Afflicting the Afflicted?

 

During my 25 years as a believer I have observed in some churches a tendency for preachers and teachers to consistently favor exhortational sermons over encouraging ones. By "exhortational" I mean those messages that are, at their core, about telling Christians they are not committed enough to the Faith, not doing enough for the Kingdom, not fully "sold out" to Christ, etc. Such messages are often consciously or subconsciously designed to trigger the consciences of listeners in the congregation who, in the eyes of the speaker, do not take the call to costly Christian discipleship seriously enough.

No doubt this is often a true judgment in the 21st century American Church, but one might argue whether this approach is wholly effective, considering that a huge part of real repentance happening in any human soul is the applied kindness of God. Since we are also told to "gently restore" the fallen, it would seem that our Lord uses "the carrot" as least as much as "the stick" in convicting His people of sin.

But whether there is a place for hard sermons in bringing people to a place of repentance is not the point of this piece. The point I would like to make is that many pastors do not understand that they are not only talking to lazy or licentious Christians when they decide to major on warning exhortations; they are also being heard by believers who struggle mightily with self-condemnation and obsessive fears about their spiritual standing. For these listeners, such guilt-inducing messages only reinforce an often false sense of "not making the grade" as a child of God. All such a sermon does for them is buttress wrong patterns of belief that, many times, stem from abuse they suffered in their formative yearsoften before they even came to know Jesus Christ.

I was such a Christian for many years. More than once, I approached a Pastor who had just finished an exhortational message asking him what to do about my obvious lack of faith and/or discipline. Invariably what I heard back was "Shea, I wasn't talking to you". If he wasn't talking to me, I suspect he "wasn't talking" to quite a few other dedicated, but fearful, believers as well. The problem is that we didn't know this, and most were probably not approaching the pastor with the same concerns I was. They just left the service with an even greater load of unjustified guilt, and unjustified guilt is a great tool for the Enemy of our souls to use against us.

With this in mind I would encourage all shepherds in the church to include a "disclaimer" in their harder sermons. Such a disclaimer would clearly state that they are by no means talking to everyone in the pews, especially those with possibly damaged consciences, consciences that cannot be fully trusted. In this way they may be able to "comfort the afflicted" in their congregations at the same time they attempt to more effectively "afflict the comfortable."

© Shea Oakley. All rights reserved.

Shea Oakley is a freelance Christian writer from Ridgewood, New Jersey.

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