09 March 2006

Pastoral marriage counseling: What if?

by Dan Phillips

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.)

The pastor is very much like baseball's 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?

Dan Phillips's signature


Daniel said...

Hmmm - you mean there is Pastoral Marriage Counselling that doesn't look like that? <shudder>

I cannot even picture "pastoral" counselling unless it resembles this.

Every problem that has ever surfaced in my marriage has realy been (at the core of it) a problem with my submitting myself to God. David got it right when he prayed, "Against You only have I sinned." When we understand that all our marriage problems are actually sin problems, we can deal with them in a way that actually works.

Great post Dan.

puritanicoal said...


What is most amazing about your excellent post is the title: "What if?" It is amazing, and telling, that such a question even needs to be asked. It is so obvious. Yet, the bookstores of our churches are filled with the same "self-help" section as the secular Barnes & Noble down the street.

We are taught to treat the symptoms, not the root of the problems in our marriages. While this works for a while, anyone who has taken over-the-counter cold medicine knows that as soon as it wears off, you feel as rotten as you did before. For instance, we can try to speak our spouse's "Love Language," but if we aren't focused on glorifying God, and seeking our satisfaction in and through Him, we are doing little more than taking a cold remedy that wears off in a few hours.

Praise God for your timely reminder of such obvious truth.

FX Turk said...

You forgot Hosea.

FX Turk said...

And stop ripping off my blog for TeamPyro posts, you post-bumper.

DJP said...

Thanks, Daniel. (You know, it occurs to me -- we have enough Dan's around here that we might be able to have an all-Dan thread.)

There's a lot of truth in what you say. What would you think of putting it this way: "all our marriage problems are actually either sin problems, or small problems"?

Chris Freeland said...

Well said.

Gary Thomas's book "Sacred Marriage" is pretty good, but its strongest contribution to marriage is probably the subtitle. "What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy?"

In my estimation, most pastors don't have the respect of their people to the point that they can regularly deal with obedience issues in counseling sessions. Knowing that, they've sacrificed the authority of Scripture for band-aid fixes that cover up problems but don't fix them. Pastors are afraid they'll lose people if they point them to the real issues, so they settle for something less hoping that it will gain them a second or third hearing.

IB Dubbya said...

[Hm. This after just having an email exchange with my Non-Believing Estranged about Final Docs Signatures...]


amesfam said...

Very well put. It is about bringing everything back to the Scriptures and our responsibility as believer's to be obedient. Get to the heart of the matter by going back to the basics - THE GOSPEL, instead of drudging around in the symptoms of our problems.

Bob Edwards said...

Not only is this the model for marriage counseling it is the model for ALL counseling. We were privileged to adopt a Chinese girl from a disrupted adoption. At age fourteen having been three times abandoned she was angry, bitter, and distrustful of anyone who would call themselves mother or father. Rather than focusing on all of that, we talked of her sin and her need for a Savior. How God said she was to behave toward parents and others. We talked about the atoning sacrifice of Christ and its solution for the problem of her standing before a thrice Holy God.

The evidence is that she now stands before Him beloved and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. The anger, the bitterness, the distrust of us as parents is for the most part gone. That is true counseling success. Not because we are able but because He through His Word and by His Spirit is able to change the heart of men.

Dan Sudfeld said...

That post was a masterpiece. You were bang-on in saying that generally, people don't come to see us until the game is in the bottom of the 9th.

Also, as a pastor myself, I know that people are not in my office very long, before I get to the Gospel. They start blaming and talking about the fact that "I would love him or her, but/when/if..." - which leads directly into a conversation on the unconditional love of God through Christ. And before too long, I'm into a presentation of the Gospel and what was once marital counseling quickly turn into evangelism.

Some great tips there, Dan. I'm gonna use those. I'll make sure to give you the credit.

From yet another Dan

4given said...

Wow. I'm speechless. (that doesn't happen often!)

4given said...

Just ask my husband... ha.

DJP said...

Chris Freeland -- I'm afraid what you're saying is truer than either of us probably wishes it were.

On marrage and happiness, check this out, and the essay to which it links.

Scott Burdett said...

I like what Al Mohler said about counselling (Shepherds' Conference last week):
1. What is the problem?
2. What does God say?
3. So why are we here?

Daniel said...

DJP - I would accept that phrasing. Though I would add the caveat that contentment doesn't come from other people, but from the Lord.

By that I mean that even small problems are only problems because I expect more than the Lord is giving me. That is, I am discontent not because a situation warrants that discontentment, but because I have not found contentment in the Lord.

Not that this would be the sort of thing we would bring to the plate at the bottom of the ninth, rather this would be a post game follow-up if I can extend the metaphor.

And indeed - there do seem to be many Dans about! At least I am in good company.

Bowden McElroy said...

What if...

My best guess is many, perhaps most, of the couples would never come back. They would shake their heads and complain the pastor "just doesn't get it". Not because it is poor advice - it's great advice - but because by the time they get to the bottom of the 9th with two outs, conviction, concern, and rational thought has already checked out.

I find most Christians who seek a divorce already know what God says and what was in their vows. They have convinced themselves they have only two choices: stay stuck in a bad marriage or leave and God will forgive.

What if... the pastor were the manager, not the relief pitcher? Bringing in help at the top of the 3rd when the couple is first getting into trouble instead of waiting until they have given up?

Screaming Pirate said...

“What if he sticks with the foundation of a Biblical view of marriage as a covenant?” Did a dispi. Just use the word convenient? Is that even allowed??.......
Ok just checking.
…And what is with all you guys talking about marriage? First we have a college bible study on Relationships (which is you guessed it. All about some marriage), Then ole Frank starts talking about what makes a marriage work, And now David,…. I mean Dave…. I meant Dan, starts talking about how marriages should work….OK, OK, I would get my marriage right if I had one. But seriously guys good work you guys are helping us one day to be married guys avoid a lot of stuff in our own marriages one day. Thanks

Unknown said...

Or to put it another way...

What is your problem? What would God have you to do about it? Why are we having this conversation?

I wish I could take credit for this but that belongs to Dr. Al Mohler.

Stephen Newell said...

At this rate, between you guys and Mr. Turk (see his blog for the reason I stoop so low as to give him a title), my "Marriage" file is going to be overflowing with these articles and my study notes on them. Quit it.

No, really, keep it up. Us engaged guys out there need all the help we can get.

donsands said...

Excellent counsel on counselling. I agree 100 %. I do try to stay in the solid boudaries of the gospel when dealing with marriage problems, but it is incredibly difficult. And there are so many variables, and people are unbelieviably fickle, but I loved your words, and will definitely share them with my fellow elders.

It's so easy to get sidetracked, isn't it. The gospel. The Savior. His glory and honor. Lord help us stay focused and fixed. Amen.

Gordon said...

Dan, this is awesome. I am most definitely going to utilize this approach the next time a couple comes to me for counselling.

You and Frank need to publish a book and start a speaking tour together.

Kay said...

T-shirts... I'm feeling the need for T-shirts...

DJP said...

Hey! screaming pirate! We believe in covenants! And we try to be theologians. We're just... not... covenant theologians.... (c;

This is a reworking and expansion of something I blogitated eighteen months ago, and it's a thought never far from my mind. I'll probably end up taking a few more passes at this neighborhood before I feel like I've gotten close to what I think needs saying.

Glad you're thinking about it, even that side of marriage. I really believe this sort of material is almost MORE relevant for singles.

I think singles should study Proverbs very closely, should study Biblical teaching on marriage, should be sure they're walking in with eyes wide open. The idea of some that it will be relevant when they get married -- yes, but mostly no! NOW is the time to be CRYSTAL-clear, as far as you can, on what marriage entails.

Our culture's easy-return-policy mentality, I think, really hurts marriage. I heard a lady in a church membership class tell the story of her first two (three?) marriages. Each ended with, "it didn't work out." Yowch. True, there may have been a tale too painful for her to tell, but -- yowch.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm so late to commenting that probably no one will read this, but I'll write it anyway. I just read this post and it was so excellent that I forwarded it to the pastors of our church.
Incidentally, I wondered about one thing as I read the post. That is, the Lordship of Christ being the major premise and submission to His Lordship the minor.
I don't think one can be a Lord without submission.
As a pastor of a church we formerly attended used to say, there's no such thing as the words: "No, Lord."
It's a contradiction.

Screaming Pirate said...

Well thanks to guys like you, and the biggest infulence, my church (yea thats right guys my Church has more of an impact, Than any sentence that could be posted on this or any other blog, not that it dont impact me.). I have a much different understanding of marriage than most "Christians". I am going to be perfect. No. But I thought I would relay a point I had given to me at the bible study last night. That is this, although I have not been though marriage or any thing close to it. I can know what it will be like to, and have wisdom on that issue (even more than the average married couple). Why is that you say well its simple. The Bible gives clear and applicable text on marriage. So the more I know what the word has to say on this, the wiser I'll be, even more than your average married couple(that is out of the world). Am I wiser than say Dan, Frank or any of the other married guys are on this blog...HAAA.. heavens, No! And lest you think that I am braging about my self. No i am saying that the word of God, is the governing principle here.

Screaming Pirate said...

Oh and Dan I like my covenants!, but I like my dispenstations too.(But you knew that. Right)

BlackCalvinist aka G.R.A.C.E. Preecha said...

Susan, the words 'No, Lord' do exist.

God to Christian: Are you so wise that you may instruct me ?

Christian: No, Lord. Not in the least. I'll shut up now. Please forgive me.


Mickey Sheu said...

Thanks for an excellent post. I've linked it here

Stasi said...

As a seminarian, I found your post full of interesting ideas and insight. I even linked to it. But a commenter had something to say that I think is worth your thinking about. Here is some of what she said:

"I'm struggling with my marriage right now. I know what God wants (and what my children need) but I am just so desperately unhappy. God has not been able to cure the howling loneliness of my marriage, no matter how much I've prayed about it--and my spouse just isn't willing, able, whatever to do anything about it. It's hard to honor my vows when that loneliness is like acid on my soul...

I understand that suffering can be redemptive, but right now, it just feels endless and draining. I cannot even bring myself to imagine another 30 years of this (we've been married for nearly 15). What do those men (and almost all of them seem to be male) have to say to me? That if only I were a better Christian my marriage problems would go away? Gee thanks, guys---now not only am I failing as a spouse, I'm also failing as a believer."

That is a problem. Your solutions, while certainly Godly, do lead to the inevitable conclusion that if they fail then the couple is not Christian enough - they have failed in their marriage AND in their walk with the Lord. Ouch! Maybe you do believe if they divorce they have failed in their walk with God, but that's not a very pastoral thing to say to them. At least, it's probably not going to keep them coming back to you for marital OR spiritual advice. And if they leave the church, then we lose any chance of helping them find redemption.

To say "all our marriage problems are really sin problems" (as a commenter did) doesn't help a woman in this position. She doesn't have a sin problem - or, would you say she does? Yikes. That seems harsh - her only "sin" is feeling lonely (and letting it affect how she views her marriage, I guess). I think there is sin - or at least evil - going on here, but what if it's nobody's fault?? (or the fault of someone who won't change?)

So while your ideas are really thoughtful and I think something we seminarians should learn, it all boils down to individual situations, doesn't it? If a person is already trying to implement your suggestions and it is JUST NOT WORKING, or their spouse won't cooperate, what then? I think your post was written with a cooperative spouse in mind, actually a cooperative couple (that's a lot of homework you give!) that's REALLY motivated to get better. So maybe you don't mean for it to apply to someone in my commenter's situation. The sad thing is that it seems most people are more in her situation than in the one you describe. It's rare that both members of the couple are willing to counsel, and if they are, are that invested in continuing the relationship (like one commenter said, they've probably already given up).

It just makes me nervous to wrap up someone's faith with their success as a spouse. Seems that does more harm than good.

Anyway, sorry to write a book on here. Perhaps a sequel post to answer these questions/concerns for a future pastor? :)

Miranda said...


What I've often heard is that your actions and attitudes dont rely on the other persons attitude in the relationship. The wife has been commanded to respect her husband, so she does even if he doesn't love her (and thats his failing). We're not told to just respect the respectable, or even to just love the lovable. we're commanded to respect and love, regardless of the other ones own failings in that situation. I think ultimately thats what it comes down to in the said situation (above). Trust in God has a lot to do with 'happiness' in marriage too, and peacefullness. knowing you're doing what you're commanded to do is re-assuring, and God has given us promises that He will bless us in such situations. God doesn't give strength to the strong, but to the weak and fainthearted.

Anyway, I think the above article did a good job explaining how so many people miss the point, and how to get back to the point.