A good friend from the Pentecostal tradition, in which people will often stand up and speak very authoritatively to the congregation, told me a glorious story. According to my friend, a man once stood up and declared, "Thus saith the Lord: Even as I was with Abraham when he led the children of Israel through the wilderness, so I will be with you." Then he sat down.
His wife nudged him and whispered something. He quickly stood back up and said, "Thus saith the Lord: I was mistaken. It was Moses."
That story captures the mystery of preaching, illustrating both the Word part and the flesh part: "Thus saith the Lord, I was mistaken." Preaching involves the very words of God coming through human instruments—you and me. What an odd combination that is!
How do we prepare our souls for this task? We are fallible people, yet we are to speak for God, so our preparation is not just getting our spiritual life "amped up" for a weekend service. It is a way of life: "What kind of person am I becoming so that preaching is the outflow of a certain kind of life, and it comes out of me in a way that God wants it to come out?" This means we should prepare our souls not just for a week of preaching, but for a life of preaching.
You Speak in the Presence of God
When you look at Jesus, the line between when he's teaching, when he's praying, and when he's just having conversations gets blurry. For me, the lines are often distinct. I tend to compartmentalize.
The root of getting our souls ready to preach is to become people who are consciously always speaking either to God or in the presence of God.
When we speak in relation to another person, we have three categories: (1) we speak directly to the person, (2) we speak in front of the person, or (3) we speak in the absence of that person. In the third category, I might be talking about you or I might be talking about something else, but your presence is not impacting what I say. We all recognize that we usually speak differently about a person in their absence than we do in their presence. When it comes to God, we can speak to God, and we can speak in the presence of God, but we can never actually speak in the absence of God. But for some reason, God makes it possible for us to feel as if we can.
I recently visited the Christian college I attended, and I was remembering the odd game we played in the cafeteria. As we sat down to eat, we would all surreptitiously put our thumbs up, and whoever was the last one at the table to get his thumb up had to offer the prayer over the food. Now, think about that! God is watching this the whole time. But we're sticking our thumbs up, and the loser has to pray. Then when we bow our heads we say, "Dear God, thanks for this food and we love you so much."
God is present the whole time, but we were acting as if he's not really paying attention until we bow our heads and close our eyes; then he picks up the phone and we're connected. We live differently when we're aware of his presence. How many of us drive differently when we see a squad car than we do when we think the police aren't around? Why does God make it possible for us to live as if he's absent? I think it's because he wants us heart and soul, not just when we're aware of being monitored.
Maybe that's why Jesus, whether he was formally teaching or just having conversations, was always bringing people to God. He lived his whole life in the presence of God. What causes incongruity in my life is spending so much of my life unaware of his presence. I allow myself to act and talk in ways that are not shaped or influenced by God's constant presence.
The root of getting our souls ready to preach is to become people who are always consciously speaking either to God or in the presence of God, but never in the absence of God. As Psalm 16:8 says: "I have set the Lord always before me."
Live in Constant Conversation
With Jesus, the line between prayer and just talking often blurred. A great example of this is found in Mark 9, when a father brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and says, "If you can, please help us."
Jesus responds, "Why do you say 'if'? All things are possible for one who believes."
The boy's father says, "I believe; help my unbelief." Then Jesus speaks to the spirit and demands that he come out.
Then the disciples go to Jesus and ask, "Why couldn't we cast that demon out?"
"This kind can come out only by prayer," Jesus replies. What's odd here is that Jesus doesn't pray, at least not in this account. He speaks directly to the demon, and it comes out. What does that indicate about Jesus and prayer?
Jesus was the kind of person whose whole life was lived in the presence of God. All his speaking and listening and acting were with God in mind. Sometimes he does address the Father directly. He knows that the Father is right there. Jesus shows us what it means to be the kind of person for whom prayer, speaking to someone else, and talking about manifesting the kingdom all become integrated.
Listen to Your Hidden Curriculum
Educators often refer to a concept called the hidden curriculum. This concept suggests that in a classroom, there is a formal curriculum that includes things like math problems, writing assignments, or science experiments. But there's also a hidden curriculum, which involves issues like who wants to sit next to whom, and whom does the teacher look at, and whom does the teacher tend to call on? Hidden curriculum teaches students who matters and who doesn't, who's bright and who's left out. If there is inconsistency between the hidden curriculum and the formal curriculum, research shows that students always believe hidden curriculum.
If I'm to preach to people effectively, I must be freed from my need for their approval and applause.
Jesus gets at this idea when he tells the religious leaders in Matthew 12:37, "Your idle words will condemn you." I always assumed that meant: Don't speak casually; you're always supposed to say something important. But I don't think that's what Jesus means. He's saying: It's what you say when you're not trying to be spiritual, and when you're not formally preaching, that reveals the state of your heart.
So, trying to preach great sermons without seeking to become the kind of person who's always in the presence of Jesus is ultimately defeating. If I preach and say the most profound truths in Scripture, my "idle words," the words I say off the clock, can undo all the good I tried to do in my sermon. Far more important than putting together a great sermon is training yourself to become the kind of person who speaks all of your words in front of God.
Tend to the Holy of Holies
The theologian Abraham Kuyper likened the human soul to the tabernacle in the Old Testament. You have an outer court, which is the public domain. That's where you work, where you shop, and where you go to school. Preaching is often done as an outer court activity. I prepare the words ahead of time. I think through what I want to say. I'm very aware of the fact that I'm doing this as a public activity.
You also have an inner court. This is the place where you invite family, friends, and people that you love deeply. You share a deeper level of your life in the inner court. Not everybody gets to the inner court—certainly not your whole church.
But then inside the tabernacle—way inside—is the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies is a deeply private space that is shared only by you and God. No other human being can ever enter your Holy of Holies, but you are never alone there. That is the space for you and God. One thing I didn't understand about preaching when I first started, because it was such a public, outer court activity, is that it will drain you spiritually if the Holy of Holies is not rich and full.
The task of preaching tempts me to think that I am the same person in the outer court as I am deep inside. The truth is, we can dress things up really well in the outer court, while things may actually be neglected or dying in the Holy of Holies.
The most important question is, How is my life in the Holy of Holies? Am I living the life that I'm inviting other people to live? If not, none of the rest matters.
Hold Words Lightly, and Let Go
Few people live that kind of life, and I try to learn from them as much as I can. For me, one of those people is Dallas Willard. As both a writer and as a person, he lives in light of the kingdom.
Our church once dedicated a weekend to exploring spiritual formation, and Dallas was one of the people who spoke for a group of leaders. When he finished, we walked out to the car, and he just shuffled along, singing a hymn to himself.
What struck me as I watched him was how differently he acted after speaking than I normally do. Dallas wasn't asking the questions I tend to gnaw on: How did I do? What went well? What didn't? Did people like that? Why do I dwell on such things? Because if the congregation liked my sermon, I can feel good about myself. I can feed on that satisfaction. If they didn't like it, then that's bad, and I'm kind of sad.
But watching Dallas was like watching a kid let go of a helium balloon. He wanted to be helpful to folks, but he offered his words and let them go. Neither his words nor people's reactions to them had any power over his well being. That part was hidden with Christ in God. That's the kind of person I want to become.
Do you ever watch people at a bowling alley? What happens when they let go of the ball? It's out of their hand, but they're worried it's not going to end up in the right place. So they start moving to the left or to the right, twisting their bodies, waving their arms, or talking to the ball. The secret to joyful bowling is, when you let it go, let it go. One of the secrets to preaching is, when you let it go, let it go.
Carve Out a Satisfying Life with God
We were made for soul satisfaction, so we cannot live with chronically dissatisfied souls for very long. If we do not find satisfaction in God's goodness to us, we will look for satisfaction someplace else. It's soul dissatisfaction that makes sin look good. Any time you see somebody in ministry who has fallen, you can be sure they were living with a chronically dissatisfied soul. What's really sad isn't just the ditch they end up in; what's sad is the days, months, and years they were living with a dissatisfied soul. It eventually catches up with them and makes bad look good.
When someone asked Dallas Willard, "How many times have you seen a person in ministry fail morally when it was not caused by a dissatisfied soul?" He replied, "Never." At the soul level, if I believe I cannot trust God to care for the satisfaction of my soul, I will take my soul's satisfaction into my own hands. I may not acknowledge that even to myself. But carving out a satisfying and joyful life with God is a fundamental discipline for those of us who preach.
Jesus exhibited this kind of total freedom in which he was free to help people, and he was free to confront where they needed confrontation, and he was free to comfort when they needed comfort. This is fundamentally crucial in the preparation of the soul. If I'm to preach to people effectively, I must be freed from my need for their approval and applause. As long as I am chained to that need, my preaching will really be trying to fill something in me that I can never fill.
Life in the kingdom means living in freedom and in the reality of truths like "The Lord is my Shepherd." If the Lord really is my Shepherd, then I shall not want. I won't have to be driven by the desire for more applause or more approval. I've got someplace else to stand—in the presence of God.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.