I’ve been seeing my counselor a bit more lately. The addition of a second child combined with the pressures of life has really thrown me for a loop. One way this imbalance rears its ugly head is in my anger. Not making excuses, but I come from a long line of bad tempers on both sides of my family. Because of this, anger is usually one of the first signs that my life is off kilter. On a side note, when I say anger I don’t mean the emotion per say, rather I’m speaking of the almost unquenchable desire to hit inanimate objects (usually a wall). So needless to say a trip to the counselor was needed.
One of the surprising things that came from a session was that people who have anxiety disorders (the reason I see a counselor in the first place) tend to have trouble with anger as well. The two are interrelated. I left that appointment oddly encouraged by the fact that so many of my problems are interrelated. In opening up my web of dysfunction I at least could understand myself a bit better. Along with this I was given a personal understanding of Luther’s breakthrough insight to the human condition: Simul Iustus et Peccator (Simultaneously just and a sinner at the same time). In other words, as a result of my extensive web of dysfunction, it’s only because of God’s declaration of Christ’s righteousness upon me that I have any chance in life.
After these thoughts, because of my profession, I began to think about the content of our preaching. Here was my thought process: if I, a somewhat self-aware; well adjusted individual possesses such a web of dysfunction, this most likely means that everyone else does too. For me it’s never as easy as “don’t be angry Shawn,” because my anger is related to 25,000 different things in my messed up brain. I think if we’re honest with ourselves we all have a deeply rooted issue (more likely many issues) that we struggle with in different ways. It’s not that so-and-so is just an impatient person; rather her impatience is related to the fact that her father was impatient with her and his father before him was abusive.
My point is this: the fact that we all contain such intricate webs of dysfunction should really inform the way we preach and teach others. Let me explain. If you were to listen to ten different sermons I can almost guarantee you that nine out of ten of them would deal with some sort of behavior modification. Sure it would be clothed in a variety of different languages, but you could pretty much narrow it down to this: God wants you to be X, go and be X.
Think about your typical sermon on anger. It probably would go something like this, "As Christians God wants you to be more even tempered, therefore seek him for peace and be more even tempered." How would I digest that sermon? I’d go home with the determination to be less angry, but the problem is life would get in the way. After snapping at my wife, I’d get sucked into a shame spiral and eventually become angrier (this is very similar to the circle of addiction). In other words, sermons like this only make my situation worse. Not only do I have this web of dysfunction to deal with now, it’s all covered in shame. Commenting on this kind of preaching, Fitzsimons Allison writes:
It exhorts a power of freedom that fallen man does not possess; it’s a religion of control (called “self-control”) and not redemption, and it ends inevitably in despair. The moral imperatives exacted of men are predicated on a definition of sin as only willful and deliberate, thereby implying that the problem of sin is essential superficial, a misconception that culminates in a false hope of self-justification.[i]
Elsewhere Fitzsimons has called this kind of preaching “pastoral cruelty.” In other words, to give a congregation a bunch of moral instruction without taking into account their webs of dysfunction and the gospel is simply torture. It’s only making their situations worse.
This reality further convicts me of our complete need of the gospel every day. Its message of God’s one-way love shown through Jesus Christ is the only thing that has the power to penetrate my webs of dysfunction. It’s the only thing that can make us more patient and less angry people. Paul Zahl writes, “Growth is the process of receiving God’s word of justification in new areas of our being. It is the carrying of the good news to the unevangelized territories of our personal and social being.[ii]” As the message of God’s grace gets carried into those deep recesses of my heart, my anger becomes stilled. I’m remade anew. Tullian Tchividjian writes: “Lasting behavioral change happens as you grow in your understanding of the gospel, and then as you learn to receive and rest in—at your point of deepest need—everything Jesus secured for you.[iii]” Sure I have to learn proper outlets for my anger, but only the gospel can change my heart to bring about lasting change.
So, what does all of this mean as you prepare to preach to a congregation? It simply means this: do not forget their and your own need for a healing word from the cross every Sunday. Judy knows she needs to be more patient with her kids, what she forgets is that God is patient with her. Bob knows that he needs to stop looking at pornography, what he needs to remember is that God won’t stop looking at him. In all of our webs of dysfunction we need the reassuring word from the cross that, “2 Corinthians 5:21 he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” This message doesn’t excuse our remaining sin, but rather dethrones it and makes us new. This gospel is our only hope.
For a similar post check out Horton’s “The Call for Radical World Changing Discipleship: A Question for Preachers.” http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/2012/02/18/the-call-to-radical-world-changing-discipleship-a-question-for-preachers/