4 What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? 6 But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?
One of Christ’s most hope-giving promises to sufferers is “I am with you” (cf. Matt. 28:20). Yet our ability to draw strength and hope from this promise rests entirely upon our view of Jesus. Who exactly is this Jesus who is with us in our suffering?
We’ve all met people whose presence makes suffering worse. They spew negativity. They drip with judgmentalism. They seem more interested in fixing us than understanding us. They might even blatantly shame us. If these people promised, “I will be with you in your suffering,” we would cringe and hope it isn’t true. We’d rather suffer alone than with a disparaging presence.
How do you view Jesus? When Jesus says, “I am with you in your suffering,” which emotions stir inside you? Comfort? Fear? Hope? Shame? Apathy? Consider three views of Jesus, and ask yourself which “Jesus” you relate to most.
View #1: Satanized Jesus
The Apostle Paul observed that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Yet sometimes the devil doesn’t need to disguise himself—we do it for him. We grab hold of Scripture’s description of Satan, dress him up as Jesus, and then look to him in our suffering. Unsurprisingly, Satanized Jesus only makes our grief and pain worse.
Satanized Jesus hisses accusations, and we accept them as the voice of God. He is harsh, impatient, and impossible to please. He offers no forgiveness. No encouragement. No mercy. No help. This “Jesus” makes suffering intolerable.
View #2: Neutralized Jesus
Unlike Satanized Jesus, Neutralized Jesus doesn’t make suffering worse—but he doesn’t make it better, either. His presence is like a wallflower, always in the room but rarely noticeable. We could live with or without him. He’s neutral.
There are many ways we neutralize Jesus in our minds. Some believe Jesus is powerful but doubt his care (cf. Mark 4:38; Luke 10:40). Others believe Jesus cares but doubt his ability to help in their (seemingly) unique situation (cf. Matt. 8:26; 14:31; John 5:6–7). Still others believe Jesus is hamstrung by their sin, unable to move in their life until they clean themselves up (cf. John 4:13–18).
“I am with you” means little to those living with a neutralized Jesus. They say, “It’s a nice gesture, but his presence doesn’t make a difference in my broken life.”
View #3: Biblical Jesus
For the promise of Christ’s presence to fortify us in our suffering, we must reject the Satanized and neutralized misconceptions of Jesus and renew our minds with the Jesus revealed in Scripture.
According to God’s Word, Jesus isn’t only with us; he’s unremittingly for us (Ps. 56:9; Rom. 8:31). His presence is always a favorable, advocating, affectionate presence—yes, even after we sin (Rom. 5:8; 1 John 2:1). Dane Ortlund remarks, “He’s not only there; he is on our team. He is for us. … He is looking at us and saying, ‘I am rooting for you. I am in your corner. You [can] fall into my open, nail-scarred hands any time you want.’”
In our suffering—even that which we’ve brought on ourselves by our sin—the true Jesus remains on our side. He faithfully disciplines us (Rev. 3:19) and calls us to repent and follow him—yet he does so with unmatched tenderness. Ortlund again: “Jesus is not trigger-happy. Not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe. The posture most natural to Jesus is not a pointed finger but open arms.”
In the Fire of Affliction With Us
The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan. 3) gives us a powerful picture of Christ’s heart in our suffering. God famously saved these men from a blazing furnace after they refused to worship the king’s golden statue. But how God saved them is curious and often overlooked.
Before Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were delivered from the fire, a fourth man—whom Timothy Keller and others identify as a pre-incarnate manifestation of Christ—appeared “walking in the midst of the fire” with them (Dan. 3:25). How strange is this? Christ could’ve easily appeared next to the king—safely and comfortably removed from the flames—and called out, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, come out of the fire!” This would’ve showcased his power and authority. Instead, Christ joined his people in the fire, preferring to endure the heat with them before saving them.
And so Jesus does for us. Our Savior refused to sit back and watch us suffer alone. He refused to stay at a safe distance from the flames of our affliction. Christ became man to identify, suffer, and walk through the fire with his people before saving us, forever binding himself to us intimately.
When Jesus says, “I am with you,” he says it as one who knows the pain of suffering. He understands our weaknesses, fears, and struggles. He has felt the heat of the fire himself. And those flames were hottest on the cross, where Jesus was scorched for us, so we would never have to walk through the fire of affliction alone.
One day, Jesus will return to extinguish the fire of affliction forever. Until that day, we must remember that our Savior is unreservedly committed to us, and he walks in the midst of the fire with us, even now.
“When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, and the flame will not burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, and your Savior… Do not fear, for I am with you.”(Isaiah 43:2–5)
Think about people who make you feel loved. What about them makes you feel this way? Without knowing you (or them), I can almost guarantee they ask good questions and listen well. David Augsburger observed, “Being heard is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.” Show me a person who asks questions and listens, and I’ll show you a person who makes people feel known and loved.
Sadly, this is an increasingly rare gift. Stephen Covey notes, “Most people don’t listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In other words, most people don’t actually listen—they wait. They wait for you to stop talking so they can talk. Some of this is a matter of attention span—trained by short videos on social media, minds quickly wander. But at a deeper level, most people are simply more interested in what they have to say than what the other person has to say.
This makes asking questions and actively listening one of the rarest (and most powerful) ways to communicate love. And when we bless others by asking good questions and listening well, we uniquely and powerfully reflect God’s character and love. Question-asking was one of Jesus’s favorite tools. Even though Jesus knew all things (John 16:30)—including people’s hearts (John 2:24–25)—he still asked over 300 questions in the Gospels alone.
Though we’ve all benefited from good questions and active listening, many of us feel ill-equipped to do it ourselves. To that end, here are three principles for question-based conversation.
1. Be Curious
The beginning of asking good questions is being genuinely curious about the person to whom you’re speaking. A good conversational tool to keep in your toolbelt is the acronym FORKS. Whenever you meet with new people, ask about their:
(I provide sample questions for each topic at the end of this article.)
“Why” questions are often the best kind to ask. This will help draw out the other person’s motivations, passions, and feelings—which not only makes for better conversation but also helps you get to know this person beyond a surface level.
Another great way to begin a question is with the phrase, “Can you teach me about?” Pick a topic that you know the other person is passionate about or experienced in, and ask the person to educate you on it. This is one of the most effective (and fun) ways to get to know people and to make them feel valued—and it gives you an opportunity to learn. Everyone wins.
2. Follow Up
Once the other person finishes talking, try to repeat the content in your own words (e.g., “So, you’re saying?”). Making a habit of asking this follow-up question will help you learn to listen well. It’ll also assure other people that they’ve been heard and that you value what they have to say.
Another great follow-up question is “Can you tell me more about [choose one part of what they just shared]?” or “What do you mean by [choose one part of what they just shared]?” Not only does this spark deeper conversation, but it signals to the other person, “I’m interested in what you have to say, and I want to make sure I don’t misunderstand you.”
3. Ask Leading Questions
One of the best ways to love others (and glorify God) is to ask questions that lead to mutually edifying, Christ-exalting discussion. God tells us to think about praiseworthy things(Phil. 4:8) and to talk about things that build up the people in the conversation (Eph. 4:29). Think about the kinds of questions that you typically ask. Do they typically stimulate discussions that lead to praise and gratitude? Or do your questions typically stimulate gossip or complaining?
All questions lead somewhere and set the tone and trajectory of a conversation. The next time you’re conversing with someone, ask yourself: Where do my questions lead? Do they tear down or build up? Do they promote anger or love? Do they lead to mutual frustration or mutual edification?
Everyone has something to say, but few have the opportunity to say it since question-asking and listening are increasingly rare.
The next time you meet with someone, challenge yourself to ask more questions than you answer. This can go a long way in making the other person feel valued—and it’s one of the most powerful ways to communicate the character and love of God.
Note: This article was first published by The Gospel Coalition. It was republished by Randy Alcorn’s Eternal Perspective Ministries.
Sample questions for FORKS:
Family: How has your relationship with your brother been? How is your mom’s health? How have you been shaped by your parents? What is your favorite attribute in your spouse? What is your sister like? Who are you closest with in your family, and why? What does your family enjoy doing together? What is your favorite family vacation or tradition, and why?
Occupation: What inspired you to pursue the job/major you have? What is your favorite part about your job/major and why? What have you been working on at your job/school recently? Can you teach me about [insert something related to their job]? What has been most interesting to you about the class you’re taking, and why does this interest you?
Recreation: What do you enjoy doing in your free time and why? How has your [insert hobby or project] been going? What would you say you are most passionate about? If you could make a living out of doing anything, what would you pick and why? Why do you enjoy [insert their favorite TV show/book/activity] so much? If you could join a club or take a class for fun, what would be the activity/subject?
Knowledge: What have you been learning about recently (in general)? What have you been learning about yourself recently? What have you been reading recently and how is it impacting you? What have you learned about [insert their passion] recently? Can you teach me about [insert something related to their passion or skill]? What is your favorite medium for learning, and why? (e.g., books, podcasts, YouTube videos, hands-on learning, etc.) What is the best advice you have ever received?
Spirituality: How are you doing spiritually? What is one joy and one challenge in your faith recently? What has God been teaching you recently? What is one way you would like to grow in this season of life, and why? What stood out to you from last week’s sermon, and why? How did you come to faith in Christ?
This is the opening line of the preface to John Piper’s excellent work, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, first published in 1990. Over thirty years later—in a vastly different and rapidly changing world—this widespread, soul-gnawing hunger remains. And the universal need for faithful preaching remains.
The next generation of Christian leaders and laypeople desperately needs sermons that provide more than temporary entertainment or intellectual stimulation. We need sermons deep enough to penetrate the loneliest cavities of our hearts. We need sermons strong enough to “barge into our souls and shake awake a hopeful response.” We need sermons sturdy enough to stabilize us when we feel shaken by opposition, persecution, temptation, and suffering.
There’s no time to waste on Christianized Ted Talks, motivational speeches, lofty monologues, or sermons that resemble standup comedy more than true encounters with God. We need soul-feeding, heart-healing, mind-training, truth-telling, grace-dispensing, hope-directing, life-giving, Christ-exalting preaching. We need preaching that brings us to Jesus and his host of benefits and protections.
Pastor, if you want to preach sermons that glorify God, offer tangible hope, prompt true heart change, and leave an eternal impact—not merely tickle ears for 30 minutes—consider four marks of a powerful sermon. (And church congregant: encourage your pastor to pursue these marks!)
Disclaimer: My main focus in this article is on the content of effective sermons. Elements such as the preacher’s prayer life, exegetical work, personal piety, knowledge of the text, familiarity with the manuscript, involvement in the life of the church, and dependence on the Holy Spirit are all vital in sermon preparation and delivery.
Mark #1: Jesus—not the preacher—gets the spotlight.
I love meeting new people. My idea of a good time is to grab coffee with a preacher and learn all about him—his family, hobbies, experiences, and the lessons he’s learned in ministry. But I don’t go to church to meet the preacher. I go to church to meet Jesus. Why? Because my soul is starving for nourishment and Jesus alone is true food (John 6:55). My soul is gasping for oxygen, and Jesus alone is true life (John 14:6). My soul is tired and weary, and Jesus alone is true rest (Matthew 11:28-30).
I come to church every week with a backdrop of sin that only Jesus can absolve. I come weighed down by sorrows and brokenness too heavy for anyone but Jesus to carry. I come weary, muddy, scraped up, oft-confused, prone to wander—and Jesus alone can sustain me, cleanse me, mend me, direct me, shepherd me.
A sermon without Jesus is an empty prescription bottle—it may appear helpful from the outside, but there’s nothing inside that can actually heal us. Or, as Charles Spurgeon memorably put it, “A sermon without Christ in it is like a loaf of bread without any flour in it. No Christ in your sermon, sir? Then go home, and never preach again until you have something worth preaching.”
Preacher, I would love to meet you and learn all about you—and I’m sure many of your congregants would, too. But if you love us, don’t give us yourself in your sermons. Give us Jesus.
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Does this sermon clearly articulate who Jesus is and what he has done? (i.e., Does this sermon clearly articulate the gospel?)
Will this sermon leave the congregation knowing more about me or more about Jesus? Will it leave the congregation hungry for more of me or more of Jesus?
Will this sermon leave the congregation thinking, “What a great preacher!” or “What a great Savior!”?
Mark #2: The Word of God drives the sermon.
Imagine your friend Sally is sick and greatly troubled. Desperate for help, she calls you and asks you to drive her to the physician. You drop everything and rush over, honored that she would reach out to you for assistance. She thanks you profusely as you drive her to the doctor’s office, and you can feel her hope rising as you get closer. This physician is known to provide help for people like her. Color returns to her face as her anticipation rises to meet him.
But imagine that when you get to the office and the doctor comes in, you cut him off every time he tries to speak to Sally. Every time the doctor opens his mouth to give direction, you speak over him to give Sally your best advice. After 20 minutes of this nonsense, the doctor leaves to attend to another patient.
Can you imagine anything more grievous? Sally was literally in the presence of the physician who could help and heal her—with ears wide open to hear him—but you never let him speak.
This is what a Word-less sermon is like. Hurting people have come to church for healing. They are inside the doctor’s office, so to speak, eagerly waiting to meet and hear from the Physician. How lamentable would it be if we (as pastors) took up their entire visit offering our best advice rather than letting them hear from the Physician himself?
Preacher, you will be tempted to use the pulpit to ride your favorite hobby horses, monologue your latest theological fascinations, showcase your greatest achievements, or broadcast your political convictions. Resist this urge. As Paul tells Timothy, “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2, emphasis mine).
Word-less preaching is powerless preaching. Sure, we might inspire some listeners with our own wisdom or creativity—perhaps even influence their behavior. But true heart change comes from the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the Word of God. As Bryan Chapell put it, “Preaching accomplishes its spiritual purposes not because of the skills or the wisdom of a preacher but because of the power of the Scripture proclaimed (1 Cor. 2:4–5).”
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Have I clearly understood and communicated the author’s intent in the passage?
Do my points and illustrations serve the text (rather than distract from it)?
Have I connected the main point(s) of the text to the lives of my congregants? Have I connected the text to the gospel of Jesus Christ (to whom all of Scripture points)?
Mark #3: Clarity is prized just as much as creativity.
Creativity is immensely valuable (arguably essential) for an effective sermon. Just as God calls us to “sing a new song” (Psalm 96:1), our congregants ask us to “preach a new sermon.” We should always look for new and fresh ways to present the precious, unchanging gospel and our precious, unchanging Savior.
Yet, creativity without clarity is nothing more than fine-dressed confusion. A creative, unclear sermon is a colorful map in a foreign language—it might look pretty, but it contains very little practical value.
Preacher, are you weary today? Take comfort in this: God has not called you to be cute; he’s called you to be clear. He has not called you to work your fingers to the bone every week to provide some grandiose speech, novel revelation, or Gandolf-like wisdom. He has called you to clearly communicate the life-giving words of Scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Tim. 3:16; 4:2; Hebrews 4:12).
While creativity is an essential part of any good sermon, ultimately, hearts will be changed by the Holy Spirit working through the clear proclamation of the Word of God. As Timothy Keller put it, “While the difference between a bad sermon and a good sermon is mainly the responsibility of the preacher, the difference between good preaching and great preaching lies mainly in the work of the Holy Spirit.”
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Is my outline clear? Is the main point of the text clear? Are my applications to the congregants clear?
Are my explanations understandable to an unbeliever and/or new believer?
Is it clear how my illustrations serve the text?
Mark #4: The sermon contains clear, compelling, Word-driven applications to the modern congregation.
Preachers often fall into one of two ditches when it comes to application. The first (increasingly common) ditch is to skip the exposition of Scripture and immediately apply the topic to congregants. This (mal)practice makes preachers susceptible to misinterpreting the text, ignoring the person and work of Christ, and turning sermons into glorified to-do lists for the congregation.
But there is another ditch that can, at times, be even more maddening to the congregant—and that’s when the preacher spends the entire sermon in theological la-la land, never actually connecting the text to the life of the congregant. I still remember hearing a sermon years ago in which the question crossed my mind, “Does the preacher even know I am here?” It felt like he was speaking to hear his own voice more than he was preaching to the people in front of him. Needless to say, it was difficult to take away much from this sermon.
One of the greatest compliments a preacher can receive is, “Pastor, it felt like you were speaking directly to me—as if you knew exactly what I am going through!” What creates such a powerful experience of connectedness to the sermon? More often than not, it is the Holy Spirit working through a preacher’s clear, intentional, and thoughtful application of the text to his listeners.
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Have I clearly applied the main point(s) of this text to the congregants?
Have I clearly applied the hope of the gospel to the congregants?
By the end of my sermon, will my congregants be able to answer, “Why does this passage matter for my life?”
BONUS MARK: The sermon outline “preaches” by itself.
Okay, I’ll admit: this mark is more of a preference than a necessity. But I also believe it is more valuable than most preachers give credit for. Consider the difference between two possible sermon outlines for Revelation 12—and ask yourself which sermon you are more interested in hearing.
We can have hope as we live in the wilderness because with us is…
A LORD who will nourish us. (vv. 1–6)
A Lamb who will defend us. (vv. 7–12)
A Lover who will save us. (vv. 13–17)
Often the sermon outline is one of the first things (sometimes the only thing) people remember. An outline that doesn’t communicate anything is, at best, a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, a sermon outline that is clear, memorable, well-tailored to the text, and preaches Christ will continue to bear fruit well beyond the 30 minutes of preaching. (Bonus points if you can make the sermon title “preach,” too!)
Application: Before preaching, ask yourself:
Do my points communicate something (preferably gospel hope)?
Does my outline help the congregants see how the text fits together, applies to them, and connects to Christ?
If my congregants only remembered my outline, would they still be nourished?
Rest in God’s promises
Preacher, God has given you the wonderful privilege of proclaiming his life-giving Word to his people. Thank him for this precious opportunity, and rest afresh in his promise that his Word will not return empty but will achieve the purpose for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
1 My son, keep my words and treasure up my commandments with you; 2 keep my commandments and live; keep my teaching as the apple of your eye; 3 bind them on your fingers; write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,” and call insight your intimate friend, 5 to keep you from the forbidden woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words. 6 For at the window of my house I have looked out through my lattice, 7 and I have seen among the simple, I have perceived among the youths, a young man lacking sense, 8 passing along the street near her corner, taking the road to her house 9 in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness. 10 And behold, the woman meets him, dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart. 11 She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home; 12 now in the street, now in the market, and at every corner she lies in wait. 13 She seizes him and kisses him, and with bold face she says to him, 14 “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; 15 so now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you. 16 I have spread my couch with coverings, colored linens from Egyptian linen; 17 I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. 18 Come, let us take our fill of love till morning; let us delight ourselves with love. 19 For my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey; 20 he took a bag of money with him; at full moon he will come home.” 21 With much seductive speech she persuades him; with her smooth talk she compels him. 22 All at once he follows her, as an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a stag is caught fast 23 till an arrow pierces its liver; as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life. 24 And now, O sons, listen to me, and be attentive to the words of my mouth. 25 Let not your heart turn aside to her ways; do not stray into her paths, 26 for many a victim has she laid low, and all her slain are a mighty throng. 27 Her house is the way to Sheol, going down to the chambers of death.
Few things are more powerful than a timely, specific word of encouragement. One word of encouragement can buoy mothers who feel unnoticed, pastors on the verge of burnout, friends struggling with depression, or singles feeling the weight of loneliness. Dane Ortlund once told this story:
A few weeks ago an older pastor said to me in passing, “You’re doing well.” It took him about five seconds to formulate the thought, say the words, and move on. Two weeks later—whether he’s right or not—I’m still drawing strength from it. The supernatural power of encouragement.
Most people have felt this joyful sensation. Not only is encouragement valuable (Prov. 25:11), it can actually be healing. Yet well-meaning attempts at encouragement can sometimes be ineffective or even counterproductive. How can we ensure our encouragement is both effective and God-honoring? Consider three tips.
1. Be specific.
Perhaps the top reason many words of encouragement lack power is they aren’t specific enough. Consider the difference:
Generic: “Thanks for being a good friend.”
Specific: “Thanks for being an active listener. Yesterday when you let me share my struggles with you—and you stayed engaged and asked follow-up questions—that made me feel loved and valued.”
When you attach your encouragement to a specific action or habit of the individual—and to a specific way it makes youfeel—it shows your encouragement is genuine. It also reassures the other person that her efforts are noticed (Matt. 6:4) and reminds her that she has unique gifts and a meaningful purpose from God (Rom. 12:6).
The next time you encourage someone, ask yourself, Was my encouragement specific? Or was it something that could be found on any motivational billboard? As a general rule, the more specific a word of encouragement is, the more powerful it will be.
2. Follow your encouragement with a related question.
You’ve probably been in a situation when someone complimented you—and then abruptly stopped talking and stared at you, leaving you scrambling to think of an appropriate response. Perhaps you tried to break the tension by deflecting the compliment (“Aww, I’m not that good at singing”) or by complimenting in response (“Well, you’re a great singer, too”). In either case, the pressure to respond can often rob encouraging words of some of their power.
One of the best ways to avoid putting someone in this situation is to immediately follow up your words of encouragement with a question about how this person has come to excel in this area. For example, “You are great at asking questions. How did you get so good at this?”
Asking this follow-up question encourages the other person while organically moving the conversation along (and bypassing that awkward staredown). This question also shows the other person that he has something valuable to offer—and it gives you (the encourager) an opportunity to learn and grow.
3. Give credit to the Holy Spirit.
Herein lies the primary difference between worldly compliments and biblical encouragement. Worldly compliments exalt self; biblical encouragement exalts God. When someone receives biblical encouragement, she walks away praising and thanking God—not praising and inflating self.
A great way to practice biblical encouragement is to follow your praise with “This is clear evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in you.” (If the person is not a believer, you might say, “God has clearly gifted you in this area.”)
Statements like these give glory to God (James 1:17), allow the other person to receive the compliment with gratitude rather than pride, and remind him that God is at work in his life (something many Christians have trouble recognizing in themselves). Every opportunity to encourage someone is an opportunity to worship and enjoy God. Don’t miss out on this pleasure!
To the Receiver
The best way to respond to a word of encouragement is with a simple and heartfelt “Thank you—that means a lot.” It is not humble to deflect encouragement—in fact, deflecting encouragement actually belittles God’s work in you and deprives the other person of the joy of building you up. Smile and say thank you. This will glorify God and create joy for both parties.
You will almost certainly come across someone today who needs encouragement. Yes, today! Make the most of this opportunity by making your encouragement specific, asking how the person did it, and giving credit to the Holy Spirit. If you include these elements in your encouragement, you can be confident that your words are effective and that God is glorified.
“The eternal God is your refuge, and his everlasting arms are under you.” —Deuteronomy 33:27, NLT
My Sunday school teacher recently made a statement that sent my jaw to the floor: “One of the implications of Christ being the Alpha and Omega is that he sees every moment of your life equally perfectly vividly. Six days ago, six months ago, six years ago—he sees it all just as vividly as he sees this very moment.”
We are fickle. We tend to let our pride skyrocket after a moment of strong faith. Then we doubt our salvation after a moment of foolishness. God isn’t swayed by moments in time the way we are. He alone sees the whole of us: our good and bad, our past and future, every success and failure—equally perfectly vividly—yet he still loves us fully. What a comfort!
Peter must’ve been similarly comforted when he pleaded with persecuted churches to remember that God isn’t constrained by time like we are: “Do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” (2 Peter 3:8).
Why is this the “one thing” we must not forget? What hope can this give us in the highs and lows of life? Consider how God’s unique ability to see past, present, and future—equally perfectly vividly—can fortify our souls.
Do you remember what you prayed for a few years ago? You pleaded with God through tears, trusting he’d provide even though you couldn’t see how. Then days, weeks, months, even years passed. You didn’t see his answer. Maybe you still don’t see his answer. Don’t forget this one thing: This prayer is still before God with the same intensity and clarity as if you were praying now. Not one prayer is misspent. Not one act of faith forgotten. Not one tear evaporates into meaninglessness (Psalm 56:8). Even if you forget your prayers, God remembers each one and will answer in his timing (John 15:7).
God’s perfectly vivid knowledge extends to our obedience as well: That afternoon three months ago when you stepped out in faith even as you trembled. That time in high school when you sat with the outcast. That moment 20 years ago when you responded to unfair criticism with love. God hasn’t forgotten. He sees each moment and is as pleased by your faith as if it just happened. All of your efforts will continue to glorify him forever.
What are the implications of God’s perfectly vivid knowledge of our past hardships? Notably, God does not say, “That happened 15 years ago; we’ve moved on from that now.” Perish the thought. God is just as grieved today by past difficulties and injustices as he was when they happened. And he’s just as committed to bringing justice for wrongs done and eternal healing for those who’ve been hurt (Psalm 9:7–10).
God’s commitment to us is clearest in the most significant moment of the past: the cross. Every time you sin, God sees the sacrifice of Christ perfectly vividly. His memory never lapses; not a millisecond passes when the work and benefits of Christ don’t fully apply to you. Every promise God has ever made is still fresh on his mind as if he spoke it to you just now. Human commitments often ebb and flow as time passes; God’s do not (2 Timothy 2:13).
One of the biggest emphases in self-help culture is living in the present. Countless books, seminars, and meditation classes are dedicated to helping people achieve this end. Why? Because every person struggles to live in the moment; our minds inevitably wander to the past or the future.
Thankfully, this isn’t so with God. Because God exists outside time, he isn’t preoccupied with what will happen tomorrow. He isn’t distracted by what happened in the past. God is fully present, perfectly attentive, and passionately engaged with your prayers and actions—just as engaged as he would be if there weren’t any other humans on the planet.
This makes Jesus uniquely able to help you with each new struggle as it arises. He’s an always-fresh Savior. He doesn’t offer stale advice or suggest a strategy that worked in a different season or for a different person. Unlike any other counselor, Jesus always understands your emotions, circumstances, and point in sanctification perfectly. He alone can give you exactly what you need, no matter the circumstance.
“Vivid” is the last word most people would use to describe their understanding of the future. While our pasts may be fuzzy, we’re all completely blind to what’s ahead. The future of our families, churches, jobs, homes, aspirations, nations, and world is unknowable. Unsurprisingly, fear of the future consistently ranks among the most prevalent and crippling phobias.
Yet there’s One who sees the future as vividly as we see this present moment. Unlike anyone else, God isn’t subject to guesswork regarding the days, weeks, and years ahead. In fact, God doesn’t only see the future; he ordains it (Proverbs 19:21; Isaiah 46:9–11). In his love and kindness, he ordains it all for our eternal good and safety (Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:3–14; 2:7).
We can rest today not because we know tomorrow but because we know the loving character and faithful promises of God. As Corrie ten Boom is quoted as saying, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
Believer, your past, present, and future are all safe in Jesus’ arms. He isn’t waiting to see how you perform before granting his love. He has promised never to leave you (Hebrews 13:5), and he will hold your hand through all that’s ahead (Psalm 73:23; Isaiah 41:10, 13). So rest in your sovereign Lord who rules over the entire universe—even over time itself.
Above is a video devotional on discipleship I delivered for a mini-series at my church. A lightly edited transcript of the video is below.
A few years ago, I got to see the Broadway show Hamilton, which was easily one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen in person (along with Taylor Swift, of course). For three hours, I sat in awe of the creativity and excellence of the entire production. I could talk for a long time about this show.
Yet one of my favorite parts of Hamilton was not the show itself but the drive home from Chicago with my sister. We blabbered back and forth for a full hour: Wasn’t that incredible? Wasn’t Eliza’s voice amazing? Wasn’t King George hilarious? Did you see those acrobats? Did they ever mess up?
What was I doing as I recounted my favorite parts to my sister? I was inviting her to enter into praise with me. I was inviting her to enjoy and marvel at the object I found admirable. Why? Because our joy is amplified when someone else praises the same object that we find beautiful. Our joy is amplified when we share in praising the praiseworthy.
We’ve all felt this sensation. When you hear a catchy song, watch a riveting movie, or see a beautiful sunset, don’t you want to share it with someone? Then—after the other person experiences the object of your praise—you ask, “Wasn’t that so good?” If she says, “That was amazing,” joy floods your heart—and that’s because sharing in praise completes our joy.
My Hamilton experience is just a tiny glimpse into what makes Christian discipleship so wonderful. Discipleship is an invitation to worship and enjoy our beautiful and praiseworthy Savior, Jesus Christ, with one another. And when we do that—when we share in praise and pursuit of Jesus—Christ is glorified, and our joy is multiplied.
Let’s consider three questions: What is discipleship? Why do discipleship? How can we grow as disciplers?
1. What is discipleship?
Before we define what discipleship is, it’s helpful to consider what it is not. Two common misconceptions of discipleship are helpful to identify up front:
On the one hand, some people think discipleship is merely community. They think as long as they have spent time with another Christian, they have therefore done discipleship.
On the other hand, some people think discipleship is merely teaching. They think as long as they gave someone a gospel tract or sermon, they have therefore done discipleship.
Unfortunately, neither community alone nor teaching alone fulfills God’s purposes for discipleship. Discipleship, rather, is the marriage between community and teaching (see 1 Thessalonians 2:8). Discipleship is life-on-life, gospel-centered, Word-driven, Christ-conforming community.
Often, discipleship happens when a mature believer teaches and walks alongside a younger Christian. But it’s not limited to that context. Discipleship happens whenever two people seek to know Christ, love Christ, and become more like Christ together. Examples include:
A mother teaching her child how to pray.
Two young men holding each other accountable.
An older Christian mentoring a younger Christian.
Two friends studying the Bible together.
Siblings going to church together and then talking about the sermon afterward.
A married couple inviting a single adult into their home for dinner and intentional spiritual conversation.
Discipleship is what happens whenever two or more people seek to know Jesus, love Jesus, reflect Jesus, and become more like Jesus together. To say that in three words: biblical discipleship is following Jesus together.
2. Why do discipleship? Why follow Jesus together?
Consider two reasons to follow Jesus with others:
(A) Because salvation is found in no one except Jesus; there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).
Jesus is the most precious, most beautiful, most glorious, most trustworthy, most praiseworthy person in the universe, and he is the only unfailing object of salvation, joy, hope, and peace. We follow Jesus to gain and know him (see Philippians 3:8).
So, you say, “Okay—I get that, and I do love Jesus, but why should we follow Jesus together? Can’t I just follow him alone?”
Consider the second benefit of discipleship:
(B) Following Jesus with someone else leads to a double blessing that cannot come from following Jesus alone.
Let’s return to the sunset analogy. When you enjoy a beautiful sunset with your wife, husband, or close friend, two wonderful things happen at that moment:
First, you enjoythe sunset more because of that person’s presence. We’ve all felt this joy—beauty is better shared!
But we often overlook the second blessing: You also enjoy the other person’s presence more because of the sunset. The very experience of admiring beauty with someone else causes you to walk away with a deeper appreciation for both the object of beauty and the person with whom you share it.
Discipleship provides the same double blessing! When you marvel at the beauty of Christ with another person, you walk away with a deeper love for Christ and that other person (see Psalm 16:2–3).
To take that a step further: When you and another person pursue Jesus together, you will not only be able to enjoy the beauty of Jesus with that other person, but you will also be able to enjoy the beauty of Jesus through that other person. Think about the most patient person you know. Do you realize that this person’s patience is helping you understand and cherish the patience of Christ? Think about the most loving person you know. Do you realize that this person’s love is helping you understand and cherish the love of Christ?
Discipleship invites us to enjoy Christ and the people around us more—it’s a double blessing! Discipleship is the joy of knowing and being known, loving and being loved, and becoming more like Christ with someone else.
So, you say, “That sounds great on paper, but how?…
3. …How can I grow as a discipler?”
Consider three marks of an effective discipler. (This is by no means an exhaustive list; it’s more of a starting point.)
(A) An effective discipler teaches with both her words and her actions.
Remember, discipleship is the marriage between teaching and community. Sometimes the most powerful moments of discipleship happen not when you are explaining justification by faith alone at a coffee shop but when someone simply observes your life:
They watch the way you speak gently to your kids. (Or they hear you repent to your kids after not speaking gently to them!)
They see how you treat the waitress with kindness.
They watch you respond with patience when someone cuts you off in traffic.
They see how hospitable you are in your home.
They hear the way you encourage your classmates or friends.
People will learn just as much about Christ by your actions as by your words. So it’s important to not only talk about the Christian life with the person you are discipling but also to live the Christian life with him or her.
(B) An effective discipler regularly spends time with Jesus in God’s Word and prayer.
“Now when [the Jewish leaders] saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.”
Can the people in your life recognize that you have been with Jesus? Can they tell that you have been spending time with him?
It has been said that you become like the people you are around the most. Can others tell that you have been around Jesus? Do they see Christ shining through you? Do they even hear you talking like him because you have been listening to his words so much?
A great way to disciple others is to read the Bible and pray with them. When these disciplines are already rhythms of your own life, you’ll find them spilling out in your interactions with others, and your discipleship will be much more fruitful.
(C) An effective discipler excels at listening.
A common mistake among people in leadership positions is to think that to lead a student, child, or a younger Christian, we must major in speaking—in telling others what to do and how to live. This simply isn’t true. While part of discipling others is guiding them through our words, the first step in leading and influencing others is truly knowing them, which cannot happen apart from listening.
The adage is true: people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. We earn the right to speak into the lives of others by first listening well.
Love through discipleship
Is there someone in your life with whom you can have an intentional conversation about Jesus? Sometime today, seek out an opportunity to talk with this person (or schedule a time to meet with this person). Often the most meaningful spiritual conversations begin with a very simple question, such as:
How are you doing spiritually?
How can I pray for you?
What has God been teaching you recently?
What is one way you’d like to grow in your faith?
What is one joy and one challenge in your faith right now?
Can I share a passage with you that has been encouraging me?
Would you like to come to church with me this Sunday?
God wants to display Christ’s beauty to the people in your life. He will use you to accomplish this end, especially as you spend time with Jesus, reflect him through your words and actions, and listen well. So rejoice today in the blessing-filled task of discipleship!
Today is Holy Saturday—the day between Christ’s death and resurrection—the day darkness rejoiced as though Heaven had lost.
I visited Taylor University last week. The chapel service was one of the most enthusiastic worship gatherings I have ever experienced. Multiple times I thought, “Is an Asburian revival about to break out?”
Several factors might’ve contributed to the energy in the room that day. It was Friday. It was sunny. Spring is here. College students are lively. And honestly, I wonder if God is answering prayers and bringing genuine revival among college campuses.
But beyond that, on that Friday—just two weeks before Easter—there was a true sense of resurrection victory in the air. Christ’s power over darkness was the theme of the service, and the joy of Jesus’ resurrected life was palpable.
This joy was perhaps most noticeable as we sang Death Was Arrested, a song that… well… I had somehow never heard before that morning.
You say, Um… what? Are you even a Christian?
I know, I know, I live under a rock when it comes to modern worship music. Shortly after the service, I asked one of my friends, “Have you ever heard that song before?”
She said, “I’ve known that song for like six years, Blake…”
Anyway, in case you, like me, have *miraculously* never heard Death Was Arrested, let me explain what makes this song so moving.
As the title suggests, Death Was Arrested heralds Jesus’ victory over sin, darkness, and death. Through the grace and endless love of Christ, ashes become beauty; orphans become children; tears become dancing; prisoners become free. Christ defeated death with death and rose triumphantly to give us new life. The song glitters with little gospel gems.
But something happens in the middle of the song that—for first-time hearers like me—is quite striking.
Midway through the song, we sing,
Our Savior displayed on a criminal’s cross
Darkness rejoiced as though Heaven had lost
Then, unexpectedly, the music fades. Several (long) seconds of silence ensue. (In the live North Point Worship version, the lights cut out, and darkness floods in.) For a few moments, the room fills with the ominous aura of Holy Saturday. The day of silence. The day of waiting. The day darkness rejoiced as though Heaven had lost.
Twenty-four long hours for Christians to wonder, Is it true? Has Heaven lost? Has darkness won?
When darkness feels like your closest friend
Our lives are full of moments and seasons of this tension, this silence, this waiting. I experienced one such moment several months ago.
It was a month of praying, fasting, struggling, and waiting. One morning, I spent several hours in my bedroom, seeking the Lord, wrestling to discern his will for my life. I felt like God was not answering me. No—let me rephrase that. I felt like God didn’t even hear me. It wasn’t like he was giving me an answer I didn’t want to hear; it felt like he wasn’t answering at all.
By God’s grace, this was a very unusual experience for me. Normally, God attends my prayer times with a strong sense of his presence, blessing, and even direction. But this day felt different. It felt like darkness. I even asked him, “Are you not going to meet me today?”
He didn’t answer.
At least, I didn’t initially feel like he had answered.
So, I did what any good seminary student would do—I prayed Psalm 88. It was the first time in my life that I pulled the Psalm 88 card on God in prayer. I wasn’t messing around.
Psalm 88 is known to be one of the only Psalms that does not end with a word of hope. In fact, the prayer ends with “Darkness is my closest friend.”
That’s what I felt that day.
It wasn’t complete hopelessness—God has proved himself faithful far too many times for that—but my experience was, “At this moment, it feels like darkness has won. It feels like God is absent. It feels like God doesn’t hear me. Where is God in all of this?”
But as the day went on, it dawned on me that the very existence of Psalm 88 was a profound evidence of God’s presence, love, and care.
When God’s people suffer, he doesn’t say, “Stop hurting! How dare you feel like darkness is your closest friend!” No, no—quite the opposite. God is actually the one who gave us these words to pray in the first place!
God doesn’t only give us permission to express our true feelings; he literally gives us step-by-step instructions. He knew we would, at times, feel drowned by darkness in this life, so he gave us a way to process our feelings with him—a way for our souls to breathe.
Like any good counselor, God isn’t threatened or offended by our feelings. He knows his own perfection and doesn’t need to defend or justify himself. Rather than interrogate us for our feelings, God illumines us about our feelings. In love, he helps us understand ourselves.
Consider the kindness of God to write Holy Saturday into Holy Week. He could’ve just as easily raised Jesus from the dead on Saturday instead of Sunday. Why wait a day?
By writing Holy Saturday into Holy Week, God communicates to every suffering saint who feels like darkness is winning: I see you. I know your suffering. I know the darkness that clouds your vision and threatens to smother your hope. But, dear child, remember that resurrection is coming! I didn’t leave Christ in the grave, and I won’t leave you in the grave, either. Darkness didn’t prevail over Christ, and it won’t prevail over you.
Believer, let this Holy Saturday remind you that our Savior willingly entered into darkness to save us. He knows what it feels like to wait. He knows what it feels like to suffer. He’s not unfamiliar with the blackness; he plunged its deepest depths—its very heart—to rescue us. And because Jesus entered into that dark abyss, we can rest knowing that the darkness we experience in this life is the darkest it will ever get. Eternal light is coming. Resurrection is coming. Jesus is coming.
“I am certain that I will see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart be courageous. Wait for the Lord!” —Psalm 27:13–14
Arguably no moment is more formative than immediately after a loved one shares her pain with you. Relationships are defined by what happens in these sacred seconds. Your words can bring healing or harm, communicate love or judgment, build or destroy trust.
Listeningis almost always the surest way to care for a hurting friend, as it establishes trust, facilitates understanding, opens the door to self-discovery and growth, and powerfully communicates the heart and love of Christ. Jesus excelled in the ministry of listening, and he wants us to follow in his footsteps.
Yet Jesus did more than listen to sufferers; he also spoke life-giving words to them. While we should always take a listen-first approach with hurting loved ones, we should also look for opportunities to speak words of hope and encouragement. A timely word of encouragement can bring blessing and even healing: “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24; cf. 12:18; 25:11).
Unfortunately, we often find ourselves ill-equipped to speak words of life to hurting loved ones. Consider seven helpful phrases to keep near.
1. “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
When someone reveals her heart to you, she entrusts you with a priceless possession, saying, “I trust you enough to handle this with care.” Recognize the preciousness and privilege of this moment. It is an honor that she trusts you enough to make herself vulnerable. Dignify her by vocalizing your appreciation of this reality.
Expressing gratitude communicates, “You are valuable to me, and I am grateful you would entrust me with something as precious as your heart.” Acknowledging the value of a sufferer’s heart and feelings is one of the easiest and most effective ways to honor her.
2. “This is a difficult situation.”
Suffering can be a breeding ground for accusation. Sometimes this accusation is self-inflicted, but often it is perpetuated by a misguided (or abusive) authority figure, peer, or the Accuser himself, who says to sufferers:
“Toughen up. What kind of Christian are you?”
“You shouldn’t still be grieving about this.”
“Why are you hurting? You must not trust God.”
“Why are you sad? You brought this upon yourself.”
“Why are you confused? You must not have genuine faith.”
When you acknowledge the difficulty of a situation, you remind the sufferer that she’s not crazy, stupid, or sinning for feeling hurt or confused. As limited people walking alongside limited people in a broken and complex world, often the most fitting thing we can say is simply, “This is hard.”
Another useful phrase is, “This is wrong.” This sentiment is especially appropriate when the sufferer has been mistreated or abused. Acknowledging the wrongness of injustice is right; Christ hears your words and says, “Amen.” Jesus sees and hates the ravaging effects of sin (Prov. 8:13; Isa. 59:15), mourns with his people (Isa. 53:4; 63:8–9; John 11:33–35), and will one day return to bring judgment and make all things right (Rev. 21:1–8; 22:1–7).
3. “My heart hurts for you.”
I still remember the first time someone (a long-time family friend) spoke these exact words to me. I remember thinking, “I don’t think five words have ever made me feel so . . . loved.” Not only did this person see and acknowledge my suffering, but she cared enough to enter into it.
Expressing your sympathetic pain incarnates the heart of Christ, who enters into our pain and suffers with us in all our affliction (cf. Isa. 53:4; 63:8–9; John 11:33–35; Acts 9:1–5). It also alleviates the sufferer’s loneliness, if only for a moment. The words, “My heart hurts for you” remind your loved one that she does not walk alone. Not many assurances are more comforting to a hurting soul.
4. “Thank you for modeling Christlikness by [insert one specific way the sufferer is demonstrating Christlikeness].”
Encouragement is universal medicine for hurting souls. Do not leave an interaction with a hurting loved one without administering this tonic. Even if you can’t change her circumstances, you can buoy her by speaking a specific word of encouragement.
As your loved one explains her hardship, listen closely for things she’s doing well. Acknowledge these things and thank her for her example. Useful phrases include:
“I admire the way you [insert behavior].”
“Your [insert behavior] encourages me and glorifies God.”
“Your [insert behavior] is clear evidence of the Holy Spirit at work in you.”
When you acknowledge how a sufferer’s efforts encourage you, reflect Christ, or serve God’s people, it reminds her that God is at work and that her suffering is not pointless.
5. “This verse has been meaningful to me: [read/quote Scripture].”
No words help a hurting person more than God’s words. Scripture is food for famished ones (Matt. 4:4), comfort for the afflicted (Ps. 119:49–50), life for those walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 119:25, 50, 107; John 6:63). When walking with a hurting loved one, remind her of God’s presence and promises:
Praying with a hurting loved one is another effective way to use your words to bless her and point her to God’s presence and promises. One of my favorite passages to pray with hurting loved ones is Psalm 143 (especially vv. 6–12).
We do need to be careful with how we introduce Scripture to someone suffering. God’s Word should never be used to downplay suffering (band-aiding) or to show superiority over the other person (disparaging). You’ve heard the unhelpful advice:
You’re anxious? Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing!”
You’re lonely? God’s Word tells us to pursue relationships. Have you tried spending time with people?
Unhelpful statements like these communicate arrogance (Look at how much wisdom I have that you don’t) and ignorance (Your suffering is an easy problem to fix; you just need to read this verse). A sufferer’s pain is never as simplistic as a problem to fix or a lesson to learn. Let’s be careful not to communicate these harmful messages.
6. “What can I do to help?”
During the conversation, you might ask, “What would be most helpful for me to do right now? Would it be most helpful for me to listen? To pray with you? To share my thoughts?” Asking this question (and honoring her request) will communicate love and direct you on how to serve her most effectively.
After the conversation, you can ask, “How can I best care for you in the days ahead?” Often it is useful to offer specific suggestions:
“Could I bring you a meal on Thursday?”
“Would it be helpful if I picked up your son from school on Friday during your doctor’s appointment?”
“Would you like to meet before your interview on Monday to talk through some of your potential responses?”
Don’t assume you know what a sufferer needs (whether in the conversation or after the conversation). Feel free to offer suggestions, but—generally speaking—it’s best to let her tell you what would serve her most effectively.
Silence is, at times, the most appropriate response to someone’s suffering. For example, immediately after a friend loses a loved one or undergoes a traumatic experience, words can be stifling or even hurtful. The same is often true whenever a loved one begins weeping while sharing her pain. In moments like these, often the best way to show love and support is non-verbal. Hug her. Weep with her. Hold her hand. Usually, when someone’s suffering is intense, what she needs most from you is simply for you to be there (see Job 2:12–13).
A good habit when a sufferer shares her pain is to say nothing for at least five seconds when it’s your “turn” to talk. This intentional pause gives the other person a chance to breathe and share anything else that is on her heart or mind. It also communicates, “I am here to listen and understand, not merely to fix you or share my thoughts.”
When someone shares her pain, you have a golden opportunity to put the heart of Christ on display. Make the most of this opportunity by listening well, praying for the Spirit’s help, and speaking words of grace and love.