Pre-Marriage, Real Couples, Unity

A Wedding Sermon from a 1943 Prison Cell 

I remember the sermon given at our wedding pretty well. It applied directly to Selena and me, and the pastor drew from things he knew were distinct to our relationship. Perhaps you remember the sermon given at your wedding? Perhaps it’s all a blur… mine is a mixture of vivid memory and foggy recollection.

The below sermon is one written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his niece and her then fiance while he was imprisoned during World War II. As I read his words, my heart was moved. It’s a longer read, but I was stricken by how succinctly and eloquently he articulates complex, grand, and sometimes culturally sensitive topics surrounding marriage. If you have 15 minutes, this sermon is well worth your time! I hope you’ll read it and I pray that it is as helpful, convicting, and inspirational for you as it was for me.

Note: if you’re unfamiliar with Bonhoeffer, you may want to check out his biography here.

A Wedding Sermon from a 1943 Prison Cell

By Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It is right and proper for a bride and bridegroom to welcome and celebrate their wedding day with a unique sense of triumph. When all the difficulties, obstacles, hindrances, doubts, and misgivings have been, not made light of, but honestly faced and overcome—and it is certainly better not to take everything for granted—then both parties have indeed achieved the most important triumph of their lives.

With the ‘Yes’ that they have said to each other, they have by their free choice given a new direction to their lives; they have cheerfully and confidently defied all the uncertainties and hesitations with which, as they know, a lifelong partnership between two people is faced; and by their own free and responsible action they have conquered a new land to live in. Every wedding must be an occasion of joy that human beings can do such great things, that they have been given such immense freedom and power to take the helm in their life’s journey. The children of the earth are rightly proud of being allowed to take a hand in shaping their own destinies, and something of this pride must contribute to the happiness of a bride and bridegroom.

We ought not to be in too much of a hurry here to speak piously of God’s will and guidance. It is obvious, and it should not be ignored, that it is your own very human wills that are at work here, celebrating their triumph; the course that you are taking at the outset is one that you have chosen for yourselves; what you have done and are doing is not in the first place, something religious, but something quite secular. So you yourselves, and you alone, bear the responsibility for what no one can take from you; or, to put it more exactly, you, Eberhard, have all the responsibility for the success of your venture, with all the happiness that such responsibility involves, and you, Renate, will help your husband and make it easy for him to bear that responsibility, and find your happiness in that. Unless you can boldly say today: ‘That is our resolve, our love, our way’, you are taking refuge in false piety. ‘Iron and steel may pass away, but our love shall abide forever.’ That desire for earthly bliss, which you want to find in one another, and in which to quote the medieval song, one is the comfort of the other both in body and in soul—that desire is justified before God and man.

Certainly you two, of all people, have every reason to look back with special thankfulness on your lives up to now. The beautiful things and joys of life have been showered on you, you have succeeded in everything, and you have been surrounded by love and friendship. Your ways have, for the most part, been smoothed before you took them, and you have always been able to count on the support of your families and friends. Everyone has wished you well, and now it has been given to you to find each other and to reach the goal of your desires. You yourselves know that no one can create and assume such a life from his own strength, but that what is given to one is withheld from another; and that is what we call God’s guidance. So today, however much you rejoice that you have reached your goal, you will be just as thankful that God’s will and God’s way have brought you here; and however confidently you accept responsibility for your action today, you may and will put it today with equal confidence into God’s hands.

As God today adds His ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes’, as He confirms your will with His will, and as He allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, He makes you at the same time instruments of His will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In His unfathomable condescension God does add His ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, He creates out of your love something quite new—the holy estate of matrimony.

God is guiding your marriage. Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time.

In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man. As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.

God makes your marriage indissoluble. ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder’ (Matthew 19:6). God joins you together in marriage; it is His act, not yours. Do not confound your love for one another with God. God makes your marriage indissoluble, and protects it from every danger that may threaten it from within and without; He wills to be the guarantor of its indissolubility. It is a blessed thing to know that no power on earth, no temptation, no human frailty can dissolve what God holds together; indeed, anyone who knows that may say confidently: What God has joined together, can no man put asunder. Free from all anxiety that is always a characteristic of love, you can now say to each other with complete and confident assurance: We can never lose each other now; by the will of God we belong to each other till death.

God establishes a rule of life by which you can live together in wedlock. ‘Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives’ (Colossians 3:18-19). With your marriage you are founding a home. That needs a rule of life, and this rule of life is so important that God establishes it Himself, because without it everything would get out of joint. You may order your home as you like, except in one thing: the wife is to be subject to her husband, and the husband is to love his wife. In this way God gives to husband and wife the honor that is due to each. The wife’s honor is to serve the husband, to be a ‘help mate for him’, as the creation story has it (Genesis 2:18); and the husband’s honor is to love his wife with all his heart. He will ‘leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife’ (Matthew 19:5), and will ‘love her as his own flesh’.

A wife who wants to dominate her husband dishonors herself and him, just as a husband who does not love his wife as he should dishonors himself and her; and both dishonor the glory of God that is meant to rest on the estate of matrimony. It is an unhealthy state of affairs when the wife’s ambition is to be like the husband, and the husband regards the wife merely as the plaything of his own lust for power and license; and is a sign of social disintegration when the wife’s service is felt to be degrading or beneath her dignity, and when the husband who is faithful to his wife is looked on as a weakling or even a fool.

The place where God has put the wife is the husband’s home. Most people have forgotten nowadays what a home can mean, though some of us have come to realize it as never before. It is a kingdom of its own in the midst of the world, a stronghold amid life’s storms and stresses, a refuge, even a sanctuary. It is not founded on the shifting sands of outward or public life, but it has its peace in God, for it is God who gives it its special meaning and value, its own nature and privilege, its own destiny and dignity. It is an ordinance of God in the world, the place in which—whatever may happen in the world—peace, quietness, joy, love, purity, discipline, respect, obedience, tradition, and with it all, happiness may dwell. It is the wife’s calling and her happiness, to build up for her husband this world with the world and to do her life’s work there. How happy she is if she realizes how great and rich a task and destiny she has. Not novelty, but permanence; not change, but constancy; not noisiness, but peace; not words, but deeds; not commands, but persuasion; not desire, but possession—and all these things inspired and sustained by her love for her husband – that is the wife’s kingdom.

In the Book of Proverbs we read (31:11ff.):

‘The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands… She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens… She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the need… Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come… Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her… Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.’

Again and again, the Bible praises, as the supreme earthly happiness, the fortune of a man who finds a true, or as the Bible puts it, a ‘virtuous’ or ‘wise’ woman. ‘She is far more precious than jewels’ (Proverb 31:10). ‘A virtuous woman is the crown of her husband’ (Proverb 12:4). But the Bible speaks just as frankly of the mischief that a perverse, ‘foolish’ woman brings on her husband and her home.

Now when the husband is called ‘the head of the wife’, and it goes on to say ‘as Christ is the head of the church’ (Ephesians 5:23), something of the divine splendor is reflected in our earthly relationships, and this reflection we should recognize and honor. The dignity that is here ascribed to the man lies, not in any capacities or qualities of his own, but in the office conferred on him by his marriage. The wife should see her husband clothed in this dignity. But for him it is a supreme responsibility. As the head, it is he who is responsible for his wife, for their marriage, and for their home. On him falls the care and protection of the family; he represents it to the outside world; he is its mainstay and comfort; he is the master of the house, who exhorts, punishes, helps, and comforts, and stands for it before God. It is a good thing, for it is a divine ordinance when the wife honors the husband for his office’s sake, and when the husband properly performs the duties of his office. The husband and wife who acknowledge and observe God’s ordinance are ‘wise’, but those who think to replace it by another of their own devising are ‘foolish’.

God has laid on marriage a blessing and a burden. The blessing is the promise of children. God allows man to share in His continual work of creation; but it is always God Himself who blesses marriage with children. ‘Children are a heritage of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3), and they should be acknowledged as such. It is from God that parents receive their children, and it is to God that they should lead them. Parents, therefore, have divine authority in respect of their children. Luther speaks of the ‘golden chain’ with which God invests parents; and scripture adds to the fifth commandment the special promise of long life on earth. Since men live on earth, God has given them a lasting reminder that this earth stands under the curse of sin and is not itself the ultimate reality. Over the destiny of woman and of man lies the dark shadow of a word of God’s wrath, a burden from God, which they must carry. The woman must bear her children in pain, and in providing for his family the man must reap many thorns and thistles, and labor in the sweat of his brow. This burden should cause both man and wife to call on God and should remind them of their eternal destiny in his kingdom. Earthly society is only the beginning of the heavenly society, the earthly home an image of the heavenly home, the earthly family a symbol of the fatherhood of God over all men, for they are His children.

God gives you Christ as the foundation of your marriage. ‘Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God’ (Romans 15:7). In a word, live together in the forgiveness of your sins, for without it no human fellowship, least of all a marriage, can survive. Don’t insist on your rights, don’t blame each other, don’t judge or condemn each other, don’t fault with each other, but accept each other as you are, and forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.

Your home will be a pastor’s home. From it, light and strength will have to go out into many other homes. The pastor undertakes a life of special discipline. The husband must bear alone much that belongs to his ministry, since the ministry is his and must, for the sake of God, be a silent one. So his love for his wife must be all the greater, and he must be all the more concerned to share with her what he may. And as a result the wife will be able to lighten the husband’s burden all the more, stand by his side, give him help. As fallible human beings, how can they live and work in Christ’s community if they do not persevere in constant prayer and forgiveness, if they do not help each other to live as Christians? The right beginning and daily practice are very important indeed.

From the first day of your wedding till the last the rule must be: ‘Welcome one another… for the glory of God’.

That is God’s word for your marriage. Thank Him for it; thank Him for leading you thus far; ask Him to establish your marriage, to confirm it, sanctify it, and preserve it. So your marriage will be ‘for the praise of His glory’. Amen.

Have you heard of the The 31-Day Pursuit Challenge?

Every marriage begins with passion, purpose, and pursuit, but few stay that way. That’s why we wrote Husband in Pursuit and Wife in Pursuit Together, they make what we’re calling the 31-Day Pursuit Challenge. Couples are encouraged take the challenge together. We’re already starting to hear stories of transformed marriages! Are you up for the challenge?

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