The Firm Love of a Faithful Sister

Exhort one another . . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13)

I longed to appear brave, mature, and full of faith in front of my revered mother-in-law, Anne Ortlund. But I couldn’t control the tears any longer. Her godly son, Ray, who happened to be my magnificent husband, was at yet another meeting with church leaders who were making it clear that he would soon be removed from his ministry as lead pastor at a church we dearly loved. For various reasons (from “we can’t explain why, but we just think this is for the best” to “his face is too Nordic-looking”), they were not only planning to let Ray go, but were also hinting that he should leave gospel ministry entirely.

We felt as if we had been run over by a big bus and were left lying on the pavement while life went on for everyone else. This trial was vastly different from any of the difficulties we had dealt with in our 36 years of ministry to that point. We were confused and scared. Mom Ortlund already knew some of the story. And on this visit with us from her home in California, she tried to listen to me patiently.

As she listened, however, she saw something in me that I had overlooked. And with the firm love of a faithful woman, she responded in a way I never expected — but so desperately needed.

‘Jani, Stop It’

Between sobs, I poured out my soul-crushing fears: “O Mom, I’m so afraid. What if they hammer Ray with more vague allegations? What if they keep insinuating that he should leave the ministry? You know how he has always lived in submission to his elders, but this is crazy. And I’m terrified. I never dreamed we’d be in this awful situation at age 58. Ray is even waking up with nightmares. I don’t know how to love him through this, how to be his helper. I’m just so scared.” I started sobbing even more uncontrollably. Then, as I started my next sentence, “What if . . .” Mom interrupted me.

I’ll never forget what she said. She was calm, but she was firm: “Jani, stop it.” She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t sigh in exasperation. And when her startled daughter-in-law caught her breath and looked up from her tissue-covered eyes, Mom just earnestly repeated herself. “Stop it, dear Jani.”

As you can imagine, Mom’s comment shocked me. I caught my breath. I was barely able to blurt out, “What do you mean?” I had been hoping for affirmation, sympathy, and even a bit of righteous anger. But what I received was a strong, brief exhortation from a saintly woman I deeply trusted. Mom went on to tell me that no one would be helped by my all-consuming panic. There were no answers to my “What if . . .” questions. And the best way I could help my dear Ray was to stop wallowing in my fears.

“Did you know, Jani, that ‘fear not’ is the most repeated command in the Bible? We are told over 365 times to ‘fear not.’ That’s at least one ‘fear not’ for every day of the year.” Maybe everyone else knows that about the Bible, but I didn’t. It was a new thought, and I needed it.

Escaping the Snare

Notice what my mother-in-law was wisely doing. She didn’t join my fear-fest, but stayed deeply rooted in her Lord and his word — and she helped me get there too. She lovingly exhorted me, “with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2), to stop letting my fears be my king, reigning over my broken heart and confused mind. She challenged me to ask myself why I was bowing to my fears and allowing them to rule me at that moment.

Proverbs 29:25 says, “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.” I had grown so afraid of what these men could do to Ray and our family that I had lost sight of the Object of my faith. And the more I obsessed over my fears, the more ensnared I became, to the point that I was caving into despair.

Mom’s faithful and firm exhortation helped free me from the strong trap of fear. How did it help me? Mom understood in that moment that I needed more than sympathy. Fear’s deceitful entanglement was holding me captive, and I needed someone not merely to commiserate with me, but to help me escape fear’s grip.

Mom faced an emotionally hard choice as I stood there crying. She could either coddle my fears or confront them. If she had coddled my fears out of fear of my disapproval, she would have become ensnared by “the fear of man.” Coddling me might have initially felt kind, but ultimately it would have proven cruel because her “kindness” would have left me trapped by fear. Instead, Mom chose the difficult path of confrontation. And her faith encouraged my faith, which helped cut through the snare I was trapped in.

Why Don’t We Exhort?

Why did my mother-in-law’s exhortation surprise me so much? Doesn’t God’s word tell us to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13)?

Yes, it does. But I suspect that for many of us, true exhortation happens far less frequently than “every day.” Maybe we fear becoming like Job’s counselors, who exhorted their suffering friend without wisdom or kindness. Maybe we want to obey James’s counsel to be “quick to hear” (James 1:19) — and Paul’s command to “comfort one another” (2 Corinthians 13:11). Maybe we have rarely seen exhortation done well.

These concerns are all understandable. We should listen patiently, speak slowly, and be eager to comfort. We should beware of bludgeoning others with poorly applied counsel. But if these biblical priorities nudge out the clear biblical command to also “exhort one another,” then something has gone wrong in our hearts and relationships.

I wonder if, for myself and many others, fear itself is the main hindrance to more biblical exhortation. But sisters, sin is a snare, a trap, a deep pit — and godly exhortation is one of the ways we protect each other from becoming (or staying) trapped. If we’re going to grow in Christ, we need not only kind sympathy but firm love.

Blessed Exhortation

My mother-in-law proved to be a faithful sister to me that night, leading me to our wise King. While she cared deeply for her suffering son, she knew that succumbing to fear would only make the situation worse. As believers, we do not fight fear by trying to drum up enough courage. We fight fear by faith — faith in the God who invites us to bring our fears to him and let his peace, which passes all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6–7).

Only one fear should capture our hearts: the fear of the Lord. As Psalm 112 tells us, “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord. . . . He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid” (verses 1, 7–8).

I’m deeply grateful for my mother-in-law’s wise and loving exhortation that night. It was a turning point in my life. What if she had feared speaking into my fears? I would not have been able to clothe myself with “strength and dignity” (Proverbs 31:25) as Ray and I walked through those dark days together — and far beyond. I would not have been a good helper for my beloved husband. And I would not have experienced the peace and strength that come from turning to Christ, for “whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” (Proverbs 29:25).

I’m so glad she pointed me to him. What a blessed exhortation!