The following is the first session in premarital counseling, regarding the false expectations a couple may have in seeking such counsel. Please add your comments that would help make this a better experience for a young man and a young lady.
In building a new house, it is first necessary to clear the land.
In building a new home through marriage, it is first necessary to clear the mind of assumptions.
Probably without realizing it, you have brought to these counseling sessions certain assumptions about what these sessions will do for you and your future spouse. Therefore, before the construction begins, we must first clear these assumptions away. Let me discuss four possible, common assumptions.
Assumption #1: Premarital counseling will tell me God’s will for our marriage.
Certainly, we hope to cover the basics, but you will definitely not learn here all that you need to know for a wise and obedient marriage—not even half. Frankly, it would be impossible, for at least three reasons:
1. God’s will is a meandering path between the fence posts of His commandments.
The fence posts are clear—in body, you should be holy, and in spirit, you should be worshiping:
“This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you should abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
But within these fence posts are a lot of possibilities, such as where to live, what to wear, how to live, and what to pursue. Not all of these choices are clear-cut, yes-or-no choices, for God desires for us to grow in wisdom as we get to know Him better and better. In other words, your very own development as spiritual beings requires practice in discerning good and evil through the fear of the Lord (cf. Proverbs 2:1-9; Hebrews 5:14). Therefore, you will not be given here a cookbook approach to a happy marriage, but rather some guidance regarding your path within the fence posts.
2. You do not yet know the questions to ask.
In higher education, it is a well-known fact that older students are often better students than greenhorns. The older students know the relevancy of the material, and appreciate better the answers given. Sometimes, the older student can even dose off, knowing that certain material has nothing to do with the real world out there!
Similarly, in marriage, you will appreciate the issues faced here with much more understanding twenty, thirty, forty years into marriage. New questions will arise from new trials that are unforeseeable now. Other questions will come from the normal array of career options, lifestyle decisions, and turning points. All this is future, if God so permits.
3. Even if you did know the questions to ask, you may not be able to handle the answers.
Wisdom is more a matter of who you are, than what you know (cf. James 3:13-18); therefore, until you experience greater maturity, there are some answers that will simply escape your non-experienced eye. Remember, it is through practice that the mature “have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Consider these examples:
“Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5). It will take experience for you to learn how to draw out what your spouse is really thinking.
“He who blesses his friend with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, it will be counted a curse to him” (Proverbs 27:14). It will take experience for you to know when and how best to discuss matters with each other.
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the LORD, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings” (Jeremiah 17:9-10). It will take trials from the Lord to show what is really in each other’s hearts.
Not even love itself is disconnected from such experiential growth, for the Spirit of Christ prays that our love would “abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9). Like many plants, love grows best with some experiential agitation.
Therefore, brace yourself for a lifelong learning experience—especially you, young man, seeing how you are commanded to live with your future wife “with understanding” (1 Peter 3:7). (It would seem that the young women are often more interested than men in thinking through the relationship.)
Moreover, seeing how long and stretching this learning could become, resolve now to gain as much knowledge and experience up front for the journey. The lifelong nature of marriage should not make you lazy, but rather spur you on to better preparedness. For example, plan to spend more time up front on your relationship than you assume is necessary. If you can help it, try not to overload your newlywed years with unnecessary cares. Not even the Israelites were required to go to war during their first year of marriage (cf. Deuteronomy 24:5).
As for our time together, it is hoped that you will not be frustrated with having to plan for things you cannot foresee, or having to process solutions you cannot fathom. May the Lord bless our time together according to the thought given above (Psalm 86:11)!
Assumption #2: The goal of premarital counseling is a happy marriage.
A noted Christian counselor once warned that many assume the goal is to achieve a happy, successful marriage (Larry Crabb, The Marriage Builder, pp. 10-11). Beware! While certainly we would wish you a happy marriage over a sorrowful one, all things considered equal, happiness is not the goal. Larger joys lie ahead, and even marriage contributes to that end.
Consider the following clarification from Jesus:
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:34-38).
The opening words “Do not think” imply that we will be tempted to think He came to bring earthly peace. And are we not tempted to think this way? After all, Jesus loves us, right? Why would He not want to give us happy marriages and homes?
The fallacy is not in questioning the love of Jesus or even in questioning His delight in giving us a happy home—after all, He Himself invented the home, as explained in the next session. The fallacy is found in the inverted scale of priorities, and in the misplacement of time era. You and I live in the final era of history. Therefore, just as football teams play different after the two-minute warning at the end of the game, so should our lives be lived differently at the end of the age. We are not Abraham, who experienced God’s blessing largely at home. We are Christians (assuming you both are born again), and we live at the end of the age, when the family of God exists and is more important than our own family, just as God Himself is more important that we are.
Listen to the apostle Paul reason with the Corinthians about the relativity of marriage at the end of history:
“But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing [making full use of? cf. NASB]. For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
Do you hear the wisdom of these words? Because the bell is about to ring—and we do not know how much time is left on the clock, only that the two-minute warning is passed—because the bell is about to ring, we should not be over-elated when things go well here or over-deflated when they do not, we should not be hunkering down with family and possessions either, as if we can keep them forever. All this form of things is passing away. Therefore, we should not treat family with the same importance as Old Testament saints, but should treat our new family, the family of God, with an even greater importance.
This distinction is very important to keep in mind: Our true and greatest family is the family of God. This heavenly family is our priority. For example, when Jesus Himself was asked to interrupt His engagement with His disciples in order to talk with His earthly family, He replied, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” He answered by pointing to His disciples and saying, “Her are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:48-50).
Granted, taking family more seriously is often a preparation for salvation (Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Luke 1:17). Moreover, some ministers make the priority of the church an excuse to neglect their family, and in so doing deny the faith and act worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). A priority is no excuse for neglect, even as the apostle Paul warned that those who are married cannot serve the Lord “without distraction,” but must also care about worldly things in order to please their spouse (see 1 Corinthians 7:32-35).
All these acknowledgements are true, but today we also see the opposite occur. A worldly man enjoys taking his family out to the lake on weekends and so has “church” each Sunday in the cabin. A homeschooling dad makes it his chief aim to raise godly kids and so neglects the care of his local church or its involvement in worldwide missions. Both of these men miss the point: God’s family is more important than my own.
Therefore, listen carefully to the voice of wisdom: Do not make your marriage the final goal. You may be required to give up your spouse to imprisonment for the cause of Christ, as Sabina Wurmbrand once did with regard to her husband Richard, who later founded the Voice of the Martyrs ministry. You may be required to lose your life, and “hate” your wife, for the cause of Christ (cf. Luke 14:26-27). John Bunyan suffered for years in the Bedford jail, where it pained him to leave his blind daughter Mary behind. These comments are not made to make you feel morbid, but to gird you for the battle. You are not Abraham and Sarah. You live after the coming of Jesus and after the establishment of His family, the church. Therefore, you must love Him and His family more, or you are not worthy of Him.
Conversely, should God allow, make your time together a testimony to the grace of God and thus a means for His family to grow. Let your obedient roles in marriage remove slander, and let your good works at home adorn the Gospel in the eyes of others (cf. Titus 2:1-10; cf. 1 Peter 2:12-3:7). As “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7), seek to harmonize your home life and church life in such a way that both blossom and God’s family benefits the most. But always remember, when push comes to shove, God’s family is more important than mine, and the happiness of His people more than the happiness of my marriage. This prioritization brings glory to God, and acknowledges well the time period in which we live—Jesus may return today.
Assumption #3: This marriage relationship will be easier than other relationships.
Because the Lord has “pitched your hearts” upon one another, as Puritan Daniel Rogers once said (see Packer, Quest for Godliness, p. 264), it may seem that this relationship will be easier than others to develop. After all, you are mightily inclined to each other—even to the point of tying the knot!
Certainly, your mutual attraction has its advantages and is a mighty mystery (cf. Proverbs 30:18-19); however, it also has its limits and its pitfalls. Consider the following facts:
1. We usually put our best foot forward to outsiders.
Until you wedding day, and compared to your future intimacy, you are definitely outsiders right now.
2. The more we know of someone, the more we are tempted to be critical.
At a distance, we do not notice the blemishes on each other’s face; but close up, and when staying close for a long period of time, we begin to notice the multitude of defects. You two are about to become as close as any two mortals can become in an earthly sense—living day in and day out, with the same person for years, Lord willing. Do you think you will begin to notice things later that you do not notice now? Therefore, resolve now to love with increasing devotion, for the Scriptures rightly note, “Love will cover a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8; cf. Proverbs 10:12). To paraphrase brother James Dobson, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, and thereafter half-shut.”
3. As male and female human beings, you are amazingly different—down to every cell in your bodies!
These differences will also tempt you to become critical, when really they are given by good design.
4. The curse will enter your marriage too, as it did your parents and generations before them.
After man and woman had first sinned, God warned them of marital strife, of how the woman would have the “desire” to master her husband, and how the husband would cruelly “rule” his wife (Genesis 3:16). Only through redemption in Christ, mentioned in the same context, are we able to defeat this devilish bent in our marriages (Genesis 3:15; cf. Romans 16:20, “peace”).
Therefore, given these sobering realities, it will be important for each of you to walk closely with the Lord in the Spirit, so that you will not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). The oil of sympathy will soften your hearts and smooth out friction, even as Peter encouraged this mindset after discussing the marriage roles (see 1 Peter 3:1-9). In doing so, you will discover the joy of experiencing sanctification in Christ with your closest neighbor.
Assumption #4: All we need is a list of simple steps.
We touched on this earlier, but it is good to return to this again. Too many assume, as Larry Crabb rightly notes, that the Bible is given as a guide with easy steps to follow (The Marriage Builder, pp. 8-10). Yes, there are commands, but within those fence posts, we face a lot of decisions with varying degrees of outcomes and potentials. How can we discern God’s will within the fence posts of His holy word?
To help you to discern God’s will together, let me challenge you with three commitments:
1. Individually commit yourself to radical personal change in the Lord Jesus Christ, through His Holy Spirit.
We grow into a hearty approval of God’s will only as we ourselves are transformed through the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). This renewal comes through the working of the Holy Spirit. In prayer, understanding the word, and killing off sins, the Holy Spirit plays the key role (see 1 Corinthians 2; Romans 8). Ask for Him; long for His working; and you will receive (cf. Luke 11:13).
If both of you are growing in grace and walking in the Spirit, you will then learn more and more to discern His will for your lives. My wife and I have often reasoned, “If we are both walking with the Lord, why would He not guide us both?” As active believers, should we not be able to “comprehend with all the saints” the dimensions of Christ’s love, and “be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (Ephesians 3:15; Colossians 1:9)? To think otherwise seems contrary to the wisdom of Christ in forming a body of believers.
2. Husbands-to-be, learn now to be the spiritual leader of your future wife through godly example and guidance.
It is expected that if a wife has a question, she should be able to ask her husband (1 Corinthians 14:35). Are you ready? Does that prospect intimidate you or motivate you? Learn now to pray for your family, as Isaac did for Rebekah, and as Job offered sacrifices for his children. Learn now to lead your future family in devotions, by reading Scripture with your bride-to-be and leading her in prayer. Refuse to lord anything over her faith, but seek to be an example to her of love and good deeds, even as a pastor should be for his flock—after all, you will be the pastor of your home.
3. Together, continue to seek counsel.
It is so encouraging that you have welcomed these sessions of premarital counseling. Welcome all such sessions, formally given or informally, whether from pastors or from experienced Christians, for remember, it is in a “multitude of counselors” that we are saved from evil (cf. Proverbs 11:14; 24:6).
Let’s pray that God will continue to bless our times together, and your interactions with one another and with Him.