Some of the hardest, scariest, most dangerous, heart-wrenching work pastors do is marital counseling. (I can hear the Amen's from where I sit.)
relief pitcher. He's not called into action when everything is going great, as a rule. No, the manager waves for him when it's the bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, score tied, and the opposition's power-hitter about to approach the plate.
Similarly, couples often come into the study grim-faced, tight-lipped, angry, bringing years of entrenched patterns of behavior, scar tissue, grudges, and angry memories. Bottom of the ninth. Bases loaded. The breathless crowd leans forward.
And ol' Pastor Bud is supposed to fix everything.
So he tries gamely, God help him. Depending on his orientation, maybe he talks about boundaries, or love language; maybe he tries to teach the husband to think and talk more like a woman. He carries some Bible water around, trying to put out this and that fire -- some of them raging, some of them long-smoldering, like the volcanic belly of Mount St. Helens.
But what if he didn't? What if he did something totally different?
What if, when the pair began to trade accusations, he held up his hand, and said, "Not yet. We can get back to that. What I want you to tell me now is what Jesus Christ means to you. Bob? You first. Then you, Tina."
And then for that entire session at least, all they talked about who Jesus is, who Jesus is to them, and what it means to be a Christian. They talk about their total depravity, about the holiness of God; about the person and work of Christ. They talk about how we are saved by sheer grace, through faith alone, in Christ alone. They talk about how the grace of God makes us new creatures, and how the very bread of the new man is the Word of God.
In very personal terms, they talk about how the Christian life is like a syllogism, where the Lordship of Christ is the major premise, and submission to His Lordship the minor, and all that follows is a matter of working out those two premises.
And what if then at the end, the pastor prays, and assigns homework? What if he hands them each a piece of paper with Genesis 2:24, Proverbs 2:17, Malachi 2:14, Colossians 3:18-19, Ephesians 5:21-33, and 1 Peter 3:1-7 on it, and says, "I want you to read these verses, and come back ready to tell me what God says that marriage is, and what God says your role in it is."
Then what if he just talks about that, next time? What if he sticks with the foundation of a Biblical view of marriage as a covenant? And, assuming the husband and wife do a decent job of summarizing their responsibilities, what if he asks, "Now, which of those God-given obligations was conditioned on whether or not your spouse does his or her part?"
Then what if he concludes that session saying, "Bob, Tina, I want you each independently to do a personal Bible study. Come back ready to tell me what the Bible says about vows and promises and oaths."
And then as the stunned couple turns to leave, what if he adds, "Oh, and when you come back next week, bring your wedding vows with you"?
Next time, if they work hard, they come back with verses like Numbers 30:2, Deuteronomy 23:21-23, Psalm 56:12, 61:4, 8, 76:11, Proverbs 20:25, and Ecclesiastes 5:5. They say that God absolutely expects everyone to keep the promises and vows he makes -- even if keeping those vows actually hurts (Psalm 15:4b).
And then, what if he has each one read his and her vows aloud? What if he then asks, "Are any of those vows contrary to the Word of God?"
If the answer is "No," what if he asks, "Which of those vows is conditioned on your spouse keeping his vows?"
And what if those Scriptures, and those vows, then formed the continuing context for the discussion of any and all marital frictions? That is, what if every complaint, every grudge is put in the context, first, of each person's humble submission to the Lordship of Christ, and second, of each person's sole sworn responsibility to keep his wedding vows from the heart?
Would it not be the case that they would normally be left with two categories of issues: (A) relatively trivial matters that can be readily dealt with in Biblical wisdom and grace, or (B) actual sins, which also can readily be dealt with by repentance, or may become objects of church discipline?
One more question. It may be loaded, but I ask sincerely: do you think that any marriage could be other than happy, where both husband and wife are constantly seeking God for grace heartily and individually to keep their wedding vows, and to fulfill His word? Where both are focusing on their own obligation before God, from the heart?
I close with a reflection on this penetrating thought, these powerful words, from C. S. Lewis:
To this someone may reply that he regarded the promise made in church as a mere formality and never intended to keep it. Whom, then, was he trying to deceive when he made it? God? That was really very unwise. Himself? That was not very much wiser. The bride, or bridegroom, or the "in-laws"? That was treacherous. Most often, I think, the couple (or one of them) hoped to deceive the public. They wanted the respectability that is attached to marriage without intending to pay the price: that is, they were imposters, they cheated. If they are still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to them: who would urge the high and hard duty of chastity on the people who have not yet wished to be merely honest? If they have now come to their senses and want to be honest, their promise, already made, constrains them. (Mere Christianity [Macmillan: 1960], p. 97)Lewis, I believe, specifically had marital fidelity in mind. But why stop there? If one is expected to keep the promise about "forsaking all other," why not also his promise to "love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her in sickness and in health," or her promise to "obey him, and serve him, love, honour, and keep him in sickness and in health"?
The Christian promised God that he would keep these vows. The Christian led his spouse to believe she could wager her entire life on his personal commitment before God to those sacred vows.
What if Christian married people were actually expected to know, remember, and honor their wedding vows?