The Preparation of the Preacher by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “Preaching and Preachers” published in 1971 with the present impression in 1998.
WE COME NOW to a new aspect of our study of preaching or the preacher and preaching. We have been looking at what takes place when a man stands in a pulpit and preaches in a service in a church. We had to start with that. There is the fact, that is what is taking place; and we have therefore considered what preaching is, in general, and the preparation of the man who is preaching.
We now turn to a different aspect of the matter. So far our approach has been general. We now come to the specific matter of how this man actually prepares for this week by week. I trust that my broad division of the subject is clear. As I view this all-important matter we must be clear and right in our understanding of the whole before we come down to any particulars. We have now reached that point and so can look at this man, who is conscious of his call, preparing himself for the exercising of this ministry of preaching.
How does he do so? What is the process of preparation? I would lay it down as a first postulate that he is always preparing. I mean that literally. That does not mean to say that he is always sitting at a desk; but he is always preparing. As it is true to say that there is no such thing as a holiday in the spiritual realm, I always feel that in the same sense the preacher never has a holiday. He has times of absence from his normal work, he has vacations, but because of the nature and character of his calling he is never free from his work. Everything he does, or that happens to him, he finds to be relevant to this great work, and is therefore a part of his preparation.
But turning to certain specific matters, the preacher’s first, and the most important task is to prepare himself, not his sermon. Any man who has been any length of time in the ministry will agree wholeheartedly with me concerning this. It is something that one has to learn by experience. At first one tends to think that the great thing is to prepare the sermon-and the sermon, as I have been saying, does need most careful preparation. But altogether more important is the preparation of the preacher himself.
In a sense the preacher is a man of one thing. There are those who have said in the past, like John Wesley, that they had become `a man of one Book’. While that is true, speaking generally, it is even more true that the preacher is a man of one thing. This is the thing to which he is called, and it is the great passion of his life.
So what does he do about this? The first great rule is that he must be very careful to maintain a general discipline in his life. There are many dangers in the life of a minister. Unlike men in professions and in business he is not tied of necessity by office hours and other conventions, or with conditions determined outside himself; he is, as compared with them, his own master. I mean in reference to men. He is not his own master, of course, with reference to God. But there is this obvious distinction between the life of a minister and the life of most other men, and because things are in his own hands he must realise that there are certain serious dangers and temptations which confront him in a very special manner. One of these is the danger of just frittering away your time, particularly in the morning. You start with the newspaper, and it is very easy to spend a great deal of time on this, quite unconsciously. Then there are weekly magazines and journals, and interruptions on the telephone and so on. You may well find that your morning has gone whether you are working in your home or in an office in your church. So I have felt always, and increasingly with the years, that one of the great rules for a preacher is to safeguard the mornings. Make an absolute rule of this. Try to develop a system whereby you are not available on the telephone in the morning; let your wife or anyone else take messages for you, and inform the people who are telephoning that you are not available. One literally has to fight for one’s life in this sense!
How often has a morning’s work in the study been interrupted by a phone call about some matter of no urgency, sometimes about a preaching engagement in two years’ time! That is the kind of thing that happens. You can deal with that situation in one of two ways. One is to ask the good man to write to you so that you may consider the matter carefully. But the second, and the more effective way, is not to answer the telephone yourself at all in the morning, and to give instructions to someone to say on your behalf, `Would you mind telephoning again at such-and-such a time’—lunch time or some other time when you have finished your morning’s work. Such interruptions are really bad; the only possible good they can do is to help in the matter of one’s sanctification! Do not allow even the affairs of the Church to interfere with this. Safeguard your mornings! They must be given up to this great task of preparing for your work in the pulpit.
I want to add a word here which to me is important, but which may not be acceptable to all. I am an opponent of universal set rules for all. Nothing is more important than that a man should get to know himself. I include in that that he should get to know himself physically as well as temperamentally and in other respects. I say this because there are those who would prescribe a programme for a preacher and minister; they tell him when to get up in the morning, what to do before breakfast, and what to do later and so on. They do not hesitate to draw up systems and programmes and to advocate these, and indeed almost to suggest that if a man does not follow such a programme that he is a sinner and a failure. I have always been an opponent of such ideas for this reason, that we are all different, and that you cannot lay down a programme of this nature for everybody.
Let me illustrate what I mean. We live in the body, and our bodies differ from case to case. We also have different temperaments and natures, so you cannot lay down universal rules. Let me use an illustration from the realm of dietetics. This has always been the subject of much discussion. What should one eat? What diet should one follow? There are always those ready to come forward who have worked out and advocate a kind of universal diet. Everybody should be on this diet, and if you go on to this diet you will never have any more trouble. There is one final answer to all that. I hold that the first rule of dietetics is simply that `Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean’. That is just sheer fact. Jack Spratt was so constituted that he could not digest fat. He had not decided that; he was born like that. This is a matter of the metabolic processes of the body which one does not determine. His wife was entirely different; she could not digest lean meat, but thrived on fat. Well now, to prescribe a common diet for Jack Spratt and his wife is obviously just sheer nonsense.
The same principle, I maintain, applies on a higher level also. Some of us are slow starters in the morning; others wake up fresh and brimful of energy in the morning, like a dog at the leash, waiting to go to work. We do not determine this; it is something constitutional. It depends on many factors, partly, if not chiefly, on blood pressure and such matters as your nervous constitution, the balance of your ductless glands, etc. All these factors come in. I argue therefore that our first business is to get to know ourselves, get to know how you, with your particular constitution, work. Get to know when you are at your best and how to handle yourself. Having done so, do not allow anyone to impose mechanical rules upon you or to dictate to you how you should work and divide up your day. Work out your own programme; you know when you can do your best work. If you do not do so you will soon find that it is possible for you to sit at a desk—according to the rules and regulations—for a couple of hours with a book open in front of you, and turn its pages, but actually absorb practically nothing. Perhaps later on in the day you could do much more in half an hour than you have tried to do in the two hours in the morning. That is the kind of thing I mean.
This means that this question of discipline is thrown right back on to the man himself. Nobody can tell him what to do. What controls everything is his realisation that if he is to be what he should be, if he is to be a true preacher, a spiritually minded man who is concerned about ministering to the glory of God and the edification and salvation of souls, he must do this. That should compel him to exercise this discipline. If he has the right motive and the right objective, if he is truly called, he will be so anxious to do all he has to do in the most effective manner that he will take the trouble to find out how best to order and organise himself and his day. I have known many men who have got into difficulties because they have had a system imposed upon them which was not suited to them.
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I approach the next matter with great diffidence, much hesitation, and a sense of utter unworthiness. I suppose we all fail at this next point more than anywhere else; that is in the matter of prayer. Prayer is vital to the life of the preacher. Read the biographies, and the autobiographies of the greatest preachers throughout the centuries and you will find that this has always been the great characteristic of their lives. They were always great men of prayer, and they spent considerable time in prayer. I could quote many examples but I must refrain as there are so many, and they are well known. These men found that this was absolutely essential, and that it became increasingly so as they went on.
I have always hesitated to deal with this subject. I have preached on prayer when it has come in a passage through which I have been working; but I have never presumed to produce a book on prayer, or even a booklet. Certain people have done this in a very mechanical manner, taking us through the different aspects, and classifying it all. It all seems so simple. But prayer is not simple. There is an element of discipline in prayer, of course, but it surely cannot be dealt with in that way because of its very nature. All I would say is this—and again I am speaking here from personal experience—that once more it is very important for one to know one’s self in this matter. Whether this is a sign of a lack of deep spirituality or not I do not know—I do not think it is—but I confess freely that I have often found it difficult to start praying in the morning.
I have come to learn certain things about private prayer. You cannot pray to order. You can get on your knees to order; but how to pray? I have found nothing more important than to learn how to get oneself into that frame and condition in which one can pray. You have to learn how to start yourself off, and it is just here that this knowledge of yourself is so important. What I have generally found is that to read something which can be characterised in general as devotional is of great value. By devotional I do not mean something sentimental, I mean something with a true element of worship in it. Notice that I do not say that you should start yourself in prayer by always reading the Scriptures; because you can have precisely the same difficulty there. Start by reading something that will warm your spirit. Get rid of a coldness that may have developed in your spirit. You have to learn how to kindle a flame in your spirit, to warm yourself up, to give yourself a start. It is comparable, if you like, to starting a car when it is cold. You have to learn how to use a spiritual choke. I have found it most rewarding to do that, and not to struggle vainly. When one finds oneself in this condition, and that it is difficult to pray, do not struggle in prayer for the time being, but read something that will warm and stimulate you, and you will find that it will put you into a condition in which you will be able to pray more freely.
But I am not suggesting for a moment—quite the reverse—that your praying should be confined only to the morning when you start your work in your study. Prayer should be going on throughout the day. Prayer need not of necessity be long; it can be brief, just an ejaculation at times is a true prayer. That is, surely, what the Apostle Paul means in his exhortation in I Thessalonians 5:17, `Pray without ceasing’. That does not mean that you should be perpetually on your knees, but that you are always in a prayerful condition. As you are walking along a road, or while you are working in your study, you turn frequently to God in prayer.
Above all—and this I regard as most important of all—always respond to every impulse to pray. The impulse to pray may come when you are reading or when you are battling with a text. I would make an absolute law of this—always obey such an impulse. Where does it come from? It is the work of the Holy Spirit; it is a part of the meaning of, `Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure’ (Philippians 2:12-13). This often leads to some of the most remarkable experiences in the life of the minister. So never resist, never postpone it, never push it aside because you are busy. Give yourself to it, yield to it; and you will find not only that you have not been wasting time with respect to the matter with which you are dealing, but that actually it has helped you greatly in that respect. You will experience an ease and a facility in understanding what you were reading, in thinking, in ordering matter for a sermon, in writing, in everything, which is quite astonishing. Such a call to prayer must never be regarded as a distraction; always respond to it immediately, and thank God if it happens to you frequently.
From every standpoint the minister, the preacher, must be a man of prayer. This is constantly emphasised in the Pastoral Epistles and elsewhere, and, as I say, it is confirmed abundantly in the long history of the Church, and especially in the lives of the outstanding preachers. John Wesley used to say that he thought very little of a man who did not pray four hours every day. Nothing stands out so clearly likewise in the lives of people like David Brainerd and Jonathan Edwards, Robert Murray McCheyne and a host of other saints. That is why one is so humbled as one reads the stories of such men.
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That brings us to the next essential in the preacher’s life—the reading of the Bible. This is obviously something that he does every day regularly. My main advice here is: Read your Bible systematically. The danger is to read at random, and that means that one tends to be reading only one’s favourite passages. In other words one fails to read the whole Bible. I cannot emphasise too strongly the vital importance of reading the whole Bible. I would say that all preachers should read through the whole Bible in its entirety at least once every year. You can devise your own method for doing this, or you can use one of the methods devised by others. I remember how after I had worked out a scheme for myself and the members of my church in my early years in the ministry, I then came across the scheme that Robert Murray McCheyne worked out for the members of his church in Dundee. It is in his biography by Andrew Bonar. By following that scheme of Robert Murray McCheyne you read four chapters of the Bible every day, and by so doing you read the Old Testament once, but the Psalms and the New Testament twice, each year. Unlike many modern schemes he did not just pick out little sections, or a few verses or small paragraphs here and there, and thus take many years to go through the whole Bible, and in some cases omit certain passages altogether. The whole object of his scheme is to get people to go right through the Scriptures every year omitting nothing. That should be the very minimum of the preacher’s Bible reading.
I have found this to be one of the most important things of all. Then, having done that, you can decide to work your way through one particular book, with commentaries or any aids that you may choose to employ. The reading I have been describing so far has been general reading; but now you proceed to study one particular portion, one of the chapters you have been reading, if you like, in detail and carefully with all the aids that you can find, and with your knowledge of the original languages and all else.
I would emphasise this yet more strongly. One of the most fatal habits a preacher can ever fall into is to read his Bible simply in order to find texts for sermons. This is a real danger; it must be recognised and fought and resisted with all your might. Do not read the Bible to find texts for sermons, read it because it is the food that God has provided for your soul, because it is the Word of God, because it is the means whereby you can get to know God. Read it because it is the bread of life, the manna provided for your soul’s nourishment and well-being.
The preacher, I say, does not read his Bible in order to find texts; but as he reads his Bible in this way—as indeed all Christians should—he will suddenly find as he is reading that a particular statement stands out, and as it were hits him, and speaks to him, and immediately suggests a sermon to him.
Here, I want to say something that I regard as in many ways the most important discovery I have made in my life as a preacher. I had to discover it for myself, and all to whom I have introduced it have always been most grateful for it. When you are reading your Scriptures in this way—it matters not whether you have read little or much—if a verse stands out and hits you and arrests you, do not go on reading. Stop immediately, and listen to it. It is speaking to you, so listen to it and speak to it. Stop reading at once, and work on this statement that has struck you in this way. Go on doing so to the point of making a skeleton of a sermon. This verse or statement has spoken to you, it has suggested a message to you. The danger at that point I had to discover is to say to oneself, ‘Ah yes, that is good, I will remember that’, and then to go on with the reading. Then you find yourself towards the end of the week without a sermon for the Sunday, without even a text, and you say to yourself, `Now what was that that I was reading the other day? Oh yes, it was this verse in that chapter.’ You then turn back to it and find to your dismay that it says nothing at all to you; you cannot recapture the message. That is why I say that whenever anything strikes you you must stop immediately and work out a skeleton of a sermon in your mind. But do not stop even at that: Put it down on paper.
For many many years I have never read my Bible without having a scribbling-pad either on my table or in my pocket; and the moment anything strikes me or arrests me I immediately pull out my pad. A preacher has to be like a squirrel and has to learn how to collect and store matter for the future days of winter. So you not only work out your skeleton, you put it down on paper, because otherwise you will not remember it. You think you will, but you will soon discover that it is not so. The principle involved here is precisely the one that operates with regard to examinations. We all know what it is to sit and listen to a lecture and to hear the lecturer saying certain things. As you listen you say, `Yes, all right, I know that.’ Then later you go to the examination hall and you have to answer a question on that very matter, and you suddenly find that you do not know much about it. You thought you did, but you do not. So the rule is, whenever anything strikes you put it down on paper. The result is that you will soon find that you have accumulated a little pile of skeletons—skeletons of sermons—in this way. Then you will be truly rich.
I have known ministers to be frantic on a Saturday with no texts or sermons for the Sunday, and trying desperately to get hold of something. That is simply because they have not practised what I am advocating. This is, I would say, if I had to single out one thing as being more important than anything else in the life of a preacher, this is beyond all question on the practical level the most important of all. I remember once that, looking through my pile of skeletons just before leaving for my summer vacation, I happened to notice that there were ten skeletons bearing on the same theme. I there and then arranged them in order and so knew that I had a series of ten consecutive sermons ready for my return. In a sense I no longer needed the holiday!
Next in order I would say is—and I cannot think of a better term though I do not like it in some ways because it has been so abused—‘devotional reading’. I do not mean by that what are called devotional commentaries. I abominate `devotional’ commentaries. I do not want other people to do my devotions for me; yet I cannot think of a better term here. I am thinking of a type of reading which will help you in general to understand and enjoy the Scriptures, and to prepare you for the pulpit. This type of reading comes next to the Scriptures. What is it? I would not hesitate to put into this category the reading of the Puritans. That is precisely what they do for us. Those men were preachers, they were practical, experimental preachers, who had a great pastoral interest and care for the people. So as you read them you find that they not only give knowledge and information, they at the same time do something to you. Again I would emphasise that it is most important that the preacher should know not only himself in general but also his particular moods and states and conditions. The preacher should never be moody; but he will have varying moods. No man can tell what he will feel like tomorrow morning; you do not control that. Our business is to do something about these changing moods and not to allow ourselves to become victims of them. You are not exactly the same two days running, and you have to treat yourself according to your varying conditions. So you will have to discover what is the most appropriate reading for yourself in these varying states.
You will find, I think, in general, that the Puritans are almost invariably helpful. I must not go into this overmuch, but there are Puritans and Puritans! John Owen on the whole is difficult to read; he was a highly intellectual man. But there were Puritan writers who were warmer and more direct and more experimental. I shall never cease to be grateful to one of them called Richard Sibbes who was balm to my soul at a period in my life when I was overworked and badly overtired, and therefore subject in an unusual manner to the onslaughts of the devil. In that state and condition to read theology does not help, indeed it may be well-nigh impossible; what you need is some gentle tender treatment for your soul. I found at that time that Richard Sibbes, who was known in London in the early seventeenth century as `The Heavenly Doctor Sibbes’ was an unfailing remedy. His books The Bruised Reed and The Soul’s Conflict quietened, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me. I pity the preacher who does not know the appropriate remedy to apply to himself in these various phases through which his spiritual life must inevitably pass.
This may sound strange to some, even wrong. You may have a theoretical outlook; you have not been in the ministry and you know nothing of its problems and cares and trials. The Apostle Paul knew what it was to experience `without were fightings, within were fears’. He knew what it was to be `cast down’ and `in great conflict’ and to be in the midst of a great fight; and any minister worth his salt is bound to know this. `The care of all the churches’, says the Apostle elsewhere. All these various factors—problems with people, problems with yourself, physical states and conditions—lead to this kind of variation in the level of one’s spiritual experience. This has also been the testimony of the saints throughout the centuries. I am always very distrustful of any Christian who tells me that he or she knows nothing about such variations. There is a chorus which says, `And now I am happy all the day.’ I do not believe that; it is not true. There will be times when you will be unhappy. There are these states and conditions of the soul, and the sooner you learn how to deal with them, and how to handle them, the better it will be for you and for the people to whom you preach.
Under this same heading I would put the reading of sermons. I must be careful about this. I have already indicated that there are sermons and sermons, and that the date at which they were published is somewhat important. I can simply testify that in my experience the help that I derived in my early years in the ministry from reading the sermons of Jonathan Edwards was immeasurable. And, of course not only his sermons, but also his account of that Great Awakening, that great religious Revival that took place in America in the eighteenth century, and his great The Religious Affections. All that was invaluable because Edwards was an expert in dealing with the states and conditions of the soul. He dealt in a very practical manner with problems arising in a pastoral ministry among people who were passing through the various phases of spiritual experience. This is invaluable to the preacher. The preacher has thus to choose his reading judiciously, not only for the sake of his own soul but also that he may be able to help others, not only directly but also in their reading. Much harm is often done by advising people to read the wrong type of book—you can make them worse instead of better. If a man is already slightly melancholic, and tends to morbidity and introspection, and you give him a book to read that is mainly designed to produce conviction of sin and to awaken and alarm, you may well drive him mad. He does not need that, he needs encouragement and positive instruction at that point; and vice versa. So you have to know what to read for yourself, and also for others. I leave it at that. There is ample material; indeed the preacher’s great difficulty is to find sufficient time for reading; it is a constant battle.
Time must be found for reading, and we turn now to the more purely intellectual type of reading. The first is theology. There is no greater mistake than to think that you finish with theology when you leave a seminary. The preacher should continue to read theology as long as he is alive.The more he reads the better, and there are many authors and different systems to be studied. I have known men in the ministry, and men in various other walks of life who stop reading when they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading; and read the big works. I have many reasons for saying that. We shall return to it later.
Then I come back again to what I emphasised when considering the training of the preacher—the importance of reading Church history. That must never be regarded as just a subject to be studied for examination purposes; it is of much greater value to the preacher than to the student. And he needs to be reminded constantly of the great facts. In exactly the same way one should continue to read biographies and the journals of men of God,especially these men who have been greatly used as preachers—Whitefield, the Wesleys and so on. Keep on with this; it is never ending. The more you read along those lines the better equipped you will be. All this, remember, comes under the heading of the preparation of yourself.
Next in order I would put apologetic reading. I mean by that that there are fashions in theology and philosophy; they come and go. It is the business of the preacher to be acquainted with all this, so he will have to read some of these books. He cannot read them all because there are too many of them, far too many; but he will have to read some of them. Then there are questions connected with science, where science seems to come into conflict with faith and with the teaching of the Scriptures. All these matters have to be considered. Then, of course, there is psychology and its particularly subtle attacks on the Faith.
Now no one man can be expert on everything; but he has to try to keep up to date and abreast of all this as best he can. So he must read about these matters so that he may know what is happening. So far I have been thinking mainly in terms of books. But in addition there are the journals and periodicals, not only those that belong to one’s own denomination, but others that are relevant to the work, and especially in these ecumenical days. All this is necessary to help the preacher to make an assessment of the people who are going to listen to him. He must know something about their background and their outlook, and what they are thinking, and what they are reading, and the influences that are being brought to bear upon them. People in their innocence and ignorance are still ready to listen to plausible speakers and to believe anything they read in a newspaper or popular journal, and it is our business to help them and to protect them. We are shepherds, we are pastors, and we are to look after and care for these people who have been committed to our charge. It is our business therefore to equip ourselves for that great task.
Before I go on to other types of reading I would emphasise strongly the all-importance of maintaining a balance in your reading. I cannot stress this too much. Because of our natural differences we all have our prejudices and preferences, so there is the type of man who spends the whole of his time reading theology, another reading philosophy, another psychology; they tend to read practically nothing else. This is really dangerous, and the way to counteract it is to prescribe balanced reading for yourself. What I mean is this. Read theology, as I say, but always balance it, not only with Church history but with biographies and the more devotional type of reading. Let me explain why this is so important. You are preparing yourself, remember, and the danger for the intellectual type of man, if he is only reading theology or philosophy, is to become puffed up. He persuades himself that he has a perfect system; there is no problem, there is no difficulty. But he will soon discover that there are problems and difficulties; and if he wants to avoid shipwreck, the best thing he can do when he feels that he knows all, and is elated and tempted to intellectual pride, is to pick up say the Journals of George Whitefield. There he will read of how that man was used of God in England, Wales, Scotland and America, and also of his experiences of the love of Christ; and if he does not soon feel that he is but a worm, well then I suggest that he has never been regenerated. We continually need to be humbled. That is why balanced reading is an absolute essential. If your heart is not as much engaged as your head in these matters, your theology is defective—apart from anything else. There is this real danger of becoming over-theoretical, over-academic, over-objective, over-intellectual. That will mean not only that you are in a dangerous spiritual state yourself, but also that to that extent you will be a poor preacher and a poor pastor. You will not help your people and you will be failing at the task to which you are called.
The way to counteract, and to safeguard yourself against that, is to balance your reading. Never fail to do so. I maintain that one should always be reading along these differing lines daily. I have developed a sort of routine which I think is sound and profitable almost from the physical standpoint as well as the other. If I am reading the stiffer and the more difficult books, or the more directly theological books in the morning, I read the other types at night. It is good that the mind should not be too much exercised or stimulated before you go to bed, if you want to avoid the problem of insomnia. It does not matter so much when you are young—at that stage you can do almost anything you like and still sleep—but as you get older you will find that it is not quite so easy. I have often had to say that to men who have been in trouble nervously, and on the verge of a breakdown. It has been obvious to me from listening to their stories that they were in the habit of reading really difficult matter which called out all their reserves of mental ability right up until they retired to bed; and then they were surprised when their minds refused to stop working, and they could not relax and sleep. This is sheer common sense; but it is very important. So balance your reading for all these reasons.
What is the purpose of all this reading? I reiterate that the object of all this reading is not primarily to get ideas for preaching. That is another terrible danger. As men tend to read their Bibles in order to get texts for sermons, so they tend to read books in order to get preaching material. I would almost describe this as the occupational disease of the ministry. I remember a minister telling me in 1930 that he had been to a conference, or house-party designed to deepen people’s spiritual experiences. He told me of the great benefit he had derived from the conference. I was expecting him to tell me something about what he had experienced, or of what it had meant to him spiritually; but that is not what he told me. He said, `I got wonderful preaching stuff there.’ Preaching stuff! Preaching material! He did not go to the conference to derive spiritual benefit, but simply to get material—illustrations, stories of other people’s experiences, etc—for his sermons. He had virtually immured himself from any spiritual influence because he approached everything in this way. He had become a professional. He would read his Bible to get texts, he would read books to get ideas and so on.
In fact this can become quite ludicrous; and I am glad that this is so for this reason, that preachers who have to go to books to get sermons are generally caught out! This was brought home to me when I lived in South Wales. There was a famous religious bookshop in a certain town, and preachers from the outlying district used to go into the market and to visit the bookstall once a week or oftener. They all went to this bookshop and bought the various books. The tendency was, naturally, for all to buy the same books, and the result was that many of them were preaching the same sermon! But, unfortunately for them, their people, their church members, knew one another and when they met they would talk about their respective churches and ministers. One would talk about a wonderful sermon he had heard the previous Sunday. `What was the text?’ the other would ask. On being told the questioner would begin to smile, because he had also been listening to much the same thing. There were slight variations of course, but essentially it was the same sermon! These poor men had become dependent upon books for their ideas.
I remember another minister, who was a good preacher, telling me on one occasion when I happened to be travelling in the same compartment in a train and found him reading Robert Bridges’ Testament of Beauty that he `got’ much more from `these fellows’ than he did from anybody else. What he meant was that he got more ideas and preaching material there. There are men who get their ideas from books and journals, indeed from all sorts of strange places.
I maintain that this is not the primary object of reading. What then is its main purpose and function? It is to provide information; but still more important, it is because it is the best general stimulus. What the preacher always needs is a stimulus.
In a sense one should not go to books for ideas; the business of books is to make one think. We are not gramophone records, we are to think originally. What we preach is to be the result of our own thought. We do not merely transmit ideas. The preacher is not meant to be a mere channel through which water flows; he is to be more like a well. So the function of reading is to stimulate us in general, to stimulate us to think, to think for ourselves. Take all you read and masticate it thoroughly. Do not just repeat it as you have received it; deliver it in your own way, let it emerge as a part of yourself, with your stamp upon it. That is why I emphasise the general principle that that is the chief function of learning. It is tragic when men become mere gramophone records, or tape-recording machines with the same thing being churned out and repeated endlessly. Such a man will soon become barren; he will soon be in difficulties; and his people will have recognised it long before he does.
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One further remark about reading. General reading is also important. Why? Well, if there were no other reason—merely for the sake of relief for the mind. The mind needs rest. The man who is too tense and who over-taxes his mind will soon get into trouble. The mind must be given relief and rested. But to relieve your mind does not just mean that you stop reading; read something different. Read something quite different, and as you do so the mind can relax. A change in this respect is as good as a rest. And at the same time you will be adding to your stock of good general information, which is excellent as a background to preaching. So I advocate the reading of history. I mean now secular history, biographies, the history of statesmen, even the history of war, if you like. You may have some special interest in some such subject, a hobby; well, make use of it, develop it. But once more, a solemn warning! Do not give too much of your time to it. That is the danger. You will always be fighting in this respect. There will always be the tendency to go to extremes. But if you have a special interest, cultivate it in moderation. It will be good for your mind; it will preserve resilience and freshness. I have therefore always tried to do this, and to take certain journals which deal with general affairs and literary matters, and where there are good well-written articles and good book reviews which will suggest other books for reading. I am not a believer in digests and encyclopaedias which encourage a`ready-reckoner’ mentality rather than thought.
The minister should always be reading in this balanced way which he maps out for himself. It was always my practice many years ago when on my summer vacation to take one big book with me. At that time it was generally the latest Bampton Lectures. These were generally by men who were not evangelical, but they were men who could take a broad survey of a particular aspect of Truth. The Bampton Lectures or the Hibbert Lectures I found to be of great value. A busy preacher rarely has the time for the consecutive reading that that type of book demands, so I took advantage of a vacation to read such works. My wife was very ready to agree with my scheme, and the children equally so later. They gave me the mornings to myself that I might do this; then, having done that, I was prepared to do anything they proposed. Looking back I am glad that I had the sense and the wisdom to do that.
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I must say a word about music. Music does not help everyone, but it greatly helps some people; and I am fortunately one of them. Someone recently said to me that he was astonished when reading the obituary notices at the time of the death of Karl Barth to find that Barth used to start the morning by listening to a record of music by Mozart. He said that he could not understand this. I said, `What is your difficulty?’ `Well,’ he replied, `I am surprised that a thinker like Karl Barth went to Mozart; I would have expected him to go to Beethoven or Wagner or perhaps Bach.’ He was astonished. My feeling about this man was that he evidently did not know the real value of music, or how to use it. `I can tell you why Karl Barth went to Mozart’ I said, `He did not go to him for thoughts or ideas, he went to Mozart because Mozart did something to him in a general sense. Mozart put him into a good mood, and made him feel happy in his spirit. He released him, and set him free to do his own thinking.’ A general stimulus in that way is often more helpful than a more particular intellectual one. The man himself is bigger than his intellect. Is not that the reason why the prophets of old had music played to them on the harp or some other instrument? I shall refer to this again later. Anything that does you good, puts you into a good mood or condition, anything that pleases you or releases tensions and relaxes you is of inestimable value. Music does this to some in a wonderful way. Remember that we are still dealing with the ways in which the preacher treats and handles himself and prepares himself. So put on your gramophone record, or whatever it is—anything you know that will help you.
I end as I began, by saying—Know yourself. You will find that there will be variations in your life; you will pass through phases and experience various states. Get to know yourself. You will find that there will be periods, perhaps of days, even weeks, when for some amazing reason your mind is working at its very best, and you are in a fecund condition finding ideas for sermons everywhere—‘Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in everything.’ When that happens, hold out both hands, take it all in; write down on paper as much as you can, so that when the dry and barren and arid periods come you will have something to fall back upon. `Know thyself’ was the advice given by the Greek philosophers of old; and there is still no more important injunction for preachers. (165-184)