To preach and teach in the name of Jesus is one of the greatest privileges in the world. What makes it particularly dangerous, however, is how easy it is to preach for Jesus without Jesus.
We may know a lot about God in our heads. What matters, however, is slowing down enough to give Jesus direct access to every aspect of our lives and our leadership.
I know this only too well. I was in my early years as a Christian when I first came to grips with the sad truth that God appeared to use prominent Christian leaders whose relationship with Jesus was either nonexistent or seriously underdeveloped. It was a discovery that left me confused and disoriented. Yet, after decades in ministry, I am no longer so confused. Why? Because I have experienced to some degree what it's like to be one of those leaders. I have prepared and preached sermons without thinking about or spending time with Jesus. I know the experience of doing good things that helped a lot of people while being too busy in my own whirlwind of leadership worries to be intimately connected to Jesus.
It is possible to preach by relying only on our gifts, talents, and experience. We can boldly preach truths we don't live. And if people feel served, few people will notice or take issue with the gaps between who we are and what we do.
Jesus warns us about the consequences of engaging in ministry activity without him:
Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only [those] who [do] the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?" Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!" (Matt. 7:21-23)
Jesus confronts the self-deception of those who do wonderful things in his name. They prophesy. They drive out demons. They perform miracles. They are very impressive and successful in really helping people. What could be wrong with that? By all appearances, their efforts have the marks of a vibrant, growing ministry!
But Jesus says one thing is terribly wrong: "I never knew you." The force of the biblical word used for the verb know refers to the intimate, personal knowing of relationship; it is similar to the oneness of Adam and Eve in the Garden when they were naked and without shame (Genesis 2:25). We may be sincere in saying, "Lord, Lord," and have what appears to be a successful ministry. We may know a lot about God in our heads. What matters, however, is slowing down enough to give Jesus direct access to every aspect of our lives and our leadership.
I call that loving union, and we can't do that in a hurry.
Remember, Jesus doesn't say we can't lead or build a church without him. What he does say is that our efforts are worth nothing unless they flow out of a relationship of loving union with him (Jn. 15:5). In other words, although what we do matters, who we are matters much more.
Here's where the problem comes in. Doing our part to cultivate a relationship of loving union with God requires time—time that, paradoxically, we don't have because we are too busy serving him. And so, intentional or not, we find ourselves bypassing our relationship with God. In the process, we drift into prioritizing preaching over love. In other words, we fail to slow down for loving union with God.
How does this happen? Most of the time, it begins very subtly. Yet the consequences of failing to lead out of loving union are so far-reaching, it is critical to clearly define what loving union is.
The need for loving union
In his classic book Prayer, theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar described the humanity of Jesus this way: "Here is a man, sinless, because he has lovingly allowed the Father's will full scope in his life." Think about that simple but profound statement for a moment. What von Balthasar is describing here is loving union—to lovingly allow God to have full access to your life. These are Jesus' words to the Christians in Laodicea and to us: "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me" (Rev. 3:20).
In loving union, we keep that door wide open. We allow the will of God to have full access to every area of our lives, including every aspect of our lives. Cultivating this kind of relationship with God can't be hurried or rushed. We must slow down and build into our lives a structure and rhythm that make this kind of loving surrender routinely possible.
The question we must wrestle with is this: In what ways does my current pace of life and leadership enhance or diminish my ability to allow God's will and presence full scope in my life? Any spiritual practices we may choose then become a means to that end, not the end themselves.
Jesus faced overwhelming pressures in his life—pressures that far outstrip anything most of us will ever face. Yet he routinely stepped away from those endless leadership demands to spend significant time with the Father. And as a result, every sermon Jesus preached was rooted in a place of deep rest and centeredness out of his relationship with God.
Just as Jesus lived in relaxed, loving union with the Father, he invites us to share in that relationship with him: "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). The Greek verb translated as remain can also be translated as abide, to continue with, to stick with, to make one's home with. He promises that if we do this, "fruit" will always follow. However, when we refuse to slow down for loving union, the consequences can be significant and long-lasting, rippling out from us and impacting those we lead and beyond.
The cost of not slowing down
When I challenge leaders to rearrange their lives in order to pursue loving union, one of the most common responses I get is, "Pete, I just don't have that kind of time." If that's your response as well, then chances are good that you're moving too fast. And even if you somehow manage to keep from dropping any of the balls you're juggling, the speed at which you're living and leading is exacting a hidden toll. Warp speed will blind you to the damage you are doing to your soul—every time.
An important, yet often overlooked, New Testament story illustrates the dangers of preaching without slowing down for loving union with Jesus. When the seven sons of Sceva observe the apostle Paul's extraordinary miracles and the explosive growth of the Ephesian church, they want a piece of the action. They long for Paul's powerful ministry and success. Here's the story:
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, "In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out." Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, "Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?" Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. (Acts 19:13-16)
If we give them the benefit of the doubt, we could say that the seven sons of Sceva were trying to do a good thing: they wanted to participate in advancing the kingdom. However, chances are good their motives were mixed at best. In an effort to capture some of the prestige that was bestowed on those who released God's power over evil spirits, they took a spiritual shortcut. They skipped over making a long-term investment in a life of loving union—the source of Paul's preaching and miracles—and rushed headlong into spiritual realities they did not understand and were woefully ill equipped to deal with. As a result, they barely escaped with their lives.
Whenever we find ourselves wanting the ministry impact of Jesus while simultaneously resisting spending time with Jesus, we are positioning ourselves for a beating and some variation on being run "out of the house naked and bleeding." The seven sons of Sceva tried to speak and act on truths that were not rooted in their lives. They did not have sufficient strength in their life with God to support the level of spiritual warfare in which they were engaged. The integrity gaps in their walk with God exposed them to danger and harm.
I have never been beat up by evil spirits or run out of the house naked and bleeding. But I do know the empty feeling of speaking truths to others that I had not digested myself. I have borrowed insights or ideas because they worked for someone else. I was impressed by how powerful the words sounded when a particular person said them. Why wouldn't they also be powerful for me? The problem was I didn't have time to allow God's words spoken through them to actually become God's words to me. I thought, There is just too much to do now. God, you know the pressure I'm under. I'll get to it later. Just help me help my people now.
So what happened? Nothing. My words rang hollow. Little power. Little effect. Little life change.
This has dramatically changed the way I prepare messages. I still do my serious exegetical work on the text (Yes. I remain thankful for the training in this). I still look for stories and illustrations to make my central point come alive. The greatest change, however, is the amount of time I dedicate to meditating and praying the text into my own life. By the time I preach, I have done so much lectio divina (an ancient practice of reading Scripture meditatively and prayerfully) that I find that the Word of God, for this particular moment, in our particular local church, burns IN my soul. In fact, I have often memorized my text by the time of delivery. I am also much less concerned about being clever, witty, or having the right structure; I am much more concerned about my surrender to the will of God.
I am often asked, "Does sermon preparation take less time now?" The answer is, "No, but it is a lot more relaxing."
Every time we do what the sons of Sceva did, we buy into an illusion. We present ourselves as something or someone we are not. We don't take the time to give Jesus access to our interior lives. Then our souls shrivel and warp as we stray further and further from what is true.
Find your 'desert' with God
The desert has been a metaphor throughout Scripture and history. Moses spent 40 years in the desert. Elijah lived in the desert. John the Baptist spent his adult life in the desert. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. Paul spent three years in the Arabian Desert. The Desert Fathers, and later Mothers, of the third to the fifth century emulated this journey to the physical deserts of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to learn about loving union with God. This has since morphed into many different monastic movements over the last 1700 years.
This desert, or monastic, tradition offers us a strong, radical counterweight to our very active tradition. Basil Hume, the former archbishop of Canterbury, summed up the truth this way: "No man can live in the marketplace who does not also live in the desert."
Anthony of Athanasius (251-356 AD) received an excellent education and upbringing from his Christian parents in Egypt. Anthony began living in solitude for years outside his village before retreating to the desert to live for 20 years. When he emerged from his solitude after twenty years, people recognized in him the qualities of an authentic "healthy" man: whole in body, mind, and soul. Thousands sought him out for counsel and God used him mightily. Later on, however, he retreated deeper to an "inner mountain" in the wilderness where he lived alone for the rest of his life.
The following is a story based on his life from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers that I have pondered for years:
Abba Anthony received a letter from emperor Constantine to visit him in Constantinople. He wondered if he should go and asked Abba Paul who said, "If you go, you will be called Anthony, but if you stay here (in desert alone), you will be called Abba Anthony."
What makes the story about Abba Anthony so important is that it speaks to the inner anchor of an identity rooted in the love of God. We are so steeped in our Western, modern milieu, especially in the Protestant tradition, that we assume our level of active spirituality is normal. It is not. In fact, this tendency to seize more and more opportunities for God has destroyed many a good preacher who did so without establishing a solid foundation of silence and solitude.
Innumerable demands and distractions confront every communicator/preacher. Doors of opportunity swing open before us—to speak in other venues, to strategize for further expansion, to intervene in ministry problems. Two key insights have served me over the years.
First, I have returned over and over to the wisdom of W.H. Auden, poet and follower of Christ: "To achieve anything today, an artist has to develop a conscious strictness in respect of time which in former ages might have seemed neurotic and selfish, for he must never forget that he is living in a state of siege."
Secondly, I pay attention to God coming through consolations (those feelings that connect me more deeply with him, others, and myself, filling me with life and energy) and desolations (those feelings that disconnect me, draining my full cup with Jesus). When my doing for God goes beyond my being with him, my inner life with Jesus shrinks.
Strip Down to Slow Down
Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew, knew she was about to be sent to a concentration camp. She knew she could only take with her one small backpack, perhaps about one cubic foot of possessions to sustain her as she entered hell. In her mind, she pondered and planned, mentally packed and unpacked that small bag, before finally deciding on a Bible, a volume of favorite poems by Rilke, a bottle of aspirin, an extra sweater, and a chocolate bar. Etty struggled to define what was valuable to her, and what would sustain her on her arduous journey. A stripping-down, a letting-go was inevitable as even small freedoms were limited and transport to the death camp came closer.
To slow down for loving union as a leader demands we limit what is in our knapsack, or backpack. The more influence God grants you, the more disciplined you must be. Your words, actions, decisions, and character cast a wider effect on those around you.
Leadership demands its own ascesis, or training program. One very small, but significant, limit for my wife Geri and me over our 26 years of serving as lead pastor has been the issue of Saturday nights. Most of our extended family gatherings (and there are many) and weddings take place on Saturdays. Yet we have painfully missed, or left many a Saturday night celebration or wedding early, to travel home while our extended family and friends enjoyed themselves. Why? I had to return home in order to prepare myself, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, for a full day at church. We embraced a limit for a greater goal.
Of course skipping family gatherings may not be your limit, but the church and the world desperately needs leaders who powerfully proclaim Christ. And we must do that God's way, out of a life slowed down enough that we are in loving union with him.
I doubt my sermons are as clever in my early years. But I do know that they are more powerful and transformative in people's lives. I spend much more time praying over my text, allowing it to deeply fill the deep crevices of my own soul, and less time worrying about structure and openings. The most important work for me in preparing sermons has become ensuring that I am in loving union with Jesus myself.
Why? What I say matters. Who I am matters much more.