17 April, 2024

A Calling Wrapped in Failure

by | 1 July, 2023 | 3 comments

By Chris Philbeck  

I recently read an article by Lewis Allen called “10 Things You Should Know About Preaching,” published at Crossway.org. One point in the article stood out to me: “Preaching is a calling wrapped in failure.”  

That may seem a little shocking to someone who isn’t a preacher, but let me share a couple things to think about. First, here’s the reality: We are imperfect beings trying to speak for a perfect God. On our best day, we’re going to fall short.  

I have sometimes said, “There are things in the Bible I believe and experience, and there are things in the Bible I believe.” Any honest preacher will tell you they feel the tension of being an imperfect spokesman for a perfect God.  

Second, no matter how much we accomplish, we know the need will still be great. So, there’s truth to the statement, “Preaching is a calling wrapped up in failure,” because it’s an overwhelming calling and responsibility.  

Who Has What It Takes to Preach? 

A biblical example for this is the apostle Paul. He wrote,  

But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God (2 Corinthians 2:14-17).  

While this isn’t solely a commentary on preaching, one can’t help but notice Paul’s transparency at the end of verse 16: “And who is equal to such a task?” The word Paul uses for equal means “competent” or “capable.” Here’s how his question is rendered in the Contemporary English Version: “No one really has what it takes to do this work.” How about the Easy-to-Read Version? “So who is good enough to do this work?”  

In the article referenced earlier, Allen writes that Paul’s question at the end of 2 Corinthians 2:16 is not “an invitation to despair but a jolting call to gritty realism.” He goes on to say, “Your preaching will fail at times . . . and so will you. And yet, in the midst of all your triumphs and your tragedies, the Lord is at work for the good of hearers and preachers alike.”  

Here’s the bottom line: The privilege of preaching, coupled with the responsibility of preaching, can sometimes feel overwhelming to the point of making us feel like failures. 

How Can We Overcome Our Self-Doubt? 

So, what’s the answer? How do we overcome that sense of failure that can creep into our preaching? A Scripture passage that has been especially meaningful to me when I have struggled with the feeling of failure is Lamentations 3:22-23: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”  

The book of Lamentations was written to express grief over the failure of the people of Judah to repent and turn to God, resulting in the nation being overthrown and plundered by the Babylonians. Yet in this book we find this incredible promise about how the faithfulness of God speaks to the reality of failure—even if it’s just perceived failure.  

I am particularly drawn to the truth that God’s compassions never fail. That word translated fail is the Hebrew word kala which means “concluded” or “finished.” It’s a word that carries the idea of finality. But in Lamentations 3:22, we find never in front of that word. That means God’s compassions toward me (and you) will truly never come to an end. That’s comforting when I consider the challenging and unfinished task of preaching.  

Like most preachers, I plan my preaching calendar a year in advance, and my sermon preparation looks the same pretty much every week.  

Monday is not a great day for me because I always deal with a little post-adrenalin letdown from the weekend that includes a Saturday-night service and two Sunday-morning services. So, I start preparing my sermon in earnest on Tuesday morning. I’ve never been a “grinder,” so I live with that message Tuesday, Wednesday, and the first part of Thursday. And each week I preach, regardless of how I felt about the previous message, regardless of whether there was much of a response, I feel God’s compassion.  

When I’m having a bad day, I feel God’s compassion. When I’m struggling to put words on paper, I feel God’s compassion. And when those feelings of failure creep in, I feel God’s compassion.  

Psalm 103:13-14 says, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” God’s compassion is the answer when we experience feelings of failure.  

Frederick Buechner said, “Compassion is the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin.” That’s what God did when he came into the world in the person of Jesus. Because of that, he not only knows who we are, he knows what we need. And his compassions never fail. 

Chris Philbeck serves as pastor of Mount Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Ind. 

3 Comments

  1. Jerran Jackson

    Thanks for this helpful encouragement, Chris.

  2. Bob Stacy

    Someone once asked me, “How do you preach on Sunday if you sinned on Saturday?” I thought a moment and then replied, “I preach with more conviction than ever, for I realize and experience how important it is to know the grace of God?” And so, as a song says, “Failure is not final with the Father!” And for that, I, as a preacher, thank God and just keep preaching the Word!

  3. Randy Wheeler

    Great words, Chris! No one who has preached for any extended time has escaped those occasional feelings of failure.

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