Where Do We Start?
Individual counseling is complex enough—where do you start, what do you listen for, how do you compassionately speak truth in love?
Marriage counseling is even more complex. Now you have three sinners, saints, and sufferers in the room—the wife, the husband, and the counselor! Where in the world do you start?
For many of us who are committed to the Bible, our instant, instinctive starting spot is Ephesians 5:22-33—Paul’s biblical marital imperatives. But just think—the Apostle Paul did not start with Ephesians 5:22-33. Instead, he built those marital imperatives on six chapters of biblical insights about Christ and our identity in Christ—who Christ is and who we are in Christ.
So…in the first of two posts, we’ll consider 6 foundational principles for the biblical marriage counselor.
But as you read these, please hear me well. I’m not saying that we necessarily start by sharing all of these principles with the couple sitting in front of us. In fact, we’d be wise not to share much of anything at first, because we’d be wise to listen compassionately to their story of marital hurt, confusion, and pain.
In Part 2, we’ll share 6 principles that can guide our actual interactions with the marital couple. But here in Part 1, we’re doing pre-counseling. Perhaps we could call it:
Counseling the Marriage Counselor
As we’re hearing the painful earthly story of the hurting and hurtful husband and wife sitting in front of us, what aspects of Christ’s hope-giving eternal story could be running through our minds? Let’s consider 6 chapters in Christ’s grand marital narrative…
Chapter 1: It’s All About Him
Consider where Paul starts in Ephesians…with a three-stanza hymn of praise to the glorious grace of the Trinity—God the Father (1:3-6), God the Son (1:7-12), and God the Spirit (1:13-14). So, as the couple sits in front of you screaming at each other, a lesson on the doctrine of the Trinity may not be the first words out of your mouth. But the grace of the Trinity ought to be the first thoughts on your mind.
“Father, Son, and Spirit,” you pray silently to yourself, “As this dear couple spews venom at each other, please keep me focused on the glory of Your grace. And please help me to figure out how to help them to move from earthly hopelessness to gospel hope. And help them to see the big picture, the grand redemptive purpose of their marriage—to bring You glory and praise.”
Marriage counseling can suck the life out of the marriage counselor. It can make us wonder if any relationship can ever work. In those moments, we need to remind ourselves of the pristine, pure, beautiful, eternal relationship amongst the Father/Son/Spirit. They are the model of humble, unselfish, giving, sacrificing relationships (Philippians 2:1-11; John 17; Ephesians 1:3-14).
Our goal in the counseling relationship is to help this hurting and hurtful couple to move—often slowly, often with numerous ups and downs—from their focus on self to a focus on Trinity-like humble, sacrificial, other-centered, agape love.
Chapter 2: It’s All About the Power of the Spirit
There’s something vital in Paul’s teaching on the family in Ephesians 5:18-6:20 that we often miss. I call it a Spirit-dependent sandwich. Notice where Paul starts, when he starts talking about marriage and family. “…be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:19). And notice where Paul ends when he’s talking about marriage and the family. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty strength” (6:10). “Praying at all times in the Spirit” (6:18).
If we recall the culture of Paul’s day, we remember that there were three pairs of relationships in the Greco-Roman home: 1.) Husband/Wife (5:22-33), 2.) Parent/Child (6:1-4), and Master/Slave (6:5-9). So the very first words Paul utters after talking about these three home relationships are the words, “Finally, (husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves) be strong in the Lord and in his mighty strength” because there is no way you can live a godly home life in your own strength!
Again, you may not “lead” with words about Spirit-dependence, because you’re likely leading with words of empathy for the mutual hurt the wife and husband are experiencing. But surely we want the “leading thought” in our minds to be:
“Lord, help me to help this couple, over time, to come to see that there is hope for their marriage if and when they are Spirit dependent. If and when they sandwich their every thought with thoughts of living in the mighty power of your infinite strength as they pray for their marriage in the Spirit without ceasing.”
Chapter 3: It’s All About Salvation Hope and Resurrection Power
Couples come to us drained of hope. Their “hope tank” is beyond empty. They often don’t even smell the vapors of hope.
They also feel powerless. Powerless to change their spouse (which should not be their goal anyway), powerless to change themselves (they need Christ’s power to change), and powerless to change their marriage).
Paul understood this. That’s why, right after talking about the praise of the Trinity’s grace, he moves to exploring salvation hope and resurrection power (Ephesians 1:15-22). Infusing hope in a hopeless couple is vital for marriage counseling. So we pray silently (and sometimes verbally with the couple):
“Father, please enlighten the eyes of the hearts of this dear couple so that they may know the hope to which you have called them as a husband and wife. Help them to understand that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is active within them. Empower them with the immeasurable, greatness of Your power energizing them with Your great might. Gift their marriage with the gifts of your salvation hope and your resurrection power.”
Chapter 4: It’s All About Heart Change—Removal of Guilt through Christ’s Grace
Paul is still not ready to move to Ephesians 5. Instead, he starts talking about guilt before God and grace in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10). For the fourth time, let’s remember that we likely don’t lead with, “You’re both horrible, rotten sinners and need to immediately repent!” We do need to compassionately expose sin—but in God’s time, with Christ’s tenderness, and in the context of exposing grace—where sin abounds, grace superabounds (Romans 5:20).
So we pray:
“Father, keep reminding me about Galatians 6:1, that when I see a husband and wife in a marital fault, you call me to restore them gently. And keep reminding me that where sin abounds, grace mega-abounds. Give me winsome wisdom to help both this husband and this wife to see their guilt before You—how they are sinning against You and against each other. And help me to help them to see how desperate they each are for Your forgiving, reconciling grace. And help me to paint biblical images of each of them being received back to You—the Father of the prodigal husband and the prodigal wife. Give them hope that they are Your workmanship created to do great marital work for Your glory.”
Chapter 5: It’s All About the Church
Far too often people (including sometimes counselors) get the mistaken idea that counseling, even biblical pastoral counseling, is some magic bullet, a cure-all, the “miracle 60 minutes.” Counseling is at its best when it is a subset of the ongoing one-another ministry of the church.
That’s why Paul prays that all of us, including hurting and hurtful spouses, would grasp together with all the saints how high, wide, deep, and long is the love of God in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:14-21).
That’s why I refuse to counsel a couple that is not willing to be in church on Sunday hearing the Word, that is not willing to be in a small group giving and receiving biblical care, and that is not willing to be doing Bible reading and biblical counseling “homework” in-between meetings.
It doesn’t take a village. It takes a church to heal a marriage. That’s why Paul tells us that the primary calling of pastors is to equip God’s people for one-another gospel ministry—speaking the truth in love to each other so we all grow up together in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16).
So, we pray:
“Father, help this couple to grasp that they can only grasp and give Your love as they are entwined with Your people. Marital turmoil creates such shame and such guilt and such despair and such depression, that they will want to seclude themselves. Don’t let them. Help me to encourage them to cling to Christ and the Body of Christ.”
Chapter 6: It’s All About the Wisdom of the Word
Hopeless couples don’t need the world’s wisdom. They need the wisdom of the Word: the Living Word—Christ, and the written Word—Scripture. They need to a new vision of their calling as wife and husband: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
They need a new vision of the source of their words to each other. Rather than yelling invectives, tirades, and outbursts of anger, they can (one day, over time) learn to address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). For the furious couple, this vision is almost impossible to imagine. But with God, nothing is impossible. So we pray:
“Father, right now, the eyes of their hearts are on themselves and their own hurts, and on their spouse and all the ways they have been hurt by them. And out of their hearts their mouths speak—spew, holler, and rant. Renew the eyes of their hearts and thus renew their words to reflect the Living Word—Christ, and the written Word—Scripture. Give me patience as they slowly grow. Give me hope that You can move and change them. Create in them a new heart with new words reflecting Your Living and Written Word.”
The Rest of the Story
Good biblical marriage counseling builds on these 6 gospel indicatives of Ephesians 1-6. But good marriage counseling does not stop there. Join us for our next post as we outline and overview 6 principles for entering into and engaging a couple’s earthly story with Christ’s eternal story.
Join the Conversation
How might it empower your biblical marriage counseling if you built on Ephesians 1-6, rather than just starting with Ephesians 5:22-33?
Which of these 6 chapters in Christ’s marriage narrative do you most want to add to your biblical marriage counseling repertoire?