Good Preaching Takes Hard Work

Send Twin Cities | Saint Paul

Brothers, we are living in times that deeply condition us for “ease” and for paths of least resistance. Unless we retrain ourselves, we are subconsciously always on the lookout for shortcuts, for time-savers, for life-hacks. For the closest parking spot. For the optimized schedule, with no hour wasted. The quickest route from point A to B, even if not the most enjoyable one.

Steven Wedgeworth, a pastor in South Bend, writes, “Much of what we call ‘technology’ does not actually help us to become more productive at our work but rather does our work for us. While claiming to help us become more efficient, this sort of technology actually trains us to do little or nothing at all.”

I believe he’s right, that our generation is being trained “to do little or nothing at all.” And we too have been influenced by a society increasingly thin on work ethic. We’re clearly not becoming more Protestant in our work ethic. That is, we’re not becoming more Pauline.

Herculean Labor

In his excellent commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Bob Yarbrough pauses in his introduction to celebrate Paul’s “herculean labors.” He says, “God’s mighty work in Christ resulted in Paul working mightily.” Paul’s “open ethical secret” is that he had “a ferocious work ethic” (29).

“Paul saw Christian preaching and teaching as hard work, not a nice fit for guys with soft hands.”

Yarbrough goes on to say, “. . . what Paul modeled and counseled in his letters to Timothy and Titus reflects an embrace of arduous labor at many levels and in many ways” (30). Yarbrough notes “the fingerprints of Paul’s work ethic at 29 places in 1 Timothy, 24 in 2 Timothy, and 15 in Titus, for a total of 68 references” (31). Paul saw the ministry of Christian preaching and teaching, done rightly, as hard work, not a nice fit for guys with soft hands and a preference for an indoor job.

So Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13). And he says to Timothy, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, . . . ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:17–18).

Under Siege

Such pastoral labor is not only cursed (like all labor) but specifically opposed and targeted by Satan, who often focuses his assaults on opposing lieutenants. If he can cut off the leadership and supply lines, he will soon overwhelm the ground troops.

In fact, if I could channel Screwtape for a moment, I suspect Satan and his minions are doing everything they can to make our age and its patterns as inconducive to preaching as possible. Visual over audible, distraction over focus, increasingly short attention spans over normal human attention spans. This is not a side effect, I suspect, but demonic intention.

If Satan didn’t already know to make a special attack on preaching, I’m sure he took notice when the apostle Paul, at the climax of his last letter, gave this exalted preamble and charge: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:1–2).

High Costs of Faithful Preaching

What I’d like to do under this banner of “the hard work of preaching” is, first, give some time to counting the costs — and they are significant, enough to make most men very eager not to preach. Then let’s conclude with a few reasons why it’s worth the hard work. So, we’ll linger in the costs, and then glory in the rewards.

And to clarify what I mean by preaching in this workshop: preaching is the heralding of God’s word in Christ to the church in the context of corporate worship. I mean the Sunday morning feeding of Christ’s sheep, as worship, with his word by their local pastors.

In counting the costs, let’s distinguish among the hard work of preparation, the hard work of the preaching moment, and the hard work outside the pulpit.

1. Hard Work of Preparation

The hard work begins in preparation, long before the moment of delivery. Preachers often bear the burden weeks before a particular message, a weight that gets greater the week of, and is especially heavy the night before and morning of.

First of all, preparation for preaching is hard work because we are stewards. We have been charged to give a message that is not our own but God’s: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

Faithful preaching resists the allure of simply telling other people in public about myself and what I think and what I have done. Rather, it is a stewardship from God (Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 4:10) to serve others, not self, by announcing the good news about who he is, what he thinks, and what he has done and will do, based on what he says in his word. “Whoever speaks, [let him do so] as one who speaks oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11). Brothers, we are stewards, and “it is required of stewards that they be found faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2).

Which leads to a second aspect of the hard work: study. I know many of us find this part enjoyable, but it also quickly becomes hard work when you have a due date. Paul says to Timothy, and to you, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). A pastor who doesn’t sweat and strain at his study and teaching is not fulfilling his calling. And diligent word-work is hard work, when done well.

“To preach God’s words well requires that they first land hardest on the preacher himself.”

Third, part of the hard work is that preaching requires heart work. Before we graciously expose the church to the words of God, he calls us first to submit ourselves to him. To preach his words well requires that they first land hardest on the preacher himself. Again, we bear another’s message, not our own. In our preparation, we carry a weight that involves not just the mental work of study, but the heart work of repentance and the spiritual work of shepherding a particular people.

Preaching is hard work because it calls for self-humbling, not self-exaltation. Did not our Lord himself say, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14)? Brother preachers, tremble, and do the hard work of applying Scripture to yourself — internalizing first, then applying to your people.

Fourth, and relatedly, the goal of preaching makes it hard work: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). Not just love, but love “that issues from . . . faith.” That’s hard work: not just telling our people what to do but preaching in such a way that hearts are purified, consciences calibrated, and sincere faith fed. To stir love, we aim to incite faith.

We play the music first and foremost, not to bark dance steps — though we do give dance steps. Rather, we want our people to come away thinking not, “Wow, that was a lot of dance steps,” but thinking, “What music! Oh, do I want to dance to that music!”

Fifth, and finally, the hard work of preaching includes preparing hard words — “cutting sharp doctrines” that do not please carnal hearers. As J.C. Ryle said:

Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. . . .

The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross, and his precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith, and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live — to believe, repent, and be converted. . . .

Show us at this day any . . . village, or parish, or city, or town, or district, which has been evangelized without “dogma.” . . . Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. . . . No dogma, no fruits!

It is easier to think and speak indistinctly. It’s hard work to cut sharp doctrines that you yourself will deliver to real people.

And then, taking all that into account — the text itself and our careful study of it, our own heart work and repentance, the context and needs of our people — then the time approaches. And deadlines are hard work. There is a big difference between prepping a sermon in theory and prepping it by today at 5pm. (All of a sudden, manual labor sounds really nice.)

Perhaps the most stress, for me, comes in the pinch between a coming assignment, on a fixed day, and the uncertainty of what specific direction to take in the message. What does God want me to say to this people and at this time, and how will I approach it? What’s the outline?

That might cause some of us the most stress, but the hardest work, I find, often comes at the end: cutting. That is, determining what not to say. Or, not saying too much, going on for too long. (It’s better to leave them wanting just a little bit more, rather than feeling like they got a little — or a lot — too much). It’s hard work to not say what you personally want to say but is not a faithful stewardship, and it’s hard work to not say what you’re prepared to say but is just too much for this one short message.

Labor to Labor

Brothers, preparing well for preaching is hard work. And because it’s private, not public like the preaching event itself, we can be tempted to cut corners in our preparation. And if that’s a common pitfall for you, you may need to step back and learn some Protestant work ethic. You may need to learn to work.

Now, to be sure, hard work does not mean excessive sermon prep when you have other responsibilities; I’m not advocating for giving half your work week to sermon prep; nor am I saying that hard work means long sermons. In fact, it takes more work, and some of the hardest work, as we just said, to cut and make the sermon tighter, to decide what to leave for another time.

Rather, what I mean is taking what time you have and really working hard, not dillydallying, checking twitter, texting, allowing yourself to be given to diversion in those precious few moments you have to think hard, pray hard, work hard, to prepare the meal to feed your people.

If “feed my sheep” was easy work, Christ may not have said it three times to Peter (John 21:15–17). It is hard work. Not just overflow. Yes, overflow is an important starting point. We want our preaching to begin with overflow from our hearts before God, but overflow rarely (I’m tempted to say never) finishes a good sermon. What starts in overflow finishes with hard work.

2. Hard Work in the Moment

So preparation for preaching is hard work. Now, what about in the moment? For Christians, corporate worship, in a real sense, is our most important hour of the week, and single most important habit.

We want to be careful with this way of thinking and talking, because the importance of the hour lies not in our performance or individual roles, but in what God delights to do by his Spirit when his people gather together in worship. And yet it’s unavoidable that the preacher plays a significant part — which should humble God’s spokesman, not puff him up.

For preachers, the public nature of the sermon is both a necessity and a cost. It is necessary because the very nature of the task is heralding God’s word to his church. And it’s hard work because, among other pressures, most of us agree that public speaking is challenging.

Survey after survey reports that on the whole, modern people fear public speaking more than anything else. Some of us remember the famous bit from Jerry Seinfeld: “Speaking in front of a crowd is considered the number-one fear of the average person. Number two is death. Death is number two? This means to the average person, if you have to be at a funeral, you’d rather be in the casket than doing the eulogy.” Public speaking on its own is hard work, and all the more to make it good.

Second, add to that the solemnity of the task. Now back to Paul’s charge his protégé, and us, in 2 Timothy 4:1–2, of which John Piper writes, “There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in Scripture. . . . I am not aware of any other biblical command that has such an extended, exalted, intensifying introduction” (Expository Exultation, 66).

Note the “five preceding intensifiers” to Paul’s charge to Timothy to preach the word: “(1) I charge you (2) in the presence of God (3) and of Christ Jesus, (4) who is to judge the living and the dead, (5) and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.” To those today who suspect previous generations overestimated the place of preaching, Piper comments, “I doubt that anyone has ever overstated the seriousness that Paul is seeking to awaken here.”

Beyond the solemnity of the moment is, third, the call to courage. Public speaking is one challenge. Speaking into the church’s most important hour is another. Preaching with courage, when God’s word is at odds with the prevailing word in society (which inevitably takes root in the church in some form or fashion), requires even more. If we are faithful to God’s voice, it is almost certain that someone within earshot each Sunday, if not many, will not like what we are saying.

Related, fourth, speaking to our context is hard work. Right after Paul tells Timothy to preach the word, he says that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). This is the context of preaching. We are living in those days.

Fifth, preachers also are unusually exposed spiritually. Extended monologue, on God’s behalf, to human souls, unavoidably reveals a man’s own heart, both by what he says and what he does not — which produces a deep, unconscious aversion to preaching in many men. Preaching is tacit self-revelation: what we don’t say also speaks. And we hold ourselves to a standard by saying it in public.

And then, sixth, is the hard work of authentically embodying the message: heralding what needs to be heralded; gently saying what needs gentleness. Without being overly and underly affected, dramatic or deadpan, emotionally engaging with the message, with appropriate forcefulness and urgency.

Seventh, there is, in preaching, what is for some a paralyzing exposure to criticism. To preach this Book to these people, in whatever century, means that every Sunday someone in attendance, if not many, are not going to be happy with something you said.

This is why Paul talks twice, pastor to pastors, in Acts 20 about not shrinking back. To preach the Christian scriptures is to encounter the regular temptation to shrink back. Paul says, “I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:20–21). And: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).

3. Hard Work Outside the Pulpit

Finally, sacrifice in good preaching is intimately intertwined with the preacher’s own life. Faithful preaching is not just a once-in-a-while event but a lifestyle. Paul’s charge to Timothy to preach the word includes “be ready in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) and “always be sober-minded” (2 Timothy 4:5).

When a man stands before God’s people as God’s spokesman, the stakes are not only raised for his words in the moment but for his life outside the pulpit. So Paul admonishes Timothy, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:6 ).

Then James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” For the man who addresses God’s people as his herald will be looked to, unavoidably, as an example. “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Lazy preachers may get by for a time, but their laziness will be revealed soon enough. “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:15). Sunday after Sunday becomes a public demonstration of whether the preacher is growing or stagnant, and it will be plain over time (1 Timothy 5:24).

Preaching, then, is not just something we do from time to time. In a real sense “preacher” is something we’re called to be. Be ready in season and out (2 Timothy 4:2). Always be soberminded (2 Timothy 4:5). Be alert (Acts 20:31). “Preacher” is not just a job; it is a life-vocation. And preaching, like singing (not like athletics), is a lifetime skill, not something that peaks in your 30s, 40s, or even 50s.

And one of the greatest costs outside the pulpit is the subtle (and at times not-so-subtle) way the preacher’s wife and children endure the ups and downs Daddy navigates. It is no small thing to carry the height of one’s vocational responsibilities during the weekend, when the kids are out of school and most available. It takes work, and emotional fortitude, to give yourself fully to family all day Saturday, without being distracted by the task of preaching to dozens or hundreds of hungry Christians in less than twenty-four hours. (Which is one great benefit, of many, in team preaching!).

Burden Gladly Bearing

So good Christian preaching and teaching requires regular, and at times enormous, self-sacrifice. Brothers, done rightly, it is hard work. In the preparation. In the moment. And outside the pulpit. It’s often a quiet, private, behind-the-scenes mantle the preacher’s wife and children see, but the congregation does not. It is not heavy lifting physically, but it can be unusually taxing spiritually and emotionally.

It is a burden good preachers gladly bear, and yet it is a burden. Faithful preachers say to their people, as Paul said to his, without pretense, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). So then, in closing, how do we do it with joy? How do we bear the burden gladly? We look to particular rewards. I’ll end with four brief rewards, among others.

First, mysteriously, and almost irrationally, some of us find in our ourselves a holy ambition to do this. Without meaning exactly what Paul meant as an apostle, whose calling was so bound up with his conversion, we can’t help but say with Paul, at a less ultimate level, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” The first reward, then, is getting to do what you sense God has called you to do: let out the Holy Ghost fire shut up in your bones. Like Eric Liddell, you think, “When I preach, I feel his pleasure” — even though the hard work of preparation and delivery doesn’t always feel immediately pleasurable.

Second, when you’re doing what you’re called to do, you enjoy the hard work and its completion — the satisfaction of work well done and finished. First, it’s felt at the sermon level. Very practically, it will be more satisfying if I push through the resistance and finish this sermon well.

Third, then, at the life-work level, is the satisfaction someday of a life-calling completed and well done. Oh, to be able to say with Paul: “I am innocent of others’ blood” Acts 20:26. And: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God,” and anything else that is profitable, no matter how immediately unnerving (Acts 20:27).

Finally, there is the joy of being Christ’s instrument in life-change and life-sustenance. It’s such a joy to be used by God in ministry that we can come to find our joy more in being used than in having Christ ourselves — thus the need for Christ’s word in Luke 10:20.

“Don’t let the joys of preaching replace the foundational joy that is Christ himself.”

So, brothers, don’t let the joys of preaching replace the foundational joy that is Christ himself. And the joys of preaching, the joys of being used by Christ in others’ lives, are real joys. They are part of the blessing of giving. In their place and proposition they are part of the rewards to look to, to sustain us in the hard work.

God Means for You to Labor

Let’s go back to Paul to end, and with a word of hope for those who battle laziness. Paul would be quick to challenge today’s hardest workers with the truth that, apart from God, our best labors will prove futile in the end.

And for those who know they need help, who have more regrets about laziness than over-work, he would remind them, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).

Brothers, God has not left you to labor in your own strength. But he does mean for you to labor. He has good works prepared ahead of time for you, and as a pastor, preaching and teaching will be some of the central good works for us. And he doesn’t demand a dead sprint, but invites us to walk in them.