In one sense, any preaching that you and I do addresses one kind of human emotion or another. Such a statement raises the issue of just what your conception of human personality is. Much writing on homiletics depends on ingrained assumptions on the part of the preacher that the human person is neatly divided into intellect, feeling, and will; or, in other words, mind, body, and spirit.
“Intellectual” preaching is supposed to address the mind. “Emotional” preaching is thought to appeal to the feelings. “Spiritual” preaching is supposed to appeal to the motives, will and spirit.
One text, I Thessalonians 5:23, is used as the basis of such a psychology of personality: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit, and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Yet, the emphasis of the prayer of Paul is not on this division of the person. It is on the word “wholly.”
The Hebrew-Christian understanding of personality is a holistic one. Jesus states the commandment which is “first of all”: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The Greek word, “holes,” is translated “all” and is repeated four times. My approach to understanding the human personality is to emphasize the oneness and totality rather than the division of personality into separate “faculties.” When a person loves with all his or her mind, the whole being is involved, not just one part of the personality. Therefore, when you and I preach to the emotional needs of our audience, we are addressing them as total beings and not just as a “bundle of feelings.”
Some Hazards of Psychological Preaching
Taking the point of view I have suggested above enables you and I to avoid becoming “psychologists” in the pulpit. Recently I was conversing with a group of students at a seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. One student asked the question: “When do you quit being a pastor and start being a psychologist?” My reply was: “I don’t cease being a pastor and start being a psychologist. I am a pastor, not a psychologist. This does not prevent me from becoming intensely expert in psychological and psychiatric understandings of human nature. However, to do so does not change my basic identity or the definition of my primary responsibility as a pastor.”
Keeping this important distinction clearly in mind enables us to avoid most of the hazards inherent in addressing the deep emotional needs of persons we address as their preaching pastor. I have always observed the advice of my homiletics professor, J. B. Weatherspoon, when he said: “When you use the psychological method in the pulpit, always take the “cream of your study” into the pulpit. Do not drag the separator into the pulpit with you! Just take the cream you have already separated!” James Cox, in his superb book, Preaching: A Comprehensive Approach to the Design and Delivery of Sermons (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1985, p. 31) rightly says:
“… a misuse of psychology can obscure the gospel. One parishioner complained of a minister who was something of a specialist in psychology: ‘He analyzed us to death.’ The knowledge of psychology can promote a trendy and dangerous kind of legalism–the perfectionism of a ceaselessly touted normality, contrasted with the depressing revelations of neurosis everywhere. The ‘law’ can so abound that grace is pushed aside.”
These important admonitions create an important overall attitude of the preacher addressing profound emotional needs of persons. What are some of these needs and how can they be met?
Some Universal Emotional Needs
The emotional needs being addressed in the sermon should be such needs as are common to everyone in the audience and not eccentric, idiosyncratic needs of a particular individual. Yet these universal needs can be particularized and each person in the audience can feel so uniquely understood by the preacher that he or she senses deeply that the preacher has “spoken to his or her condition.”
The Need for Encouragement
As people come to church on Sundays, they bring their personal defeats and discouragements with them. They may have been looking after other people all week. They may have been called upon to “put heart into” their child, their aging parents, and a fellow worker all week. But who “puts heart into” them? In addressing this need, you could preach a biographical sermon on the central feature of the life of Barnabas, the “son of encouragement.” Or you could preach a textual sermon on the experience of Paul and Luke as they came up on the Appian Way and were met by Christians from Rome who came out to meet them. “And the brethren there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them Paul thanked God and took heart” (Acts 28:15).
For that matter, you could preach a surprisingly refreshing topical sermon on “A Neglected Purpose of the Scriptures.” You would use Romans 15:4: “For whatsoever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:4-5). Many of the complications of life that cut the heart out of people are both explicit and implicit in these approaches and texts for preaching. Christian bases for hope are the gospel’s proclamation for those who need encouragement.
Obvious psychological problems of depression, sleeplessness, hopelessness, and even suicidal ruminations can be met in such sermons as I have suggested without turning the sermon into a morbid psychological autopsy!
The Need for Certainty
People who come to hear you preach bring their uncertainties and indecisiveness with them. They need to hear a word from the Lord about what they can really count on in life. They face uncertainty of their jobs, uncertainty in their marriages, uncertainty in how their children are going to “turn out” in the competitive rat race of school and the job market. They are unsure of their own moral judgments in a world in which competing “life styles” are demanding “equal rights.” Preaching can address this need and the preacher can “be certain” of a hearing by anyone in the audience.
This need can be met by calling attention to “times of uncertainty” when Elijah found his people “limping with two different opinions”. A topical sermon on “Certainty in a Day of Indecision” could assess the sources of uncertainty in contemporary life and challenge the idols that enchant the imagination into uncertainty, insecurity and a life of unnecessary anxiety. If the particular kind of uncertainty you wish to address is the uncertainty associated with the anticipatory grief of “being left,” “being abandoned,” and/or “being separated and estranged,” then you can do a word study of the word “separate” (Chorizo) in Romans 8:35-39. A sermon topic such as “Withstanding Separation” would cause a considerable number of people to come to hear you out of sheer emotional need.
The Need for Disburdening
The spiritual that says, “I’m gonna lay down my burdens, down by the river side …” bespeaks another universal human need, the need to disburden. Max Thurian, in his small volume Confession (London: SCM, 1953), makes a good case for a Protestant understanding of confession as “disburdening” of the person’s whole being of the load of shame, guilt, and sin. The Scripture speaks of it: “Therefore, confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” “… let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14b-16).
When you and I address this universally human need, we are tempted to speak only to those who have not made a formal profession of faith at the end of a service. Yet this is a universal need of Christian and non-Christian alike. Christians carry the burden of unforgiving grudges, of both the inability and refusal to accept that God’s grace covers an irreversible wrong they themselves have committed. In other words, they carry a grudge toward themselves. In times of alluring temptations of greed for money, power, sexual adventure, they carry the burden of distracting thoughts of sins that never come to the “path of action,” but exist only in “the pale cast of thought,” as Shakespeare would say.
A sustaining grace from your pulpit could be a sermon on “Laying Down Your Burdens.” Furthermore, these burdens isolate people from each other, cut them off from each other’s strengths, thrust them into loneliness. A variation on the theme of “Laying Down Your Burdens” could be a sermon on “The Church: A Fellowship of Trespasses and Sins.” Either James 5:16 or Galatians 6:1-5 could be the Biblical basis for such a sermon. Thus you could speak to both the need for disburdening oneself and of finding a community of acceptance and fellowship.
These are only three of a wide range of emotional needs that people have in common with each other. Other needs can be only named, such as the need to be blessed, the need for personal integrity, the need to play, the need to rest, the need for meaning, the need to trust, the need to succeed, the need, as Thomas Wolfe put, “for some one outside myself who will last.” Time and space cannot encompass or exhaust the many-faceted needs of the human hearts of those to whom you and I are privileged to declare the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to meet those needs.

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