Preaching in the Face of Suffering: An Interview with Max Lucado
- 2013 13 Aug
Max Lucado is preaching minister at Oak Hills Church in San Antonio, Texas, and one of America's favorite Christian authors with more than 80 million books in print. His newest book is titled You'll Get Through This, published by Thomas Nelson. Editor Michael Duduit recently visited with him.
Preaching: Your book You'll Get Through This deals with the issue and experience of crisis and suffering, of life struggle. What drew you to this as a sermon series and then as a book?
Lucado: Well, similar to other ministers and church leaders, I find myself so often face to face with people who are in the midst of a crisis. Whether it's after a church service standing in the foyer, going out for coffee with somebody or somebody coming into my office. Seldom a week goes by or even a day passes when I'm not trying to encourage somebody and just trying to give them a word of hope.
So often in my ministry I've thought, "I wish I had a book that the entire goal of was to give someone: No. 1, hope; and No. 2, some practical tools based in Scripture that would help them make it through this difficult season in their life." I finally reached a point when I thought: "I'm going to see if I can create a book."
I've always been fascinated by the ministry and the message of the life of Joseph. So really, this book grew out of a simple desire to want to encourage people who are going through difficult stretches in their lives and to use the story of Joseph as that tool of encouragement.
Preaching: As you mentioned, this book uses or is built around the story of Joseph. Why do you think Joseph is a model for believers today who are experiencing some of these great challenges in their lives?
Lucado: The declaration at the end of Joseph's story in Genesis 50:20 is such a powerful summary of the sovereignty of God or the power of God to use difficult times to accomplish His purpose that I just think it deserves its place as the go-to character for people in tough times. Genesis 50:20 says, "You intended evil, but God intended good."
"You intended evil." He spoke to his brothers at the end of the story, looking back when they threw him in the pit, when they took action that either would kill him, or as it turned out led him into slavery. He said, "You intended evil against me, but God"—and that's the beauty of that passage, that little two-word phrase—but God intervened. God stepped in. God was still in control. God intended it for good. This very evil was intended to kill me, but God used it to save the lives of many people. What was intended as evil became an ultimate good.
I think that is the Bible's answer to difficult times. The Bible never says there is no evil. The Bible never says God is oblivious to evil. The Bible never suggests God is confused about evil. The Bible simply tells us God takes the existent evil that has been a part of this world since the Fall and turns it into good. He accomplishes His purpose, so everything Satan throws at him ends up becoming a tool in the hand of God. Our response is to try to be more like Joseph—to be faithful, to be steadfast, not to give up, not to get bitter, not to make stupid mistakes or make stupid choices, but to hang in there. God will take the evil and turn it into something good.
Preaching: Suffering is such an important topic for preaching, isn't it? Where do you see it fitting among some of the other key themes that you think preachers need to be addressing?
Lucado: If you're going to make a handful of key themes, this has to be one of them just because that's where people live. People have turned away from God because of suffering more than any other particular topic. This is something Randy Alcorn points out in his book If God Is Good, and I think that's important. We've got people who are on the edge of disbelief because God has not met their expectations. When people think with suffering, they're defining their expectations of God.
By nature we say, "OK, if God is on the throne, then something is going to happen. This is going to happen." We have expectations; but the way life works out, those expectations go unmet. You know—we do get laid off, we marry a person who divorces us, we get sick. Things happen, and we say: "OK, if God is God, that wasn't supposed to happen."
So the pastor has to be there to speak a word of hope and encouragement into that season of difficulty; otherwise that person will make a decision that could cause him or her to turn away from God entirely, or at least back off of a fruitful relationship with God. So I think the pastor has to come in and help people define their expectations of God during seasons of suffering, and I think that's one of our key messages.
Preaching: If you knew you had only a year left to preach, what are some of those key themes that you would want to make sure were included?
Lucado: I would start with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, because that is the gospel—that Jesus died, that He rose again and He appeared to the saints and is returning again. I think the second topic I would turn to is the imminent return of Christ. I feel that in my own ministry I would have preached more on prophecy, trying to understand the end times; I'm trying to do that more, just trying to understand it myself.
So I would start with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ; then I would talk about understanding more, living with an eye toward eternity, trying to understand end times—try to have a better grasp of where the world is headed. Then I think a key would be—knowing all this—what kind of people ought we to be? I would talk about a life of holiness, a life of prayer, a life of mission, a life of purpose. So those, I think, would be my three areas. Maybe I'd just take the year and divide it into three sections: Here's what Jesus did; here's what Jesus is going to do. So now what?
Preaching: That's a good plan! Your sermons and your books are filled with powerful stories. Why do you think story is such a valuable tool for preachers?
Lucado: What strikes me is the response of an audience when you ask, "Can I tell you a story?"or "Can I illustrate that?" or "Can I share something that happened to me?" Every person who's ever spoken publicly and has used a story will tell you something happens to the audience at that point. They lift up; they turn their eyes toward you; they say, "OK, tell us a story."
It's just innate within us. We love stories. So stories are essential tools in the proper and creative presentation of the Story. Jesus always used stories. I think it's because we can relate to them. We all have stories in our lives.
Number two, we all like to be entertained. Let's face it: We like somebody to make us laugh, or we like somebody to stir a tear. Number three, stories have a personal effect. I can tell you a story about something that happened to me, and you will apply it in a way that maybe I didn't intend for you to apply it.
The last reason stories are so powerful is because they're memorable. Quite often, people come to me and say, "I remember you told that story about…" They don't ever come to me and say, "I remember those three points you made." They say, "I remember that story you told." So I think story is a go-to tool for preachers that we really have to rely on in ministry.
Preaching: I know every preacher in America who's ever read one of your books or heard you preach has said, "Where does he find those stories?" Where do you find those stories?
Lucado: That's a great question. I wish there were a store—a Wal-Mart!
Preaching: The Preacher's Mart!
Lucado: I'll give you an example: I'm reaching right now into my briefcase, and I'm pulling out yesterday's newspaper, and I'm pulling out today's newspaper. Yesterday's newspaper had a story in which the headline says, "Extreme Racing." There's an event in Vermont called the Spartan Death Race. It takes 67 hours: They run; they hike up stream at 45-degrees in ankle- and waist-deep water; they chop down trees; they crawl through barbed wire; and of the 300 people who enter, about seven or eight finish.
Well, you see? There's a potential story there. I don't know what it's going to be, but I've got this newspaper clipping, and my initial thought is: "That sounds like life. Why would I go do that? My life is already tough enough," you know? People will chuckle, so there's a potential story.
Second, today's paper has it where somebody here in San Antonio, where I live, has painted a mural on a wall downtown; it says, "Before I die, I want to…" and there are pieces of chalk dangling on this board where people can go up and write, "OK, before I die I want to…" and they fill in the blank. Well somebody, a kid, wrote, "Catch a very big fish," and somebody beneath him wrote, "Quit drinking." Well, you know what? I think all of us look forward to the future. Before I die, what do I want to do? What do I want to do?
Those are two very good stories. I don't know if they're great stories, but they're good stories. My point is that I find them everywhere. I find them in the newspaper. I find them in conversations with people. There is no one place you can go to, but we have to be on the lookout for them. A story is pure gold; when you find one, you've got to keep it.
Preaching: How long is a typical sermon for you?
Lucado: We have multiple services as other churches do, so we only have 25 minutes. We do three services before noon, and every weekend I'm complaining about that. When I first began, when I got into preaching, I could have a 40- or 45-minute sermon; but now we've got to empty the parking lot and get the kids out and turn it around, so 25 minutes is what's on the schedule.
Preaching: Do you have a sense that you're more effective at 25 minutes or that you were more effective at 45?
Lucado: I think I do better at about a 35- or 45-minute message. It seems as if the end comes too quickly on those, but my energy level won't let me go. I know some guys who say they preach 60 minutes, but I run out of juice. I honestly do. Now maybe I wouldn't if I weren't doing four sermons a weekend—maybe I would do fine—but I would say if I could do 35 minutes I'd much prefer it; but that's not going to happen. We've had this discussion.
Preaching: No matter how hard you try! Well Max, clearly you've been an influence on a lot of preachers. Who were the preachers who've influenced your ministry?
Lucado: I always think of Chuck Swindoll because Chuck modeled what I like to do, and that is write and preach. He's done that so well for so many, many, many years. I also love the preaching of David Jeremiah. Whenever I'm about to embark on a study of a particular book, I'll always look to see if David Jeremiah has preached on it.
I also would include Lynn Anderson, who pastored the church I attended in college; that's where I made a decision to follow Christ, so that's always held a special place for me. Lynn is a wonderful preacher. He's not preaching now—he's retired—but he actually attends the church where I preach. He's moved to San Antonio, and he's such a good and gracious man. So I would say those three are men whom I really admire.
I look up to men such as Chuck, Lynn and David because they just stayed at it, you know? They just keep ministering to people, and I keep thinking maybe they should disappear and go retire, but they don't; they don't think that. They're going to keep preaching or serving in some capacity as long as they have breath, and I certainly admire that about them.
Preaching: If you were looking today to try to hear somebody who helps encourage you, or one of the younger guys coming along, are there certain ones you enjoying listening to from time to time?
Lucado: I really enjoy listening to Joel Osteen. I think Joel has a unique assignment in his ministry, and that's to cast a wide net. He's got a different assignment and a different gift mix than, for example, a John MacArthur; and I enjoy listening to John MacArthur equally; but you can see that they're two different types of preaching. I enjoy Joel because I think his assignment in ministry is to encourage people, and we live in a day that is so discouraged, discouraging. I enjoy John MacArthur because I think—it seems to me—his assignment is to equip the church with very detailed biblical understanding. He'd be more like a Beth Moore or a David Jeremiah; I think we need that, as well.
I turn to different preachers for different reasons. No one preacher can do everything for everybody, and I think we've got to be careful to remember that because we get critical of preachers. I'm not a John MacArthur. I would love to preach the way John MacArthur does. I'd love to preach the way Chuck Swindoll does, but they have such a grasp of Scripture that causes admiration in me and inspires me.
I want to be more like them, but I'm not ever going to expect that I'm going to have the total grasp of Scripture that they have. I'm aspiring to have that, but my preaching is more to try to encourage the brokenhearted. I have a real heart for people who are passing through tough times, and that's why this book seems to fit. I'm more of a pastor than a prophet. I'm kind of rambling here, but this helps you see that it's not just one pastor I go to; depending on the situation I'm in, I have several different ones.
Preaching: If you could offer a word of counsel to a young preacher just starting out, what would you say to him or her?
Lucado: I would really encourage the person to seek out his or her unique ability, the unique assignment. You know, try to discern what kind of role you have, what are your spiritual gifts, and do the most what you do the best. All of us have to do some of what we don't do the best; but as we stay in ministry, it's wise for us to recognize that some of us are called to be visionary leaders, others are called to be pastors, others are called to be counselors, so never apologize for your unique assignment.
There are those occasions when our hero has one kind of giftedness, and then we discover we don't particularly have that kind of giftedness. I've had that happen. I remember in college I looked up to a counselor, a guy who taught pastoral counseling, and I thought, "I want to do that"; I actually considered going to grad school for marriage and family therapy. Then I got into it and I realized, "I don't get this, and I certainly don't get very much fulfillment out of it." It was a good wake-up call for me to say, "You know? This is not my giftedness. I can encourage people's marriages, but to spend six or seven hours a day in marriage counseling? I'm not going to survive in that."
So I encourage young ministers to find their unique abilities. What really pushes their buttons, and where do they really excel or succeed? Stay focused in that. Do the most what you do the best.