“I do not know whether anyone has ever succeeded in not enjoying praise. And, if he enjoys it, he naturally wants to receive it. And if he wants to receive it, he cannot help but being distraught at losing it. Those who are in love with applause have their spirits starved not only when they are blamed off-hand, but even when they fail to be constantly praised.”? John Chrysostom
Below is another good one:
“It is this that ruins churches, that you do not seek to hear sermons that touch the heart, but sermons that will delight your ears with their intonation and the structure of their phrases, just as if you were listening to singers and lute-players. And we preachers humor your fancies, instead of trying to crush them. We act like a father who gives a sick child a cake or an ice, or something else that is merely nice to eat–just because he asks for it; and takes no pains to give him what is good for him; and then when the doctors blame him says, ‘I could not bear to hear my child cry.’ … That is what we do when we elaborate beautiful sentences, fine combinations and harmonies, to please and not to profit, to be admired and not to instruct, to delight and not to touch you, to go away with your applause in our ears, and not to better your conduct.”
Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are particularly subject to a couple of temptations. We are tempted by praise and adulation. As even Saint John Chrysostom admits, “I do not know whether anyone has ever succeeded in not enjoying praise.” I know I certainly have not succeeded. I enjoy being praised. I enjoy being told how good a sermon I preached. I enjoy hearing how my counsel simply changed someone’s outlook. Praise is deceptive because we do want to be good and faithful servants, and praise feeds that desire and allows us to feel as though that is true. As Jesus commented, we ought to say only that we are unworthy servants who have only done our duty. But, as Saint John admitted, that is a very difficult thing to say while actually believing it. Nay it is impossible, for Saint John comments that he does not know of anyone who has succeeded in such a thing. So, praise is deceptive because the praise can be true, but yet it still feeds our desire for adulation. The full deception of praise is that while being told the truth, we are in the process of being brought down and of having pride kindled within us.
The second temptation is to continue to get that praise by preaching sermons that make people feel good and prone to praise us. Thus Saint John comments that the preacher who simply humors the fancies of the church members is like the father who only gives sweets to a child then wonders why the doctor blames him for his child’s poor condition. We are prone to want to tell you things that will make you feel happy about yourself and therefore happy with us. To be told that we are the next William Carey, or John Chrysostom, feeds a desire for praise that is deep within all of us. And in fulfilling that desire, we open up the road to hell instead of opening up the road to heaven.
This does not mean that all our sermons are to be fire and brimstone. That would be to go to the opposite extreme, and to be like the father who thinks that they are doing a good turn for their child because they constantly beat the child for the least little infraction. No, our sermons are to avoid the two extremes of feels good or its opposite, all punishment. We are called to be like the mother who makes a balanced meal for her children, who ensures that they have sound nutrition, in a tasty package, and with periodic desserts to lighten their hearts. Our sermons need to instruct the people, yet be composed in such a way that they are actually interesting and/or gripping, but with snippets of humor or gentleness that form a sweet balm over the injuries caused by our sins. And, in the midst of all this, we are to avoid the temptation to preach for praise.
And so, we are given the advice in another saying of Saint John, that we are to renew ourselves from day-to-day. “This is what we do with houses: we keep constantly repairing them as they wear old. You should do the same thing to yourself. Have you sinned today? Have you made your soul old? Do not despair, do not despond, but renew your soul by repentance, and tears, and confession, and by doing good things.” Bishops, Priests, and Deacons are called to a daily self-examination to see whether we are being deceived by praise or by other temptation. We are called to daily repentance, and tears, and confession so that we might resist that temptation that is so common among us.
Sometimes, I see clearly why Saint Gregory Nazianzus ran away from home after his father ordained him a Priest. Sometimes, I understand why Elijah hid in a cave. Sometimes, I understand why Jesus could say that it would be better if I were to tie a millstone around my neck and jump into the sea rather than mislead one of his little one. There are days when I do really understand the frightening parts of being called to be a clergyperson. It is no wonder that various times during the Divine Liturgy the priest says, “O God, have mercy on me a sinner.” And, it is an awesome thing that there is always mercy and grace waiting for us after that prayer. Nevertheless, as Isaiah said in his vision of the Temple when he was called, “Woe is me, for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”
And, yes, we Bishops, Priests, and Deacons have seen the King, the Lord of hosts, and have been called by him to speak about him with our unclean lips. That is a strange and wonderful thing. It is a mystery that the perfect should choose the imperfect to speak of him. But, as the British would say, “there it is.” We can but be grateful and soldier on. This week, pray for your Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. If you are from a non-hierarchical church, then pray for your pastors and elders. We need your prayer support that we may preach great sermons while avoiding the temptation of pride and praise.