[This is a guest post from Steven Leckvold, a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.]
St. John Chrysostom has an important piece of advice for anyone involved in public ministry: beware the monster.
At the beginning of the fifth book of On the Priesthood, he outlines several temptations and struggles for those who teach the Word of God publicly, specifically through sermons. He has two main categories of difficulties in mind: (1) toe-stepping and its results, and (2) meeting audience expectations. But he thinks that they are both driven by an even deeper problem, a monster that we all face. And his advice? Cut off the heads of the elusive, invincible, savage monster.
What is this monster that we must face? We shall see.
First, we will step on toes. John recognizes that all preachers will inevitably do this. If you’re like me, you’ve done it. We don’t like to step on toes, but we also don’t want to leave people thinking that it’s okay to live in sin. When we preach the gospel, the Spirit will convict of sin. John discusses how some, rather than addressing their guilt and shame, will instead “mask their shame” by retaliating on the preacher. They may attack his lack of skill, his appearance, his way with words, but they will not attack their own sin. They will accuse and convince others to do the same, thereby creating factions and partisan groups within the church. Ultimately, it breaks down the unity of the church.
Second, the problem of expectations. John also realizes that many preachers want their hearers to enjoy the message – to like it, and thereby like them, too. He says, “I do not know whether anyone has ever succeeded in not enjoying praise.” If we enjoy it, we want it. If we want it, we will be pained when we don’t get it. If we enter the “lists of preaching” seeking applause, we will be disappointed. He likens such a person to the sea: “The sea can never be free from waves; no more can his soul be free from cares and sorrow” (130). One of the problems with such a mindset is this: We will never fully live up to everyone’s expectations. John explains.
For the congregation does not sin in judgment on the sermon as much as on the reputation of the preacher, so that when someone excels everyone else at speaking, then he above all needs painstaking care. He is not allowed sometimes not to succeed – the common experience of all the rest of humanity…Unless his sermons always match the great expectations formed of him, he will leave the pulpit the victim of countless jeers and complaints. (131)
Everyone will preach a less-than-average sermon at some point (or multiple points) in ministry. There will be ups and downs; John notes that a man, being just a man, cannot “invariably reach the same standard” each and every time he steps up to proclaim the Word (131). Some of our listeners will be unrelenting, waiting for blood in the water (thank God for those who are not!).
Cutting Off the Heads
So what is one to do? How does one deal with these various troubles, trials, and tribulations of the ministry of the Word? Engage the monster and cut off the heads! Seize that elusive, invincible, savage monster – crawl and fight your way through the labyrinth, or climb to the top of the highest mountain, and with sword in hand, seize it by the horns, and smite its ruin upon the ground. John tells us we must “cut off its many heads”, or if possible, keep them from even sprouting out of the many necks (135).
But what is this monster? It’s elusive, and it’s seemingly invincible. John detects and identifies it for us: popular esteem.
It is true that we will need to grow some thick skin, as John notes early on, but this is not enough. It is also true that accusations should be nipped in the bud whenever possible, but this also does not address the issue. The preacher must start with himself. When he speaks, whom is he trying to please? John’s advice: First and foremost, seek to please God with your proclamation, not the listeners.
When [the preacher] has composed his sermons to please God (and let this alone be his rule and standard of good oratory in sermons, not applause or commendation), then if he should be approved by men too, let him not spurn their praise. But if his hearers do not accord it, let him neither seek it or sorrow for it. It will be sufficient encouragement for his efforts, and one much better than anything else, if his conscience tells him that he is organizing and regulating his teaching to please God. (133)
John says that the desire to please the ears of those listening is enough to kill both enthusiasm and spiritual energy; if there is anyone able to slay this elusive monster of popular esteem, that monstrous desire to please men rather than God, then that warrior will be able to repulse all of the attacks of the two struggles listed above (and so many more). He will also “enjoy a quiet haven of rest” (135). But the one who fails to slay this monster will suffer unrelenting turmoil, dissatisfaction, and desperation.
I would argue this must also be tempered with humility. I think John steps too far when talking about the need for thick skin (he doesn’t use this phrase, but does addresses the idea). He advises against taking certain accusations too seriously on account of the accuser’s ignorance, treating them like children whose opinions (good or bad) we can discount on account of their words coming “out of season”, by envy, or by ignorance (130).
So what do you think? Have you grappled with this monster? What do you make of his analysis? Is this a fitting solution? What are some others? And what are some of the other struggles or trials for the one who preaches; how do we go about overcoming them?