Tonight I find myself honestly wondering when the word “preach” became a Christian cuss word. As in, “We shouldn’t preach at people; we should just love them.” Or, “I just want to talk; I don’t want to preach at you.” Or, “Yeah, nobody really likes him; he just preaches at people.”
I’ve used the word in this kind of way all the time, and I know what we mean by it when we use it this way. So I’m not saying that I don’t understand why we use it this way or that I’m not sure what we’re trying to communicate. I’m not even saying that I frown on using the word “preach” in a negative context.
But I do think that it’s dangerous if we never think about it. Love, grace, mercy, compassion, understanding, listening, gentleness, and meekness have everything to do with following Christ and being His ambassadors. Scripture is replete with examples of God’s tenderness and compassion as well as exhortations for us to reflect Him in these things. But it’s also chock-full of preaching. In fact, the entire book is one massive story designed to “preach” to a world full of sinners about the wickedness of our hearts, the error of our ways, the destiny of those who turn their backs on God, and the glory of free salvation in Jesus Christ. It tells us what’s real, not just what we want to hear. And the God who wrote it did so because He loves us.
He loves us so much that in His Book there are fire-and-brimstone prophets, mind-blowing judgments, sermons from cover to cover, toe-to-toe confrontations, and a lot of things said that stop us dead in our tracks and, unless our hearts are changed, make us very, very mad at God for saying them.
I think we need to be careful not to let the world define our words for us. Don’t buy into the notion that “preaching” is bad and “love” is good. They’re not antithetical to each other. Yes, of course it’s unloving for someone to preach the truth to someone without a spirit of love. But it’s unloving because it’s unloving. It’s not unloving because it’s preaching. And it’s equally unloving to love someone without preaching the truth to them. If you love someone but don’t tell them the truth that they need to hear, you’re not really loving them. You’re probably loving yourself. You’re loving yourself so much that you’d rather maintain a comfortable relationship with them and keep their mind and emotions at ease than inform them of the truth that will save their lives.
I believe wholeheartedly in personal relationships and in loving, patient evangelism and in gentle, unhypocritical presentations of the truth. I think there a lot of ways to “preach at people” that are very uncaring, very cold, and very wrong. But I don’t want to pendulum-swing to the other side and condemn “preaching” and castigate truth-telling and advocate a procrastinating, soppy, flimsy method of evangelizing and exhortation that “loves” and “listens” people all the way into hell.
I want to do both. I want to love people and I want to tell them the truth. I want to meet their tangible needs and weep with them and listen to them pour out the aches of their hearts, and I also want to speak an honest, sincere, straightforward, unwavering message of truth that can only heal as it wounds.
If I claim to follow Jesus, I don’t think that I can pick one or the other. Because Jesus didn’t leave me a choice between the two.