Most Christians seem to still agree that preaching is important. We download podcasts and attend conferences that center around preaching, and it remains a primary reason many choose a new church. However, one of the most neglected forms of preaching is also one of the most powerful–preaching to ourselves.
By “preaching to ourselves” I mean the discipline of intense Biblical meditation; reading, dwelling on, and applying the truths of Scripture to our own lives that leads to a deepening love of God, hatred of sin, and faith in Jesus Christ.
The idea of preaching to ourselves is popular today, though my experience suggests that it is under-practiced. Perhaps the reason for this is that we aren’t clear what it is or how it should take form. But I believe the biggest reason we don’t do it is because we believe we don’t need to hear the truths we already know. You ever hear the phrase, “preaching to the choir?”
We use that phrase to explain that what one is saying is already known, and saying it again isn’t needed. “Hey man, you’re preaching to the choir!” translates to, “I do not need to hear your message.” We tend to believe that we only learn something once.
But the reality is, the more important the truth, the more dangerous it is when we drift from it. And we all tend to drift. We forget. So we need to hear, and hear again, the truths we think we already know. Much of preaching to ourselves is telling ourselves things we are already familiar with. Psalm 73 has been a helpful guide for me in this area as it shows us both the motive and method for preaching to ourselves.
In Psalm 73 Asaph is wrestling with what he sees in the world and what he believes. Things are not lining up, and it almost ruins him. Despite his good theology he struggles.
Having Good Theology Is Not Enough
Simply having good theology is not enough. Asaph’s confession was beautiful. “God is good to Israel.” But our theology is where the battle will go down. Asaph knew God is good to Israel, but it didn’t look that way. If our God is good, and present, and sovereign, why do the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer? What he knew was being tested by his circumstances, and he lays out his struggle with envy of the wicked, anger in his circumstances, and unbelief toward God in the first half of the Psalm (Psalms 73:2).
All of this led Asaph to a dangerous place. His foot “almost slipped.” He almost fell spiritually. How does a believer fall? It often happens when we focus so much on our circumstances that they move to the foreground of our lives and wind up eclipsing the larger realities we should be looking to.
As many of you already know your life will push back on your theology, and this is why we need to push back with the truth of God’s word. We need to preach to ourselves. The problem is, when life becomes perplexing or painful we often start listening to ourselves (and our doubts) rather than speaking to ourselves the things we really need to hear. Martyn Lloyd Jones wrote of this in his book, Spiritual Depression.
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’-what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’-instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’. (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, spiritual depression: its causes and cures, pp. 2)
Asaph was tempted to listen to himself. “God isn’t there. God doesn’t love you. God isn’t good to Israel.” And we are tempted as well. We often hear in our heads, “You will never change. You are a loser. You will not make it. Your sin is too big. God is nowhere near you.”
This is when preaching to ourselves is most critical. We need to hear the truth, and ponder what is real; what we may not actually see with our eyes. What should we be doing when we preach to ourselves? It will include at least 3 components.
Preaching to Ourselves Means We Look to God
But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God…
(Psalms 73:16 ESV)
Preaching to ourselves is not a self-centered discipline. It is not a looking in as much as it is a looking up. Asaph goes into the Sanctuary and gains a truer perspective on reality than his circumstances were leading him to believe. In the context of worship he was reminded of the holiness of God and the destruction of the wicked. It’s easy to allow our circumstances to lead us, but it is Scripture that ultimately interprets what we are going through, so we must look in them to God. Preaching to ourselves begins here.
Preaching to Ourselves Means We Address Ourselves
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.
(Psalms 73:21 ESV)
Preaching to ourselves means we address ourselves, and our sin and unbelief in particular. We need to properly diagnose our sickness to find the remedy in the word. This is not a time to beat ourselves up for being sinners. Preaching to ourselves is not morbid introspection, but a pinpointing of our unbelief and idolatry. We do this so we can more accurately speak truth to ourselves. The aim is to stop doubting our God and start doubting our doubt, applying the healing truth of God’s word to our specific struggles and weaknesses.
Preaching to Ourselves Means We Set Our Hope on the Gospel
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand…
(Psalms 73:23 ESV)
The gospel is what makes and sustains a Christian. This is our great hope, and it is the one message we need to hear the most; that we are reconciled to God, that he is our God and we are his people, that our sins are forgiven and eternal life is ours all through the person and work of Jesus Christ – this is where all preaching must lead. It is when we lose sight of this “good news” that the voices in the world begin to overpower the words we have heard so often before.
You have to preach to yourself because the world is broken, the devil is scheming, your heart is corrupt, and you need the gospel. Preaching to ourselves does not mean we must always be in the word, but that the word must always be in us. It means we must pray through our theology and circumstances. Thomas Manton said that prayer “is a preaching to ourselves in God’s hearing. We speak to God to warm ourselves, not for his information, but for our edification.”
I am convinced now, more than ever, that this is the personal discipline that is most necessary for our progress in the faith. Preach well to yourself, for the glory of God and the good of your own soul.
Joe Thorn is Lead Pastor of Redeemer Fellowship in St. Charles, IL and blogs at joethorn.net. His book, Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, was released through Crossway/ReLit. You can follow him on Twitter @joethorn.