John Bunyan And The Hidden Perils Of Preaching

John_BunyanPreachers rarely confess this. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to look weak, or appear to be inviting self-pity. But if preachers were a tad more vulnerable they would speak more often about preaching’s hidden challenges.

The phases of exegesis and sermon-construction bring their own serious exertions, that is true. But composing the sermon can be easier than actually preaching it.  In the hours prior to the sermon we can find our hearts beset by fear and unbelief. The moment of preaching (though often wonderfully assisted) is not insulated from the attacks of the evil one. The moments after preaching can see us prone to either lofty pride on the one hand, or crushing discouragement on the other. The preacher’s position may be lofty, but like a climber, poised on a pinnacle, there are slippery slopes on every side.

Someone who feared the precipice more than most was John Bunyan. Best known for his allegory Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan also wrote a revealing biography: Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners. In this transparent testimonial Bunyan reveals his trials in relation to preaching. Bunyan’s revelations are not only fascinating. They will resonate with many 21st century expositors.

Fears beforehand that he won’t be useful or coherent

“Sometimes I should be assaulted with great discouragement therein, fearing that I should not be able to speak the Word at all to edification…that I should not be able to speak sense unto the people.”

Physical weakness during the sermon

“At which times I should have such a strange faintness and strengthlessness seize upon my body that my legs have scarce been able to carry me to the place of exercise.”

Struggling with sin in the act of preaching

“Sometimes, again, when I have been preaching, I have been violently assaulted with thoughts of blasphemy, and strongly tempted to speak the words with my mouth before the congregation.”

Losing one’s way in the middle of the sermon

“I have also at some times, even when I have begun to speak the Word with much clearness, evidence, and liberty of speech, yet been before the ending of that opportunity so blinded, and so estranged from the things I have been speaking, and have also been so straitened in my speech, as to utterance before the people, that I have been as if I had not known or remembered what I have been about, or as if my head had been in a bag all the time of the exercise.”

Feeling hypocrisy

“Again, when as sometimes I have been about to preach upon some smart and scorching portion of the Word, I have found the tempter suggest, What, will you preach this? this condemns yourself; of this your own soul is guilty; wherefore preach not of it at all; or if you do, yet so mince it as to make way for your own escape; lest instead of awakening others, you lay that guilt upon your own soul as you will never get from under.”

“But, I thank the Lord, I have been kept from consenting to these so horrid suggestions, and have rather, as Samson, bowed myself with all my might, to condemn sin and transgression wherever I found it, yea, though therein also I did bring guilt upon my own conscience! ‘Let me die,’ thought I, ‘with the Philistines’ (Judg. 16.29, 30), rather than deal corruptly with the blessed Word of God.”

Pride

“I have also, while found in this blessed work of Christ, been often tempted to pride and liftings up of heart….Christ can use…gifted men, as with them to affect the souls of His people in His church; yet when He hath done all, hang them by as lifeless, though sounding cymbals. This consideration, therefore, together with some others, were, for the most part, as a maul on the head of pride, and desire of vain glory; what, thought I, shall I be proud because I am a sounding brass? Is it so much to be a fiddle? Hath not the least creature that hath life, more of God in it than these?”

Conclusion: a call for honesty and prayer

Let me finish in a Bunyan-esque sort of way: “methinks” that we need to be more honest about our hidden struggles. Let’s talk about these challenges, at least in our preacher’s fraternals. And if you are not preacher, would you pray for us? We need your prayers in all sorts of ways.

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