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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

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A pastor pointed out to me some time ago a rising trend in the pulpit of preaching that puts the hearer ‘on the couch’. The tone is cool, reflective, sophisticated, non-confrontational. The content is psychological and analytical, a diagnosis of the workings of your heart and mind.

I want to suggest some concerns with this approach but also an insight worth holding onto and a way to do it which might mitigate many of the dangers.

Some concerns

  • Individual rather than corporate. Preaching should normally be inclined towards a corporate address. The preacher is speaking to the whole church as a church. Like most of the NT epistles, there should be far more plural (“Sisi” na “Nyinyi”) than singular (“Mimi” na “Wewe”). It is so easy to slip into making all the applications to the individual rather than thinking how a particular Bible text should move us as a church. The ‘on the couch’ style of preaching tends to be directed to the individual.
  • Therapy culture rather than repentance call. The seated/recumbent posture just looks wrong. Preaching is supposed to be a heralding of salvation, beseeching sinners to come to Christ, a publishing of the command of God to all men to repent (Acts 17:30). There is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching loses entirely that tone of urgency, boldness and ‘speaking the very words of God’ and instead buys into a consumerist, me-centred, victim culture that wants God only so far as he affirms and soothes and helps me feel better about myself.
  • Knowing rather than doing. The theme of obedience is massive in the Bible (I don’t know how I never noticed it till recently!). Adam and Eve failed to obey. In Genesis 22 we are told nothing of Abraham’s psychology as he climbs Mt Moriah but what is emphasised is that he did it. Gospel ministry aims at bringing the nations to the ‘obedience of faith’ (Rom. 1:5; 16:26), ‘to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matt. 28:20). James tells us not to deceive ourselves that listening to the Word is a substitute for doing it (James 1:22). Of course we need to avoid moralistic ‘just do it’ exhortations but there is a danger that ‘on the couch’ preaching is descriptive without being prescriptive; giving us the intellectual stimulation and catharsis of knowing ourselves better without ever getting to the confrontational gospel imperatives.
  • Looking within rather than looking to Christ. The great news of the gospel is of salvation coming from outside, an alien righteousness, wisdom we would never have guessed, a God who stoops down, breaks in, rescues us. The call of the NT is “Behold the Lamb!” “Fix your eyes on Christ.” The danger with ‘on the couch’ preaching is that it can pander to an overly introspective, obsessive, narcissistic navel gazing. Even if it doesn’t do that it can start to make us think that just as the problem lies in us (idolatry, disordered loves) so the solution lies in us (rooting out idols, purifying worship) rather than looking to Jesus.

An insight worth holding onto

Having said all this, the practitioners of ‘on the couch’ preaching have got something very right and alerted us to something very important. The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart. We are passion-driven more than purpose-driven. Idolatry and the waywardness of the human heart is an enormous issue in the Bible. And it is helpful to think through how exactly sin and idolatry and sanctification work at the level of our heads and hearts. Rather than simply knowing what we must do and having a very vague idea that ‘God changes us’, perhaps it is rather important to see how exactly ‘the grace of God teaches us to say No to ungodliness.’ How do we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ? How does a good thing become a god-thing in our lives? How best can we counsel people going through the complexities of grief? How do we best motivate ourselves to obedience? How do our hearts work? We do we preach in a way that opens and engages hearts? The puritans, at their best, were masters of this kind of care of souls.

A way forward: let the Bible speak

How can we take that major insight of heart focus and heart analysis without slipping into the dangers mentioned above? I wonder whether, as it often the case, the best way forward is simply to preach the Word. Preach through the Bible. Preach what is in the passage you have this week. Preach with the tone of the passage. With the balance of the passage. With the cutting edge of the passage.

This sort of preaching will keep us from hobby horses, keep us from being dull, keep us from getting locked into a particular style or structure or mood or approach. We take our cue each time from the Bible passage itself. And, most importantly, preaching through the Bible, feeling the changing atmosphere, staying very close to the detail and flow of the texts will keep us from getting me-centred because we’ll be constantly pushed back up against the Lord of Glory himself.

By way of example here are some rough study notes on Isaiah 57:8-13.

Verse 8 – deserting me you have uncovered your bed… Forsaking the LORD leads to opening our hearts wide to any other lovers (idols) that will have us. We are beings desperate for love and yet we perversely, bizarrely, run from the love of our soul. you have looked on… We are visual beings and our hearts are captured by what we see.

Verse 10 – You wearied yourself by such going about… The pursuit of idols is a lengthy, stressful, strenuous, tiring pursuit. But you would not say, “It is hopeless.” Despite the high physical, emotional and financial costs of running after idols, we refuse to give up the chase. Idolators may be without true hope but they are not necessarily hopeless, depressed individuals. They may actually be very hopeful people, constantly expecting their idol to come through for them or to find a better world round the corner. You found renewal of your strength… We know that the LORD renews the strength of those who hope in him (Isa. 40:31), He revives the contrite (Isa. 57:15), but it is possible for idolators to find renewal of strength in their idolatry. Idolatry is hope-creating and energising. Look at the world without Christ and you see a huge amount of energy and industry.

Verse 11 – Whom have you so dreaded and feared do not fear me? One of the drivers of spiritual unfaithfulness is a fear of things and people greater than our fear of the LORD. Such fears are often vague and unconscious, we don’t face them directly, but we are challenged here to identify them.

Verse 12 – your righteousness and your deedswill not profit you… The answer does not come from within us. We cannot work our own salvation. Our religiosity is filthy rags. We tend to think like the ancient Egyptians that our good will outweigh our bad and save us but we are wrong.

Verse 13 – let your collection of idols save you… We gather not just one or two idols but a collection, putting our eggs in many baskets. But the strategy will not work, idols cannot save. As we mock the LORD (v4) he will mock us (v13a). But he who takes refuge in me… There is salvation outside of us. There is refuge in the very One we have forsaken and insulted. In Him we are safe on the day of judgment and are (astonishingly) turned from sons of the sorceress (v3) into heirs of the living God (v13b).

What we see in these verses is that there is quite a lot about the workings of the human heart but it is not a cool discourse – it is a passionate, confrontational declaration. It is a prophetic condemnation so there is quite a lot about ‘You’ (N.B. plural), describing the ways in which God’s people have forsaken him and analyzing the reasons for their betrayal. But it is not leading us to an introspective dead end. We are given the big gospel truth that there is no salvation in us and we need instead to run to hide ourselves in the LORD himself.

  • Have you heard good examples recently of preaching which brings out the heart analysis of the passage while turning us as a people to the Lord? How can we get better at this?

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