Speaking the Gospel into the pain of existence

By Peter Corney

Irvin D.Yalom writes fascinating stories based on his experience as a psychotherapist. His work in group psychotherapy is highly regarded in the US and Australia by professionals in the field. In one of his books Loves Executioner he describes his approach as ‘Existential Psychotherapy.’ His basic assumption is that we all experience what he calls ‘existence pain’. “In my therapy…my primary clinical assumption, on which I base my technique, is that basic anxiety emerges from a persons endeavors, consciously or unconsciously, to cope with the harsh facts of life – the givens of existence” (1)

He lists four primary givens of existence that give rise to existence pain:

  1. The inevitability of death for each of us and those we love.
  2. The freedom to make our lives as we will.
  3. Our ultimate aloneness as individuals.
  4. The absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

Yalom is not a Christian but his insights about people and their basic issues are very astute. You may not be a fan of psychotherapy but Yalom is a penetrating and thoughtful thinker about the human condition. It is worth considering how one can shape evangelism and evangelistic preaching to speak to these needs and show the relevance of the gospel to them.

There is no doubt that the gospel is relevant to them, the question is how to creatively connect with them in a way that is not simplistic or crass. It must be subtle and nuanced, almost approached obliquely. It is like the experience we sometimes have when reading a novel or story or seeing a film and finding deep inner feelings and thoughts stirred and touched. The aim must be to find common ground with the hearer, to connect with their experience, in particular their experience of the anxiety and pain that arises from the four givens of existence – death, freedom, aloneness and meaning.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Use an inductive approach – begin where the people are. With the inductive approach the communicator begins with the life experience of the hearers and draws them towards concepts, principles and conclusions. He takes the hearers on a journey of discovery rather than beginning by announcing and asserting.
  • Use your own experience. Tell your own stories about your existence pains.
  • Use the stories from widely viewed films by tapping in to the experience people have had while watching the film e.g.; ‘Do you remember the scene from Saving Private Ryan where Tom Hanks……..as I watched I felt this sense of …………..’ Powerful films tap into these existence pains as do good novels.
  • From the Gospels show how Jesus speaks and relates to these issues e.g.: By retelling the story of the death of his friend Lazarus and Jesus’ obvious grief. The scriptures are full of the experiences of people struggling with these issues. Consider Moses in Exodus 33. when he tries to deal with his disappointment and anger at the people’s apostasy and to come to terms with whether he can continue to lead them, and if there is any point any way; or Hanna’s despair in 1 Sam 1. at not being able to bear a child and all that meant then for the significance and purpose of her life.
  • Read one of Yalom’s books to see how he helps people talk about these questions. I suggest you start with Loves Executioner (2)
  • Read Inductive Preaching by R and G Lewis, Crossway Books 1983.(3)
  • Think of the process like a letter slipped under the door rather than a battering ram!

It should be noted that the use of inductive techniques in preaching should not undercut the Evangelical theological commitment to preaching as the proclamation of God’s Word. Indeed it is the commitment to enabling people to ‘hear’ the Word that should drive the preacher to find the most effective way to engage the listener. ‘Hearing’ is more than making peoples ear drums move! The inductive method is a way to take the listener on a journey with the preacher to the answers found in the Gospel. (See Acts 17:16-34, Rom.10:14-15.)


  1. Irvin Yalom, Loves Executioner, Penguin Books 1989 p. 4,5
  2. Ibid. See also Staring at the Sun, Scribe 2008 and The Schopenhaure Cure, Scribe 2005 and When NietzscheWept, Basic Books, Harper Collins, 1992
  3. Ralph L Lewis and Greg Lewis, Inductive Preaching – Helping People Listen. Crosway Books 1983

  • http://www.oii-edu.ca/ Ontario Secondary School

    when he tries to deal with his disappointment and anger at the people’s apostasy!