For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)
When we come across these words from the apostle Paul to Timothy, we tend to see this verse as a description of our day and age. How else do we explain the elegant churches whose liberalism has overtaken their once-glorious heritage? Or the masses that fill stadiums to hear prosperity teachers tell us how good we are and how much God wants to bless us financially?
Preaching that tickles the ears. We nod our heads in agreement and pray
Lord, deliver us from the liberals who don't believe anything and don't preach the truth.
Lord, deliver us from those who give good advice and moral platitudes without the Good News of individual salvation.
Lord, deliver us from the stand-up comics who fill stadiums with ear-tickling, side-splitting sermons that are all about us and not about God.
Then, we sit back on Sunday mornings with a smile, satisfied in our assurance that our ears don't itch.
But are we deceiving ourselves? Do we truly believe we have escaped the temptation to listen to pastors who tickle our ears? Is it possible to preach harshly against certain sins and yet still be an ear-tickling preacher?
The prophet Jeremiah tells us the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. We think that if we attend a church where the pastor consistently preaches hard messages with hard truths, we will never succumb to the "itching ears" syndrome. But such is not the case. Paul tells Timothy that itching ears accumulate for themselves teachers who will tell them what they want to hear. Itching ears desire teaching that suits their own passions.
Many laypeople hope to listen to a preacher who every week will tell them what's wrong with everybody else.
The congregation of teetotalers wants a pastor who, week after week, condemns alcohol from the pulpit.
The anti-war congregation hopes to hear a rousing sermon against those warmongering conservatives.
The congregation of staunch Republicans smiles as their pastor rails against "the gays" and "the liberals."
The Calvinist congregation wants to hear a theologian/pastor who will preach against the errors of those Arminians.
The congregation of door-to-door soul-winners hires a pastor who will mock the namby-pamby "lifestyle" conversations that pass for evangelism in this day.
The charismatic congregation loves when its pastor tears into the dry, ritualistic worship of their liturgical neighbors.
And the liturgical congregation nods approvingly at critiques of their neighbors who manufacture emotionalism.
Can you hear the hearty "Amens" coming from the pews? Yes, Lord! Thank you for showing us what real Christianity is! Lord, help us not be like those Christians who are too blinded by their biases, who have been co-opted by the culture!
Of course, there are times when a pastor should address the issues above. Church members should expect pastors to preach boldly, to condemn sin, to faithfully exposit the biblical text, and to speak to the current issues of the day.
But let us not underestimate the evil intentions of the human heart. We crave a message that puffs us up. We read Jesus' parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector and rightly condemn the Pharisee for his pompous prayer, "God, I thank you that I am not like other people robbers, evildoers, adulterers or even like this tax collector." Then we thank God that we're not like the Pharisee.
Ironically, the very message that is supposed to cut us low, the message of the Cross, can be delivered in such a way that people walk out of the sanctuary patting themselves on the back. Thank God I'm not like those people!
Somewhere in the darkest places of our hearts, we take joy in preachers who put us on a pedestal, who remind us who all the bad guys are, and who assure us that we're okay. We sing and read and preach about grace, but too often, our talk about grace is simply another method of preserving our self-righteousness.
The preaching we listen to on Sundays may be truth-filled and Bible-centered, but if it only points out the problems of everyone else in the world, it misses its target. Our ears are tickled, but our hearts are unchanged. Ear-tickling preaching may step on toes, but they're never the toes of the people in the pews or the pastor in the pulpit.
Next time, your pastor preaches a challenging message that convicts you of sin, say "Amen." If your church is not of the Amen-shouting variety, meet your pastor at the door and offer a word of encouragement. Allow the Sword of God's Word to perform surgery on our own hearts before wielding the Sword in the faces of everyone else.
Trevin Wax is minister of education and missions at First Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Tennessee. An earlier version of this article originally appeared at his blog, Kingdom People.
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