Behavior Preaching or Hope-Infused, Holy Spirit Empowering?

Phyllis Nissila

Some of you reading this may wonder what I’m talking about by the title, but I bet you can relate to the following:

            She (or he) enters the church with cautious expectation. Maybe today’s service will help restore her joy, revive her spirit, rekindle her hope. 

            She grabs a cup of coffee at the kiosk in the bistro-styled entry hall, enters the sanctuary and finds her favorite seat, back row, left-hand side, among the other hopefuls. 

            Worship is rousing (new drummer–awesome!). A multi-media introduction to today’s topic sparkles. But within ten minutes of the start of the sermon, she realizes it’s the same old behavior-based message. She can almost hear a faint “sssssss” as the air seeps slowly out of her spirit… 

            Not meaning any disrespect, but she already knows she’s a sinner, that she’s blown it and thereby has possibly limited God’s blessings, at least that’s what she makes of the sermon sub-text. She knows that she needs to repent and that she’s not “working out her salvation” in as much “fear and trembling” as maybe she should or could be. 

            She even knows the difference between working OUT her salvation and (not) working FOR her salvation. 

            But she’s begun to notice a Christian here, one there, who really seem to have “entered into” the upside of the life of the spirit. They acknowledge the same flaws everyone else struggles with, but they do not seem so, well, “down” about it.  There is something different about them. While, on the other hand, in a seemingly endless cycle of examining every “jot and tittle” of her conscience like she feels compelled to do here at First Denomination, she seems to stay mired in a vague yet chronic state of spiritual gloom, for lack of a better description. She wonders if she’s missing something, something like what those “other Christians” have. And she needs that. Badly… 


            Once again, a little later that same morning, she walks out of the service dragging her spirit, wondering, “Is that all there is?”


This is a tale of two “convictions”: one, behavior based, the other, Holy Spirit lead.

The former is saturated with guilt however “lightly” the sermon is crafted (while the organist plays “Just As I Am” softly in the background).

The latter is hope-infused, right out of the pages of the Bible. No film at eleven, power-point pizzazz, or companion daily journal (sold in the vestibule) to reinforce the messages. And while the Spirit-lead kind pulls no punches about the state of mankind in need of redemption, it buoys the spirit, unlike the condemnation-flavored variety down at First D. Consider the following.

I heard it once said by a televangelist that when the focus is on you and your shortcomings it tends to be a man-made message. When it’s focused on God, it is more likely of the Holy Spirit, revealing God’s ways and means, His answers to the chronic problem of bad behavior, sin, if you will. And therein is the hope.

How to know the difference? This is how the former approach tends to ramp up:

“And it’s no wonder that you can’t…..because…”

“And if you were really honest about it, you would admit that you, too…”

“And if God’s people would just….then He could really…”

“If this isn’t happening for you, then you’re not doing …, or…, or…”

And, well, really, constantly looking into the mirror of our own faults and flaws, who can argue that we aren’t spiritual scum, worthy of falling flat on our assumptions because we just don’t measure up or we are lazy? And if the Lord comes back this very day we might just find ourselves getting awfully close to the smoke and flames if not backslidden so far as to be hovering above the actual abyss, Satan’s glowing red eyes lasering our consciousness as his minions salivate at our soon coming. (Well, however it is you might imagine our sorry state…)

(And this is in no way to demean “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” because for the most part, preachers are preaching to the choir who have simply come for a bit of respite, some spiritual meat and potatoes, the fellowship of the saints in a safe place, and/or the “equipping” they need to go back out into the sometimes not-so-safe venues of their individual callings.)

But such behavior-based messages are not put into the specific words above, mind you. Most are nuanced delicately so that by the time you realize you have been sucker-punched, your spirit is already so deflated you just succumb to the pain. Or leave, still hungry.

Now, consider what happens when we ask God, Himself, to lead, direct, and guide us through His Word. In so doing see how He does not just reveal our missteps but also encourages and empowers us in ways to rise back up and move beyond them. He offers the whole message—not just the sin chapter, but the redemption chapter as well.

And maybe this is what those “other Christians” are talking about. Maybe herein lies the hope, the promise, and the possibility of reclaiming our joy in the Lord, or realizing it for the first time. Maybe herein lies the rescue of the psyche and the strengthening, not depleting, of the spirit.

Consider this “message”:

            Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free(John 8:31-32).

            No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it(1 Cor. 10:13).

            For a righteous man falls seven times, and rises again (Proverbs 24:16).

And let THIS powerhouse of redemption sink deep and wide in your spirit:

            But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21-26).


Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ ’bout!

In short, it isn’t about what we do, but about what Jesus did for us (God’s solution to bad behavior, so to speak) and what He continues to do within us when we go to His Word for guidance.

It isn’t about shoulda, woulda, couldas, past tense, but about what we can do now and in the future, powered by the Holy Spirit revealed in the Word of God and the Word Made Flesh.

It isn’t about striving on our own steam, but about allowing the washing of the water of God’s  Word to correct, cleanse, and purify us so that we can get on with our journey from “glory to glory” in Christ Jesus Who took every one of our sins on that cross. Even our sins today, as we stumble and fall this side of that “dark glass” because He understands how hard it is and He extends empathy (Hebrews 4:15).

It isn’t about perfecting our behavior by ourselves, but about allowing the wisdom, guidance, and encouragement of  psalm, proverb, prophecy, and epistle to quicken our spirit and lead us onward even if the way forward means, once more, rising from where we have fallen, brushing ourselves off, again, taking His hand offered there, and starting all over again.*

Oh, and once back on our feet, remembering this—perhaps even shouting it:

For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him…(Psalm 103:11-13).

(Pause, here, while the angels sing…)

I encourage you today to let Him turn your mea culpas into hallelujahs and to quell the voices of condemnation by immersing yourself in the power and encouragement of the Scriptures.

Having had my own fill of the gloom, I choose now the glory, and I try not to leave home without at least a few verses tucked inside my spirit.

And that has made all the difference.


*Here’s a little lighthearted reminder in a completely different context, courtesy of Fred and Ginger:


This entry was posted in Devotionals, devotionals and commentaries featuring technology, encouragement in hard times, most recent posts, spiritual transformation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Behavior Preaching or Hope-Infused, Holy Spirit Empowering?

  1. Carl Gordon says:

    Thank you. Also touched in a good way by some of the comments posted here too.


  2. What a fabulous piece! Full of truth and honesty and humor and encouragement.

    Sadly, you pointed out the very reason my family and I left the local church to find sweet fellowship of the Spirit with one another and with fellow believers – on the outside. So much guilt and obligation and conformity defines most congregations. We burned out and walked away and found something real and rich and satisfying and share the grace you so wonderfully describe with those in our circle. You gave a voice and validation to the struggles of many.

    Thank you!



    • pnissila says:

      I am glad you resonated with this. I have been so blessed following your posts and gleaning so much healing and hope there.

      I suspect that our experience is becoming more and more widespread, which is why I feel so lead to be what I believe I am in the Body of Christ: an encourager.

      Blessings and Cheers,


  3. pnissila says:

    Well put! And an excellent post script. It reminds me of the secular aphorism: “human being vs human doing” only in this case, it is “LOVE doing” :).

    Cheers and Blessings,


  4. Refreshing! I would add that there’s a difference between doing and being. When God indwells the believer, we begin to think spiritually and to be changed into the love that God is. Would that our brothers and sisters really understand the difference between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. The sheep are praised because of their being love. Like with James and works being a byproduct of faith, acts of love are byproducts of being filled, indwelled and led by love. The goats are rejected because their works were not connected to love.


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