Today we talk about a perplexing struggle for many — the struggle with self-consciousness. During this season, we’ve been talking a lot about preaching, with the release of your book Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship. They were all leading to this question from Parker, a pastor in Detroit, which opens a discussion I think we can all benefit from.
Parker writes, “Pastor John, in episode 49, you commented on how self-consciousness is the preacher’s curse. What steps would you suggest I take, or which truths would you suggest I meditate on, in order to overcome the curse of self-consciousness in the pulpit?”
Well he’s right. I have said many times that I long in the pulpit for the privilege of not being conscious of myself and liking what I hear. You might think, “Oh, that’s what you’d want. Be conscious of yourself and like what you hear.”
“Not only is getting rid of self-consciousness paradoxically impossible, but there are good kinds of self-consciousness.”
No, I would rather be unconscious of myself. I’d rather be so captivated by the truth I’m preaching and so moved by love for the people in front of me that my self, as a preacher, is not one moment in my consciousness.
I want to be so caught up in thinking about God, or Christ, or salvation, or the obedience of faith, or the cross, or the needs of the people, or the hope for outcomes that standing outside myself and watching myself preach is simply not happening. If it happens, it produces all kinds of discouragement or pride. So Parker’s question is also my question.
Not So Fast
Now, it’s not a simple matter, because not only is the immediate effort to get rid of self-consciousness paradoxically impossible — to focus on getting rid of self-consciousness requires self-consciousness, and that’s not helpful — but the other reason it’s complicated is because the New Testament teaches that there are good kinds of self-consciousness, types that are not evil.
For example, we’re told to examine ourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5). We’re told to deny ourselves (Mark 8:34). We’re told to consider ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11). We are called to keep watch over ourselves (1 Timothy 4:16), to preach to ourselves (Psalm 42:5), to put on a new self (Ephesians 4:24). All of these commands assume that we are aware that there is, in us, a consciousness that we are not yet completely an integrated whole.
We’re divided. We are in some sense still split — part of us leaning toward evil, part of us wanting to please Christ. And as long as there is any measure of sinfulness in us, there will be a self that is aware of a sinning self and opposing it.
So I must not create the impression, when I say I want to be free from self-consciousness, that I’m opposed to the good kind of self-consciousness. I need to know what is good, what is bad, and what is required.
So what must we do here? We must first make a distinction between the good kind of freedom from self-consciousness — the good kind of division of self — and the bad kind. Second, even with regard to the good kind, we must recognize that there are seasons when it is simply not helpful to have. So what kind of self-consciousness is not good?
“If there’s any measure of sinfulness in us, there will be a self that is aware of a sinning self and opposing it.”
Let me read four verses and then sum up what they say.
1. “He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).
2. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (James 4:8–9).
3. “Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity” (Colossians 3:22). Now that word sincerity, ἁπλότης in Greek, is so crucial. It means essentially singleness, undivided, not duplicitous. So serve not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but with this singleness, this sincerity, this undivided, this wonderfully clear-eyed heart that fears the Lord.
4. “For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity” — that is the same word, sincerity, that is, singleness, united, unified mind — “as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:17).
So from those three passages, I would say that the Christian ideal in relating to other people, and in preaching the word of God in particular, is to be people that are pure, in the sense of free from a divided heart:
- A heart that tries to appear one way while being another way.
- A heart that tries to say one thing while believing another thing.
- A heart that tries to be all there with sincere attentiveness, when really part of us is somewhere else.
This kind of divided heart or divided consciousness is at best insincere, and at worst hypocrisy. So that’s the bad kind of self-consciousness, and we should renounce it and avoid it.
But, like I said, even the good kind of self-consciousness — self-denial, self-assessment, watching over yourself — even that good kind of self-consciousness can be out of place. The kind of self-consciousness that puts to death the old man and denies the unloving self and keeps watch over the self so as not to fall into sin, even that good kind of self-consciousness isn’t helpful in every situation.
Preaching, I think, is one of those situations. One reason is that it’s just plain distracting. It’s not the moment for doing that. It’s distracting from the real subject matter of the sermon and distracting from focusing on the people in front of us.
The other reason is that such self-awareness while preaching either leads to discouragement or to pride. If you don’t like what you hear, you feel discouraged. If you do like what you hear, you feel pride. Both pride and discouragement are deadly in the ministry of preaching.
So now finally I’ve arrived at Parker’s question: What can I do? What can I do to avoid it?
Here are three short bullet points that I think will make a great difference:
“Since freedom from self-consciousness is a gift of God, pray earnestly for the gift of self-forgetfulness.”
1. Since freedom from self-consciousness is ultimately a gift of God, you can’t make it happen. It’s paradoxical. If you focus on making it happen, it’s not happening. Since it’s a gift of God, pray earnestly for the gift of self-forgetfulness in the hours leading up to your preaching.
2. Since the pursuit of self-forgetfulness must be indirect — because fighting self-consciousness in the moment makes us self-conscious — let’s pursue it by stoking the fires of love for our subject matter and for our people. The more thrilled you are with what you have to preach, the less you are going to think about yourself preaching. That may be the most important thing I have to say, so I’m going to say that again: the more thrilled we are with what we have to say about God, about his ways, about his Son, about his gospel, and about the life we have in Christ, the less we are going to think about ourselves preaching it.
3. If in the midst of preaching, we become aware of ourselves and realize this — and God will give us the grace to do this — we need to say to that temptation, “No.” Just speak up: “No.” Then, inasmuch as it lies within us, consciously turn our back on that temptation of self-consciousness and focus again on the glorious thing we’re saying and on the people in front of us.
May the Lord work this miracle in all of us. Not just in preaching, but in all of our authentic communication.