Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Love and Marriage... And Counseling

In the previous four posts about love, I proposed that love is best defined as a progression of phases: Affection... Desire... Inclination of Focus... Action. In the next few posts, I'll lay out some of the implications of this definition for marriage and marriage counseling.

Marriage Counseling Along the Progression

Let's suppose a couple comes to see me. They're struggling in their marriage. I set up chairs close to each other. When they arrive for counsel, they move the chairs apart. They don't directly address each other at all. Both talk as though the other person isn't even in the room. As I ask some questions, I learn that this coldness has been progressing for about a year. The problem they present to me is lack of intimacy. As I dig a little deeper, I realize they live two entirely separate lives under the same roof. My first instinct may be to take some very good Scripture texts and show them the importance of intimacy. I may take them to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5 or Hebrews 13:4 and express the necessity of selflessness in marriage. I may have them meditate on Ephesians 5:22-33 and each spouse's role. I may point out Genesis 2:18 and how neither spouse is being a companion to the other. I could also point out the myriad of texts commanding spouses to love one another. That may be my first instinct. And though it wouldn't be wrong, I would be starting on the wrong side of the progression of love, focusing on actions.

"You guys aren't intimate? You need to be intimate. Read these Scriptures so you can see the importance of intimacy. Try a date night. You guys don't like sex together? See how the Bible says you must have sex together. It's good. You guys need to like sex together. Just do it till you like it. You guys share nothing in common? You guys should find some things in common. You guys spend your time at home online and watching TV? Turn off the computer and television and spend time together. Neither one of you is forgiving the other for offenses? You have to forgive each other. Write down all the offenses you aren't forgiving. Read these texts on forgiveness. You're not loving each other? You must love each other. Follow this list of 'loving things to do for your spouse.'" While all these things may be necessary, I think the order is wrong. If my goal is to make a Pharisee, all those things might work! But if I'm truly working with them for their joy (see 2 Cor. 1:24), helping them run the race of faith (see Heb. 11-12), and be pleasing to God (see Mat. 23:25-28); I can't start on the "action" side of the progression. Remember, apparently "loving" action isn't necessarily flowing from a virtuous love! Even action resulting from counsel isn't necessarily flowing from virtuous love. In other words, I might tell the couple, "Love is giving of yourself selflessly to the other."

Let's say the couple leaves counseling knowing they have to have sex to have a "godly" marriage. A husband with ungodly affections is just going to hang my counsel over his wife's head. "Honey, you know what the pastor said about giving yourself to your spouse!" What happens when the husband hangs the Bible over his wife's head and guilts her into having sex, the whole time thinking degrading thoughts about her? What happens when the wife with ungodly affections has sex because the Bible says to and resents it (and her pastor's counsel) the whole time? When they come back to counseling, do you think they've made progress because they "obeyed" Scripture and had sex? Did they love each other through their giving? Of course not. And for all their obedience to Scripture, the real problem hasn't been addressed.

In order to help the couple, I have to begin where love does -- with an affection. Remember, when affection dies, love dies. Just because the couple is still married does not mean they still love each other. My goal is to explore what pushes each person's buttons. Love flows from a sense of value. What does each person value? Why do they value what they value? What factors are influencing their sense of value? How are they seeking for and receiving pleasure? When young couples aren't sexually active, something is taking the place of intimacy in both partners. What is it? It isn't necessarily sexual. Why is the replacement seen as more pleasurable than intimacy with their spouse? I'm wanting to learn how each spouse assesses value. I'll move along to each phase on the progression -- "Affection," "Desire," "Inclination of Focus," and "Action." As I'm exploring these phases in both spouses, I'm looking for all the ways sin affects each phase. Sin distorts what is truly valuable so that the wrong things are valued or the right things are valued too little or too much. Sin puts up walls between an object of affection and the beloved. Sin keeps track of wrongs so that what should be valuable is degraded. Sin sorts wrongly and inclines the focus on wrong things. Sin works to achieve the wrong goals. Sin can be active at every phase of the progression.

The Gospel and Counseling Along the Progression

Sin is operative all along the progression and must be dealt with all along the progression. Simply pointing out sin is not enough to properly deal with it. Confession accomplishes little by itself. Dealing with sin properly is also more than just stopping an action. We should know that by now. If our goal is virtuous love, we must bring that about by God-pleasing means. Rebellion or reformation are not God-pleasing methods of dealing with sin. Redemption and repentance are God-pleasing methods of dealing with sin. The important thing to remember as we make our way through each phase is that sin is irrational. We'll wonder in our own marriage or in counseling others why we value what we do. "How can that be beautiful?" "How was that worth it?" "Why am I such a creep?" "Why don't I love like I should?" Once we get to what is valued and how it brings pleasure, it does no good to try to go deeper. There is no deeper. When we uncover what is believed and what is wanted, we have the tools necessary for change. Let's be realistic, love doesn't always make sense. It isn't rational to love a drug that kills us! It isn't rational to give up a lifetime mate who waits on us hand and foot and serves us daily for a fifteen minute affair with a co-worker on lunch break! And if we start asking "why?" we'll likely never be satisfied with the answer.

The answer is sin. That's it. Nothing more. We have to bring ourselves or those we counsel to say, "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Rom. 8:24). That's the conclusion God wants to bring us to. God isn't looking for us to reform ourselves. When we counsel ourselves or others, we cannot forget God's purposes in the world. Remember, God chose to glorify himself through the gospel, not ascetic self-righteousness. God is bringing about his plans through redemption, not reformation. So when we look at ourselves and others and realize our love is all messed up, we can't despair, and we can't just try harder next time. We must do what Paul did. We must look to Christ. "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 8:24).

Of course, dealing with the sin problem correctly is why counseling must be centered on the gospel, not just actions. Right actions alone can't overcome sin. Only right actions flowing from the gospel can overcome sin. The sooner we realize this the better. As I'm working my way through each phase, I'm continually seeking opportunity to apply the couple's struggles to the gospel. Notice the order here. I'm not applying the gospel to the struggle. That would make the struggle supreme, with the gospel serving the struggle. The gospel is bigger than the struggle. The gospel is bigger than the couple. So I help the couple see themselves wrapped up in the gospel. In other words, I'm giving hope by helping the couple see themselves as sinful, yet provided for by God. I want them to see the gospel as bigger than their sin. I'll give a step-by-step process of how I'd deal with one phase. I'd deal with the other phases almost identically.

I begin on the left with pen in hand. I ask questions to determine where affections are. "What do you value? Why do you value that? Why is this or that beautiful to you? How does this or that thing bring you pleasure, or security or fulfillment? How do you expect to get pleasure from this or that? Why do you think this object will bring more pleasure than another one? Why do you think this object is more valuable than that object?" I'm trying to figure out what you believe about life and what you want out of life. As I'm trying to determine from Scripture where affections are sinful (not God-pleasing), I ask a couple further questions. "What did you think or do when the expected payoff was or wasn't there? How did you react when your agenda was or wasn't interfered with? Were you bitter or angry?" I'm asking these questions to figure out whether love began with a wrong affection or if love began right and went haywire along the way. I want to bring to light a desire to control the flow of a blessing from God. If an affection begins virtuous, bitterness shouldn't be the result.

As these questions are asked, I'm listening for certain types of speech. Is the person using extreme words (always, never, hate, etc.) Is the speech sacrificial? Does the person see himself as a perpetual victim? Is the person precious in his own eyes? Is anger and bitterness manifested? Speaking in this manner may display wrong affections. They will reveal a desire to control God's good gifts, rather than enjoy them. As I go through this entire process, I'm keeping track of the sin that bubbles to the surface. That has to be dealt with according to the gospel. Sin must be repented of. To repent means to change the mind. At this level, repentance may require letting the Bible inform what the person thinks is valuable rather than what he naturally thinks is valuable. It will require asking forgiveness of God and any person wronged. It will require affirmation of what is valuable and why it's valuable. If that affirmation cannot come (because unlike changing actions, changing affections is difficult), then he must pray and pray that God would help him change his affections. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (Ps. 19:14). I would also give him some biblical study and application to help him renew his mind (see Rom. 12:2).

The goal of repentance is to go from wrong affections to right ones. If our affections lead to actions, and we have affection for what we value, then my goal all along here is to paint a huge, beautiful, magnificent picture of God, Christ, his purposes, his church, and his promises. It does no good to say, "Change your affections!" We must help change them by providing a more beautiful object than the wrong one they're loving. As I'm counseling myself or someone else, I'll spend most of my time here in the "affection phase." The reason is simple. This is the heart of it all. If I get the affections wrong, everything else will be wrong -- I cannot get to a virtuous action. If I get the affections right -- sin can interfere all along the rest of the progression -- but at least I'm on my way toward a virtuous action. So I want to be sure the affections are pleasing to God before moving on. Though I won't continue spelling it out here, I would go through the rest of the phases in a similar manner.

The good news about counseling along this progression is that most of the work is done in the "affection" phase. If you get to the bottom of each spouse's affections, and show them how the gospel overcomes wrong affections and inspires correct ones, the rest of the phases should open up to you. You can help them see how to apply their marriage to the gospel by working through the rest of the material in this book with them. I'm not saying all their marriage problems will be solved. Heaven alone will accomplish that. It's doubtful that all their problems will just be solved overnight. There's still sin perpetually interacting with their thoughts and desires. But their eyes will be open to what the true problem is.

Counseling is one way that God has provided for us to overcome the effects of the fall. Thoughts and desires can be complex. It may therefore be a complex process to overturn the impact that years of wrong thoughts and desires have had on our lives. But by the time you take a couple step by step through this progression, they'll have the gospel ammunition to fight the war for happiness at home and stay in the battle until it's done. It's almost unnecessary to point out that every marriage problem is a God problem. This is without exception. Every marriage problem is a result of the fall. The fall is about man's separation from God. Therefore, marriage problems are about separation from God. Jesus Christ is the Mediator between God and man, overcoming the separation and the effects of the fall. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the Mediator within marriage as well. Christian marriage has been redeemed by Jesus Christ. The effects of the fall that resulted in conflict, separation, blame-shifting, fear, shame and guilt have been overthrown in Christ. Through Christ it truly is possible to pursue pleasure in the pleasure of another. A gospel-centered person must be a loving person. The gospel overflows in love.

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