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Biff and Mable came to counseling to get help for their communication problems. They have been married for seventeen years, and though they generally like each other, their marriage has not been as it should be for most of those years. While they admit this, they are at a loss about how to repair the brokenness between them. One of the beautiful things about this counseling session is that Biff and Mable recognize that they have a problem and want to do something about it. Mable said,
We don’t want to be empty nesters who can’t stand each other. We want to fix it now, not ten years from now.
Though there are problems, they have not let the issues go past the point of no return. You could say that their present dysfunction is God’s future mercy to them. Imagine if they did not rectify the problems today. Decades from now, assuming they stayed together, would be the accumulative frustration, bitterness, and hopelessness that accompanies too many couples who don’t do the hard work of changing.
If your marriage is challenging, you may find yourself in this fictional case study. If both of you are willing to do the hard work of change, you’re well on your way out of what keeps you from enjoying each other. Are you an ideal counseling couple?
The root of all our problems is in a functional breakdown of the gospel in our lives. The gospel is Christ—His person and work. Jesus is the good news that all the Old Testament lovers of God were hoping to see. John the Baptist announced this good news of Christ in John 1:29. To experience transformation is to practicalize Christ in your life, which begins with regeneration (John 3:6). After God saves your soul, you start walking down a pathway of incremental, progressive sanctification.
Without salvific transformation, you will not experience a sustainable life change. Therefore, the most vital thing you want to assess is a person’s factual transformation into a new birth. Though your assessment will be subjective, there are a few mirrors in the New Testament that you can hold up to see if the person you want to help resembles those templates, e.g., Galatians 5:22-23.
The Bible is the only means that anyone can experience permanent, ongoing change. These three verses provide a progression that establishes this gospel transformation need. Why is the gospel the most vital thing in the change process?
The reason Biff and Mable came for help is that they did not know how to help themselves. It may sound silly on the surface, but you should know this because many times, a person will tell you what the problem is. If you’re not careful, you will listen and assume they are experts in their soul care. But do you perceive the “sanctification incongruity?” If they understood the problem, they should take the proper steps to change.
It would be exceptional for a person with problems to articulate the root of the problem. They will talk about symptoms, practices, behaviors, and attitudes, but few will ever tell you what is happening at the causal, root level. I’m not suggesting that you don’t listen to them, but I am appealing to you not to lose the scent of the gospel as they talk about what’s wrong with them.
It will be your job to lead them to the cross of Christ, the redeeming fount that the Father opened for broken people. Let me illustrate: Biff and Mable said they had communication problems. While that was true, their assessment was not their most significant problem, and most definitely, it is not the starting place for their transformation. When folks tell you their problems, do you know how to listen at two levels?
They wanted me to help them with their talk trouble. They had read many books on communication, but nothing had worked. They had principles running out of their ears, and it seemed the harder they tried, the worse they became. I told them that they had started in the wrong place. Communication was the “what,” but where they needed to focus was on the “why.”
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:32).
Paul told the Ephesians what to do—be kind to one another, and he told them why they must do it—as God in Christ forgave you. To miss this invaluable point is to miss the difference between behavior modification and gospel-motivated obedience. I told Biff that what they were attempting to do was an unsustainable behavioral modification.
They did intuit this because they had already “been there and done that.” Biff and Mable were tired of trying things. They did not wholly discern that the first order of business must always be to make sure their motives are right. Paul was saying, “You are to do these things because of the gospel.” Why must the why precede the what, or you will not sustain the what?
Biff and Mable had some bad fruit in their lives. It’s the old illustration of the man stapling styrofoam apples from the hobby store on a fruitless tree. Each apple was a principle, action item, or new concept from the last book they read. They put on a new behavior with much optimism and motivation, but they never renewed their minds.
To put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Next season, the old, worn apples had fallen off, and they needed to staple new ones to the bare limbs. They were tired of this process, as they should be. If you have no good fruit on your relational limbs, you must figure out what is wrong with the root system of the tree. I appealed to Biff and Mable to look within their hearts.
There was corruption down below, and like a stain bleeding through white paint, there were not enough coats to cover their real issues. We needed to explore long-term shaping influences, decades of poor habits, inferior ways of thinking about things, and, ultimately, their unique relationships with Christ. What do you think is going on in the heart of a person with fake fruit?
The more I talked with Biff, the more I realized he had a few deep-seated insecurities nesting in his heart. His former manner of life was corrupt through deceitful desires (Ephesians 4:22). His practice was to “put on” new behavior without renewing his mind or identifying and isolating those past thoughts, attitudes, words, and actions that have made him who he is today. Here are a few results from past shaping influences.
Rather than dealing with these heart issues by bringing them to the light of the gospel, he tried to “make himself better” through self-reliant means. I won’t go into all of the detail about how Biff became the way he was or the shaping influences from his youth that honed him into a self-sufficient man, but it became clear that Biff leaned heavily on self-reliance. His past trained him to rely on himself rather than the Lord.
The self-reliant man is working within his unique strengths that he has learned to protect himself from disappointing relationships and experiences. From this deeper perspective, you see how the issue was not so much about Biff’s communication problem with Mable, but his unwillingness to repent of his self-sufficiency. In what ways have you learned to lean to your understanding and practice rather than trust God?
In an ironic twist to their communication problems, I told Biff that Mable was an instrument of righteousness in the hand of the Lord that He was using to bring these deeper idolatries to light. The Father was using (or permitting) Mable to bring heat into his life, revealing and drawing out specific things in Biff’s heart that needed gospel transformation. Heat reveals. In the video, you see two containers sitting in the sun. One is full of mud, and the other is brimming with snow.
As the heat bears down on the containers, the snow and the mud do what they are supposed to do—one hardens and the other softens. Sadly, the heat that Mable was bringing into Biff’s life was revealing the sin within. The same was true for Mable. Biff was an instrument of righteousness in her life, too. God was using Biff—the heat—to bring out some insidious things from her heart that created harsh words that rolled off her tongue.
Biff and Mable could choose to divorce, but that would not solve the real matters of the heart, which is why communication problems are secondary to the actual need. What you want to do is keep digging into their former manner of life to identify the things that control their hearts and manifest from their lips. Who has God used as an instrument of righteousness in your life to draw insidious things from your heart?
As I began to get under the surface of their communication problems, I started to see the hidden idolatries that fueled their unwholesome speech. If you stacked them in a list from the behavior to the heart, it would look like the following:
The working out of this worship structure could go like this:
Ultimately, Biff and Mable had a “belief problem.” The gospel-centered person relies on something that appears to be foolish on the face of it (2 Corinthians 12:9-12). To be self-sufficient is to exercise a “belief” or a “faith” in your personal, self-shaped methodology to accomplish the motivating desires of the heart. Biff admitted that it was scary to trust God fully; he did not want to “sell out” to the Lord because he would no longer be in control of the outcome.
Trusting in himself meant he could be critical of his wife to manipulate an outcome. To trust God is an others-centered response. The question for you and me to answer is how much are we like Biff and Mable? When we’re at that intersection of being Christ to another, do we choose His way over our well-worn, deceptive, and relationship-debilitating habits?
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).