It was my very first marriage counseling case and I was a very young counselor. The couple was in all out chaos in their marriage. She had cheated on him, he had cheated on her, and both were living the results of a lifestyle of self-indulgence. They needed lots of practical help in their relationship. Yet, it was obvious to me, even as a young counselor, that their problems stemmed from a lack of Biblical foundation. Marriage counseling must always ground practical help on a firm foundation of Biblical principles for marriage.

It is tempting within marriage counseling to go immediately for the practical needs of the couple. Many marital problems stem from failures in communication, and so it is tempting to start a couple off by exploring their communication styles and failures, and prescribing tips and tools to improve their communication. There are a host of similar issues that a counselor may want to address. So, I help couples develop budgets, set up date nights, reshape home responsibilities, and more. These are all good and often necessary parts of effective marriage counseling. Yet, apart from grounding their marriage on the biblical principles of marriage laid forth in Scripture, we will fail to address the real issues in their relationship.

Many Marriage Problems Are Personal

In truth, many marital problems are much less interpersonal than they are personal. That is to say, a husband’s problem is not his wife, nor is a wife’s problem her husband. The Apostle James tells us that each of us sins, not by our spouses, but by our own desires (James 1:14-15). Your spouse doesn’t cause you to burst out in anger, or become bitter, or spend recklessly, or commit adultery. You choose to do what you do because of your own sinful desires. What we need, then, is not simply help developing new skills, but rather a reorientation of our desires. That is more than just marriage counseling.

Biblical Counseling Must Focus on Key Principles

Comprehensive Biblical marriage counseling, then, must focus on the key principles of godly marriages: sacrifice, fidelity, and service. These three principles must be grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that marriage is intended to reflect Christ’s love relationship with the church (Eph. 5:22-33).

As we practice self-denial, we reflect Jesus who humbled himself even to the point of death (Phil. 2:1-11). As we demonstrate faithfulness, we reflect the kind of love commitment that Christ has for His church. Jesus’ love is not like a one-night stand, nor does our savior flirt with other mistresses. He is faithful to His bride. As we serve one another. we again model Jesus servanthood; in Him God came “to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

Marriage is intended, then, to point people to the gospel in its unique demonstrations of love and commitment. In a world full of selfishness and brokenness marriage is to point to the other-worldliness of the gospel.

Our Marriage Is About the Gospel

Marriage counseling that goes right to the practical help without laying this solid foundation will not ultimately produce healthy marriages. Many marriage books that focus on understanding your spouse’s needs miss this. Wives want their husbands to know their needs, and husbands want their wives to know what they need.

Yet, without Biblical calls to sacrifice, fidelity, and service we will simply be more aware of one another’s needs while we continue to focus on getting our own needs met. Only the gospel foundation of marriage can help. We need to see that our needs are not most important, that our marriage is bigger than getting what we want from our relationships. Our marriage is about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Final Thoughts            

Marriage counseling is never easy. Dealing with two sinners is always complicated. There are lots of important tips and practical helps that married couples need to learn and develop within their marital relationship.

Yet, the goal of good counseling should not simply be to teach skills, it should be to see people changed. That requires more than skills. Skills can teach us to manipulate situations and people, to learn how to “keep the peace,” to learn how to get what we want. True change happens as we focus on the Biblical principles of sacrifice, fidelity, and service, grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Marriage counseling must always start here, even while it offers good practical help.