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I am counseling a non-Christian couple with marriage problems. The biggest hold-up right now is that for the wife as the “feelings” have died. They are doing much better and divorce is off the table, but I cannot get her to see that her feelings will only follow her actions. She has been hurt many times by her husband and also her dad, who divorced her mom. How can I help her to lower the wall on her feelings and be vulnerable?
Those who don’t know the Lord have two problems. The first one is a lack of salvation, which is their most significant problem. The second one is their ongoing marital conflict. Praying for their salvation should be the undercurrent that is always happening while you’re practically helping them with their recurring marriage issues.
Only when they come to know Jesus will they be able to solve either problem in satisfying and comprehensive ways. But salvation is something that God gives, not a mandate that you can dispense by telling them about their need for Christ (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Your responsibility is to trust, pray, and ask while working hard to provide them with a few practical solutions to help them with their marriage struggles.
Inexhaustible power comes from God. It’s like plugging yourself into an outlet where the current is consistent, uninterrupted, and unlimited. That analogy is what it’s like to live the Christian life. But it’s more than having the divine energy to persevere through difficult times. The Lord gives us the proper motivations for endurance.
Those right motivations come from the gospel. Christians are gospel-motivated, gospel-empowered, and gospel-sustained people. We must always keep the gospel in mind, which we do by “preaching it to ourselves” each day. Even when working with unbelievers, you never want to let your mind drift from the knowledge of where real strength comes from.
You may become discouraged, thinking this couple can change in a transformative, long-term way. They can only drum up unsustainable, non-Christian motivations and practices for the short term to get them through another day, another week. There is nothing they can do that will genuinely and lastingly work until they see their real need for Christ and respond biblically to it. You must keep this “gospel goal and reality” at the forefront of your mind to guard your heart against discouragement.
Biblical counseling has drawbacks. There are inherent liabilities when helping others, especially those who are not changing. In this case, we are discussing someone who cannot change and stay that way. Counseling an unbeliever is more acute than those who have the hope of the gospel activated in their souls.
You are God’s water boy (or girl) (1 Corinthians 3:6). Your job is straightforward: you must water and plant while never promoting yourself to the position of change agent. The Lord is the only one who can bring the needed transformation into their lives. If you happen to forget your place in the process, you may become impatient or even angry with this unchanging couple.
It would be like putting a high bar in front of toddlers and demanding that they jump it. They can’t. They don’t have what it takes to do something that is beyond their power to do. You have a responsibility to share the transformative gospel with them, but that is the extent of your role in their lives. You must find comfort in the privilege to do that much, but you must not go beyond God’s intent for your job.
The wife in this case study has placed her faith, trust, hope, and confidence in herself. She is rejecting God. She is making real-time choices because, in her mind, she is the only one that she can trust. The ones she has believed in the past have disappointed her, and she is right: her disappointment is real.
Though this is a precarious position for any of us to be in, from her chair, it’s the only choice she has. She falls into the category of the sinning victim. Her victimization is real, and you never want to minimize it, but you must have the Lord’s wisdom, patience, and compassion to help her see that she has a misplaced faith—a faith in herself, not in the Lord.
You do have a way “in” that will help her. She knows that she has to trust someone (or something), and she wants help. She is coming to you. She senses the need that there is something outside of her self-reliant construct, and she wants you to help her with it. What you don’t want to do is be impatient with her. It will make her feel like all of her rejections from her past.
She has learned that others will let her down, so she is unwilling to be vulnerable to anyone else again, including God. Her experience is the sadness and the complexity of being sinned against by those with whom she trusted. But you can flip her horrible history on its head by showing her the redemptive side of a human relationship.
Though you might not be taking her to exact phrases and verses from the Bible, you can be that replica of those passages as you live them out before her. Rather than telling her about Jesus, though you most certainly can do that, be Jesus to her. I’m not suggesting that you withhold the written Word from her, especially if she’s interested in hearing about it, but you can imitate the Word in unambiguous ways. For example, I have talked about (or implied) the following things that could have a crazy impact on any unregenerate soul.
There is much more, but you get the idea. Your transformed life, deportment, and responses are profound messages that she will remember long after your words fade from her mind.
Perhaps she will not submit to the Lord in a salvific way. Okay, that’s not your job anyway. You’re merely watering and planting while trusting the Lord for a future harvest. In the meantime, you can give your friend some tips, helps, techniques, and principles that will encourage her.
What I’m suggesting is that you take a behavioral modification approach for the glory of God. The Bible is a super-practical book, and it’s not so mysterious that you can’t paraphrase some of its ideas for the unregenerate mind. Intrigue her by telling her how anger reveals the heart and use the teaching of Jesus (Luke 6:45) and James (James 4:1-2) to make your points.
Show her how Paul talked about our sins capturing us in traps. She will understand the root and the fruit and an analogy to a bear trap. It will make much sense to her, and it will provoke her to give more than a courtesy nod to the Bible. The relevance of that old book will do more than raise an eyebrow.
I’m not assuming you have unlimited time with this person. I rarely have that kind of time for a person in a situation like this. It depends on who all are asking you for help and where they are in their relationship with the Lord. There are your “Peter, James, and John” friends who need your best times. Then there are the multitudes who should not get prime real estate on your calendar. You can’t be everything to everyone.
If you have the time and it does not interfere with your more crucial relationships like God, spouse, children, close friends, and church responsibilities, you can play a much longer game that is well-paced and not “sped up” to move her along the salvation, sanctification timeline. Too often, the busyness of our lives can tempt us toward impatience with those who aren’t changing fast enough, according to how we want them to change.
At some point, you do want to convey to them how their more significant problem goes deeper than their marital conflict and past abuses. While not making those hurts inappropriately smaller than they are, there is a more prominent mountain in their lives, and your hope is that they will see a cross on that hill. As you build a bridge, and as they see a fraction of hope through the Christian truths you model and communicate, they may be more receptive to you, and, more importantly, they may be responsive to God.
The person in the counseling office whom I have not mentioned yet is the actual Counselor. We call Him the Spirit, the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we can forget this relieving and transformative truth and think that we are the primary counselor, discipler, or friend. It’s an easy mistake to make, especially as we meander through the weeds of an individual’s problems. The Spirit of God will help you in at least four ways.
Rely on your ally. He will help you. You don’t have to “oversteer the car” or, worse, attempt to manipulate the person toward an outcome that you want. They may erect human barriers because they fight with human weaponry, but God can be irresistible, and His arsenal is divine (2 Corinthians 10:3-6).
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).