12 Gospel-Centered Principles of Biblical Marriage Counseling
A Word from Bob: You’re reading Part 2 of a two-part blog mini-series called: 12 Gospel-Centered Principles of Biblical Marriage Counseling. You can read Part 1 here: Counseling the Marriage Counselor.
Where Do We Head?
In Part 1, we asked the question, “Where do we start?” We explored 6 foundational principles for the biblical marriage counselor. These were not what we do or say with the couple sitting in front of us. Instead, Part 1 focused on the gospel-centered mindset of the biblical marriage counselor.
Now in Part 2, we’re asking the question, “Where do we head?” We want to outline 6 biblical, gospel-centered principles that can serve as a guide, a GPS, for our interactions with the couple.
Relating Christ’s Story to Their Story: Moving Between Two Worlds
Think of it like this. In Part 1, we oriented our thinking around Christ’s redemptive narrative of the marital relationship. Now in today’s post, we’re relating Christ’s eternal story to the couple’s earthly story.
Biblical counselors move between two worlds. We listen carefully and compassionately to the couple’s earthly story, while helping them to listen well and wisely to Christ’s eternal story. We are bridge-builders connecting Christ’s grace and truth to the couple’s marital narrative. Let’s ponder the following marital counseling bridge-building plans: Listening, Connecting, Empathizing, Infusing Hope, Exposing the Mote/Dispensing Forgiving Grace, and Empowering.
Bridge-Building Plan # 1: Listening—Listen Compassionately and Theologically to How the Couple Is Building (Or Tearing Down) Their Marriage
In Part 1, we listened to the marital Architect’s (Christ) foundational principles of marriage. Now, as we sit in front of the couple, our temptation is to teach, teach, teach. We should initially resist that temptation, replacing it with listen, listen, listen.
What’s their marital story? Where are their deepest hurts? Do you hear any sense of hope? What are their strengths? Their weaknesses? What’s the history of their current problem? How are they defining and viewing their problems? What have they tried in order to resolve/solve their problems?
All of these questions can seem so academic. So we should always be asking ourselves, What would it feel like to be in this marriage? What would it feel like to be married to this spouse? How would I feel and what would I think if I were dropped into the middle of this marital story? What title would I give to this chapter of their marital narrative?
Take the 6 foundational principles from Part 1, and seek to hear how well or how poorly the couple is living them out.
- Is their marriage all about Him (Jesus), or is it all about each of them—their happiness, their desires and demands?
- Is their marital story all about the power of the Spirit, or are they writing a marital narrative that reflects their own strength and the belief that they can make their marriage work on their own—if only their spouse would cooperate!
- Is their marital narrative all about salvation hope and resurrection power, or is it filled with hopelessness and despair? Where having they been placing their hope?
- Is their marriage goal all about heart change, or is it focused on getting you to help them to change their spouse?
- Is their marriage all about the church and how the body of Christ can help them, or is it a shrunken narrative that is only about the two of them, or just the one of them?
- Is their marital narrative all about the wisdom of the Word, or are they building their view of marriage from the world, the flesh, and the devil?
Bridge-Building Plan # 2: Connecting—Connect Them to Each Other in a Fight Against Their True Enemy—Satan
For many counselors, marriage counseling becomes like individual counseling with two people. I counsel the husband. Then I counsel the wife. I connect with the husband. I connect with the wife. Yes, there is a need to connect with each spouse. However, we can’t stop there because we won’t always be there in the room! We’re trying to create marital disciples who can connect to each other and to Christ long after we’ve left the counseling room.
Couples frequently come to us with the mindset that their spouse is their greatest enemy. Yet God created them to weave/cleave to each other—including standing shoulder to shoulder fighting together against Satan’s—the enemy of their marriage.
While acknowledging the pain they are causing each other, we seek to direct the eyes of their hearts to their true enemy—not their spouse, but Satan. Often I’ll seek to show this by exploring Ephesians 6:12-18 and revealing that our spiritual warfare is in the direct context of our marriage and family relationships (Ephesians 5:21-6:9).
In a thousand different ways, we seek to communicate:
“I know there’s a lot of hurt and even hate in this room right now. You want to hate? Hate the evil one who is trying to destroy your beautiful, precious marriage! The two of you can join together, wrestle together, against Satan. He’s your true enemy! Husband, when you met your dear wife, you would have fought to the death to protect her against anyone seeking to harm her. Fight for her now! Wife, when you met your strong husband, you would have been in the face of anyone who spoke a word against him. Be his champion now!”
Bridge-Building Plan # 3: Empathizing—Move with Them to the Place Where They Say, “We Care About Each Other’s Hurts”
It’s pretty easy in marriage counseling for the counselor to empathize. We see hurt spilling out in front of us all the time because we hear hate spewing out in front of us every session. But it’s not enough for us to empathize—as important as that is. The couple needs to cross the bridge of hurt and start moving toward the path of shared sorrow and mutual compassion.
As You Seek to Model Empathy, Remember: Affirm/Offend
So, yes, we do start by empathizing with their hurts. Sometimes we weep with them. Our compassion is vital.
But remember this. When you empathize with one spouse, the other spouse might feel as if you are taking sides. I call this: “Affirm/Offend.” As I empathize with the wife and the pain her husband is causing her, the husband can feel offended. “You’re on her side! What about me?”
So, I teach them “affirm/offend” ahead of time. I tell them, “Sometimes, I will weep with the husband, and the wife will feel like I’m taking sides. But, I will weep with both of you. “I’m on the side of your marriage.”
Help Them to Learn How to Empathize with Each Other
Be honest with the couple.
“Right now, the last thing you might feel like doing is feeling compassion for your spouse. The last thing you might think about doing is seeing your situation through your spouse’s eyes. But if we are to find Christ’s healing hope, then the two of you are going to need to find Christ’s power to care like Christ—for each other.”
I then will ask one of them to share—giving some instructions.
“Hanna, as you share, here’s what I’d like you to do. Avoid blaming and attacking Jim. Simply share two things with Jim. First, what you long for from him right now in your marriage. Second, what you feel like when you don’t receive that.”
Then I’ll explain the other person’s role.
“Jim, please don’t interrupt Hanna, as she shares. Listen quietly until I ask Hanna to give you a chance to share. While you’re listening, I want you to think about two things. First, how you can summarize what Hanna really longs for from you. Second, how you can put into words the hurt that Hanna feels. And Jim, when you respond, don’t defend or explain. This is not an attack. Your role is to understand Hanna. By the way, soon you’ll have your chance to share your longings while Hanna listens…”
The goal is to help the couple to come to the place where they say from their hearts, “We care about each other’s hurts.”
Bridge-Building Plan # 4: Infusing Hope–Constantly Infuse Gospel Hope Into the Story of Marital Despair
This principle may become your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th principle! In other words, infuse hope constantly in marriage counseling. It may well be that you need to infuse hope before, during, and after every other bridge-building process.
The goal is to help the couple to get to the point where they say together, “Because of Christ, it’s possible for us to hope.”
This is where we place the details and specifics of their painful marital narrative into the larger story of Christ’s narrative of resurrection hope. The key to the biblical infusion of hope is helping the couple to apply scriptural hope to their specific marital struggles.
So, you seek to hear the dominant story of defeat in this particular marriage. Then you seek to infuse the scriptural story of victory in Christ. Consider some sample hope-infusing probes we could share:
- We’ve summarized the current title of this chapter of your marital story as, “Everyone Is Losing because Everyone Is Out for Themselves.” Looking together at Ephesians 5:21-6:18, what new title could we give the next chapter of your marital story?
- Imagine with me three months down the road. God has done an Ephesians 3:14-21 miracle in your marriage. He’s done exceedingly, abundantly, above all that you could think or imagine. In this biblical scenario, what positive differences would you see in your marriage three months from now?
- Tell me about some times when together, through Christ’s strength, you’re already defeating some of these marital problems?
- How could the two of you work together to defeat Satan’s lies about your marriage? Could we look at James 4:1-8 for some answers to this question?
Bridge-Building Plan # 5: Exposing the Mote/Dispensing Forgiving Grace—Catch Them Red-Handed Falling Short of God’s Marital Calling and Then Dispense Grace
James 4:1-4 explains that in the midst of relational conflict, we are extremely poor judges of our role in the conflict. So, couples need our gentle-but-firm assistance exposing the mote blinding their spiritual eyesight.
Here again the principle of “affirm/offend” comes into play. As I expose Becky’s selfishness, she can become offended, and Al can be affirmed. So we share:
“Becky, I can appreciate your feelings that I’m taking sides. But that’s not the case. Just a moment ago I confronted Al about his role in this. You both have areas you need to face. Are you willing to examine your role?”
What do we expose? We expose discrepancies between God’s design for sacrificial Christlike love and their current way of relating. We expose discrepancies between Ephesians 5:21-33 marital callings and what’s actually happening. We expose discrepancies between 1 Corinthians 13 “love is” descriptions and what’s playing out in front of you.
How do we expose? Catch them red-handed. This is where you have to let the couple fight a bit in front of you. Yes, you lay down some ground rules for “fair fighting.” Yes, you call a time-out when things get out of hand. However, you have to watch them relate to each other right in front of you or it will be a continuous “he said/she said.”
So, Al is putting Becky on the witness stand like he’s a prosecutor. You let the interaction play out for a short time. Then you respond:
“Al, how typical is this of how you relate to Becky? I’m not sure if you are aware of it, but it is like you are the prosecuting attorney and Becky is the defendant. If I were Becky, I’d feel pretty intimidated and beaten down right now. Are you willing to take a look at how you just now related to Becky?”
This is where Romans 5:20 comes to the forefront in marriage counseling. Where sin abounds, grace superabounds. This is where 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 comes to play in marriage counseling. “Now you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2:7).
Of course, we’re not talking about shallow repentance and surface forgiveness. We’re not talking about winking at sin. But when a spouse is truly repenting from the heart, then we help the couple to become dispensers of grace forgiveness to one another.
Bridge-Building Plan # 6: Empowering—Equipping Them to Love Like Christ and the Church
A lot of biblical marriage counseling tends to start here. We race to Ephesians 5 and teach how to love like Christ. The motive and intention is great, but the process might be missing the vital preceding steps. A couple that is really listening to each other, empathizing with each other, infusing hope into each other, confessing the mote to each other, and dispensing forgiving grace to each other is a couple with the fertile soil to grow up together into Christ, the Head.
This step requires hope not only on the couple’s part, but on the counselor’s part. When we see such venomous hatred played out in front of us, it is easy to think, “this couple is incapable of love!” This is where our theology must trump our current experience. This is where we must believe that every redeemed couple at their core has the God-given resources to picture the marriage of Christ and the Church. Do you believe that? Do I? If we don’t, let’s quit doing biblical marriage counseling.
Again, there’s no better place to relaunch godly husband-wife relationships than right in front of you as a counselor.
“Darrell, this is a perfect opportunity for you to step out like we’ve been talking about. Hanna is asking you, tenderly I might add, to come through for her. She believes in you. God believes you can do this because He is in you. No more backing away. No more excuses. Right now I want you to move toward Hanna as her man, with mature, adult, Christlike love….”
Joining the Conversation
Which of the following marital counseling bridge-building competencies do you most want to add to your repertoire? Listening? Connecting? Empathizing? Infusing Hope? Exposing the Mote/Dispensing Forgiving Grace? Empowering?