Preaching to Penetrate

By Larry Moyer

Speaking to a broken heart is like giving nourishment to a starving child. Speaking to a hard heart is like correcting a rebellious teenager. So how do you do it?
If you’re looking for an easy answer, it’s not there. But here are some helpful ideas – ones that may crack open the most callous heart.

Start on your knees.
Remember, not only can you not do it, God doesn’t expect you to. You are the instrument; you’re not the power.

An employer once told an employee to attempt the breaking of a rock with a pick-axe. After a half-hour of severe blows, the rock showed no signs of breaking. The employee threw the pick-axe aside. The employer asked him why he had stopped. The man answered, “Because I obviously have had no impact on the rock.” The employer answered, “The job of using the pick-axe is in your hands. The results are not.”

Only God can break the “rock” of a hard heart. If the heart is that of a callous non-Christian, only God can show him his need. John 16:8 refers to the Holy Spirit of God, not the human spirit of the preacher, when it says, “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” If the heart is that of a cold Christian, prayer remains the starting point. If Jesus prayed for them, we should too (John 17:20).

Watch your attitude.
If a speaker doesn’t admit that a hardened heart can invite frustration or even anger on his part, he is probably not being honest with himself. Preaching to a hardened heart can make us feel like we are wasting our time. “Why try?” we are tempted to explain. “If they want to ruin their lives, why not let them ruin them?”

But humility, not hostility, cracks a hardened heart. Paul says to Timothy, “…in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so they may know the truth…” (II Timothy 2:25). Paul was writing a pastoral epistle, so the context would indicate that “those who were in opposition” may be unbelievers who have never come to the truth or believers who are walking from the truth. Either way, it’s the attitude behind what you say that penetrates. If I am a hardened person, I may argue with what you say, but it is hard to refute the proper attitude in which you’ve said it. Does not Ephesians 4:15 admonish us to speak the truth in love?

One speaker I know attempts to break a hardened heart with what many have observed as harsh and blunt statements. He defends his position by pointing out that Christ said of the Pharisees, “You are of your father the devil…” (John 8:44). He further points to John the Baptist, who refers to those listening to him as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3:7). My response is three-fold. To use those particular accounts as a pattern for breaking hardened hearts is not in keeping with the intent of the paragraphs. Why not go instead to what Paul tells his disciple Timothy as found in II Timothy 2:25? Second, to liken ourselves to Christ and John the Baptist is a bit arrogant. We are certainly not the Savior, or even the forerunner of the Savior, as we speak. Third, it must be noted that they are the exception, not the norm. Christ Himself was noted for being “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29). We ought to ask ourselves, “Does my attitude have the same reputation?”

Rely on truth, not emotions.
Your thoughts could matter less and, frankly, may have no authority. Christ’s thoughts could not matter more, and they have full authority. This is why preachers need to be expositors – ones who, each time they stand before the people, unfold the meaning of a particular text of Scripture, first to the people of that day and then to the people of our day. That way, a hardened heart has to struggle with God, not you. You may become the scapegoat, but the hearer’s problem is really with the Author of the Scriptures, not the communicator of the Scriptures.

A seasoned pastor once told me, “The first book any pastor ought to preach through, a paragraph at a time, is I Corinthians. It speaks to every problem in the church.” If you attempt to use emotion to convince, it distracts from the authority of the Word. If you use the calm (yet enthusiastic) preaching of the Word and allow a passage such as I Corinthians to convict, it respects the authority of the Scriptures.

Use humor.
Tell me I’m in a wretched condition – callous to spiritual truth, uncaring about anyone about me, unteachable in spirit – and I’ll likely get mad at you. Tell it to me in a way that makes the hardest heart grin, and I’m likely to reflect on what you say. Be careful, though, how you enter and exit the humor; it can make a big difference.

For example, suppose as you are preaching you say, “Sometimes we find it hard to admit where we are spiritually and how great our need is, how far we have walked from Him and how much we need His mercy. A woman who had her picture taken was totally disgusted with how it looked. Storming mad, she walked into the photographer’s office, slammed the picture down on his desk and said, ‘That picture doesn’t do me justice.’ He responded, ‘Madam, with a face like yours, you don’t need justice, you need mercy.’ Now, wait a minute, before you laugh, have you ever thought about how much we, too, need mercy? If He gave us what we deserve, we wouldn’t stand a chance. We deserve His justice, but we receive His mercy.” This kind of humor I’m not easily going to forget. You make me laugh, but the Holy Spirit may use it to make me listen.

Use “we” more than “you”.
A hardened heart, whether it is a non-Christian who hasn’t come to Christ or a Christian walking from Him, grieves the heart of God. But so does impatience, unkind thoughts and selfish thinking on the part of any growing believer. Sin of any kind is offensive to God. Furthermore, as D.L. Moody once said, “But for the grace of God, there be I.” Had it not been for His grace, we too would be lost. Any believer stands the danger of walking from God if he ceases to grow as a Christian. Therefore, as we speak to hardened hearts, “we” has to be a big part of our vocabulary.

“We” in speaking has three advantages. For one, you don’t come across as “holier-than-thou”. Listeners understand that you not only see them as sinners, but you see yourself as one. Secondly, “we” helps you speak as a caring friend, not a scolding parent. When my heart is hardened, I need such a friend. The scolding is deserved, but the care is more needed. Thirdly, it lets me know you are speaking with me, not at me. This is particularly effective in reaching hardened hearts because by speaking with me, you come up underneath me; while speaking at me, you come down on top of me.

Is there a place for “you” language in preaching? Most definitely. But “you” should be used prominently in the end of your message and “we” used at the beginning. As you come to the end of your message, “you need to come Christ” is in order. After all, you as the speaker have already come to Him; the listener is the one in need. If I’m a Christian with a hardened heart, “you” is also in order as you close your message. You as the speaker have already dealt with the truth of the passage you are speaking from. You are now asking the listener to do so.

Develop your communication skills.
Hardened hearts need to hear from a communicator, not a speaker. What a speaker says may go in one ear and out the other. What a communicator says tends to have an impact. Why? Communicators look at several things: “How can I say this in different words than they have heard before?” “How can I use illustrations to drive home my point and cause them to identify with it?” “Where would humor be effective?” “What kind of analogy would help?” “How can I keep my message to thirty minutes?” “How can I speak in a way that causes them to want to come back?” “How can I say this in truth, but also in grace?”

Communicators are difficult for a hardened heart to turn away from, because they present the truth of the Scripture in a way that penetrates. If my heart is hardened, truth communicated well allows me to leave your presence, but it makes it more difficult to leave your message.

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