Marriage counseling is hard work and couples need tremendous amounts of hope to stay the course. Good news for biblical counselors, right? After all, the Bible is full of reasons for hope. But here’s where the Bible’s strength can become a potential weakness in a counseling situation. Of course, pointing couples to the love and power of Christ is the surest hope that we could ever offer, but we must be mindful of how it’s done. It’s possible to deliver even that wonderful hope in a clumsy way that actually does more harm than good.
Proverbs 25:20 warns potential hope-givers, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on soda, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” Imagine you’ve been listening to a couple share their story of heartbreak and desperation for nearly an hour and suddenly, realizing that you’ve got to wrap up your time with them in five minutes, you shift gears – time to give them some hope. You share a verse and a few words of assurance about God’s love and care for them, but you can see that your efforts fall flat. In fact, they seem a little irritated. The comfort they had received through the entire session from just being heard, from knowing that you understood, from hearing your compassion and concern has been snatched away like a garment removed on a cold day.
Suddenly they don’t feel understood anymore. In fact, it seems like you’re not taking their problems seriously after all. It’s not that they don’t believe God loves them, but your solution for their problems just came across as a pat answer, tagged onto the end of the session – and it was. You made it sound too simple. It felt like they had just shared how their lives are falling apart, and your response was to hum a few bars of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” as you walk them out the door. How do I know it can feel that way? Because I’ve done it and counselees have mercifully let me know how it affects them.
The lesson I’ve learned: Hope isn’t something to be tagged onto the end of your counseling session – it needs to be highlighted throughout your conversations. As biblical counselors we don’t just focus on the hope of what will be someday and force it into every desperate situation. Our security in life and in marriage also comes from the present hope of God’s grace in the midst of our trials, teaching us how to have faith and how to love in difficult situations. When marriages are in trouble, hope also means learning to believe that God is bigger than our mistakes; that he actually works through our sin, folly, and weaknesses to make our lives and marriages more beautiful than ever.
So how can you offer hope in a counseling situation? Any time you are listening carefully to a spouse who has felt unheard, you are giving hope. Any time you show sympathy and concern for a spouse who has felt neglected and ignored, you are giving hope. Any time you rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, you are giving hope. To love well is to give hope. Counseling and marriage rely on grace, faith, and love for real change. A growing marriage needs faith that Jesus will help every step of the way, and it also needs to learn to take concrete action by learning to love. Learning to love in the details of your marriage doesn’t lead to overnight results in either you or your spouse. Be patient and learn endurance. Learn how to stay on the path. Fortunately, God offers us encouragement and refreshment along the way.