In marriage counseling, it’s common to find spouses playing the part of attorneys—stating their case why the other spouse is to blame for the problems at hand.
A husband blames his wife for his neglect because she’s not physically affectionate enough. A wife blames her husband for her critical nature because he’s not emotionally intimate enough. As a counselor, it’s easy to slip into the role of a judge trying to decide who “wins.”
The wiser approach is to hold spouses responsible for their own actions and words. The apostle Paul clearly describes this principle of personal responsibility in Galatians 6:7-8, saying that a man (or woman) “reaps what he sows.” Consider the following steps to counseling couples away from the name-and-blame game and toward a “harvest” of a better marriage.
1. Identify the destruction. Assess with couples the damage being done to their relationship. Look for such things as anger, resentment, fear, adultery, hateful words, relational distance, quarreling, financial devastation, selfishness, lack of physical intimacy, lack of love and lack of kindness. What is the husband or wife upset about? How does he or she identify the problem?
2. Identify the seeds sown. Next, guide them out of attorney mode by exposing the seeds they’ve each planted that may be reaping the destructive harvest. If the husband identifies lack of physical intimacy as a destructive harvest, what has he sown to contribute to that “crop”? (Hint: You’ll likely uncover such seeds as anger, hateful words or emotional distance.) If the wife cites lack of love as one of the devastating “crops,” you may find she has sown seeds of criticism, a disrespectful attitude or lack of physical intimacy. Help the couple understand that what each spouse sows (even in response to the other’s sin) will directly influence the harvest received.
Remember, some counselees may resist your counsel to take responsibility. Spouses involved in relationships with chronic sin often develop a way of conceptualizing the issues that take time to unravel. Speak truthfully, but also exercise patience.
3. Consider the desired harvest. What would the couple like to see in their marriage: love, physical and emotional closeness, kind discussion, peace, joy, faithfulness? Help each individual make an extensive list of what he or she would like to see harvested in their relationship. What kind of crop seems more appealing? What harvest do they believe God would want their marriage to produce? Then refocus them on what they’ll need to do to see such a crop materialize.
4. Adopt new seeds to sow. Ask each individual what he or she will have to sow to harvest the desired crop. If they want love, they must sow love. If they long for physical and emotional closeness, they must seek to sow physical and emotional closeness—and so on. Even if the other person sows seeds of destruction, they must commit to sow seeds to please the Spirit, above all cost. This can bring a new harvest in the relationship. Help your counselees see that God not only will produce a new harvest in the marriage, but He also may first produce a new harvest in the heart of the one sowing, a harvest that reflects Jesus rather than self-centeredness.
5. Depend on the Holy Spirit for the harvest. God doesn’t relate to people as if they were machines; He relates to them as individuals. Couples must be encouraged to pray about the harvest God would have them grow and recognize that it will come in His appointed time. These steps take time, so ensure that couples don’t rush through the process.
Paul concluded his thoughts on the harvest with these wise words: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9, NIV). The believer’s responsibility is to sow to the Spirit despite circumstances, and to trust in the Spirit for the timing and type of the harvest He will give.
Jeremy Lelek is the president of the Association of Biblical Counselors and founder of the Biblical Counseling Network. For more information, visit christiancounseling.com.