What should I do if I feel that my pastor has been targeting at me by some of his remarks during his sermons? I feel that these remarks are unfair and he does not seem to understand the situation that I am in.

Your question is a very common one, and I have heard it repeated in different ways over the years. Indeed, I myself have asked this question when I felt that I have been a victim of the preacher’s remarks. When I was training for the ministry, one of the things which I remember most distinctly from my homiletics lecturer, who was a very experienced preacher, was that we should not use the pulpit to air our grievance against any individual in the congregation, especially when the majority in the congregation know who we are targeting at. Ironically, this lesson came home to my heart very painfully when one day, because of a fault on my part, my teacher preached a sermon for which I was quite sure was targeted at me. As I sat there, I kept imagining every eye in the student body turning towards me. To make it worst, later in my conversation with some of my classmates, I was to discover that it was true that many did think that he was clearly referring to me in his illustration. That sermon was preached barely a week after I went to my teacher to confess my fault and to seek his counsel on how best to make restitution. I felt deeply hurt and betrayed. So grieved was I that I was tempted to leave the college altogether though I was in my final year with barely a few more months to go. It was only through the counsel of two respected ministers that I decided to stay on to finish the course. One of them said to me: “Welcome to the world!” The other said: “Ride the storm.” I would leave you to ponder about that first statement!

It was only two years later that through a series of providential turns that I found enough courage to ask my teacher why he did what he did. He had forgotten about that sermon. But denied targeting at me, and said something to the effect: “If the hat fits you wear it,” or “If the shoes fit you wear it” (I cannot remember which phrase he used). Actually, in his sermon he had condemned pride and rebelliousness; and when I heard the sermon, and search my heart, I had to acknowledge that what I did that got me into trouble in the first place could indeed have been, at least partly, motivated by pride and rebelliousness, and had sought the Lord’s forgiveness and moulding. But the public wounding by a man whom I had such respect and trust was almost too much to bear. How much more must have been the grief felt by our perfectly innocent Lord when He was betrayed by His disciples!

Today I bear no grudge against this teacher of mine. But I give this as an illustration to assure you that I understand, at least to some degree, your hurt. And also to say that I do believe preachers ought to make a conscious effort not to air personal grievances against anyone in the congregation.

Now, having said all these, I must hasten to add that sometimes it can be very difficult for a preacher not to make any reference to a particular problem, especially if the problem has been burdening him for a while or during the week when he is preparing the sermon. Preachers are after all humans subject to influences. This problem is especially acute in the case of young and inexperienced preachers (myself included) who may sometimes take reactionary stances without meaning to do so.

Moreover, sometimes preachers not intending to make directed or targeted references are perceived as doing. Indeed, it might have been so in my own experience with my teacher as highlighted above. But I can think of two reasons why this may happen from my own experience as a pastor and preacher.

In the first place, the preacher often has the responsibility to condemn particular sins when dealing with some specific texts. He may not be able to refrain from condemning that sin simply because providentially during the week he had to speak to one of the members of the congregation who is dealing with the particular sin. On one occasion, I had prepared to speak on a particular passage in which I planned to deal with the problem of dishonesty. But somewhere towards the end of the week, I had to counsel someone who had been charged with being dishonest by a friend! What could I do? I did not have enough time to prepare another sermon and I did not feel it right to make the sin of dishonesty less obnoxious than it is portrayed in the Word of God (cf. Ezk 13:22b). So I preached the sermon I had prepared. But throughout the sermon I was conscious of a pair of eyes glaring at me! But I had to commit the sermon to the hand of the Holy Spirit to make effectual application: to work repentance if there was really dishonesty on the part of the hearer and to bring comfort and vindication if the charges were false.

In the second place, a preacher who wishes to address the conscience in regards to particular failures may sometimes have to highlight how the sin manifests itself in subtle ways, which may or may not apply to everyone who has failed a particular duty. But when failure of a particular duty is mentioned, no matter how much care is taken to express it, raw nerves will be salted. Take for instance, a recent sermon in which I said:

Know you not that it is often pride that says, “I know what is best for my spiritual growth, I don’t need the church tell me. So I will choose what services and meetings to come.” So it is often on account of pride, among other reasons, that the meetings of the church are poorly attended.

As I was planning the sermon, I was thinking of the prayer meetings, evening services, conventicles and sisters’ Bible Study. I am aware that many do not come for these meetings because of many other reasons and many of those who have expressed their reasons to me have, in my opinion, quite valid excuses. And so I made it a point to use mitigating words to indicate that there could be other reasons, other than pride that leads to the poor attendance. So I used the word “often”: “it is often pride, &c.” So I used the phrase “among other reasons.” I was not concern with the other reasons in this sermon, I was dealing with the issue of pride, and wanted anyone who may indeed be guilty of non-attendance because of pride (which was one of my own causes of non-attendance at the means of grace in the past), to be made aware of this subtle sin.

Sadly, I was later told that what I had said had come across as “whoever does not come for evening service is proud.” That was not what I said nor meant at all! And it grieves me as much to know that I was misunderstood as that my words may have inadvertently “made the heart of the righteous sad, whom [the LORD has] not made sad” (Ezk 13:22).

This is my loquacious way of helping you to see the difficulties that often attend the relationship between the preacher / pastor and the congregation when the pastor preaches against particular sins or failure of duties. In view of these difficulties, I would strongly urge that if you feel that your pastor have been targeting at you unfairly in his sermons, that you speak to him personally. Do not allow the wound to fester and sour the relationship between you and your pastor or cause you to become critical or to shut your ears the next time you hear a message by your pastor. Of course, I would urge you to first spend some time in critical self-examination (after any outrage that may have come from hearing the sermon has died down) before going to your pastor. Ask your pastor if he is referring to you. Listen to his explanation meekly. Point out his errors and misjudgements if necessary. Confess your guilt if necessary. Express your hurt if necessary. Entreat him to be patient with you if necessary. Or ask him to help you and pray with you if necessary.