How I Tired of Telling People to Live Better
My wife recently told me she was worrying over something. Now, my wife is a worrier by nature and to be fair what she was worrying over had merit, but she was taking her worry way too far. She knew it and I knew it. Even though I knew better, I found myself telling her that she just had to stop. She just had to stop thinking of the worst case scenario and worrying about things that were several steps down the road—if they happened at all.
I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I am not a butter knife either, so I was smart enough at least to preface my comments by admitting that I knew that what I was saying rang hollow. I knew she could not control her feelings like that. And thankfully, my wife knows me well enough (and I guess has lowered the bar low enough) not to get frustrated with me for giving her such terrible “wisdom.”
But out from my mouth it came anyway. Hollow words telling a person to do something she really could not do. It wasn’t the first time I had told someone to do something they really couldn’t do. I have been good at doing that.
When I was a pastor, the hardest part of writing sermons was always the end, the application. I tended to live more in the “meat” of the sermon—breaking down and exegeting the passage. But then I would get to the end of the sermon, where I knew I had to leave my people with something they could do in light of the passage, and I would struggle. If the passage was on evangelism, I would tell them to share their faith more and offer some practical tips. If the passage was on discipleship, I would tell them to disciple more and provide some ways they could build relationships. If it was on prayer, I would tell them to pray more and share some techniques.
But this always sounded hollow to me. My people knew they needed to evangelize. They knew they needed to disciple and pray. Yet they still struggled to do those things. And here I was just telling them to do it more. It was like telling my wife to stop worrying. It just rang hollow. I knew it, and I wondered if my people did as well.
What was even worse was when I preached on passages that talked about something like love or forgiveness. Telling people to love more or forgive more seemed even more ludicrous. How in the world do you love more? How do you forgive more? Those are postures of the heart, largely out of a person’s control.
What I Was Missing
As I pondered my preaching ministry, the reality hit me—I was faithful to point people to the truth of the Bible, but I was failing to point them to the hero of the Bible, the One it is all about: Jesus. Rather I was telling people to live better lives in their power. I was preaching moralism, which does not lead to life and which does not work. We cannot change our hearts. Telling my people to love more or forgive more was like me telling my wife to stop worrying. Likewise, the reason that telling my people to disciple more or evangelize more rang hollow was because those actions must be born out of a changed heart. That is what was missing—hearts transformed by the gospel that desire to evangelize, disciple, and pray.
I hadn’t meant to, but I was repeating the error of the Pharisees Jesus spoke of in John 5:39-40:
You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.
I was feeding my people the Scriptures, but I was failing to testify to Jesus as I did. Instead, the hope I was offering them was the false hope in changing their behavior, rather than being changed by the gospel.
Resting in God’s Kindness
When I think back over my preaching ministry, I wish I could go back and do it all over again. But I know that God is sovereign and that He brings fruit from even the worst of our attempts to be faithful. I am grateful for His mercy and grace. This, along with growing up under the burden of biblical moralism and not wanting my kids to grow up likewise, is why I love being part of The Gospel Project. I am grateful for God’s kindness to allow me to be part of a resource that is helping men, women, students, and kids to place the gospel where it belongs—at the center of all we do.