In my sermon series on Colossians, Christ: Supreme & Sufficient, I am getting to the section on sanctification which includes some “vice lists”. What is a pastor to do?
First, Paul is addressing not only sins among the Colossians in general, but among the Colossian Christians. They had to put them to death, and put them off precisely because they were committing them. The sin lists are appropriate for most Christian communities regardless of their context: people struggle with sex, anger & hatred, their speech, covetousness and bias/prejudice/hatred based on ethnic background and culture.
The question I spent half the night (and many other hours spread over the past few months, and years) pondering is how much about my personal life (past and present) should I share in the context of preaching about these sins.
First, I don’t want to give the impression I have arrived, or never sinned. I know, some people live in a make believe land where their pastor never sinned big. If he sinned, it was forgetting to cover his mouth when he burped or some other peccadillo. I was not converted until I was 20. I have plenty of baggage from my family of origin, and plenty of sins (big and small) from which God has delivered and is delivering me. As Paul Tripp frequently notes, we are all “in the middle of our sanctification.” That means there are sins I used to commit and no longer do. That means there are sins I am still in the process of putting away. That means there are sins that God hasn’t even revealed to me yet because I’m nearly overwhelmed by the ones I know about.
Second, I want to be honest about my past and present struggles so people don’t think they are alone. I’m not going to talk about the sins of someone else in the congregation (“Of course we all realize Tom has a problem with …”). I can’ share stories of church leaders of the past. But they need to know that I need grace, AND find Christ sufficient. I know, it should be obvious to them I sin, but since they don’t live with me they may not see how sin operates in my life. Even then, there is the unseen world of my thoughts that is unknown to all but my closest friends. While they can’t, and shouldn’t, know it all they should know some of it.
But it isn’t that easy. There are a few counter-balances I must weigh in considering what I do and do not share about my past and present.
First, I don’t want to freak anyone out. There is such a thing as sermonic TMI moments, and we don’t want that. While I don’t consider any of my sins extra-ordinary (there are no hidden corpses, Brokeback Mountain moments or similar things), some of them certainly aren’t pretty, and the residual effect of how I’ve sinned and been sinned against shouldn’t make anyone uncomfortable. You don’t want to flush your capacity to minister to them in the process of trying to minister to them. Did you get that? Sin has a ripple effect, it leaves holes in your soul. So while you may no longer practice particular sins, they may “haunt your mind” in various ways. It is part of reaping what you have sown. You are forgiven and cleansed, but you’ve also been changed by the sin in a way that won’t be undone until glorification (come quickly, Lord!). The worship service is not The Jerry Springer Show, Dr. Phil or Oprah’s couch where the pastor gets to air his dirty laundry in to shock others or gain some perverted joy in telling all.
Second, I know I will be misunderstood. I’ve had plenty of things taken out of context in my sermons. Years ago I preached a sermon against the sin of racism. Someone actually left thinking I was a racist. I’m not sure how he arrived at that conclusion. But funny things happen in the distance words travel between the mouth of the speaker and the central processing unit of the hearer.
So one question is, what am I willing to be misunderstood about? Similarly, what is likely to be misunderstood? I can’t anticipate all of those things, but I can some of them. It is wise to ponder these things, since misunderstanding can inhibit one’s ability to minister to another person.
Third, since they are sinners too, it is possible for some of what I say to be used against me. Instead of someone thinking “I know how to better pray for my pastor” they might think “that might be useful someday” or “how dare he talk to me about my sin”. It happens to every pastor. Honest moments of trying to explain how sin and grace play out in a life (and I know my life better than anyone else’s) get twisted into ammo for a future conflict or coup attempt (having survived a few, I can say they are so much fun). When someone is honest about their struggles, not glorying in their sin, it is not time to wag the finger like the Church Lady. If a pastor is sharing it, it is because he recognizes the sin as sin and he’s trying to put it to death. Pray for him! And recognize the way sin works in the dark shadows of your heart and mind.
So, it is a big balancing act. And sometimes you will fall off the beam or tight rope. There is a safety net: the lavish grace of God. Sometimes we can fall into the fear of men and what they think. We can actually be dishonest by sharing nothing of our lives. Every pastor, in his context, needs to work out the safe yet effective place between utter silence and TMI moments. As pastors, God calls us to go where few dare to tread (unless they have psychological issues), for the good of the sheep and not to exorcise our demons or any other self-centered motive.
Is it time for a nap yet?