“You can become like me if you listen to my sermons and do everything that I say. If you like me and think I’ve got it together, then you will want to be like me. Put your hope in my words, and do what I say. My yoke isn’t easy, and it certainly isn’t light, but the pay-off will be worth it.”
Most preachers are, whether they know it or not, projecting an image of the ideal Christian for you to strive towards. That image, like the paragraph above, usually points back to themselves. It’s never quite so explicit, and in the preacher’s mind, they are giving you the best gift they have to offer: their experiences. You, the hearer, are left to buy into that projected image by heeding their advice and living accordingly.
This is why so many non-Christians have no interest in ever becoming a Christian. They hear the image that we are projecting at our churches and say: I don’t really care to be like your preacher, thanks anyway. “But don’t you want to have a nice little family like he has! Did you see how faithful and confident he seemed! And did you see how he beat himself up in front of all of us, to show how devoted he was to God? Don’t you want that?” Not really, they think, but then they go off and cast their hope in their favorite movie star, or the CEO of their company, or their spiritual guru – hoping to become more like that person. We are all casting our hope on trying to become like somebody else. And it’s exhausting us!
Unless we are explicitly told about God’s promise (that everything we need we already have in Christ), we will instead hear the law (masquerading as a promise) from the preacher that says, “If you heed my words, you will become like me.” But, if we are thinking clearly, we realize that isn’t a “promise” at all, it’s a new law. In order for us to benefit from the words of the preacher, we must assert ourselves and do what we are told. It is a transaction (do this and you get this in return) that cannot reach down to us where we currently are – in our constantly-failing, un-idealistic self. In order to be taken seriously, we realize, we must work to become something better.
Most of what we do is driven by a desire to become a better version of ourselves. We hear a preacher and the first thing we think is: “Should I do what he says? Well, do I want to be more like him? Is he nice? Does he have a good-looking family? Does he have a steady job?”
See how we are looking for promises? We want a good-looking family. We want a steady job. We think by becoming like him we will get what he has as a reward for our efforts. Our brain does the math all by itself before the preacher even opens his mouth.
But, isn’t this good? Isn’t it good to preach that people become like us? As good, upstanding Christians, don’t we want that? If we have it together, why not? If this is the question that comes into our heads, it should convict us that we are believing our own press: we think we have it together. We think we are healthy. “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jesus said that. This doesn’t mean that some people are actually righteous, it means that you are sick or you are delusional.
This is why I find it so dangerous to preach “advice” from the pulpit. Because people are already so desperate to heed your advice before you ever say a word. They will take your advice even when you don’t give it – by dressing like you and talking like you (and you say, “But I never told them to do that!” You didn’t have to, they made you into a new law without your help – we humans are addicted to law-making).
I keep tossing the word “law” around. What do I mean? What the law says is “Do this and you will live.” The gospel answers that voice that is perpetually ringing in our heads and says, “Christ did this, now you are free to go live in his grace. The law has been fulfilled. You are free, indeed.”
We need to shut out that condemning voice in our head that is always looking for promises in things other than Christ. Find a preacher that casts his hope solely on Christ and him Crucified instead of Man and him Reformed.