Preaching to Found Souls

from, October 2007

Learning to listen is the first step toward preaching for spiritual formation

Awhile back evangelicals like me began climbing rickety stairs to rummage around in the attic. There, under the eaves and covered in dust, we found boxes of stuff labeled “spiritual formation.” We thumbed through old scrapbooks and journals. We puzzled out Latin phrases like lectio divina and wondered if we could create a spiritual labyrinth in the fellowship hall. We came across very non-evangelical sounding names such as St. John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Ávila, and the Desert Fathers.

When we hauled all this stuff down to our studies, we discovered we had our own spiritual geek squad—folks who never showed up for our big conferences and who despised our leadership seminars, but who actually knew these dusty writings. When they spoke of spiritual disciplines, they didn’t just mean a morning quiet time with Our Daily Bread.

We are our people’s best hope for someone with soul sense—especially when we preach.

Spiritual direction became cool, in a retro kind of way. I wondered where I could find a spiritual director. I imagined entering Father Mike’s austere cell. I’d have the blurts; all kinds of random spiritual reflections and struggles would tumble out of my head. Father Mike would listen like one of those safecrackers with his ear to the vault door as he slowly turned the tumblers on my heart. Then we’d sit through three trimesters of pregnant silence. Finally he would ask a question—one pithy question—about my soul, and scales would fall off my eyes, or he’d make one keen observation, and my heart would burn within me.

I suppose it doesn’t really work that way, but I do think we are all hungering for someone with soul sense. Developing soul sense—a deep understanding of the inner person—is a crucial task for pastors who intend to preach for spiritual formation. As pastors, we are spiritual directors. We are our people’s best hope for someone with soul sense—especially when we preach.

Yet from what I have seen, one surprising aspect of the recent spiritual formation movement has been how little emphasis it has placed on the role of preaching in spiritual formation. For our part, I don’t think we preachers have thought much about preaching that works its way deep into souls. A few years ago I was at a big conference on spiritual formation. After one of my heroes spoke, a man of great godliness and insight, I waited in line to ask him my question. When my turn came, I asked him, “I know all biblical preaching is good for the soul, but it seems like some sermons are just more soul-aware than others. Have you ever given any thought about preaching as spiritual direction?” To my surprise he said, “No, I haven’t thought about that.” In that whole conference packed with plenary sessions and workshops, there was not one sermon.

Listening Carefully

“A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” says Proverbs 25:11. My friend Shelly Riemersma, a spiritual director, reminded me that we must listen intently before we can speak the apt word. Sermons that go deeply into souls come from preachers who have listened to people carefully.

When we listen to others, we need to remember that souls talk out of both sides of their mouths. From one side, the soul speaks sin-addled confusion. It speaks hurt’s misdirected accusations and pride’s nuanced rationalizations. The soul mutters the dark prejudices of its ignorance. Most of this soul talk is masked; you don’t hear it in plain language. But good pastors listen to people deeply and then preach sin’s dirty little secrets with Spirit-given skill.

From the other side of the soul we hear the yearnings of the Holy Spirit, like prayers overheard outside a church. We hear how much God’s people want to trust him, how badly they feel about their sin. We hear about their genuine, yet fickle, love of Jesus. In our sermons, we speak out these deep, shy desires, and people nod their heads in recognition. They are relieved to finally hear someone say what they couldn’t articulate themselves.

Speaking Carefully

After listening deeply to people, we find stories and word pictures to describe what the inner person is really like, beginning with the whispers of our own hearts. We show our congregation how the people in the Bible felt the very things we have felt. We help them hear what God hears coming from their hearts. When we speak at that depth, our people may respond with surprised recognition: “That’s exactly how I feel. Yes! I do think that way.” In this way, people’s souls are sensitized to the shaping work of the Scripture you stand to deliver.

A few months ago, I preached a sermon on Psalm 52, in which David prays his heart out about the dastardly Doeg. I called it “Praying with a Knife in Your Back.” If this text was to shape people’s hearts, they had to identify with David’s feelings of betrayal, so I tried to articulate what I’d heard coming from people’s hearts. “When you’ve been betrayed,” I said, “you’re plunged into a midnight of misery and disbelief. Of all people, you?! How could I have been so stupid? I’m so embarrassed. I’ll never trust anyone again. How could God let this happen to me? I have never felt so angry. I will get him back if it is the last thing I do!” When people hear themselves thinking, they want the antidote of David’s prayer to heal their snakebite of betrayal.

Before we can give the apt word, we must listen intently to both the honey-dipped lies and the Spirit-shaped yearnings of people’s hearts. That which is deep inside a person needs to be brought to the surface so they can hear how well God’s Word knows them.

Preaching for spiritual health

My dental hygienist said something strange. When she noted an unusual build-up of plaque on my teeth, I braced for the “floss more” speech. I’ve heard it before, and I’m tired of it. I can preach it better than she can. But she surprised me. She asked if I had been under unusual stress lately. Apparently stress stimulates a kind of body chemistry that cranks up the production of plaque. She didn’t just want my teeth to look good. She wanted me to be healthy. That, I think, is the point of spiritual formation preaching. It is easy—and it is right sometimes—to preach “floss more” sermons, but if we want God’s people to be healthy, we need to be sure we’re listening well.

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