Inadequacy & the Pulpit
The call to preach and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ is perhaps the most daunting and difficult assignment one can endeavor to do. Yes, there are other, more precarious occupations in the world. (I’m looking at you, guy-who-cleans the Burj Khalifa!) And most certainly, there are many other, more dangerous positions that deal with life and death situations on a daily basis. But, surely, there is no more treacherous position than to be standing behind a pulpit, proclaiming the words of God as absolute truth.
To be a messenger for God, a voice of his gospel, is to deal with men’s souls. And there’s no higher or more perilous position than to delve into the hearts of men and women and speak to their soul. Indeed, preaching is a life or death endeavor — your hearers will either accept the truths you’ve proclaimed and choose life, or they’ll reject them, and choose death. And, perhaps, this is just the man in me speaking and venting, forgetting the eternal purpose of this calling, but so often I feel inadequate and unworthy to be proclaiming the name of Jesus. Most may not know, but this is “par-for-the-course” feelings on a Monday for most pastors.
The Pressure of Preaching
The weight of preaching the truth and the gravity of the declaring the gospel is incredibly terrifying and taxing, primarily because it’s difficult — near impossible actually — to escape the earthly pressures, let alone deal with the significance of being a voice for God himself. There’s the pressure to impress. To speak eloquently and precisely. To maintain the poise and posture of confidence and assurance. There’s the pressure to preach, as well as teach. To speak to men’s souls, as well as their minds. There’s the pressure to be succinct and yet say everything you feel necessary to say. There’s the pressure to speak the truth without offending anyone and yet challenge your listeners to change their minds about something, that before was entrenched in their makeup. Add to this the burden of not wanting to misspeak or mistreat the words of Jesus, and to do justice to his gospel, and it seems as though pastors are seemingly setting themselves up for failure every time they step behind the pulpit to shepherd their flock.
All these thoughts race through my mind when I reflect on a “failed” message — for in my eyes, I failed. I didn’t do justice to God’s Word, nor did I feel as though I spoke to men’s souls as much as I desired to. And it’s then that I must recognize that God doesn’t want me to preach to impress people, or speak to all of their needs, or even to impress himself. God wants me to preach his Word because his Word is truth and it’s only by hearing his Word that change is seen and felt and experienced. The call to proclaim the gospel of Jesus must be ventured in regardless of what people say (or don’t say) or think or how they respond (or don’t respond).
I’m reminded of Moses and the scene at the burning bush, where God called him to stand before Pharaoh of the Egyptians, the preeminent kingdom of the world at the time. The weight of this calling must have been massive and we read of Moses trying to come up with every excuse humanly possible why he wasn’t worthy or responsible or skilled enough for this task to be done right. Moses complains, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” (Ex. 3:11) “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (Ex. 4:10)
It’s easy for pastors to get into this very mindset, thinking that your skills are lacking and that someone else would be better suited for the task, that you have inefficient qualities to bring about change and revival, and that the burden of the calling is just too great. But the great truth of the gospel is that’s okay, that’s actually quite normal. Indeed, the church is the only institution where the only qualification for membership is that you’re terribly unqualified. (Brown, 137) The primary qualification for being a preacher and standing behind the pulpit and boldly proclaiming the gospel is recognizing how terribly unqualified you actually are.
We can’t forget how God responds to these self-pitying cries of Moses. God speaks: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” (Ex. 4:11–12) “Now therefore go”; such a simple command. It’s as if God was to say, “Just go and do what I told you.” God promises to Moses that he won’t be speaking and defiantly standing before Pharaoh in his own strength, using his own words. Rather, the strength and presence and grace of God will infuse him and the words of God will flow from him.
I have to keep reminding myself of this daily. I must never rely on my own wisdom or strength or ability when proclaiming Christ, because that’s when I will definitely fail. But if I have yielded my all to God and allowed his Spirit to speak through me, then those feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness are exactly how I should respond to his calling. If a pastor were to ever finish a sermon and feel like he has done justice to God’s Word, he has just declared himself a fool.
Feeling unworthy and inadequate before God is precisely how we ought to feel. The result of preaching the truth and proclaiming the gospel should never be one of accomplishment, but only one of reliance. Reliance on God to perform the work and on his Spirit to continue it. We are but vessels for the gospel and channels of his grace. All the eloquence and tact and skill in bringing this message are but man-made distractions designed to tear you up if you don’t “perform” well, or swell your pride if you do.
A Preacher’s Job Description
I say all this to say, Pastors, don’t lose heart. Your inadequacy and unworthiness is a sign that God has done the work for you. You can rest and rely on the performance of Jesus and the power of his message, because the gospel can shine a light on the darkest soul regardless of how vivid you present it. Stop tearing yourself up, because inadequacy is part of your job description. It’s Monday; it’s time to forget how you misspoke and begin letting God speak to you again. Your mission isn’t over, and what’s more, you’ll probably feel this way again.
The difficulty is in ignoring these feelings and distracting thoughts and allowing God to use you again, despite how you think about yourself. And that’s the best part — that God can use your inadequacy and unworthiness and ineloquence and turn it into revival! God uses the broken to accomplish his will and he calls the inadequate to proclaim his Word. Remember your calling! Remember, as the apostle Paul called the Corinthians to remember:
Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26–31)
Put your confidence in Jesus and he’ll take care of the rest. You’re called to go, to speak, to be unashamed of the message God lays on you. The pulpit you’ve been assigned to isn’t a lectern, nor is it a classroom or a casual dialogue or a counseling session. The pulpit isn’t for declaring “divine self-help.” The pulpit is reserved for one thing, and one thing only: diagnosing and delivering sinners with the gospel of grace. And that’s a task that can only be done with God’s presence and the Spirit’s power. Therefore, shake off your drudgery, preachers. Rely and rest in Jesus’s grace, get to your task, and, “Now therefore go!”
- Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel (New York: Howard Books, 2004).