All Couples Need Gospel-Centered CounselingJune 9, 2021
All Couples Need Gospel-Centered Counseling
Had it not been for biblical, gospel-centered counseling I don’t know what state our marriage would be in today. Every couple needs counseling.
Are you a couple? You need counseling.
If you read this and think, “Nathan is talking about me because I was just talking to him about my marriage recently” you are 100% correct. If you are a married member of my church, I’m thinking about you. I’m thinking about every marriage I’ve had the privilege of walking with, all those couples in my church, all those couples who’ve been encouraged to seek counsel and refused, and anyone else who will listen.
One of the Biggest Mistakes I Ever Made
In the first year of our marriage I was asked by a tenured pastor if I would like for him to disciple my wife and I. He was a mature Christian man who had been on the mission field for years. He spoke multiple languages and eventually wrote a book on Proverbs. His wife was a sturdy, yet tender and mature Christian woman. She survived cancer multiple times with her faith only increasing.
I said “no”. I had so many good excuses.
“Its our first year of marriage, I think we should learn each other first”. Ridiculous!
“I don’t really know this guy, not sure if I can trust him.” How immature of me to that that first.
But the stupidest thing I thought was, “I think I have this marriage thing figured out.” What a fool! What an opportunity missed.
Maybe it wouldn’t have been perfect. Maybe I would not have agreed with everything this pastor said (I know wouldn’t have). The worst mistake I made was setting myself on the course of believing I did not need help being married to my wife. I took a course that told Colette that we do not need help. But we did need help. We needed help the moment we said, “I do”. How much more after we wrestle with each other's sin for years?
Marriage is a Gospel-Designed Institution
God designed marriage according to a gospel blue print (Eph 5). Marriage is built on the gospel, runs on the gospel, has the gospel for its purposes, and has the gospel for all its remedies. Gospel! Gospel! Gospel! One more time! Gospel!
The gospel is not merely some good counsel on marriage. The gospel is not merely a good way to live in marriage. It is the way in which marriage works. This is what Paul said in Ephesians 5.
Ephesians 5:31-32 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.
Paul’s explanation of marriage in Genesis 3 is that from the beginning it was mysteriously and preemptively designed (it refers) to Christ and the Church. Thus the relationship between Christ and the church is the way marriages are designed to work. It doesn't work like it is supposed to unless gospel means are employed.
A Gospel-Centered Marriage is Learned
This doesn’t mean that gospel-centered and gospel-flourishing marriages automatically sprout out of those who are Christians. Marriage doesn’t happen by accident or grow "organically". Paul has to teach the church the hows and whys of marriage. If marriages sort of “organically” grow into a gospel shape then why did Paul teach doctrine about it? Why did Paul instruct about it? The gospel needs to be learned, applied, and practiced in marriage.
Let this be a great relief to you and your spouse. Satan loves to double down guilt on couples. Its difficult enough to struggle in your marriage. Its even worse when feeling guilt and shame that you need help. “How embarrassing and shameful, you two shouldn’t even be in this position!” How familiar that double-tongued liar's whisper is to me. Satan whispers in one ear, “You can do it yourself, you don’t need help, you’ve got this!”. Then he scolds in the other ear, “You are so terrible! You should be ashamed! You should be better than this.” Its true, we should be better. But we’re not. We’re fallen. All of us. And the gospel is that Christ died to forgive our sin and rose that we might walk in newness of life (Rom 6). And we need help walking in the newness of life! We are united with Christ in his resurrection but we still have to learn how to walk like people who rose from the dead. Paul has to teach those united with Christ in his resurrection how and why we should run from sin and live to righteousness. Marriage, like all Christ-likness, is learned in intentional discipleship.
Couples Need Help Learning Gospel-Centered Marriage
What is discipleship in general? It is getting help from someone else in becoming more like Jesus. Discipleship is the way Christians become more like Jesus. Maturity doesn’t only happen alone. It happens with someone else teaching and exemplifying God’s word. It happens when someone else shows us how to evangelize or how to speak the truth in love. Couples, likewise, need help. A gospel-centered marriage is learned. We need discipleship in marriage just like we need discipleship in all ways. Marriage is no different than every other Christian growth — it grows by discipleship.
Now, some couples have a head start when they get married. They grew up in homes with Christian parents. They heard and believed the gospel at a young age. They saw Christian ideals worked out in marriage in their homes and churches. But I would say that very often its those who have grown up in "Christian homes" who have the hardest times in marriage. Why? I often talk with couples who grew up in Christian homes. But I rarely, meet anyone who was discipled in marriage by their parents beyond what is witnessed passively. They weren’t taught about money, communication, forgiveness, sex, home-buying, how to disagree, or whether or not a husband should help with the dishes (he should). They went into marriage subconsciously thinking that because their marriage has a Christian heritage, because they’ve seen Christians in marriage, and because they are doing Christian things that their marriage will be Christianly. Wrong. Every married Christian needs help learning how to be a Christian spouse.
Counseling or Discipleship?
Do you need counseling? Counseling is just one form of discipleship. Be careful. Saying you don’t need counseling may be saying you donn’t think you need discipleship. Where are you going seek counsel for your marriage? Who will you welcome in to help you build your marriage on the design of the gospel? If not "counseling", when who? Where?
Marriage is designed on the basis of the gospel.
Gospel-centered marriage is learned.
Who will you learn it from?
There is a stigma that goes with counseling which is groundless. The stigma is this — there is something wrong with you and everyone might find out if you go to counseling. We already know there is something wrong with you! And that goes for our underdevelopment, misshaped marriages too! We are not yet like Christ, our marriages are not yet fully like the gospel, and we need help having gospel-centered marriages like everyone else.
This might come in the form of formal counseling with “professional” counselor (which might mean you pay them for it). Thats ok. Not every church is staffed enough or has fitting couples to meet all the needs. It might mean walking another couple to talk and pray about marriage as you read a book together. It might mean sitting down with your pastor for direction and counsel. It might mean being more vulnerable with your small group so they can prayer and encourage you in your marriage. Which will it be for you? You may already know. It may be all of them. Reach out to a trusted brother in Christ and ask how he’d seek marriage discipleship in your situation.
Everything Suffers if Your Marriage Suffers
Parenting, service to church, joy in general, and your productivity at work are all affected. If your marriage is difficult everything else will be difficult. Marriage is too intimate to our identities to be an isolated issue. Marital issues are never benign. They are always malignant. When two people marry they do not simply become two married people. When a couple says, “I do” they become one. God does it. God makes them one.
Paul says it like this in Ephesians 5:28-31 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
We kid ourselves if we believe that marriage is an isolated part of our identities that we can work around.
The Joy, Beauty, and Obedience of the Gospel is What You’re Marriage is Missing
You don’t need coping tools, communication tools, personality tests, or your enneagram number (those can be helpful to a degree). The engine of marriage runs on the fuel of the gospel -- Christ crucified for his bride and the bride's submitting devotion to Christ. So we need discipleship as adult married people. Discipleship is not something that happens to children at VBS. Discipleship in marriage is for us married adults.
You might have all kinds of ideas in your head about what needs to happen to make your marriage whole and happy. Maybe you think you need a break from the kids (that can help from time to time). Maybe you think you need to rekindle your sexual intimacy (that matters - 1 Cor 7:5). Or maybe its a financial counselor who could bring peace to your marriage (that certainly could be useful). Maybe you have a long list of all the things your spouse should change in order to make your marriage great again. You might be right about some of them. But what about you? What about both of you? Your marriage, by virtue of its design and how discipleship works, need Gospel-centered discipleship. You need Christ-focused counsel.
Taking a Scary Step at 6:52 AM
It is important to share this as a pastor and a Christian. My wife is beyond amazing. I’m continually encouraged and challenged by her walk with the Lord. I don't another Christian who has been a better, more intimate witness of Christ to me than her. But we too have needed the discipleship help I should have accepted our first year of marriage.
So years into our marriage I found myself typing out this email at 6:52 on a Saturday morning. I still have it and with Colette’s permission I share it here:
Wanted to reach out to you about my wife and I. We've had a rough go these past few years. I think I have continually told myself that it will be better or that it is not as bad as I think it is. ...She is homeschooling two kids with our two smaller at home too...I just know enough to know we need to see someone.
I have been thinking for sometime now that we should both go see someone together-- wrestling with all the reasons I shouldn't or we don't need to. But I love Colette and want to do what is best for both of us. I would rather say we went and didn't need to go, than we should have and didn't go.
Are you able to see us?
I’m so grateful he was able and willing. Another couple, dear friends of ours and church members at the time, watched our kids while we received counsel for our marriage. It wasn’t perfect or pretty by any account. You might of looked at the inner workings of our marriage and not thought we needed counsel. It got very difficult before it got a little better. Sometimes we went to counseling and left that very same appointment at odds with each other — not understanding each other and frustrated.
But we kept going.
It got better.
We let go of idols.
Spirit fueled effort, God’s word, wise counsel, and the gospel all worked to change us.
If no other local church options are immiatedly available you can use this locator to try and find a counselor near you.
For His Glory,