Two Ways to Encourage a Preacher

Today I plan to be just a little bold by suggesting two things I think every preacher would (or perhaps should) like to see from the pulpit.

By all accounts I am still a beginner when it comes to preaching. According to my records I have preached in little over 40 churches and delivered something in the region of 180 sermons. Nothing to boast about, but over this short time there are two things I think preachers long to see and don’t always…

Open Bibles

The first thing we want to see from the pulpit when we preach is a congregation with open Bibles.

We preach because we believe the Bible to be God’s inspired Word; true, trustworthy, holy and profitable for life and godliness. We trust the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors as they wrote those words, to illuminate our minds by revealing and applying God’s truth to our hearts. We believe the Bible to be living and active, eternally relevant and powerful. We don’t stand behind a pulpit on a Sunday because we think we have something worthwhile to share in and of ourselves. We stand behind a pulpit on a Sunday because we believe God’s Word has something worthwhile to teach us.

For these reasons when we look out at a congregation we desire to see people who have their Bibles open, because it contains the life changing message. We want to see people read the verse we are talking about; we want to see people measure all that we say against God’s Word; we want to see people following the flow of thought in the passage as we present it; we want to see people picking up mistakes that we make; we want to see people know and remember Scripture better by both hearing and seeing it.

We deeply desire to preach to congregations with open Bibles.

Responsive Faces

The second thing we want to see from the pulpit when we preach is a congregation with responsive faces.

It is a significant thing to choose to place yourself under the teaching of someone; it is equally significant, if not more so, to rise to your feet to teach someone.

Courtesy of Anissa Thompson.

Most preachers will tell you that they get nervous before they preach, and many will confess that while they want to preach it is something more akin to a compulsion to preach. Therefore, when we stand behind the pulpit and say ‘Good morning/evening’ – a murmur and some smiles go a long way to ease our nervousness.

However, our comfort and ease is not our main priority in seeing responsive faces. The main reason we want to see responsive faces is because we want to know whether or not we have connected with those in front of us. We may be able to explain the text adequately and faithfully but if we have not connected with the congregation we are serving we have not accomplished our task.

I have preached in churches before and during the sermon there is no response. I finish thinking I have missed the mark only to be surprised by the thoughtfulness of some who have clearly been impacted at the door on the way out. You don’t have to leave it until the doorway…

If we make a joke (and it’s funny) laugh a little; if we evoke anger with an illustration of treachery gasp and shake your head a little; if we cause sadness to surface allow the tear to trickle down your cheek; if we elicit untold joy with an imperfect image of our eternal home smile like a Cheshire cat.

We want to know that we are connecting with you. Indeed, more importantly we want to see some indication that God’s Word has connected with your minds and hearts.

We deeply desire to see congregations with responsive faces.

Anxiety, Depression, and the Christian: Counsel for Sufferers and Those Who Love Them by Paul Ritchie

SONY DSCWhen I was in my late teens and early twenties I started struggling a little bit with anxiety.  That anxiety became especially severe one summer, and persisted to various degrees over the following years.  At times that anxiety turned into bouts of depression.

The nature of my anxieties changed slightly in my thirties, as I began to struggle to keep certain thoughts out of my mind.  When I found out that my grandmother had suffered severe mental health issues, I began to wonder if my anxiety had a medical root.

So, at a time when my thoughts seemed unmanageable, I went to the doctor.  In God’s kindness there happened to be both a couple of General Practitioners and a Psychiatrist in the church where I was working.  Rosie could see that I was struggling, gave me some tablets and arranged for Stephen, the psychiatrist, to visit me that night.

Stephen heard what I was saying and immediately diagnosed the problem.  He described my thoughts as being ridiculous, resistant, repetitive and repulsive to me.  He said that I was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  He told me to take two months off work, prescribed some special tablets and recommended that I take a course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is much better than it used to be.  The Cognitive Behavioural Therapy taught me how to understand my thoughts, and I still take tablets every day.

We are going to look at the issue and depression and anxiety, from a Christian viewpoint, by answering a number of questions.

  • What causes depression?

Ed Welch writes, ‘Depression is a form of suffering that can’t be reduced to one universal cause.  Many factors may cause depression, and often more than one of these factors is at work in the depressed person.’

Depression can be the result of other people.  People hurt us in a variety of ways.  Many victims of abuse struggle with mental health issues in later life.  Many people carry the wounds caused by an unloving parent, a harsh teacher or a school bully.

Depression is the result of living in a fallen world.  The book of Genesis teaches that, because of human rebellion, God has subjected humankind to decay and death.  Our bodies ache and deteriorate, and we are prone to physical and mental illness.

Sometimes we are the cause of our depression.  For example, anger is a notorious cause of depression.  We can’t expect a joyous life if we are critical, bitter and unforgiving.

False beliefs can be a factor.  If you think you are of no value, you will be prone to feeling depressed.  If you believe that God does not love you, you will suffer from morbid fears.

Satan is a factor in depression.  Not in a wacky sense, but in the fact that he will remind you of past guilt, tempt you towards bitterness and seek to implant in you doubts about the goodness of God.

In Psalm 32, David links a time of depression to God’s discipline.  He refused to face up to his sin, after his adultery with Bathsheba.  So God’s hand was heavy upon him until he acknowledged his guilt.  Never assume that someone’s depression is God’s discipline, but always examine your heart to see if God might be drawing attention to issues he wants to deal with you.

Finally, there is a sense in which God stands behind all our depression.  After all God rules over all that takes place in the universe.  Enemies may wound us but God could shut their mouths.  Similarly, our brain chemistry is not beyond his control.

  • Is it unspiritual to be depressed?

Is it unspiritual to be depressed, after all the fruit of the Holy Spirit includes joy?

The first response to this question is to point out that there are many godly people who have passed through times of immense sorrow.  The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, struggled with depression throughout his life.  What seems to have ignited this was a specific tragedy.

Spurgeon was preaching to a huge congregation—of over twelve thousand people, at the Exeter Hall in London—when someone yelled, “Fire!”  In the chaos that ensured seven people were killed, and Spurgeon was inconsolable.  Other factors contributed to his depressions, including his struggles with gout and his concern for those he pastored.

He exclaimed that there are dungeons beneath the Castle of Despair, and that he had often been in them.  ‘I could weep by the hour like a child, and yet I knew not what I wept for,’ he recounted on one occasion.

In the book of Psalms, we often hear the psalmists crying out to God in despair.  ‘All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.’   These laments are given to us by God, in part, to help us express our pain.

We must also remember that Jesus was a man of sorrows familiar with grief.  Spurgeon wrote, ‘No sin is necessarily connected with sorrow of the heart, for Jesus Christ our Lord once said, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.”  There was no sin in Him, and consequently none in his depression.’

However, I must give you one warning: in your depression do not sin!  Depression does present us with particular temptations.  Most obviously, depression tempts us towards self-pity.  Indeed, some people try to find comfort in wrong ways like over-eating, overworking and alcohol abuse.

But, what about the fact that one aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is joy?  Am I less spiritual when I am depressed?  I put this question to a friend of mine, who is a lecturer in a leading evangelical theological college.  He replied, ‘I guess joy is not simply an emotion.  And so someone with depression can still (though it would be harder) rejoice – have confidence in the Lord.’  He then says that Psalm 31:7-9 might be worth looking at:

“I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.
Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.”

Here we seem to see an example of being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10).

Ed Welch writes, ‘Joy is not the opposite of depression.  It is deeper than depression.  Therefore, you can experience both.’

Joan Singleton lectures in pastoral care in the Irish Bible Institute.   At one stage, when she was depressed, she wondered if her depression inhibited her witness as a Christian.  Then she realised the powerful testimony in the fact that she was still hanging on to God and believing his truth, even though her life was filled with pain.

  •  What about anxiety, isn’t it wrong to worry?

I am not disputing that worry can be a real sin, but I think that anxiety can have many roots, some of which are not sinful.

I see a parallel between anxiety and doubt.  On certain occasions Jesus rebuked the disciples for their doubt, because it revealed a stubborn refusal to accept the truth.  Yet in the letter of Jude we read that we are to ‘be merciful to those who doubt.’  Those to whom Jude was referring doubted, not because they stubbornly refused to believe, but because false teachers had infiltrated the church and upset their faith.   There is doubt that deserves a rebuke and doubt that needs gentle pastoral support.  Similarly, there is anxiety that deserves a rebuke and anxiety that needs gentle pastoral support.

Sinful anxiety is rooted in a failure to trust God or in the fact that we have made peripheral things too important in our lives.  David Powlison observes that, ‘if what you most value can be taken away or destroyed, then you have set yourself up for anxiety.’  However, not all anxiety is condemned in Scripture.  For example, the apostle Paul experienced anxiety related to caring for the health of Christian churches (2 Cor. 11:28).  In many of the psalms, God gives us words to express our anxiety.

When our anxiety has roots in a distorted view of God, we need to be gently instructed in the truth of his gentleness and grace.  We are told to cast our anxieties on the Lord, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7), but some people need help in coming to understand that he really does care for them.  The person with an anxiety disorder may not even be fully aware as to why they are so anxious.  Their worries may have more to do with imbalances in brain chemistry than the actual issues they are focusing on.  It would simply be too harsh to tell them just to stop worrying.

  • Is it okay to take anti-depressants?

John Piper was asked the following question from a listener:  ‘What do you think of Christians taking anti-depressants—I have been on them, and have been accused of not relying on God?’

In his answer, Piper takes a drink from a bottle of water and then asks, ‘was that sip a failure to rely on God?’  After all, God could simply keep his throat miraculously moist!  Piper’s point is that God has given certain means to provide for our physical well-being, and these are to be taken with thanksgiving.

He then explains that he has reached the conclusion that there are profoundly physical dimensions to our mental conditions.  Since that is the case physical means can be used to help people out of their depression—just as medications are gratefully received in the treatment of many other illnesses.

  •  How can we deal with our depression?

Have faith in Christ

Do you remember the ad that the British Humanist Association placed on the side of buses in England—‘There’s probably no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’?  Actually, people tend to enjoy life more with God rather than without him.

Professor Andrew Sims, former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, comments that:  ‘The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally.

Compare the Christian gospel with society’s teaching on self-esteem and ask yourself, ‘which has more potential to help the depressed person?’

Society tells us to seek our value by searching for the hero inside ourselves.  The problem is, when I examine my life I see many things that could make me feel ashamed.  Self-esteem is a poor foundation to build our sense of worth upon.

The gospel tells me that I am a flawed and rebellious person who is loved by a kind and forgiving creator.  This creator has given each of us intrinsic worth, making us in his image.  This God cares for us so much that he sent his Son to die for our guilt.  This God treats me, not as I deserve, but according to his loving-kindness!  Now I can examine my life, see things I wish were not there and be secure in the fact that my relationship with him is not about earning his favour but living in the light of his undeserved, unmerited and unearned grace.  In fact, because of his grace in my life, I can delight in the fact that he is in the process of changing me and transforming into the likeness of Jesus.

Grow in your confidence in the character of God

One of the cruel things about depression is that when we are depressed we are vulnerable to believing lies.  We must combat these lies with the truth.  What many sensitive people need is to realise that God is a loving Father who always seeks the good of his children.  Ed Welch writes, ‘Just think what it would be like to be certain that the God of this universe loved you.  That alone would probably change the contours of depression.’

Examine yourself

We mentioned the importance of seeking to deal with any known sin.  We need to ask the Lord honestly to search our hearts (Psalm 139:23-24).  But never forget that God is compassionate and gracious.  Even when he disciplines us, he does so as a loving Father who has our best interests at heart (Hebrews 12:6).

Look after your body

The apostle Paul told his young disciple Timothy that bodily training is of some value (1 Tim. 4:8).  We must not ignore the connection between the body and the soul.  John Piper copes with his proneness towards a low mood through regular exercise.

Pray the Psalms

A great source of comfort can come from the psalms.  In the psalms we see every sort of human emotion, including depression.  You may only be able to identify with the sorrow in them at the beginning—but take comfort, for these are spiritual people whose sorrow matters enough to God that he records them in his word.  Hopefully, after time, as you cry out to God you will experience the progress towards confidence that occurs in many of the psalms.

Put your faith into practice

It is always important for us to put our faith into practice.  You may need times of rest, but be careful that this does not slip into inertia.  Indeed, there is healing power in doing things for others for the glory of God.  Listen to the healing words of Isaiah (58:10):

“and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.”


When Doctor Elijah Chila was doing a question and answer session with us at Café Church he reminded us of the need to talk.  I always encourage depressed people to talk to a doctor.  We also need to be able to talk about our feelings to family and friends.  Find gracious and loving people that you can share your burdens with.

  • What about those living with someone who has depression?

The book, Dealing with Depression, by Sarah Collins and Jayne Haynes, includes the story of Andy, a pastor whose wife suffers from depression.  He says that the following things have been helpful for him.

Be real about what is happening.  There will be a sense of loss.  Your spouse may become withdrawn, and so you receive less warmth in your life.  They may have less energy and be less fun.  You may need to take on board extra responsibilities at home.  Andy says that it can be lonely living with a depressed person.  The relationship may feel emotionally one-sided.

But, he warns, resist the temptation of simply trying to fix your spouse’s problems.  It is more important to be genuine in your sympathy and listening.

Andy says that you have to ensure that you look after yourself and don’t get burned out.  Exercise, take breaks, do fun things (and don’t feel guilt about having some fun just because they can’t share your mood).

Find someone that you can share your feelings with, but be careful not to look for too much care from someone of the opposite sex (in case you develop an emotionally inappropriate relationship).

Above all, Andy says, seek God in your situation.  ‘A loss in any area of your life opens a door for more of him.  More direct reliance on him … It is hard to read this, I know, but it really is a chance to know Jesus better.’

  •  How can the church help those with depression?

Be there

According to psychologist, Deborah Serani, “when I was struggling with my own depression, the most healing moments came when someone I loved simply sat with me while I cried, or wordlessly held my hand, or spoke warmly to me.’

Remember that small gestures help

Maybe you are uncomfortable about the fact that you don’t know what to say, you can support in other ways.  You can write a card, cook a meal, send a text or offer other forms of practical support.

Don’t just fire verses at them

Many years ago a friend of mine suffered a breakdown.  One of the things that upset her, during this difficult time, was people who would fire Bible verses at her.  She knew that ‘God works all things for the good of those who love him.’  But it was unhelpful when people, who hadn’t the love to listen and engage with how she really felt, pawned her off with a verse.  Brian Borgman writes, ‘it is a dangerous physician who throws a few Bible verses at those who are depressed and tells them just to have faith.’

Don’t say, ‘I know how you feel’

Similarly, in the last church I worked in, a person came to me and shared how painful they found it when someone belittled their suffering with the words, ‘I know how you feel.’  She doubted that they knew how she felt.  Even if you have also suffered from depression, you cannot really know how their depression is affecting them, unless you take the time to listen and find out.  We actually banned our pastoral team from using the phrase ‘I know how you feel.’

Don’t tell them to ‘snap out of it’

Someone with depression shared with me their frustration with people telling them to ‘snap out of it’.  If only they could, they would love to!

Model the kindness of God

Depressed people need to know that God is good and kind.  People draw many conclusions about God’s nature from watching those who claim to know him.  Someone paid tribute to a man I used to know saying, ‘he influenced me in the beauty of godliness.’  People saw God in his life and what they saw showed them that God was good, loving and kind.

 Create communities of grace

If churches are to be helpful towards those who are depressed then they need to be communities that are infused with grace.  It is a tragedy when people are fearful about being vulnerable because of what critics and gossips will say.  It is an outright denial of the gospel when you think that you always have to pretend you are strong.

Be a genuine friend

The proverbs teach, ‘a friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity’ (17:17).  That friendship is best shown in listening carefully and being there in bad times as well as good.  A good friend will challenge the depressed person about some of their false beliefs about God and self.

Conclusion: The fellowship of suffering

Before I finish, I want to remind you that depression has a variety of causes, often at work in any one person, and therefore needs a variety of cures.  I have been helped in my struggles with depression and anxiety by medication, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, time off work, Christians who reflected the grace of God and a supportive family.  I would have to say, that through all my anxieties God is at work humbling me, helping me to lean on him more, causing me to seek to understand him more and giving me a little bit more empathy for others.

I want to finish with some wise words from Bible commentator J. B. Phillips.  He wrote in a letter:

“These periods of spiritual dryness which every saint has known are the very times when your need of God is greatest.  To worship him may or may not bring back the lost ‘feeling’, but your contact with God in prayer and praise will strengthen you spiritually whether you feel it or not … Times of spiritual apathy are the very times when we can do most to prove our love for God, and I have no doubt we bring most joy to his heart when we defy our feelings and act in spite of them.”


Used with permission. For more blog posts by Paul Ritchie check out his blog: To Whom It May Concern.

Becoming a Discerning Disciple

A Key to Spiritual Growth

John MacArthur has written a helpful book called The Keys to Spiritual Growth. In the book he encourages Christians to strive, with God’s help, to develop a number of aspects to their faith.

lords-supper-346965-mMacArthur correctly argues that ‘growth is one of the essential signs of life’ (pg. 13). Subsequently, if a Christian is not growing, developing and maturing in their faith serious questions must be asked about whether or not there is new life present. Moreover, Scripture offers the same exhortation: ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18).

Nevertheless, it must be confessed that little or no growth, development and maturing does not necessarily automatically equate with not being a Christian. The other side of the coin, as MacArthur acknowledges, is that ‘it is possible for a person to be a Christian for half a century and yet remain a spiritual infant’ (pg. 14). A frightening reality.

The final ‘key’ which MacArthur notes is discernment. He understands this to be the most important ‘key’ for the Christian. His assertion is: ‘[discernment is] one of the basic truths of godly living and a vital key to any level of spiritual maturity’ (pg. 172). This is further exemplified by his comment,

Ultimately [discernment] is the definitive mark of spiritual maturity…As you pursue spiritual growth, let the Word of God control your heart and mind, and ask the Lord to train your senses to be discerning (pg. 178).

1 Thessalonians 5:21-22

MacArthur points us to a couple of verses at the end of 1 Thessalonians which describe this exact action and call for an exercise of discernment on the part of God’s people. A brief summary of his argument is:

Test Everything: While Christians can sometimes be uncomfortable with the idea of ‘judging/testing’, especially in light of Jesus’ warning not to judge unless you too be judged (Mt. 7:1), ‘we are most certainly supposed to judge between truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil’ (pg. 173). The letters of 2 Peter and Jude are biblical examples of this.

Hold Fast the Good: MacArthur rightly judges that this is almost assumed among Christians – of course we are to hold fast to what is good. Assumptions often prove dangerous, as MacArthur writes: ‘it is all too easy to drop one’s guard and let go of precious biblical truth. We must be diligent to defend against that.’ (pg. 175). Even in the context of testing everything there are elements that must be held fast, see 2 Peter 1 and Jude 17-23.

Abstain from All Evil: Naturally, the converse is that all that is evil must be rejected, shunned and abstained from. The word abstain is actually a very strong word for Paul, he uses it in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 to speak of abstaining from sexual immorality. Likewise we should abstain from all evil. MacArthur is right in writing ‘it emphasizes the complete separation of the believer from evil in both teaching and behaviour’ (pg. 177). Timothy is a good example of this as he is called to flee from evil (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22).


The big question is always ‘HOW?’ How can we learn discernment? How can we become more discerning? How can we make sure our judgement is correct, thus holding fast what is good and rejecting what is evil?

Here are five of my suggestions:

Read Scripture: MacArthur writes ‘there is no accurate gauge of truth besides God’s Word, and we must diligently examine everything by it’ (pg. 175). While this is a simplistic overstatement by MacArthur, it does remind us that Scripture is our highest authority. This is the same advice Paul gives to young Timothy (1 Timothy 6:2b-5; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2). Knowing our Bibles well will aid us in learning and exercising discernment. The reality is that, ‘truth is the most powerful opponent of error, and good is the most effective adversary of evil’ (pg. 177), and God’s Word is truth.

Join the Church: The church, when functioning biblically, should be shepherded and protected by the elders. Becoming a member of the local church puts us under the authority of the elders who exercise the function of teaching what is right and rebuking that which is wrong (Titus 1:9). Thus, in joining a local church, we should see discernment exemplified in what is taught and what is not by those we submit to.

Pray for Discernment: Paul prays for discernment for the Philippian Church (1:9). Since prayers in the Bible serve as exemplary models for our own prayers surely we too should be praying for discernment. James tells us that if any of us lacks wisdom we should ask God who gives generously (1:5). Discernment, I would argue, is an aspect of wisdom and therefore when we pray for it I believe God will grant it to his people.

Enjoy Fellowship/Community: Proverbs 27:17 explains that just as iron sharpens iron, so one brother or sister sharpens another. Time with other Christians is invaluable (a great privilege often neglected). It provides an opportunity to learn from one another and to teach one another. In discussing issues of life and faith with other Christians we can develop and learn discernment (as well as practice it).

Read Church History: In 1 Corinthians 10:1-6 Paul urges the Corinthians to look at the past to learn what is worth holding fast to, and what requires abstinence. It is not only biblical history that offers examples to learn from, Church history also offers examples that we can learn from. John Piper’s Contending for Our All is a short but excellent book which would aid development of and growth in discernment. This book looks at false teaching in the church and three men who took a stand against it – each of these men displayed discernment as to what must rejected and may be accepted.

Fine Tuning

Becoming a Christian is not the end of the journey, being a Christian is equally important. That is why the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil’ (5:14 ESV). We must continue to grow, develop and mature. MacArthur is surely right in reminding us that discernment is one of the ‘keys’ to this growth.

The difficulty is that discernment is not so much something you can go and do; rather it is something that must be learnt, developed and finely tuned over time. Therefore, ‘[a]s you pursue spiritual growth, let the Word of God control your heart and mind, and ask the Lord to train your senses to be discerning.’ (pg. 178).

Reading D. A. Carson

During the past week I had the great privilege of sitting under the ministry of Dr D. A. Carson as he preached at my home church, addressed the Baptist Pastor’s Conference and lectured in the Irish Baptist College.

Carson is truly one of God’s gifts to the church in this era. His pastoral heart combined with his massive intellect has provided the church with much that is invaluable. He has produced a prolific range of material from academic, peer-reviewed journal articles to a daily devotional to be read alongside daily Bible readings.

I have read a lot of Carson’s work and in my opinion Carson’s best book is MemoirsMemoirs of an Ordinary Pastor. The reason being is the call which echoes throughout the book. Namely, that the most important calling for all those serving in ministry is to remain faithful.

As a relatively young Christian I quickly came across the ministry of numerous ‘famous’ pastors/teachers. I am grateful for the doctrinal grounding, the biblical teaching and the pastoral wisdom provided for me by these men. However, one of the desires stirred in my heart (unintentionally) by these men was to plant a church, gather a large following, write books and travel the world preaching. In short I wanted to be a famous preacher like them.

All of that thankfully changed as I read Carson’s book about his father. As Carson spoke of the greatness of this man I had never heard of, his diligence in ministering to tens of people and his love for both his family and more so for his church family.

As I read this book I was challenged by the faithfulness of this ordinary man, serving quietly in French Canada during a very barren time spiritually speaking. I was inspired to devote myself not to becoming famous, but rather to becoming faithful to God and his people.

This is a challenge I continue to endeavour in, and one which is often difficult. But the example of Tom Carson is forever before me now.

If you are to read a Carson book, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is the one you should begin with. Below are the links to the kindle book, and the paperback:

The Secret to a Successful Marriage

Today’s post is a lightly edited transcript from my wedding sermon at my sister’s marriage ceremony.



summer-love-2-1206534-mWhat is the secret to a successful marriage? That is a question which I’m sure catches the attention of many of us; especially on a wedding day.

The wives lean forward eager to hear me say that the secret to a successful marriage is: a husband who moves the clothes from the laundry basket to the washing machine; or a husband who both lifts the toilet seat and puts it back down again; or a husband who arrives home with a bunch of flowers, a box of chocolates and an eagerness to cook dinner for you.

The husbands lean forward eager to hear me say that the secret to a successful marriage is: a wife who is determined to cook you a fillet steak at least once a week; or a wife who possesses an array of lingerie (and uses it); or a wife who loves watching football and has something more intelligible to say about it than ‘why don’t they just kick it in the net’.

I’ll take at least some of those assumptions to be correct.

But this is not what the Bible says is the secret to a successful marriage. The Bible, in Ephesians 5:22-33, tells us that the secret to a successful marriage is the gospel.

What is the gospel?

To explain this we need first to understand what the gospel is – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).

The word gospel simply means ‘good news’, and for the Bible all good news revolves around Jesus Christ. This part of the Bible explains the good news about Jesus Christ by telling us ‘Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. In other words, Jesus willingly died for the church (for Christians, for people – the church is the people not the building).

These verses go on to tell us that the death of Jesus achieved something. Words like sanctify, cleanse, wash, splendour, holy and without blemish explain what was achieved. All these words are pointing to is a change, a transformation. Jesus’ death achieved a change in those of us who are Christians.

The image is of a beautiful young woman – exquisite, unsurpassed and matchless. Just as a bride appears at the church exquisite, unsurpassed and matchless, so Christians are changed and transformed.

This is the good news – Jesus Christ died to transform us. We are all sinners, without a hope of being anything else – except for this good news; Jesus gave his life to transform us. Earlier in the book of Ephesians sinners are described as followers of Satan, disobedient and children of wrath (Eph. 2:2-3). We all begin life as sinners. But for those of us who are Christians, people who have been changed because of Jesus willing death, we are now different, splendid and without spot, wrinkle or blemish.

The good news is that Jesus sacrificially and selflessly gave himself for us. The secret to a successful marriage is this good news.

How does this help marriage?

You may wish to ask the question, ‘how does this help marriage?’ Explain how this good news is the secret to a successful marriage…

This good news is the secret to a successful marriage firstly by changing and transforming us – as we have just noted. But, secondly it is the secret to a successful marriage in its example.


The church is the example for the wife – Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands (Eph 5:22-24). The church, this group of people changed and transformed by Jesus, is who the wife is to imitate.

The Bible is plain in its call; wives are to submit to their husbands. The church’s submission to Jesus is the model for the wife’s relationship to her husband. Why? The husband is the ‘head’ of the wife – the primary idea being taught is that the husband is responsible for the wife. The wife’s submission is to be in everything, meaning all areas of life.

Further, this submission is not given conditionally on the husband’s love, but is given in obedience to Jesus’ call. Wives are called to submit to husbands because of what Jesus has done for you – because of his death for and transformation of you.

The wife’s transformation by Jesus’ willing death is the motivation for her submission. You are to do this because of what Jesus has done for you. But this does not mean you sit quietly and only speak when spoken to. No! Submission is the willingness to honour, support and respect your husband.

Submission is the willingness to sacrificially and selflessly honour, respect and support your husband.


What is interesting is that the husbands are not then commanded to ‘rule’ over their wives. Jesus is the example for husbands – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body (Eph. 5:25-30).

The command for husbands is to love their wives. In fact, not only is it to love, but to love like Jesus; and just as Jesus gave his life for the good of the church, so husbands should give their lives for the good of their wives.

Just as Jesus’ life given for the church enables him to present her holy and blameless, so a Christian husband’s life should enable a wife to grow and develop in holiness and purity. There is no ruling and reigning – only sacrifice and selflessness. Or as these verses tenderly put it, nourishing and cherishing.

This is the call as a husband. You are to love your wife like you have never loved anything else in your life – except your Saviour Jesus. Giving yourself for her good; executing utter commitment to the total well-being of your wife.

Self-sacrificing love is what you are commanded to give to your wife. You, as a husband, are called to set the spiritual standard in your new family by your own sacrifice. This ‘headship’ title is about controlling ourselves in sacrificial love, not controlling our wives.

Husbands are to give themselves, their life, their being, to the care, love, protection and encouragement of their wives.


The reason that this results in a successful marriage is because these two roles are complimentary when embodied by spouses.

A married couple are no longer two people, but one – “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” (Eph. 5:31). If both spouses in this new unit attempt to fulfil the same role; if both fight to be responsible for everything, or if both try to push the other into all the responsibility there is just going to be tension and unrest.

However, if one spouse (the wife) seeks continually to support and respect while the other spouse (the husband) seeks continually to love and encourage then there should be a mutual growth in the one flesh that is marriage. Through this act you become one person, and just as you sacrifice many things for your own personal good, so now you should sacrifice many things for the good of your other half.


This is not an easy concept to get our heads around; in fact the Bible tells us it is a mystery. The Bible also clearly states that marriage is one of the best examples of the gospel, the good news, of Jesus’ love for the church – but only when it is exercised in this manner.

So, we return to the question with which we began:

What is the secret to a successful marriage?

This gospel, good news, of Jesus giving himself for the church is the secret to a successful marriage; through Jesus’ giving of himself people are changed and transformed; and beyond that spouses find a perfect example of their relationship in how the church submits to Jesus and how Jesus loves the church.

I leave you with the closing words of our passage – This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph. 5:32-33).

Praying with the Prophet

I will have the great privilege of teaching on the book of Habakkuk in the near silence-867434-mfuture. Some of my preliminary reading has inspired this prayer. Often we are hesitant to pray in this manner (known as lament or, in common vernacular, complaint). However, throughout Scripture, again and again, we find faithful servants of God question God with honest doubt.

Please pray with me.


Our transcendent God; our father who dwells in the heavens, enthroned high above all that we see with our eyes, we humbly approach you in prayer through our one and only mediator, Jesus.

We confess that you are indeed a great God. We acknowledge you are holy, pure, light, blameless, perfect, just, righteous, without wrongdoing, immovable and unchanging. Our declaration is that our holy God is also the sovereign, omniscient and omnipotent God. There is nothing which is outside of your sight, nor your power and control. We praise you for your character, and adore you in your beauty.

We are eternally grateful for your revelation of yourself, to us, as such a matchless God.

Yet…we struggle with the world we see around us. We are sickened by the perversity of people, enraged by the absence of justice and saddened by the pain many experience. There appears to be no distinction – your own people, the church, and those who do not confess you as God both suffer. In fact, it seems that often your people suffer more. We are shocked by the sin inflicted by Christians on fellow Christians, frustrated by the apparent neglect of the shepherds you have placed over us and distressed by the apparent lack of help.

This world and those in it persist in their evil and wickedness and yet the world continues as it feels like it always has.

How can this be so God? In light of your character, why do you overlook this injustice? When will you correct these wrongs? What must happen to your people before you act? Where will the next attack on Christians arise?

It is a mystery to us with our finite minds.

So, we plead – crying out with our minds, hearts and souls – that you act. Bring your judgement to bear on those who persecute, attack and injure your people. Remove the pressure and pain that Christians face. Give us comfort, strength and encouragement. Help us see you at work in this world!

Even so, we praise you our eternally righteous father. You have promised full salvation at the return of your Son, Jesus. You have promised peace, justice and comfort forever in a new heaven and earth after that return. More than that, you have repeatedly displayed yourself as a God who keeps those promises.

We ask that you would speed Jesus’ return, and until that day you would aid us to remain faithful in this dark, sinful and dangerous world.

We pray all of this because you are our father, through Jesus’ sacrificial death and in the Spirit who continues to sanctify us in and through this world.