I’ve preached some stinkers in my time as a pastor. Some have been poorly organized or presented; confusing or underdeveloped; lacking passion or spiritual fervor. I’ve had messages fall flat even when the content was solid. The first sermon I ever preached was in high school to a group of my peers. It was incomprehensible. I still have the notes and to this day I have no idea what I was talking about. Another time, when I was a ministry intern I chose to preach on a certain passage because a certain aspect of the narrative was funny to me. I based my entire message around a joke… and nobody laughed at it. And that isn’t even my worst sermon ever. The really bad ones aren’t bad because of sub-par delivery, lack of jokes, illustrations, or stories, or even confusing points. The sermons I really regret are the ones with bad theology, where I failed to feed the sheep with good food (Jn. 21:15-17).
The worst sermon I ever preached was at a previous church to a handful of students after a tragedy. A teenage girl who had been involved in our youth ministry was killed in a car accident. Though it had been some time since she had attended our youth gatherings, she was known and beloved by our students. It was a shock to everyone. They were hurt, angry, confused, and questioning. I was ready to respond and did so on the following Sunday morning. I presented the material convincingly, clearly, and with compassion. The problem was that the theology was bad.
At the time, I was still figuring out what I believed about divine providence: God’s relationship to every event that occurs. Does God cause everything? Allow everything? Are there some things that he doesn’t control, events that he cannot stop? Is God ever surprised? At the time I believed that God doesn’t always get what he wants. I believed the world is chaotic because God is not in full control. So, some things happen even though God doesn’t want or ordain them to. Why else pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I reasoned? I believed that this would all be rectified in the new heaven and the new earth, where God would get everything he wanted and we would benefit from being a part of it, but for now life was a mixed bag of chaos and God’s control.
This is the god that I presented to my students that morning. They were looking for answers, and this is what I gave them. I did not comfort my students with God’s sovereignty, that God ordained this tragedy according to his own good and wise purposes, and would use it for his glory and good (Rom. 8:28, Eph. 1:11), even if we don’t see it or understand it right now. Instead, I taught that this tragedy happened because the world is chaotic and for some reason God couldn’t stop it. I believed it was my job to defend God by excusing him from culpability. Instead, I presented to my students a weak god who isn’t strong enough to prevent tragedy or isn’t wise enough to use tragedy for his glory and plans. The students probably walked away with the understanding that their friend died for no good reason, and God couldn’t stop it.
I shudder now when I think about that day. I didn’t present a God worth trusting in the valley of the shadow of death, a God worth believing in. Neither did I present the God of Scripture. Unwittingly, I directed students to embrace that life is chaotic, rather than that God is sovereign, wise, good, and trustworthy. Not long after that, God mercifully corrected my thinking. I learned (or rather re-learned) of God’s sovereignty in life and salvation while searching the Scriptures. I would preach a totally different message now.
This hard lesson served to show me that I can never make God look better by teaching about him in a way contrary to what the Scriptures say about him. Any alterations I make to his divine nature as revealed in Scripture only diminishes his glory. I can’t improve on God. There are no weaknesses in him; no flaws; no rough edges that need smoothing. I don’t make him more worthy of love and honor and worship by softening any of his characteristics. If the Bible says something of God, I must believe it, praise him for it, teach it, and lead others to do likewise. There is nothing in Scripture that needs correcting. It is our understanding that needs correcting by Scripture.
Further, I am reminded that not everyone should be a teacher, for we will be judged more strictly (Jas. 3:1). Incidents like this drive that home. I taught in error, but out of ignorance and immaturity, not out of any intention to deceive. All preachers and teachers are unworthy for the task, having imperfect theology and being prone to errors. This sermon was certainly a big mistake, probably my greatest regret as a youth pastor, but I did rebound and had influence among many other students in that ministry that are still growing in Christ today. Still, some have wandered, some are lost, and I wonder if it is at least in part because of my teaching that one Sunday morning.
I still tremble before I teach or preach, and it’s not stage fright. Brothers and sisters, we should be most diligent in our study of the Scriptures, lest in our teaching we shape minds against God rather than for him. Yet the God who calls us is patient, wise, sovereign, and he knows our weaknesses. I am thankful for God’s grace and forgiveness for the many times I’ve failed him in my teaching.
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by doing so you will save both yourself and your hearers.” ~1 Timothy 4:16