"I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and truth from the great congregation. Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Lord: let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me." - Psalm 40:10b-11
One Sunday, an irate woman announced to some members of our congregation that she would be leaving our church and changing her membership. When she was asked why, she responded: "Because the Pastor here does not preach enough about sin and judgment."
I had to admit that her assessment of my preaching was accurate. I cannot remember the last time I delivered a "hell and brimstone" sermon – a sermon designed to convict sinners and send people streaming to the "mourner's bench" in deep repentance. Maybe this woman was missing the good 'ole days when people came to church to have right and wrong clearly delineated for them. Many believe that the world was a better place when sin was sin and right was right and only those who entered into the kingdom through the straight and narrow gate would be saved. Everyone else (and this would include the vast majority of the world's population) would be condemned. Eternally.
I remember those good 'ole days. But I don't remember them as being quite so good. I remember that there was much confusion between eternal truth and temporal church tradition, partly because no one was allowed to question the Bible and there was no real Bible study – only prescribed Bible commentary. I remember people proclaiming things in church that they did not practice outside of church. And I remember people who did not meet the standards of religious ethical behavior being ostracized, publicly humiliated and spiritually damaged.
I could not really argue with the woman who left our church because she did not hear enough about sin and judgment. The truth is that, like the Psalmist, I can only give to others that which I have received from God. The Psalmist draws a direct correlation between the lovingkindness and truth that he has proclaimed to his congregation, and the lovingkindness and truth that he has received from God. To be sure, there is acknowledgment of sin and sin's consequences in telling the truth, but the essence of the Psalmist's message was the lovingkindness of God. That lovingkindess opens the door to true confession without coercion, making us truly thankful for mercy instead of judgment.
Others may feel compelled to expound upon sin and judgment. I'll just stick with lovingkindness and truth. That's what I've received and that's what I need.
Dear God, we thank you for giving us not what we deserve, but what we need. Now help us to take that which you have given and give it to others. Amen.
Kenneth L. Samuel is Pastor of Victory for the World Church, Stone Mountain, Georgia.