Some years ago I read of a poll of Americans who were asked what their greatest fear was. To my surprize, number one on the list was “Public Speaking” and number two was “Death.” That meant that at a funeral, most people would rather actually be dead in the casket than having to give the eulogy!
What is it exactly that scares us about public speaking? I am sure there are many things we could think of in answer to that question. Its something each of us should ask ourselves.
I remember distinctly a February day in 1986. I had dreaded this day for about a month, ever since the day I saw my name posted on the Bible Seminary schedule for “Preaching Assignment.” Though I had preached numerous times before, this day was going to be different. Not only was I to preach for 20 minutes to my student peers, but this time, for the very first time, my preaching was to be recorded on video. More than that, for the hour that followed the preaching, I was to sit through the ordeal of watching myself preach on television.
What was it about that day I dreaded? I knew I was called to preach. I knew I had something of worth to say (because I was going to present the word of God). So what was it that terrified me so much?
The night before was spent in earnest prayer. I was almost sick to my stomach. I certainly did not feel I could eat any food. I sought to soothe my conscience by suggesting to myself that this was spiritual activity – I was seeking to be close to God by skipping a meal – fasting. But the truth was, I was only missing the evening meal because I was a nervous wreck. God did not have much to do with the whole thing.
When the moment came for me to preach, I sought refuge in the only place I knew… the grace of God. My prayer was that He would help me as never before. That He would come and help me with supernatural help from His throne.
Now you the reader must understand something. As a child I was incredibly shy. I hardly talked at all. One incident from my childhood illustrates this. My mother, visiting my kindergarten school after the first semester, met with my teacher to inquire as to how I was doing. The teacher’s exact words were, “well, Mrs. Samson, we think John is doing ok.”
My mother asked, “why do you only think he is doing ok?”
The teacher said, “well, John has not actually spoken yet!”
I don’t know if God looked down on that little boy all wrapped up in himself and thought it was a nice challenge for Him. During the rest of my childhood I did not talk very much at all; certainly I could not explain myself and my feelings. (In fact, I only seemed to express myself with my feet when I kicked a soccer ball!). Yet after the age of 15, when I knew God had called me to preach was I able to string sentences together to preach His message. I have no doubt that God chose that little boy to be saved and called him into the ministry to be His herald! There is no greater calling and honor in this world.
So back to the seminary in England…
I asked myself why it was I was so nervous, and if I was completely honest, every answer had to do with SELF. I was scared because I wanted to not look like a total loser. I did not want to let the side down. I did not want to look foolish in front of people, and I certainly did not wish to see all my obvious flaws on a television screen afterwards. But bottom line, my nerves stemmed entirely from a desire for self preservation.
Well, I gave the sermon my best shot. I still remember my theme, “the kingdom of God.” Students and lecturers applauded me after the sermon. I guess I did well in their eyes. I did feel the pleasure and help of God in it all. But watching myself on the screen afterwards was the most disheartening thing imaginable for me. It actually made me very depressed. I saw myself through the most critical vantage point imaginable. I thought the image I saw (myself) was a poor reflection of what it should be – very poor in fact. No one needed to tell me of my flaws. I saw all of them long before anyone else ever did. Nothing I saw brought me pleasure. They were the toughest moments I could remember, seeing myself and my preaching as others saw it.
A wise old preacher sat with me through the watching of the sermon on the television screen. His words broke through to me in a way that penetrated my self absorbed heart. You see, we often think that a loud and confident person suffers from arrogance, but I can attest that a quiet and shy person can have just as much of a haughty spirit as his louder counterpart. Both the loud mouth and the shy violet are preoccupied with self.
What were the words of the wise preacher?
He said, “Son, God has given you a great gift of communication, and if you could ever get over yourself, you could be a real blessing to people!”
Wow! What a statement! In hearing those words, I was both exhilerated and downcast at the same time. I was so happy that someone of such ilk would recognize God’s hand on my life and ministry, and devastated that he thought me to be full of myself.
Yet he was right. More right than I cared to admit. And his words penetrated my shy bubble and broke something that had hung over me there since childhood.
The second insight I had came from the Scripture, and this to me was even more of a help to me.
I was one day reading about Paul’s thorn in 2 Corinthians chapter 12. In verse 7, in the King James Version I was reading at the time, I came across these words, “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.
The phrase “exalted above measure” (mentioned twice in the same verse here, proved to be highly significant to me. Let me explain.
In understanding what theologians refer to as human depravity, there is never a time when we are completely without pride. No one wants to look bad in front of others. We buy clothes that make us look good. We buy matching clothes for the same reason. We look in the mirror to make sure our hair is in place. There is a right sense of pride that each of us needs to embrace if we are to survive in this world. I think we all understand that. We also understand that there is a level of pride that is far from healthy. When someone is so preoccupied with themselves, it is a very ugly thing indeed. Yet if we had to wait until we had no sense of self worth and no sense of pride whatsoever, every ministry of the Church would be struck dumb.
Even in the regenerated heart, there is never going to be 100% purity of motivation this side of heaven. Until we are fully glorified and the old man of sin is no longer present with us, we all have flesh to deal with. We are told that Paul was given the thorn (whatever it was) to buffet him so that his pride would not be exalted above measure. There is a measure that God allows for, knowing our frailty as human beings.
God is so gracious. He calls preachers who are far from perfect. He has only ever had one Person do any ministry for Him who was entirely perfect, and that was the Lord Himself. All the rest of us have treasure in very much earthen vessels.
Only when pride gets out of hand, when it gets “above measure”, will God step in to humble us. Instead of refusing to use us until we are perfect, He knows our weakened frame and the battles we face with our flesh and calls imperfect people to represent the Perfect One.
Speaking personally, what seemed to add to my self consciousness was the worst case of acne I have ever seen. That is no exaggeration. A mother’s love for a child is often unbounded, but even my mother did not keep photos of me from age 13-16. The severity of my skin condition made me a hospital case for a number of years. God has his “ways and means committee” so to speak. For Paul, he sent a thorn in the flesh. For me, what I saw in the mirror for those teenage years acted very much like a similar measure, quelching any sense of heightened pride. My only relief from all this seemed to be on the soccer field where I excelled and even came close to becoming a professional soccer player, but for the Lord’s call to Christian ministry which then sent me in another direction, much to the anger of my sports coach.
We should fight pride on all occasions, looking to the Holy Spirit to cultivate Christlike humility in us… but here’s what I have learned: if I feel my main motivation is to glorify God, I can then say, “John get over yourself. Preach the word, make Him look good and forget about yourself. Just proclaim His word as the herald He has called you to be.”
It is always right to ask myself “why are you doing this John? Why are you writing this? Why are you desiring to preach? What is your motivation?” But I will not allow myself to be so self-absorbed that it paralyses me. He called me to preach and preach I must, asking God to chain and curb the natural desires of the flesh, and for Christ to be seen as He is. I am not the message, Christ is. Paul wrote, “we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord.” Amen, and a thousand amens to that!
If I can detect that in my heart the main desire is to glorify God and proclaim the wonderful treasures of Christ, I then feel I can go boldly to the pulpit and ask that He would empower me to proclaim His word with love and without compromise. The results then, are in His hand.
How gracious the Lord truly is. He uses us, and even changes us in the process. When He uses me to speak a word in season that edifies even a single saint of His, that is something only He gets the credit for. To Him be all the glory. He has taken a young boy who could not even speak, and filled his mouth with the oracles of God.
What an amazing God we serve!