In the only class on preaching that I ever took, Dr. Hunter Beckelhymer of blessed memory warned about what he called the “Christ cliché.” He said that there was a tendency in much of the preaching that he heard to name a human problem, be it personal or social, to explore its dimensions with the precision of a psychologist or a sociologist, and then in the last few sentences to superficially slap Christ onto the problem as the solution before saying “Amen” and sitting down.
Today I observe an entirely different tendency in much of the preaching that I hear. The human problem, be it personal or social, still gets named and probed with the precision befitting a psychologist or a sociologist giving a talk, and then, without mentioning Christ at all, the preacher just sits down. This strikes me as an example of what Harvey Cox called “Christological heart-failure” – not the superficial introduction of Christ into a sermon at the very last minute as a kind of afterthought that Dr. Beckelhymer called the “Christ cliché,” but the complete failure to speak of Christ at all.
Speaking as a minister to ministers about ministry Karl Barth observed – “When they come to us for help they do not really want to learn more about living: they want to learn more about what is on the farther edge of living – God” (The Word of God and The Word of Man – 189). Because this is just so easy for me to forget, especially when the personal wound is deep or the social crisis is immediate and intense, I often return to a story that Rebecca Manley Pippert told in her book Hope Has Its Reasons (Harper & Row – 1989). This story has served me well as a reminder of who I am and of what it is that I am called to do.
While I affirm the important work that psychologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a psychologist. And while I affirm the important work that sociologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a sociologist. What I am is a preacher, a servant of the Word, and it is my job to frame the Gospel as the solution to the personal problems that people present, and as the answer to the social questions that the world asks. DBS +
One of the courses I audited at Harvard was called “Systems of Counseling.” We were looking at a case study in which the therapist, using an approach called psychodynamic psychotherapy, helped the patient uncover a hidden hostility toward his mother. Naming the problem and understanding the mechanisms of what really bothered him seemed to make the patient feel as if a great weight had been lifted.
Then the professor began to proceed to the next case. Mustering my courage, I raised my hand and said, “I don’t quite know how to phrase this in the appropriate psychobabble, but let’s say the patient returned a few weeks later and said, ‘I’m so relieved to understand what was bothering me. My mother did things that provoked my hostility. But now I’d like to get beyond my anger. I’d like to be able to love her and forgive her. How do I do that?’ How does psychodynamic psychotherapy help a person with a request like this?”
There was silence. Then the professor answered, “I think the therapist would say, ‘lots of luck!’ It’s accomplishing a great deal in life just to be able to get past our feelings to uncover and name the hidden things that drive us, to identify our anxieties, fears, and problems at the root level and not the symptom level. So to ask that his hostility magically disappear isn’t realistic. He’ll have to learn to lie with it and hopefully not be driven by it.”
The professor’s frankness provoked the class. One of them said, “But isn’t the whole point of counseling, after diagnosing and naming the ailment, to help relieve suffering? And what causes more suffering than our inability to love and forgive those who’ve wounded us?”
That touched off an intense exchange. One student summarized what many of us were thinking: “It’s not that I expect problems to be instantly eliminated. Forgiving is a process. But is the most we can hope merely the ability to name and understand our problems? Can’t we ever be healed too? Isn’t loving and forgiving a better way of living than not merely being controlled by anger? If that’s the case, how do we help our clients find the power to change?”
The professor responded, “What we’re attempting to do is to help enable our patients to understand their true hidden feelings, to bring them to the surface and to experience them for what they are. So don’t force your values or neurosis about forgiveness onto the patient!”
I raised my hand again and said, “I’d like to make three observations. First, I agree completely that there will be no progress until we understand and experience our real feelings. But having done that, how do we keep those feelings from destroying us? Isn’t that why some of us have this ‘neurosis’ about seeking to forgive. The man needed to see he had more than a professed love for his mother. But after he’s uncovered and identified his hostility, how does he keep it from devouring him? Surely the answer isn’t to pretend he doesn’t hate or that his mother is perfect. How can he be honest about his real feelings and yet get beyond them? Second, I wonder if you feel the words ‘love your enemy’ are rooted in neurosis. And third, I’d like to say that I’m not taking this course for credit.”
The class exploded into laughter and the teacher, smiling, but with more candor than he may have realized, said, “If you guys are looking for a changed heart, I think you’re looking in the wrong department.”
But the truth is, we are looking for a changed heart. We have seen that there can be no positive growth where there is pretense; no solution until we identify and own our problem. We have observed that robust living is more than the identification of problems. After we see we need to change, how do we find the power to do it? If the cross enables us to see our problem and how God solved it, then the resurrection is where we see whether human behavior can be changed, and if so, how. (113-115)