When the Words Just Won’t Come

Have you ever had that terrifying moment? You sit down with the need to put pen to paper words on the screen and you draw a blank. The issue at hand isn’t that you have nothing to say. Not at all. The problem is you can’t focus your thoughts on just one.

Your head is teeming with thoughts, but nothing that will endure long enough to work through. Like a mirage of an oasis in the desert, one appears, but fades away as soon as you try to grasp it.

There are only a few occupations/professions/vocations that experience the pressure of that moment. Generally, people view artists as frustratingly-unwilling to be bound by time and space, working only when inspired. Authors are depicted in film as being almost painstakingly reticent to sit down at the typewriter or keyboard until that moment when everything makes sense in their heads and then the full-length manuscript appears overnight.

And while I would not ever argue that the work of the artist or of the author are meaningless, the weight of their responsibilities pales in comparison to that of the preacher.

He is charged with bringing forth the Word of God.

He is tasked with the responsibility of breaking open the Bread of Life and offering it to his congregation piece-by-piece. And each week, he sits down in his study, opens his Bible, and pulls up a blank page on his computer. And after a few minutes, while he knows that the blinking cursor on the blank page is nothing more than a decision a programmer made decades ago, it begins to feel as though it were mocking him—counting down the time until he stands before the people of God once more.

Perhaps he has good reason to be stuck. Perhaps this week’s text is a story that he knows that many in his congregation have heard since their time in the church nursery, such as the story of Noah, or David and Goliath, or Daniel in the Lion’s Den. Maybe, it’s a narrative passage of Scripture that he is resisting the urge to squeeze a moral lesson or allegory from. Or, the passage could pertain to a difficult subject that he knows will result in a few angry emails at the very least.

Maybe it’s something else, though. His church could be walking through a difficult period of time. The words don’t always flow to the page when the church sanctuary is used for a funeral during the week, or when a particular point of disputation arises at each congregational gathering.

In that moment—sitting in his study, staring at the mocking cursor—what do you do when you have nothing to say?

Before answering, let me first acknowledge that I don’t have the answers as to what you should do; no one does. Your experience is your experience, but I can offer you what I have found to be helpful for me.

Pray

Come on, preacher. Did you expect that not to top the list? Take your concern and your frustration to the Father and ask him to give you clarity of thought. Ask him to impress a message for his people—after all, they’re his people. Ask him to remove anything from your heart and from your thoughts that is blocking his Word from giving words to you.

Related to that, being stuck in sermon preparation is not necessarily due to sin, but it could be. Search your heart and confess any sins to the Father. Perhaps your heart was that which was blocking the words.

Read Scripture

Now, I know you’re thinking. “Read Scripture?! My Bible is open!” I know. But remember the first thing we were all told when we began preaching: Don’t confuse your sermon preparation and study with your personal devotions and quiet time? That’s what I’m talking about.

Read Scripture.

Read your passage one more time, but then turn the page to another passage that you’re not intending to preach. If you’re preaching through Galatians, turn to the Old Testament. If you’re preaching through one of the Gospels, turn to the Old Testament or to one of Paul’s epistles.

Get away from the passage that you’re breaking down semantically and read broadly—chapters, perhaps even books, at a time. Why? Because you need to step back from sermon preparation and fill your heart and mind with the Word of God. I can’t count the number of times that God has, in this process, impressed something upon me that I wasn’t expecting.

Read Fiction

After spending time in prayer and reading broadly in God’s Word, if the words still aren’t coming, it’s time to get extreme. It’s time to break away from the forced study. (Of course, I’m assuming you’re preparing your sermon long-before Saturday night. If I’m wrong, well, that’s an entirely different post.) Grab a work of fiction.

Those who know me well might accuse me of hypocrisy on this, because I’m notoriously impatient when it comes to fiction. I’m not the whimsical type. I prefer serious study on serious things. But, as my friends who are more inclined toward reading fantasy and fiction remind me, it’s important to let your imagination run—to give it room to breathe and explore. Perhaps your mind just needs to be stretched a little.

Get Out of the Study

One of the lessons that I’m trying to learn these days is that there’s no such thing as saving time. I don’t save time by skipping a meal or hurrying through a task. No matter how much time I try to save, the time ticks away. Despite my best efforts, the second hand on my watch never stops moving. And if you can’t save time, the best you can do is maximize it. Use it for something.

Sitting and staring at the cursor is not going to put words on the page. Getting anxious and worked up over it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. The time ticks away and you’re not drafting a sermon as it does. You’re not actually doing anything but getting angry. So get out of the study.

You’ve prayed and sought the face of the Lord. You’ve read broadly in Scripture. You’ve even picked up your favorite copy of Tolkien or Lewis (good, approved Christian fiction) and thumbed through a few pages. But the words still aren’t coming.

Go play with your kids.

Go drink coffee with your wife.

Go for a run or a workout.

Go watch a mindless movie with lots of explosions.

Get out of the study and let your mind relax.

Write Now; Edit Later

Now, this particular point doesn’t come in succession as the others had. And while it’s not a method I recommend for sermon preparation, it’s the exact method I’ve recommended to doctoral students working on a dissertation.

Put words on the page.

They don’t have to be good. They don’t have to be well-constructed. They don’t have to flow. But put words on the page. When your mind is working at a more efficient rate, you’ll be able to piece those thoughts together and edit them into a comprehensive whole, but for the time being, put something on the page. In actually sitting down and writing, you’ll begin to discover that the words begin to flow more freely the more you write.

Writing begets writing.

So write now right now. (I’ve just wanted an excuse to write that sentence.)

Don’t be afraid to write something that you don’t use. Just write it down and clean it up after the fact.

Maybe you’ve never experienced this terrifying moment. Maybe it’s just me (which would give credence to my greatest fear. Super). Or maybe it’s more common than any of us want to acknowledge.

What do you do when the words just won’t come?

Drop a comment below or hit me up on Twitter and let me know.

Adjunct Professor.
PhD in Theology.
Head Barista at Caffeinated Theology.
Just give me Jesus . . . and coffee.

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