“Take heed to the ministry which thou hast received in the Lord, that thou fulfil it” (Col. iv. 17).
“Take thy part in suffering hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. ii. 3).
Next to the needful spiritual qualification, one of the chief requisites for fruitful Gospel ministry is clearness of thought. The man who does not himself clearly understand his subject is not very likely to convey a definite impression concerning it to others. With some, distinctness of perception is a natural endowment; with others this faculty is deficient; but it is capable of being cultivated by all. Searching the Scriptures, in dependence on the help of the Holy Spirit, with such secondary aids as may be available is the principal means of promoting it in connection with the preacher’s work. If any thought is presented in the course of a religious address , which we do not clearly understand ourselves, let it be sought out in the Bible, and carefully studied there afterwards; or, still better, if before we go to meeting a Scripture passage arises in the mind, the place and application of which we do not fully recollect, let it be examined beforehand. It does not follow that it will be used on that particular occasion; but the study itself will be helpful to us; and, if not now, probably at some other time, the knowledge we have gathered may be turned to account. Incorrect quotations and applications of Scripture ought to be strenuously guarded against.
That leads me to speak of the subject of the preparation of sermons beforehand. I am not prepared to say that this could under no circumstances be right, though I am heartily in sympathy with those who feel that it would be wrong for them to resort to the practice. A suggestive text, or a particular theme may often present itself to the mind before a meeting begins, and may be examined in the light of Holy Scripture as already suggested; but I have always felt it right, when that has been the case with me, to enter upon the usual silent waiting upon God when the meeting begins, with a thoroughly open mind; and have often found that the prior impression has disappeared, and another subject has taken its place. There is more freshness and life in that which is thoroughly spontaneous than in what has occupied our thoughts for a long time in advance. How often I have wished, when listening to sermons in other places of worship than our own, that the preacher would throw away his notes, and commit himself to the fresh and vivid impulses of the Divine Spirit!
Surely the true preparation of the evangelist is like that of the keen and polished tool, lying on the workbench close to the Master’s hand, ready for Him to take up and use according to His wisdom. The difference between the prepared and unprepared is just that between the sharp well-kept tool, always in its place, and broken-edged rusty one, away in some corner, which has first of all to be sought for, to the loss of valuable time, and with which when found even the Master’s hand can do but indifferent work because of its imperfection.
It is not unusual I believe for ministers to feel very anxious before going to a meeting, in which they are likely to be responsible for vocal service; and especially is this apt to be the case if the meeting be one appointed at the minister’s request. This anxiety is not unnatural; and it is often aggravated by an oppressive sense of poverty of soul, and of our own unfitness. It may have a useful place in our preparation for service, if its chief effect is to drive us to a still closer dependence upon God. But how often we find, in the result, that our anxious thoughts have been needless. The blessed Master has not failed to remember the hour for which the meeting was summoned, and the very moment when it was proper for us to take part in it; and He has been with us in time! When we praise Him afterwards, we feel ashamed for all our anxious futile forethoughts.
Should we not learn from such experiences the habit of lying close to Him, and trusting Him for the fulfilment of all the good pleasures of His will? The joy of the Lord is His people’s strength; but joy and anxiety are not companionable. If therefore we would be strong, we must ourselves practise that which we so often recommend to others, namely,–“In nothing to be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, to let our requests be made known unto God” (Phil. iv. 6).
Just as there are unnecessary anxieties before a meeting, so there are apt to be needless questionings and discouragements afterwards. Satan is ever on the watch; and if he cannot succeed in leading us into self-congratulation – getting us to “deck ourselves with the Lord’s jewels” – he will try the other expedient of casting us down. Our performance has not satisfied ourselves. We have omitted something that would have rendered our argument clearer or more effective. Some Scripture quotation has been misplaced. Our sentences have been badly put together. Our manner has been faulty. We have made ourselves a spectacle, but have failed to do justice to our theme. Such are amongst the tempter’s suggestions. Some of them may be true; and it is wise to take note of such, for our future help in doing better. “The work of the Lord is ever a humbling work,” is a sentence once addressed to ministers in one of our Yearly Meeting’s Epistles. It furnishes an excellent practical test for personal use in the retrospect of service. But there is a wide difference between humbling and discouragement. God never discourages, though He may see meet, for our own good, to keep us lowly.
The exaltation of the instrument is one of the gravest dangers of the popular preacher, and if indulged in must sooner or later be fatal to his work. If kind friends praise our performances, as they sometimes do, let us not accept it for ourselves, but in out gracious Leader, to whom alone praise is due.
I remember reading years ago of a Friend minister, who made it a practice, after preaching, to go home and pass his sermon through a searching critical review. I cannot agree with him. The safest and happiest method is simply to lay our offering at the dear Master’s feet, asking Him to bless that which was from Himself, and to forgive and overrule for good that which came from the infirmity of the human instrument, and there to leave the matter.
So also with regard to outside criticism. An address publicly uttered becomes public property, and is fairly open to public comment. A man who speaks from a pulpit, or from a minister’s gallery, cannot be replied to on the spot as he could be in an ordinary public assembly. He has therefore the less right to complain if his statements or opinions are commented on in other ways. Within certain limits criticisms are useful; but in the case of a free disinterested service like our, they should be made considerately, gently, lovingly. On our part they should be treated in a similar spirit – prayed over, and referred to the judgment of there Great Teacher, “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” – whilst we sit humbly at His feet that we may learn of Him.
Joseph John Dymond
Ilkley, August, 1892.
Part 13 of this series is here.