Marriage counseling can be the most exciting counseling you will do. It can also be the most exasperating and frustrating. It is great to chat with young couples who are thinking about getting marrieds and who know what they are doing. It is terrible to listen to young couples who have no clue what they are doing and because I’ve been around the block a few times, can see that they are headed for disaster. It is wonderful to see a couple “get it” when you are talking about how God’s word and the Gospel come together in marriage. It is amazingly painful to see a couple destroying one another, the next several generations, and everyone around them as they self-destruct before your eyes.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen 1:27).
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24)
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 Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… (Eph 5:22-33).
Let us begin with a few challenges in the area of talking with people about their marriages. First, people come for counseling when there is a problem, or many problems. Change is needed and it is needed “right now.” But God often works slowly and he only works in hearts. The challenge is for the counselor to help a marriage quickly and slowly at the same time.
Second, God doesn’t change someone else’s heart, he can only change your heart. People often come for counseling so you can fix “my spouse” or “this terrible marriage” (this third person who is getting in the way of our happiness). It is also difficult to help people who are convinced the problem is not them. “One of us is silly. I’m not saying you’re being silly, but one of us is silly and it isn’t me.”
This leads to the third difficulty: in marriage counseling you want to work mainly on the marriage, not the individuals in the marriage. But sometimes we need to do a bit of both.
Where We Begin—Relationship:
Matthew 19:16-22—The man’s question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with God. It has to do with relationships: first with others and then, by extension, to God. Jesus’ goal is to connect the young man, at his basic self, to God. And he does it through his relationships. How would you have answered the young man? Most of us would have answered it with some form of the Four Spiritual Laws. But Jesus knows we have theology that we “confess” and theology that we actually live out. The differences are visible in our relationships with others. We separate our love of God from our love of neighbors. God sees our love for him through our love for our neighbors.
Again, Matthew 22:34-40—The greatest commandment. Jesus says that the whole Law and Prophets depend on these two commandments. In the following chapter Jesus curses the religious leaders because, while they appear to love the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, they are hypocrites because they do not love the people—their neighbors (23:23-24). And in the end it is this misplaced love that drives them to kill the Lord of glory himself.
Consider a few of passages:
With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:6-8)
So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. (Mt. 5:23-24)
And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Mt. 25:40)
The point here is that we are able to glimpse one another’s hearts by observing how our relationships are being conducted. We can perceive someone’s walk with God by noticing how they “play with others.” “People can deceive and misrepresent themselves in their words. You want to generate evidence that is louder than words. It is harder to misrepresent yourself when you are acting out in front of a person” (Winston Smith, Notes from his CCEF lectures on marriage).
Goals in Counseling:
Given all this, the first step in the marriage counseling process is to help the couple understand that their relationship with God is truly reflected in how they are treating one another. They need to make the connection between their behavior in marriage and their worship of God. You say, “Where did worship come from in all this?” Our relationship with God is worship. What else can it be? Everything is about worship. This goes back to the first commandment, love the Lord your God….
The real skill of marriage counseling, then, is to begin with worship and bring to light that if the couple’s relationship is not strong, they are not worshiping well.
The second step is to help the couple realize that everyone is a worshipper. We express what we think about God to God and to everyone else in everything we think do and say. We are worshipping all the time. This is part of the fabric of our existence. We were created to be worshippers. This is why, stated in a negative way, Psalm 115:4-8 says, “Those who make them [idols] become like them.” Idolatry does paralyze and kill because it turns people from worshipping God to worshipping something that is less than God. And it is important to remember that everyone serves their desires.
In a positive way we see 1 John 3:1-3—“ Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” True worship makes us like the God we worship and through this worship we are purified.
The third part of the process is to guide people in their understanding of what love is. John 15:9-13—“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Notice the connection between love of God and love of others. Its almost like a theme, isn’t it?
People typically start where their own experience has brought them. They learn about love from others; parents, TV, friends, even enemies, etc. They like some things, dislike other things, and prefer something altogether different. Scripture does not start with us. It always begins with God and who God is. The standard for love therefore is Jesus. And in the Bible, love does not start with a what, it starts with a who. It is not what am I to do, but who am I to be? Therefore we don’t necessarily need to jettison everything we’ve always thought about love, but we need to take what we thought before and reinterpret them through the eyes of Christ. We don’t need to learn about ourselves, we need to learn about Jesus. We aren’t reformatting ourselves; we are taking on a whole new person-ality. This is not about not doing or being, it is about doing and being in a new and living way. It is about death and resurrection.
Put it all Together:
What does all this mean for us? It puts us in a position where people are freed up to look at their marriage from a different vantage point. Instead of complaining that his wife is not respecting him, he can pour himself into loving her as Christ loves the church. Instead of her being depressed because he isn’t loving her like she thinks he ought, she can giver herself to respecting him the way the church respects Jesus. This way of doing things allows men and women to worship God with their whole hearts and in the process they can let go of their questions and “issues” with one another and focus on being who they are meant to be.
The process of counseling in this context will be working with couples as they strive to thrill the other instead of trying to suck the life out of one another.
As we go through this re-education process, confession of sin and repentance is necessary.