'Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?'
'Why Hast Thou Forsaken Me?'
As we approach Holy Week, I am once again brought back to the words of Jesus upon the Cross: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani.” Roughly translated, he uttered, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Like Jesus, preachers this Holy Week will stand before their crowd below and offer beautiful homilies on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Hopefully, these sermons will be filled with helpful insights, inspiring stories, silly jokes, and memorable illustrations. But sadly, many of these sermons will lack one thing that marked Jesus’ sermon from the Cross: his own struggle to comprehend his Father’s will.
Preaching is essential. “Faith comes by hearing the Word,” wrote Paul (Rom. 10:17). But just because preaching is essential, that doesn’t mean we know all that much about it. “I don’t understand preaching,” once wrote the famed preacher Ian Pitt Watson, “but I believe in it deeply.” Our enthusiasm about preaching often out-does our knowledge about it.
The power of struggles
Preaching is powerful; yet, we almost often neglect one of the most powerful potentials behind it: the very struggles of the preachers themselves. Of course, behind the scenes, every preacher secretly struggles. I’ve come to like the preachers that are cautiously up-front about this fact. Over the years, I guess, my tastes have changed. In times past, I would have been more drawn to the preachers who presented everything as a series of either/or options—black or white, in or out, this or that. In reflecting about it, it was the “or” I loved. Everything just feels clearer and more concise when you live under the “or.” Things are more straightforward and clean-cut.
But truth—at least truth in the Christian sense—is far more complicated than just a series of either/or options. Truth has wrinkles. When Jesus declared that he was “the way, the truth, and the life,” (John 14:6) he was not offering the same old, tired perspective on what truth was; Jesus was offering a way of understanding truth that nobody had considered up to the point. Truth wasn’t something out there written on the stars or something written upon stone tablets; truth was him. Truth was a person.
Truth is a person. Truth has wrinkles. Truth, Jesus Christ himself, would have the wrinkles of a first-century Jewish peasant carpenter who worked wood under the sun day in and day out. Truth, in Christianity, isn’t a series of propositions, statements, or ideas captured in the boundaries of words; rather, truth is Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ walked, talked, ate, drank, and burped. Truth got slivers.
A preacher isn’t to be an opinions peddler. A preacher is, above all, tasked with bearing the fact of the Good News. The Good News isn’t a series of opinions; it is the crucifixion of all opinion under the cross of Jesus. The highest calling of a preacher is not primarily to lay forth this doctrine or that doctrine, this denomination or that denomination, this view of the end or that view of the end of the world; the task is the bold proclamation that each of our lives will be either built upon Christ or anything else. There is no middle option. Rock or sand—there are no other building materials to make a foundation for our lives. That is the only either/or that matters at the end of the day.
Truth mediated through personality
The best definition of preaching I’ve ever come across is that preaching is: “truth mediated through personality.” A sermon is the gospel through human personality. What that means is that preaching is the proclamation of Jesus through the actual life, story, struggles, and personality of the preacher who bears it. The real truth is best communicated through real lives. But they will still only be humans who wander daily through their own faith themselves.
But we don’t allow preachers to have any struggles. Lamentably, the pressure we’ve put on the backs of people who help lead us in our faith has become ludicrous. We expect preachers to be saviors, not helpers. Preachers aren’t allowed to actually speak out of their own personality. The contemporary preacher has become way too much a sage on the stage rather than a guide on the side—very little space is given to the actual personal struggles of the preacher.
But that isn’t preaching. Preaching minus the preacher isn’t preaching—it’s inhumane lecturing. A preacher must bring the Word through their own life; not abstractly. We must proclaim Jesus as we actually experience him through our lives, not as we would experience if we were perfect robots.
If we do let our struggles bleed through our preaching, it often has to be done in a rather sanitized way. In my book, A Glorious Dark, I candidly discuss my struggles with alcohol and the process I underwent to deal with it during one Good Friday a few years ago. It has been quite a process. I haven’t had a drink for just over eight years. But something interesting has taken place as I shared that story with others. People are often shocked to hear that it was only eight years ago.
I’ve even had people tell me I should wait a few more years before talking about those struggles. You see, it’s like we’ve created space for preachers and pastors to deal openly with their struggles so long as said struggles took place a safe decade or two ago. When they were just two years, two months, two days, or heaven forbid today, then things get uncomfortable.
Preachers, truth, and struggles
I admit it. Actually dealing with your struggles as a preacher can be hard. And I want to offer a few ideas.
First, if we share our struggles to draw attention to ourselves, something is off.
But that applies on a more general level. Paul said we don’t “preach ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). To preach our struggles to get people to like us or to draw attention to ourselves, we are doing just that. But to lie to the world that we’ve arrived in our faith is to do the same thing—preach ourselves. For any of us to stand up and say—wrinkle and problem-free—that we don’t wander our way through faith struggles is a blatant lie. Not to mention that the act of standing up and holding yourself up as the perfected one, in the end, is a preacher preaching the wrong savior. When our message about Jesus is really about ourselves, it isn’t ultimately about Jesus.
When self-disclosing, do a real heart inventory. Are you speaking of your struggles to win your church to yourself? Are you sharing in vulnerability to gain power in the church? If so, be very cautious.
Second, God’s people are sheep, not camels. It is of interest that the word camel comes from the Hebrew word gamel, translated, “to carry.” We must remember that we don’t share our struggles for others in the church to carry them for us. As preachers, we need to do the hard work of developing a constellation of relationships that can help us through the struggles.
I strongly recommend not working through your struggles while you are going through them. Rather, use self-disclosure after you have brought in that constellation of relationships that have helped the preacher through the issues. This will minimize the heaviness your struggles will put upon the church. Again, the textbook of our struggles is often the greatest commentary on the Bible we have.
Third, and finally, realize the cost of not sharing honestly your struggles in faith. “Beware of the minister who does not walk with a limp,” wrote the wise Tozer. Likewise, beware of the Christian who doesn’t have any problems. They aren’t real. And they aren’t walking in the resurrection life. And real preachers—personality and all—are what make the Scripture come to life.
There have been countless times that I have preached out of office. By that, I mean, I have preached this or that doctrinal point even in the midst of struggling through it. I know every preacher (whether they acknowledge it or not) has done this from time to time. Sometimes, when we go through our struggles, it is our task to stand up and preach the Good News nonetheless. The words of Boehler to John Wesley still stay with me: “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it you will preach faith.” Sometimes we preach the gospel and faith comes to us.
But the cost of never sharing our struggles with our congregations is we never give our congregations permission to struggle and ask questions themselves. And this is dangerous. Because unspoken questions and struggles, over time, ferment. They become cynicism, doubt, and anger, and eventually, can lead to a loss in faith. When we create a space where we struggle, others can be invited into the same.
In the end, if Jesus could voice his struggle-filled question to his Father from the wooden pulpit of the Cross, shouldn’t we be able to behind our wooden pulpits in the church? If not, I’m confused. Because it was that pain, struggle, and toil that made Jesus human. Without that pain, it would just be another god speaking abstract truth to those dumb humans.
A. J. Swoboda is the pastor of Theophilus in Portland, Oregon, a professor at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and the author of Messy: God Likes It That Way.