I feel it every time I get down off the stage having preached a message from the Word of God. It’s a familiar feeling, like slipping into a well-worn pair of shoes. But unlike the shoes, it doesn’t feel comfortable or snug.
It’s that sense of inadequacy – the feeling that no matter how hard I have tried, I can never do justice to the text or to its Author. At times it may be an overwhelming sense of failure after a particularly bad sermon (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?), but often it’s just a nagging ache in the soul. A sense that while I have given God my best, it’s not enough. No matter how many compliments I may be given or encouraging words I hear, there is always this feeling that there is so much more I could have done if I was more gifted or more Spirit-led or had more time.
Talking to other preachers that I know suggests that I am not alone with this feeling of inadequacy. It seems to be a recurring emotion for many of us. And I have spent time over the years trying to reflect on where this feeling comes from, and whether it’s healthy or not.
Is this a spiritual attack; an attempt by the Enemy to thwart the teaching of God’s Word?
Is this a subtle indication of a perfectionistic bent in my own personality?
Is it simply the inevitable feeling of exhaustion that a performer might feel at the end of a show?
It’s certainly possible that this feeling I live with could include all of those causes. But I have come to realise that at the heart of it is a healthy realisation that there are depths to God’s Word that I will never comprehend or communicate as a limited, finite, sinful person. And equally, no matter how eloquent or clever or creative I try and be as a preacher, in the end it is still the Spirit’s work that brings transformation to people’s lives.
That doesn’t mean I don’t strive to understand the text to the best of my ability, or work hard at crafting a big idea, or sweat over the best way to apply God’s Word to the lives of all of us sitting under it together. But while I will never be comfortable with this feeling of inadequacy, I have started to see it as a healthy emotion – a recognition that I am inadequate; that in Paul’s words I am a jar of clay trying to display the light of his glory (2 Cor. 4:7).
What has helped me in this area is some words from the epilogue to the second edition of Haddon Robinson’s masterful book on preaching. I have put these words up on the wall above my office desk, and they have been immensely helpful to me. I offer them to those who, like me, wrestle with this deep feeling of inadequacy:
Face it: When you have done your utmost,
it’s simply not enough.
At best, you may have two small fish and five rolls.
(All right, if you’re really gifted,
you may have three fish and an extra roll or two).
But you never have enough to feed the multitude. . .
In the final analysis there are no great preachers.
There’s only a great Christ who does startling things
when we place ourselves and our preaching in His hands. . .
Even on our best weeks we have only some fish and bread.
But we serve the living Lord.
Give Him your small lunch and trust Him to feed His people.
(Biblical Preaching, 2nd edition, pp.223-224)