What is different about Christian couples counseling compared to secular marriage counseling? This is a pretty common question. I will attempt to answer, as the spiritual purpose of marriage is considered from a Christian perspective in this article.
For example, it is clearly a Christian value to not divorce (there are a few biblical exceptions), but is that the only goal? What role or purpose did God have in mind when he invented marriage? Does staying married serve a purpose in a believer’s spiritual development?
These are some of the issues that will be discussed to help the reader get a bigger picture on how growing in marriage can serve as a discipleship tool in getting closer to God.
Many of the ceremonial and civil laws were designed to help the Israelites distinguish between the practices of societies that surrounded them versus how God wanted them to live.
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming-not the realities themselves. – Hebrews 10:1
Christian couples counseling tries to focus not only on the dynamics of making a marriage work, but how it is designed to point a person toward their connection with God.
Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. – Malachi 2:15, NIV
I remember the day my father signed me up for karate lessons. I had been watching Bruce Lee movies and had fantasies of being able to do all his acrobatic kicks. To my dismay, I learned none of that my first year taking lessons.
How to stand, stretching, and doing form patterns over and over again was all the sensei taught me. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to put all that together into something that remotely resembled Bruce Lee!In order to train us to be “godly offspring,” the covenant of marriage starts with the basics of faithfulness to teach God’s people how to learn the requirements of a relationship where you discover how to invest all your intimate energies with increasing skill.
Starting with basic boundaries, God wanted marriage to be a tool that taught people things about relating to Him, such as devotion, honoring, sacrifice, and oneness. It is clear from the passage above that breaking faith with that commitment was bad because our commitment to marriage closely mirrors how a person commits to God.
In my experience, marriage brings out what is in a person’s heart more than any other relationship. It offers the opportunity practice Jesus’ teachings in a very focused, involved way.
Marriage is also a spiritual discipline that teaches us about oneness. The people of God are referred to as a “bride” at least six times in the book of Revelation. The imagery is of God and His followers uniting for eternity, using marriage as a metaphor to help the reader understand what it will be like. The concept of being “one” is frequently mentioned by Jesus.
Below are some examples:
I and the Father are one. – John 10:30
… and the two will become one flesh.’ So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. – Mark 10:8
… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. – John 17:21
God offers mankind a choice: to live a life apart from Him or to live life with Him. Having the freedom to choose is the heart of what makes a person an individual. I suppose God could have programmed mankind to automatically obey him, but we would be like robots not comprehending what God offers.
The marriage covenant is a physical manifestation that allows a person the practice of choosing where they devote their choice to love. Honoring, sacrificing, and cherishing are all matters of the heart a person can cultivate in marriage that prepare them to do that in a relationship with God.
Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. – Ephesians 5:8-10, NIV
Marriage also helps us to connect with God’s unfailing love. In their book, Making Marriage Simple, Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt argue that marriage has the potential to heal “childhood wounds.” They argue that all people carry around with them a yearning for “wholeness.” It may start with the experience of being “one” with their mother in the womb being deeply embedded into the unconscious mind.
However, from the time a person is born they receive varying levels of over- or under-involvement from their parents that interfere with their development as individuals. They call this “childhood wounds.” As a result, everyone carries around a love template that consists of the positive traits of their caregivers as well as the negative ones. This template is called the person’s “imago” or image of love they carry around.
According to Hendrix and Hunt (Making Marriage Simple, 2013), romantic love “is a trick” that causes people to seek out mates that embody the positive traits of their caregivers as well as unconsciously seeking someone who has their negative traits as well. It when couple’s encounter these negative traits, couples become disillusioned and disconnected.
At face value, this theory seems crazy! Why would we seek out someone who represents negative traits that hurt us in formative years? This is where Christian couples counseling views marriage from the larger picture of God using marriage to help people grow and heal.
What a person desires is unfailing love; better to be poor than a liar. – Proverbs 19:22, NIV
This proverb addresses the ultimate spiritual need that people can only get from God. We are built for unfailing love, but even at their best people can only offer failing love because we are imperfect. As a result, humans suffer loss from the time they are born. I have joked with my children at times, “If I could meet all your needs, you could pray to me when you grow up.”
This obviously is not God’s plan. The proverb writer says “it is better to be poor than a liar.” He is addressing the human tendency to substitute “unfailing love” for other things like money. The truth is to be honest about what we really want (no substitute), unfailing love that only comes from God.
So how might God use this dynamic to help us heal and grow in marriage? Since it is human tendency to cover up love wounds, marriage becomes an excellent vehicle for God to enter parts of a person’s heart that might otherwise remain closed.
Children are largely powerless to address their wounds, but adults can identify and set boundaries around their needs. The admonition from James (in James 4:2-3, NIV) around conflict is to learn to “ask God” to meet desires with the proper motives.God wants His love to dwell in the “lonely” parts of our hearts, but He doesn’t force His way in. As a result, conflicts in marriage require people to dig in and put to words what they really want to correct — what they missed in childhood. We begin to heal when we can put the condition of our heart into words before God and others instead of defensively reacting when we don’t get what we want.
The other part of the dynamic is the spouse with the negative traits that remind us of what we didn’t get as a child. Since that spouse has some of the negative traits of formative caregivers, they will have to learn to stretch to give their spouse what they need. As a result, they end up growing in an area that they are naturally strong.
I have found this model to be true in my 24-year marriage. My wife grew up in a family where she had to speak very carefully and delicately about what she needed or risked being completely ignored. I grew up in a family where no one was direct about what they really wanted, so I often felt manipulated and learned to mistrust anything that felt indirect.
To avoid our big blow ups over childhood wounds, my wife had to learn to be more expressive and direct about her needs. I needed to learn to be patient and listen more carefully when she was expressing something. This collision of wounds allowed us to both build trust in areas that our earlier life experiences did not allow.
Our marriage became the perfect crucible to heal childhood wounds and help us feel more whole. I believe that God does this to give us an experience of unfailing love that is revealed in this life and made complete in the next!
Seeking out couples counseling can be a difficult decision. People often wait until they are at the end of their rope before seeking help. Some make the mistake of “keeping the law” and stay unhappy in a marriage without hope of things changing or growing.
Having a Christian based couples therapist can make a difference because they can help the couple identify areas in their marriage that are keeping them stuck while assisting them in how to apply their faith in their efforts to change.
Further, an expert can often identify problems that need to be addressed before a solution can be found. Individual problems that make a relationship unsafe must be addressed before a couple can benefit from couples work. Abusive anger, affairs, and active addictions are examples of problems that usually need individual counseling before couples counseling will help.
Ephesians 5:21 (NIV) reads, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Ultimately the difference between secular marriage counseling and Christian counseling is the goal. The goal is not to have the marriage meet all humanistic expectations, but to serve as a tool to shape the person to be more like Christ.
When two people trust that God has a plan for fulfilling their needs and healing wounds, they find hope and a higher purpose for growth. People are more willing to endure the struggle of change when they believe it is leading to a better place. Christian marriage counseling is often the place where couples get tools to use their marriage as an avenue for growth in their faith journey.
“I Do,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Speechless,” courtesy of Marc A. Sporys, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hold my hand,” courtesy of Sabina Ciesielska, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “In love,” courtesy of Ben White, unsplash.com, CC0 License