The Humbling Aspect of Preaching (or: Glad I Must Fail At Last)

I’m very much enjoying this excellent book on preaching: Heralds of God by James Stewart. I’ll write more about it later, but for now let me say that if you’re a preacher and you haven’t read it, you should get it! If you’re not a preacher, this is a good one to get your pastor for Christmas. This morning I read chapter three: “The Preacher’s Study.” The end of the chapter hit home for me. I’ve been preaching twice almost every Lord’s Day since 2007 and I still feel like an inadequate novice bungling my way along with a “poor lisping stammering tongue.” Here’s how Stewart talked about this reality for preachers:

Beware, however, of any lecturer who…should announce a course on ‘How to Preach: By One who Knows.’ The creature is an impostor! No man knows how to preach. You will have to reckon with this significant, disconcerting fact, that the greatest preachers who have ever lived have confessed themselves poor bunglers to the end, groping after an ideal which has eluded them for ever. When you have been preaching for twenty years, you will be beginning to realize how incalculably much there is to learn. There will be days when the Socratic knowledge of your ignorance will desolate and overwhelm you. Even if Providence should spare you to this work for fifty years, your thought will be, as the gloaming [twilight] closes in around you, ‘If only I could start all over again now!’

There is no vocation in all the world which has such rewards to offer of deep and satisfying joy. But it is also true that there is no vocation so perpetually humbling to a good man, no task in which failure is so inescapably the fate appointed. How, indeed, could it be otherwise?

I who have giv’n to Thee my best
Rejoice Thy word is unexpressed;
And inexpressible must be
On this side of Eternity;
And I with all my travail vast
Am glad that I must fail at last.
If I had found the Word complete,

No glory could I march to meet:
A pilgrim home from pilgrimage!
A soldier with no fight to wage!
But now my powers I still must spend,
And go on failing to the end,
But failing I shall leave behind
Some hints of the Eternal Mind,
And hungry pilgrims, where I went,
May find a broken Sacrament.

James Stewart, Heralds of God, p. 104-105

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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