Title: Looking at Preaching Afresh
Part 9: Countering the “Hard Man” Syndrome
I concluded Page 7 with a reference to Jesus' parable where a man declares, “I knew that you are a hard man,” his view of God.(Mt 25:24). As I have listened to various preachers I have come to realise that there are very many of us in the Christian fold who have never dared confront the challenges that the judgments of God make on say the apostle John's declaration that “God is love”. In fact the more I have thought about this, the more convinced I am that it is true, and that it often appears in preaching at what we might call a sub-conscious level.
So how do we handle the conflict? Not by doing what I have only just recently got around to doing and eyeballing each of the instances of judgment in the Bible and then thinking through in some depth how this can possibly go alongside the statement “God is love”.
No, if my own experience is common, what we do is just hope that it is all right and that somewhere there is an answer, even if I haven't got it. (What we tell ourselves is that ‘by faith' we believe it is all right.) But what we are left with is an underlying fear, deep down, that actually, perhaps, just perhaps, ‘they' are right and perhaps God isn't quite as nice as some would like to make Him out to be. But this remains almost below in our subconscious level but it keeps on coming out as we try to make difficult verses acceptable. Yes, that is the area where this is most revealed: when we try and deal with so-called ‘difficult verses'.
The Struggle of Difficult Passages
I was provoked to write this page by listening to a good-hearted preacher dealing with Mk 9:42-50 who went to great lengths to make it palatable but in fact preached a sermon about anything but what this passage taught. It was a good message but missed vital issues. He did not see it as the warning of a loving God who was using graphic ‘over-the-top' language to convey the awfulness of some of the things Jesus was talking about. Such struggles reveal the perspective of God that He is ‘a hard man'.
Dare we be honest about this and recognise and accept that in fact many of us do have this feeling – deep down – that God is a hard man and we show it by the way we deal with the ‘difficult' passages of Scripture.
We haven't ever fought through to the place where we are utterly convinced that God is a God of love and so every bit of teaching, exhortation and even challenge, is an expression of God's love.
Conveying a message of love is what grace is all about and what our preaching should be about. Over and above all else we must convey the love of God, because that is what the Bible is all about. Thus, if we do confront ‘difficult verses', our starting place must be to see how these are an expression of love.
The Alternative: Love Focused
If, instead of legalistically seeking to interpret a passage as 'law' that ‘ought' to be obeyed, we sought to see it as the teachings of a loving God who has our best interests at heart, we would move from seeing mere words of instruction to seeing the heart behind it, but of course to do that we have to be convinced of that heart.
Why, someone might ask, didn't Jesus talk all about God's loving heart in these some terms? But of course He did and so did his apostles; we just don't take it in. So why, comes our questioner again, did Jesus use such sharp language, such shocking language in his teaching?
Two suggestions! First, he was talking largely to non-Christians, not-yet believers, and in the same way that the prophets of old used shocking pictures and language to grab the attention of unbelieving Israel, so Jesus used the same approach with unbelieving Jews of his day. Second, Jesus still ‘applied the law' method of teaching because the Spirit had not yet come on believers.
Our Sources of Guidance
As we have noted elsewhere in these pages, our primary guidance comes today as Christians through the indwelling Holy Spirit backed up by His word, the Scriptures. Not in any way wanting to sound heretical, but as we now have the Law on our hearts (see Jer 31:33) because of the presence of the author of the law dwelling within us, once we have established that we are to live lives of love and goodness in relationship with the Lord, then everything else should follow, but because so much of the time we don't live with that mentality, it doesn't, and so we have to resort to the teaching of the NT, and often apply it as law. That is our final arbiter.
All of our motivation today, I suggest, should come through:
It is not through self-centred striving or guilt impositions by preachers. Where these three things are a reality they will be sufficient to motivate us onward and upward.
But the reality is that we are sin-tainted, redeemed sinners and we do need constant encouragement, inspiration and challenge of others, of God, His people and His word. As much as we might hope that we may exist and grow entirely under the inspiration, direction and empowering of the Spirit we do need His word and we do need one another and we do need the gifts of ministry to envision us.
Carrot (Vision) or Stick (Guilt)
And in saying that we show the difference between the evangelical preacher who drives by the stick of the Law (even the law of the NT) and the preacher who comes from a position of
If we understand all we read in the New Testament especially in this light it should transform us
FROM guilt-imposing driven preaching (which often simply reinforces failure,
TO vision-motivated lives that reach out in faith for more of the goodness and wonder of God.
Re-examing the Illustration
As we said above, when we commence from this standpoint it transforms EVERYTHING we see in Scripture. For instance let's consider that passage from which our preacher was speaking, starting with Mark 9:42: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
Those sound strong words. Words of a loving God? Consider what Jesus is saying here. In the first half of the sentence he speaks about children who were there (see v.36,37): “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble….”
They trusted Jesus, and in their simplicity they believed in him (in some measure at least). They are examples of simple faith and if they follow that through in the rest of their lives they will know the wonder of God's love and blessing. They have in front of them a life of goodness and love. Who can say that is bad? In fact, because they are young, small and vulnerable they need protecting. Anyone who seeks to harm them and break this trust in Jesus and take away the possibility of a life full of love and goodness, has really got to be bad! In law terms they are criminals and justice shouts, stop them, deal with them!
So now comes the strong picture that we spoke about earlier, something so over the top that it leaves you gasping almost, just like the prophets did of old in trying to catch the attention of unbelieving Israel: “it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
Is that what is going to happen to such a person? Not exactly but they are going to be answerable to God and that is without doubt the most awesome and scary thing that is ever going to happen to them and that will also involve justice and due punishment.
Perhaps the most worrying thing about this verse is our inability to see how awful the sin is that is being spoken about here, of robbing a small child of their childlike trust that opens a door to eternal blessing. If we cannot see this, it speaks about our spiritual blindness and our inability to comprehend reality.
If Jesus had spoken about a child molester who came and sexually molested this child and then slowly and deliberately tortured this child until they died a slow and agonising death, we would instantly be up in arms. Justice, we would say, demands that this man be dealt with in the most severe way. If the child was our young daughter and we were made to watch helplessly all those things happening to her, we would start to appreciate the awfulness of it and any thoughts of punishment would be seen in a new light.
In the verses that follow, Jesus points out that the worse thing that can happen to a person by way of punishment is not merely death, but the possibility of hell that follows. Now we don't need to get into an argument whether that means an ongoing punishment or a terrible one that soon annihilates the individual; the point is clear – whatever hell may entail, at very least in Jesus' pictures in the Gospels, it is an existence:
of excruciating pain
of separation from God
of no possible hope of change.
Now in discussions on hell we normally assume various things but they are not made clear. Let's consider a couple things in the light of this present discussion.
i) Is that the only choice?
The first thing to consider about hell or any sort of ‘punishment' in the Bible is that it is not the only choice and God always gives choices and HIS DESIRE is NOT for our death (see Ezek 18) but rather that we will come to our senses and repent and turn away from the wrong. It is clear from Jesus' teaching that again and again, as with the prophets of old, Jesus tries to steer people away from courses of action that may end in their destruction. Even in the millstone example, it is clear that Jesus is saying, “You really don't want to do that!”
If we end up in hell, it is because one way or another we have chosen it and chosen it against God's constant advice against going down that particular path. Carefully read the prophets and you will come to a new appreciation of the wonder of God's love that cries out again and again and again and again, for His people to come to their senses and turn away from the wrong, destructive path. So much does God hold back from judgment and so much does He warn again and again while holding off from that judgment, that the apostle Peter had to warn, “ The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
ii) Eternal Punishment?
Arguments ensue, as we noted above, as to whether hell is an eternal punishment or a means to annihilate the individual. I simple raise the question, why would it need to be eternal? We have seen already that God doesn't want our death so why should He want eternal pain? An answer is that our eternal being is spirit and spirit cannot be destroyed.
In these considerations we will probably respond according to our presuppositions – our starting points. If we see God as a ‘hard man' then we will see a God who carelessly consigns people to eternal pain with no emotion.
If we see God as a loving heavenly father, then we will see the scriptures that tell us He doesn't want our death, and we will see the dozens of times that He warns and tries to get us to avoid it. If there is a separation from Him in eternity, it is because time after time after time, in our time on this earth, we have chosen that course; it was our choice.
Back to our starting point: as preachers do we start from the position of a loving and good God and see and explain everything in that light? Alternatively, if we have never fully seen that truth, can we be honest and recognise that we are those who see God as “a hard man”?
If we are the latter, then I recommend we spend a lot of time studying and praying to see the truth that is there in Scripture, that runs contrary to the lies that the enemy would sow, that God IS love – and if He is, how do we explain everything we read that speaks of discipline or judgment?
A Final Example
To conclude, let's take one of those verses that ‘hard man preachers' love, the verses where Jesus speaks of ‘taking up your cross' to follow him. ‘Hard man preachers' love lay this verse on believers and there have been many preachers from the past, and their books, that make this demand of followers, and it always comes in a heavy way, ‘demanding your death'.
Now I don't in any way want to remove the teaching from the canon of Scripture but I do want us to view it in a different light. See the big picture:
God, the God who is love and goodness, made a perfect world for us to live in
We fell and were tainted with Sin
God sent Jesus to die for us and His Spirit works to draw us back into a loving relationship with Him.
That is the background. Now some basic principles of how we get the best out of life today
God always knows best and wants to show us and lead us into the best for us.
We still have the potential to do our own thing which can mean we fail to get the best that God has for us
We need these reminders.
Sometimes people will write a telephone number on the back of their hand to remind them to ring someone, sometimes they will put an elastic band round their wrist to remind them to do something, sometimes they will write it on a calendar or use an electronic reminder.
The cross was a form of execution. To think of carrying a cross was a way of saying, think of dying to your own wishes and letting God raise up a new way for you.
Now to think of it in that way isn't heavy; it is just a loving Saviour saying, remind yourself that Father loves you and wants best for you and that there is that ‘sin thing' to be overcome, that self-centred, godless tendency which would try to deny you all His goodness. Imagine carrying the means of executing that tendency, and walk out a new life in God's blessing.
C.S.Lewis once wrote, "The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny oursevles and take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ," and, he went on to explain, the end product was always the good we were able to enter into. The 'hard-man' preacher focuses on the denial, the Spirit preacher focuses on the end product blessing that God is seeking to lead us into - becasue He is love!
I have written about this particular aspect of preaching because:
(negatively) guilt-preaching lays burdens and reinforces failure, but
(positively) loved-based preaching releases faith and vision and opens the way for genuine growth and blessing.
I hope you will have caught something of the challenge here, and it starts with how we, the preacher, genuinely view God. All else – our interpretation and understanding of Scripture – will follow from it.