The Preacher’s Pathos

 |  June 7, 2019

Country music legend George Jones is best known for performing the hit song “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” This tune from 1980 recounts the passing of a forlorn lover who, upon his death, has finally ceased to care for his long-lost love. As Jones croons, “He stopped loving her today. They placed a wreath upon his door, and soon they’ll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.” The listener seems not only to hear Jones’ words but to feel the sentiment of loss, despair, and depression. This song is a hit, not because of his vocal ability or virtuoso guitar skills, but because of his ability to appeal to emotion.

Pathos, an often discussed rhetorical term, is defined as “the appeal to emotion—not just sadness or pity…but excitement, fear, love, patriotism or amusements. Pathos is the appeal that…shoots straight to the heart.”[1]Sam Leith, Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (New York: Basic Books, 2012), 65. Pathos is what makes “He Stopped Loving Her Today” legendary. Noted author and podcast host Malcolm Gladwell authored an entire podcast episode on the appeal to emotion and the power of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”[2]Malcolm Gladwell. “The King of Tears” Revisionist History. http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/16-the-king-of-tears Gladwell, enamored by the emotion evoked in this song and in other notable performances sought to explain in this episode what makes songs like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” so emotional. Gladwell concluded that in performances such as this, “Beauty and authenticity can create a mood. They set the stage. But I think the thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity.” For Gladwell, emotional appeals are at their best when they combine beauty, authenticity, and specificity. These attributes of emotional appeals are what makes a song like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” so memorable.

Much like songwriters and musicians, preachers often make emotional appeals. Though the words are communicated without background music and are communicated in thirty minutes rather than three, the principles Gladwell offered are just as helpful to the preacher as they are to the songwriter.

Emotional appeals for the preacher must start with beauty.

Proverbs chapter 3 compares the wisdom of the Scripture to the image of a beautiful woman. Wisdom is described as “more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed.”[3]Proverbs 3:15-18 For the preacher to make a proper emotional appeal he must first acquaint his audience with biblical wisdom. Emotional appeals start by painting a verbal picture of the path prescribed by scripture. As the preacher expounds on the biblical text the beauty of God’s plan and purpose is unveiled to the listener.

Emotional appeals for the preacher must also be authentic.

Emotion is powerful and best used in an honest manner. Our televisions are filled with preachers who make dishonest, inauthentic emotional appeals and prey on emotions of the needy and disheartened.  There is a great temptation for any preacher to use emotion in an inauthentic manner in order to attract a wanted response. Scripture warns us against being empty talkers and deceivers. Instead, emotional appeals must be authentic. The emotion of the preacher in the pulpit should match the emotion of the preacher in the study. If a particular text of a message brings authentic tears, then preach in tears. If a passage causes rejoicing, then rejoice. The authentic emotion of a faithful preacher trumps the acting antics of a false prophet every time.

Emotional appeals are at their best when they are specific. One of the most powerful emotional appeals I have heard in a message came from Dr. Joshua Williams at Southwestern Seminary on 2 Chronicles 26, warning our chapel audience of the danger of pride.[4]For video of this sermon visit https://www.facebook.com/swbts/videos/545944219162226/ As his message came to a conclusion, Dr. Williams offered a humble confession of his own struggles with sin and pride in his own life. The wisdom of his message translated into specific application and ultimately to his own action of confession. Through tears, Dr. Williams spoke of his own pride but also of the wonderful example of the humility of Jesus Christ and reminded the audience of the forgiveness available in Christ. What made Dr. Williams emotional appeal so valuable was that it was so specific. The truth of his message wasn’t some pie in the sky principle that only the upper crust could understand. Instead, his message spoke directly to everyone in the room and demanded action by everyone, himself included.  Though every sermon may not lead to tearful confession, every emotional appeal should lead to specific action, the beautiful wisdom of God demands it.

For many preachers emotional appeals flounder because they are afraid of authenticity and specificity. Expressing who they are, where they struggle, and how they themselves should live differently seems unfitting and unsettling. Certainly, the pulpit is probably not the place to air out all of your dirty laundry, but being willing to admit your own failures and need for grace may inspire others to make similar decisions in their life. Look at the example of the Apostle Paul in Romans 7:21–25. He writes, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Paul, the Apostle, was willing to express his own shortcomings with authenticity and specificity so that others may see the Savior and the forgiveness he offers. May each of us as preachers be willing to do the same. My prayer is that your emotional appeals may point someone to the path of eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Garrison Griffith is the Dean of Students and a Ph.D. student in Pastoral Ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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