Alasdair Groves and Mike Emlet sit down and talk about some of the best aspects of psychology.
As Christians, it can be hard to know what to think about the diagnoses the mental health world uses to describe troubled people. Are they useless because they are based on a secular view of mankind? Or are they helpful because they offer researched and detailed descriptions of common problems? Dr. Emlet offers a biblically informed perspective for our ministry that helps us to be neither “too cold” nor “too warm” toward these classifications.Download Additional Resource
Jack and Emma are making a last-ditch effort to fix their marriage. Jack sits across the room from you, arms folded tightly across his chest, his jaw clenched. Emma can’t keep still. She leans toward you and declares emphatically, “Pastor, we need serious help. We can’t make it five minutes without arguing. We can hardly stand to be in the same room together. If something doesn’t change fast, then this marriage is over.”
Anyone who is married can attest that marriage has difficult moments—recurring irritations, disappointments, hurt, and anger. Sometimes those moments feel overwhelming, and for some couples the culmination of difficult moments over the years can become unbearable. During those times, it is easy for either partner to reach a tipping point, where the husband or wife says, “This has got to change—now!”
Couples want change quickly, but most of the time that isn’t possible. Problems that have developed over years usually can’t be fixed overnight. Then what are we to do? How can we as pastors and counselors minister to couples as they walk through these challenging, yet ordinary, moments in their marriages?
We can help them see that these ordinary moments, as difficult as they are, have the potential to change their marriage for the better.
Help the couple see that God is in the ordinary moments
When a couple is caught up in the idea that change must happen quickly, you need to remind them that God works in a variety of ways. Offer the couple the pervasive pattern we see in Scripture, which is that while God does deliver in dramatic ways sometimes, like the Israelites’ deliverance from Egypt, what follows is a long walk through the wilderness that takes weeks and years. But it’s on that day-to-day journey where the real transformation happens.
You might say to the couple, “This is how God works, so if we’re going to look to Him together for help, we need to be willing to follow Him in this pattern and expect Him to show us things along the way that may surprise us or that we haven’t seen before. But that requires time in the wilderness where we meet with Him and He feeds us with daily bread.”
If God expects His people to walk patiently with Him and worship Him in the midst of these ordinary moments, then that means, in a sense, that there are in fact no ordinary moments at all. Help the couple to see that every moment of their lives is a moment that they live before God and in which they have an opportunity to either trust Him and walk in love or to trust in themselves and walk in selfishness and self-protection. That includes every moment of every day, whether it’s taking out the trash or discussing parenting or finances. Every moment, no matter how mundane it may seem, is sacred because it is a moment lived before God, a moment in which we are called to trust in and walk in His love.
Let the couple know you are committed to being on this journey with them, but remind them it has to be a journey. It has to be a process. So create an expectation for slowing down, taking things one day at a time, and understanding that this is how God participates in transformation. Reframing the way change happens will help them to be patient and generate hope.
Know what love looks like in the details of the moment, and put it into practice
In the last section, I said that couples are called to live out of His love every moment of every day. But what does this look like?
God’s agenda for every moment in marriage is that each person make the love of Christ manifest to his or her spouse in a real and concrete way. So, for instance, in the moment when one partner feels sinned against and unheard, that person can make that a very “normal” human moment and respond in anger and try to hurt the other in return, but God’s agenda for that moment is to walk in love. The gospel is that we all have sinned against God, and in return for that, He has given us grace and love. So, as a follower of Christ, the husband or wife has the opportunity to love when he or she has been sinned against and to do that in thoughtful, concrete, and wise ways.
How do husbands and wives know what love looks like in the moment of disappointment, hurt, or anger? We don’t have to look any further than Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus experienced a wide range of emotions, and in every instance Jesus responded in love. He showed grace to the adulterous woman, demonstrated patience when the disciples failed to stay awake and pray, and humbly shared his distress with the Father when facing the Cross.
Love is a person
People tend to think of love as an experience, that love is something that happens to us or just something that we feel. But, ultimately, the Scriptures tell us that love is a person. God is love, and love has come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. That means that love is something husbands and wives are enabled to do in a very concrete way because they are in relationship with the God who is love. Because of this, they can move away from love simply as an emotionally charged experience and toward Jesus as a person who empowers them to act concretely in love.
Slowing down the moment
It’s certainly not easy to put Christlike love into practice in the face of hurtful emotions and verbal attacks. One suggestion is to help the couple learn to slow down the moment—to take that emotional, pressure-filled moment and slow it down so they are able to choose a better response.
Sometimes in the counseling room I’ll slow the moment down by asking a couple to describe their feelings as calmly as they’re able. I might say something like, “You’re both feeling really angry right now” or “You’re both feeling hurt. So let’s slow this moment down. I want each of you to very carefully describe what’s happening inside of you, and I want the other person to listen and not interrupt.” As each person talks, try to help him or her be as constructive in that moment as possible, to get outside of his or her hurt and attempt to understand the other person’s experience.
Sometimes I’ll set up those moments by saying, “It’s the nature of sincere love to enter into the experience of the other (Rom. 12:9–21). I’m going to ask both of you to do that right now, and it’s going to be hard and it’s not going to feel natural. But that’s because we’re following Christ, and we’re loving sacrificially.”
There’s a simple sort of homework that can help people slow down at home and be better students of what’s happening inside of them. Whenever they are in a hard moment with their spouse, have them answer these questions:
This will help them begin to develop a habit of moving away from emotionally charged reactions and walking in wisdom and love instead by asking, “What can I do in Christ’s love that matters right now?”
Love consistently over time
Why is God’s love so important, and how can spouses love consistently as time goes on? Particularly for the married couple, we must remind them that Scripture teaches that marriage is designed to point to something beyond itself. It wasn’t created simply as a gift for our enjoyment, but to point us to Christ’s love for us.
When things get tough, we should direct each partner to slow down and ask what this hard moment of marriage has to do with Christ’s love for him or her, for the spouse, or for the world. Then, have them ask themselves how they can then connect to that love and make it more present in a concrete way. And continue to do that. Instruct them to make it their habit in the moments of anger or hurt to stop, take a step back, and consider how they can love their spouse like Christ loves them in this difficult moment. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
One of the reasons it’s hard is that when people are really struggling, upset, and angry, they are oftentimes not aware of God’s presence and activity. The husband or wife might tend to think that He is far away, that He’s irrelevant, or that He has abandoned him or her. In those moments when they need God the most, they tend to believe that He is absent. Invite couples to see that every moment of their marriage matters to God and that He’s consistently present in every moment.
We need to help couples understand that life in Christ means walking into and living in hard moments, but those everyday moments have the potential to change their lives and their marriages for the better. Trusting in Christ means following His lead in the day-to-day, loving one’s spouse the way that Christ loves us. It means slowing down, understanding the situation, and then acting in love in specific, concrete ways. Even though it is hard, they can do it because Christ walked before them and continues to walk with them. He enables the couple to do what He has called them to do.
This article first appeared on careleader.org.
Pastors are all familiar with that couple. The couple that asks for help and says something has to change, and now! But why the sudden urgency? Maybe something has come out: there’s been adultery, a secret sin, or an addiction that has been discovered. Or, it may be that what has been irritating for five, ten, or twenty years has reached a tipping point and become unbearable.
It’s easy to get caught up in the emotional swell that happens in this scenario. We too feel like something has to happen immediately. But is that really the case? Is this how we can best help in these emotionally charged situations? And do we really understand the couple and the situation well enough from what we can glean in one counseling session?
As pastors and counselors, we need to step back from these emotionally charged encounters and carefully consider how to help the hurting couple. Below, I share five common mistakes that pastors sometimes make in marital counseling and how to avoid them. My aim is to share insights I have learned as a counselor and pastor to better equip you in your ministry.
Mistake #1: Trying to fix things too quickly
The first challenge we encounter in this type of situation is getting caught up in the emotions of the moment and feeling that we have to fix the problem immediately. However, if we give in to that pressure, we are much more likely to say something that isn’t helpful. In the first thirty minutes, hour, or two hours, of counseling we often don’t know enough to be all that helpful.
So how do we avoid this mistake? Here are a few principles to keep in mind:
Mistake #2: Not setting concrete goals
In counseling, it can be easy for us to wander around, discussing many topics but not making clear progress. That’s due in part to the fact that counseling is messy by nature. But sometimes we wander because we don’t have concrete goals to guide our sessions and our overall counseling.
I suggest setting clear, concrete goals that are doable and, if possible, measurable. This not only provides a sense of direction, but it also allows you to measure your progress. For instance, how can we help a couple know when they are communicating better? What will that look and sound like? Talk through these early in the process, write them down, and come back to the goals periodically to assess your progress.
If you are not making progress, review your goals together. Discern together what is needed in the moment to make progress. Are we missing something? Has something changed? Is everyone on board with our approach? Regular evaluation of concrete goals will help you keep moving forward.
Mistake #3: Relying on models that don’t take sin into account
We need to remember that our hearts aren’t neutral places; they aren’t empty love tanks that spouses are responsible to fill for each other. We are fallen, broken people whose hearts are filled with dreams, expectations, fears, and desires that are shaped by sin. So we can’t simply define love as giving each other what we want.
So how does this come into play for the couple we’re discussing? While we counsel, we do need to teach the couple to pay attention to and be considerate of differences in ways that they feel loved, but we also have to help them understand that no one’s heart is neutral. Because we are all sinful, what husbands or wives may want for themselves and what they might ask for from their spouse won’t always be the right or the best thing.
For instance, a wife raised in a home with lots of uncontrolled anger and shouting may feel threatened by marital conflict. We may need to help her husband understand the importance of being calm and affirming in the midst of marital conflict. However, it is not loving for the husband to avoid conflict entirely. I think a lot of Christian enrichment material goes off track in asking spouses to become experts in knowing what the other spouse wants and assuming that is what they must give. Couples need to understand each other’s desires and fears, but also learn how to wisely and carefully challenge them. Sometimes what a spouse prefers isn’t what is best. Spouses must learn to love the other in a way that is wise, even if it is unpleasant for both of them.
Mistake #4: Taking the responsibility of changing the couple
All of us want to be effective in what we do. As pastors and counselors we want to see people grow in Christ, but too often we place the responsibility of change on ourselves. We assume that change is solely the result of what we say or do with the couple. But it is critical for us to understand that no one, no matter how passionate or gifted, has the responsibility or the power to actually change another person. Meaningful change only happens when spouses decide to change.
Oftentimes I see spouses stuck in chronic cycles of conflict and anger, each convinced that the other is the one who needs to change. Their angry words and actions are attempts at forcing the other to change. Of course this never works. It only leads to increasing levels of anger, bitterness, and, ultimately, hopelessness. In those moments, it is important to remind them that their relationship with God—the fruitfulness of that, the joy of that, the peace of that—is not dependent on their ability to change their spouse. Ultimately, God is after a change in us, and that is all we are responsible for anyway. We can only choose to change ourselves; we cannot make other people change.
To do the hard work of marriage requires that they keep it up over the long haul, and spouses need to see the importance of becoming a new person even when the other spouse chooses not to. Hopefully the other spouse may witness godly change and want change as well, but even if that spouse does not, the one who is willing to change will have more joy and more richness in his or her relationship with Christ that no one can take away.
So it’s important to remember that you as a pastor cannot make the couple change.
Mistake #5: Going at it alone
Finally, many of us in ministry have a tendency to be lone rangers. As pastors, we can get caught up at times in our own ministries and our own churches. The same is true of our own counseling cases. Either we forget that we aren’t on our own or we believe that we can do it better without someone else’s help.
But don’t go at it alone. Find other resources—other couples or another church leader—who can mentor the couple or reinforce the work you are doing. Another great resource is other seasoned counselors who can give you advice on those you are counseling. Do you know counselors or other pastors in your area who have experience with these sorts of things? If so, talk to them. Get some other ideas on how to help and how to encourage change in these difficult moments.
You don’t have to be a lone ranger; this will only make you as the counselor suffer. It is also a recipe for disaster for ministry in general.
The next time you encounter a difficult couple in counseling, remember this advice: slow down, set concrete goals, get at the heart, don’t force change, and use your resources. Not only will you be better equipped for helping the man and woman who come to you for counsel, you will be less frustrated and will better understand the issues at hand.
This article first appeared on careleader.org.
The video recording of the CCEF Live online workshop – Five Ways to Improve Communication in Daily Ministry by Alasdair Groves.
The video recording of the CCEF Live online workshop – You Are a Priest: Considering an Underused Identity by Ed Welch.
I occasionally enter swimming competitions in which swimmers are placed in age-groups (20-25, 25-30, 30-35 and so on). The advantage is that the older I get, the less the competition. The problem is that I don’t practice. Instead, I watch a few YouTube videos about start and stroke technique, and I hope to bring that knowledge into my events, as if observing the technique of an Olympian will transform me into one.
The first time I tried this training strategy, a.k.a laziness, I had about five things in mind per event—for example, dive through an imaginary keyhole, go deeper to take advantage of the increased water density, hold a tight streamline, keep elbows high and use the elbow as a kind of fulcrum. But, once I dove into the water, the new techniques devolved into chaos. Having not practiced them, they were not instinctive, and I simply could not keep them all in mind. As a result, I simplified my strategy to this: swim fast and try not to die.
Similarly, when we want to help others, we can have too many counseling principles in mind. Listen (though we should also have personal, back-and-forth interaction), don’t interrupt (though sometimes we might), ask good questions (though sometimes too many questions makes someone feel as though they are on the witness stand), bring in Scripture (though there is so much Scripture and we know so little Scripture), and remember to talk about Jesus. When these are swirling around in our minds, the result will be that nothing is in our minds. Just confusion.
So we are always looking for a simple way to organize the way we help each other.
One that often comes to my mind is that I want to be able to retell the story of the person I am talking to. Neither life nor Scripture is an assortment of pieces, but both are coherent stories with innumerable variations and sub-themes. I want to capture the most important features. When this is my hope, the competing principles of listening, asking good questions, etc. fade away and are replaced with more natural back and forth interactions.
Here is an attempt to tell someone’s story.
You have never felt at home. You were rejected by your parents because you didn’t look like the rest of the family, you were brought to a different country with a different language and have never quite understood the ways of this country, and you were rejected by your spouse. Isolation, shame—these are your companions. Yet that isn’t the entire story. It turns out that you have been known by name from before the foundations of the earth were established—a royal child, beloved and belonging. Now that you know your lineage, you look for ways to make Jesus known, and you look for ways to love as you have been loved.
This is the larger story of a woman who was alone and ashamed and was beginning to act the part. But notice how her story is gradually taken over by God’s retelling of her story in such a way that the two stories become one.
So when I meet with someone, I try to remember one thing: What is the person’s story and how is God reshaping it? Knowing the story gives me one goal, and if the story is not coming into view I can ask the person for help—“Where have we been in our conversations? What has been especially important? What is God doing in all this?” We aim for a succinct summary, perhaps even a picture that lands us into Scripture in such a way that God’s retelling comes alive.
One of the most frequent questions asked by counseling students is: how do we counsel unbelievers? How do we offer words about Jesus to those who have no commitment to him?
In order to answer these questions, first consider a counselor’s unique vantage point. Our conversations usually take place when old ways of managing life are ineffective, and there is a sense of personal neediness. In such a context, unbelievers who once wanted nothing to do with religion are now pleased to have someone pray for them or a family member. Desperation can sometimes open the heart to spiritual matters. As such, we might speak with unbelievers in a way quite similar to how we would speak with believers.
Using the law
I have an atheist friend, who believes only in what he can see and has no interest at all in anything connected to Jesus. But he was willing to meet when his wife wanted help for their marriage. Though mild-mannered and calm, his actual words toward his wife could be dismissive, condescending and cruel. When I pointed out the piercing nature of those words and the oath he had made to love, he was quick to respond. He recognized wisdom when he heard it. He asked his wife’s forgiveness and set out on a course of patience and kindness. His changes were such obvious signs of spiritual vitality that I asked if he wanted to talk more specifically about Jesus. His answer was no, but he persisted in his efforts to love his wife.
Helping in time of need.
A year later this same friend called for help with a different problem. His daughter was in the midst of a psychotic episode and he was undone. We arranged for hospitalization, which had some benefit but her instability continued. So I would meet with him to encourage him in the ways he could serve his daughter and to pray for him.
He was grateful for both interactions.
Other times, people hear the gospel when we don’t know they are listening.
I once had the opportunity to meet with a Christian woman who struggled with overwhelming anxiety and incipient depression. Her husband was not a Christian, but he was committed to helping his wife. In fact, he was the one who set up the appointment with me because he knew that his wife would prefer speaking with a Christian counselor. He even came to our counseling times as often as he could.
“You can talk about the Bible together, and I’ll just sit over here,” he would say. And we did just that. We talked about her struggles and God’s surprising mercy to those who are fearful.
I remember one of our hours together when her faith in Christ was barely discernible. As I tried to engage her with realities about Jesus that were usually important to her, but were far from her at that moment, her husband moved his chair forward and sat with us rather than off to the side. He started talking. He started counseling her.
“Sweetie, I know you are upset, but you have to listen. You are not trusting Jesus right now. You are not remembering the promises he made to you. You are acting like you are all alone when God is with you. You need to trust him.”
At first I thought he was trying to channel me, until I realized that he was speaking much better than I was. A month later he invited me to lunch and told me that he had put his trust in Jesus. As it turned out, I was the one observing from the side while the Spirit and the Word did their work.
The task for biblical counselors is to multiply these kinds of illustrations as a way to demonstrate that God’s words are not for a niche clientele but are for all the nations.
I was asked to describe a typical counseling session in a phone interview with a group of Christian undergraduate students who were studying different Christian counseling models. Their assignment was to interview a representative from one of these models. Somehow they ended up with me, which, by the end of our conversation, was probably a disappointment.
I think they were expecting something a bit churchy, with overtones of the predictable and trite. What they heard, I think, at least initially, seemed simplistic.
Here is my answer to their question: “Hmm. Let’s see. I talk with people.”
What I meant to say was something like this. “You might expect something formal, perhaps even formulaic, maybe something like a doctor and a patient, a list of questions, some predetermined Scripture readings, an amazing Jesus-like question that demonstrates word-of-knowledge insight, but it is not like that. It is better than that. It is both ordinary and wonderful.
“I usually jump right in to the matters that are on the person’s heart—I want to know what is most important to them. I hope my questions communicate that I am beginning to understand and I want to know the person better. I hope the conversation feels like a partnership that is heading toward a friendship. After all, the person has invited me to share joint custody of his or her soul.
“Meanwhile, I love to see the good in the person and point it out, without minimizing those things that are hard, or those things that are bad.
“I hope to never sound like a mere diagnostician. Instead, our time together might sound like two people collaborating on a song: one starts with a riff or a few chords, then the other brings a melody and some lyrics. The song takes shape. It goes somewhere. With more back-and-forth, it sounds like a real song. The process is hard work but enjoyable. It is hopeful as we see possibilities ahead. And it is far better than either of us could have created separately.
“The person and work of Jesus gives shape to our time together. Jesus is not the answer to some spiritual sector of our lives; he is life itself. Sometimes I borrow biblical images (e.g., “you are shining brighter than you think,” “the wilderness is such a hard place”). I offer echoes of different passages (e.g., “Have you ever had moments of comfort (2 Cor. 1:2-7)? Sometimes we talk about specific Scripture. Whatever we do, since Jesus is the beacon who is our guide and goal, everything should sound good—even talking about sin.
These conversations are flexible and adapt to the other person, but we hope that, together, we speak of Jesus more and more. What clearer evidence could we have of the Spirit’s presence?
“And I covet the time when I pray for the person. I take the role of priest and gather the important details of that person’s life together with the relevant promises of God, and join them together in a blessing.
“In short, I talk with a person.”