life with words or to create death with words.
So, the impure preacher will create impurity through the operation of verbal proclamation. A pure preacher will be able to create purity through preaching. The consequences are enormous. You get what you are; you create what you are.
Following up on that, there are many stories about preachers who had significant "results" even though they were living impure lives. How should we understand that? Does purity have anything to do with results?
Purity does have to do with results, but there's also another component. First, there's the purity of the preacher, but there's also the faith of the hearer. And I believe that God certainly deals directly with hearers who are hungry for God and who have faith, and God does respond to their faith in spite of the impurity of the preacher. That's an important component.
Some preachers have gotten away with charlatan tactics or demagoguery or trickery or things like that because God responds to the faith of the hearer. But in due course he deals with the impurity of the preacher as well.
The impure preacher will create impurity through the operation of verbal proclamation. A pure preacher will be able to create purity through preaching. The consequences are enormous.
Also, what are the results we're talking about? Large crowds? Or long-term discipleship on the part of the hearer? It's harder to measure long-term discipleship than it is just to count how many people show up to a meeting.
For the preacher, how much purity is enough? When can we say we are pure? When should we say we are not pure?
There are two dimensions that function there. One is what I would call "actual purity." The second would be dealing authentically with our impurities, our immaturity, our weaknesses, and our failures. A preacher does not have to be 100 percent pure to be effective. Throughout a lifetime of living the Christian life and being a leader and being a preacher, a person will grow and develop. And God allows for that development.
So, you have to be either pure in fact or pure in faith. That means dealing authentically with the impurities or the deficiencies of your life, so that when you stand before an audience, even though you may have deficiencies, you've still been to the altar about those things. They are forgiven. They may not be perfectly restored, but they are forgiven—they are under the blood. And at that point, you're not a fraudulent preacher. You're authentic.
What are some of the important Scriptures or biblical stories that the preacher needs to consider with regard to the subject of purity?
Purity and authenticity go together. That being the case, Moses has always been a fascinating figure for me, not because of his perfection, but because of his authenticity. If you look at the relationship between Moses and God, the Bible says that he was a friend—a very unique kind of a relationship—and also that God talked with him face to face.
And if you look at the dialogues between God and Moses, there is an openness and an honesty that is just so refreshing to me. For example, God says: I'm so mad at these people. I'm going to kill them all.
Moses says: You can't do that. That's a terrible idea. You haven't thought of the consequences of your actions, here. The pagans are going to see what you've done, and your reputation is going to be in the dumpster. You can't do that.
Now, there's a degree of poetic license in the way I'm describing that, but look at the way God and Moses talked to one another—the openness about anger, emotion, and disappointment; the debating back and forth. I know this can create theological issues for some people, and I'm not suggesting that God doesn't know the future. But I love the openness of their relationship.
And then Moses, in his own humanity, strikes the rock. And it looks like God goes over the top on this one. He says: That's it. I've had it with you with this beating on rocks. You're not going into the land. You broke covenant with me.
But what's amazing to me about Moses—and one of the most inspiring things in the Bible to me in terms of what I would call authentic leadership—is that he accepts his punishment. And then, for another 25 years, he effectively leads the people into a promise that he himself will never see. To me, he becomes a consummate leader at that point, because it's not about him—it's about them. It's not about what he's going to get; it's about what they're going to get. You see?
So that speaks to me deeply about a person with human failures who was able to be authentic—who was able, I think, to grow in purity and be a very effective leader. Moses was the real deal. He wasn't an entirely perfect person, but he was authentic in faith. And so that's a way that I look at the development of purity and the inner relationship of purity and authenticity.
How have you experienced the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in your role as a preacher?
One of the constant, long-term experiences I have had with the Spirit has been in the preparation of a message. To sit there with the Bible in hand, notes in hand, and to contemplate what it means that I'm actually going to stand in front of a group of people and explain to them how they should live and how they should try to please God … .
As I look in the mirror at myself, it's honestly so daunting. I think, Who in the world are you to be telling anybody anything about how to live? How do you gain that right? And you can't just say, "Well, God put me here, so I'll just do it." Instead, it's, "Well, God may have put me here, but with that comes this enormous weight—a responsibility to be credible, to be authentic."
And so the two things that I just mentioned are important. First, "actual purity": you really do have to grow up spiritually, in time. Second, in the areas where you know that you're weak and frail and human, you have to be authentic. You can't be a fraud. You have to have been to the altar for complete forgiveness before you dare open your mouth, or else the fraudulence will pour out.
When you listen to another preacher and you feel that the Lord has produced purity in that preacher, how does that affect you as you listen?
There's something so powerful about hearing more than the cogency of a set of words—about hearing the power involved in purity. Although, it's not even hearing, really. You feel. You sense. You enter into the power of the authenticity of that life. That's what moves your soul more than the words.
So, you can have some poor speaker who is pure, but the purity of life becomes an exemplar—a living embodiment of the truth rather than simply the proclaimer of the truth. And something about that is somehow, ontologically, more powerful. You enter into a whole different realm of essence. What that person is creates in you a power that drives you toward a spiritual reality—it's a whole lot more than running ideas through your head.
When you feel the Lord is producing purity in your own life, how does that affect the experience of preparing and delivering sermons?
First, there's a kind of freedom that comes during the preparation. You don't have to look askance at yourself and pretend something isn't happening. You know that something's happening. You know where you're a failure. But you also know that it's under the blood.
And the sense of gratitude—the sense of experiencing the grace of God, the flow of the Spirit—that kind of purges your inner spiritual being. You feel a sense of freedom, openness, gratitude, and love because you're a participant in grace. You're actually in the process of grace instead of, again, cognitively describing it with just mere words. That's how it affects me in the preparation.
In the delivery, there's also an ability to be open and honest. There is freedom to being open. I think of Chuck Swindoll, for example. He has an openness. When you hear him talk, you don't just hear a man talk about something; you hear a man share the life of the Spirit.
And I experience that when I don't have this fear that I've got to be very careful with my words, or I've got to hide, or I've got to pretend, or any of that. So, both in the preparation and in the presentation, there's a certain kind of flow of grace and flow of the Spirit.
How does the pursuit of purity change over the stages of adult life?
The longer I have lived and preached, the more serious I understand this whole thing of purity to be. In my own life early on, I probably had a greater sense that talent, ability, intelligence—those kinds of human characteristics and abilities—were really important.
But the longer I've been in ministry, the more I think the law of sowing and reaping is vital when it comes to the consequences of your life. In the long run, you reap what you are. That's one of the most inexorable laws of Spirit. You can't break that law; you can't skirt that law. You simply get back what you are.
Gordon Anderson is president of North Central University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.