There’s a telling scene at the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Stella, an insurance company nurse, scolds a wheelchair-bound L. B. Jefferies for not getting serious about marriage. She objects in blunt language to the psychological approach that moderns take to marriage. They “read a lot of books, fence with a lot of four-syllable words, psychoanalyze each other,” she complains. “When I married Myles,” she says, “we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted, and we have loved every minute of it.” Perhaps Stella was on to something. A psychological mindset can complicate, even destroy, the most basic of human relationships.
But the cult of psychology has cast its shadow over the church as well. We have lots of books on marriage, lots of books on parenting, and (even so) lots of families with lots of problems. Maybe one of our problems is that we overanalyze. We read book after book. We fence with four-syllable words. We speculate about motivations and intentions. We try to read the heart, something only God can do. But the divorce rate within the church continues to pace that of those outside the church—about 35 percent.1
The Role of Counseling
Certainly there is a place for Biblical counseling within the church. Some Christians don’t know the Word of God very well; they need instruction. Some don’t want to obey it; they need their rationalizations gently stripped away. Some simply need a bit of wise counsel or encouragement.
In each case the goal of Biblical counseling should be changed. The ignorant need to learn; the disobedient need to repent; those who receive counsel or encouragement need to act on it. In other words, counseling should produce quick and visible results; when it doesn’t, something is probably wrong. And sometimes overmuch counseling can be a pious cloak for simple rebellion. The man caught up in perpetual counseling sessions never has to deal decisively with his sins.
Peter and Paul could have written large manuals on marriage and the family. They didn’t. Each contented himself with some background theology and a few simple commands. Husbands are to love their wives sacrificially, Paul says—“even as Christ also loved the church.” Wives are to respect their husbands and submit to them “as unto the Lord.” Fathers must not provoke their children to wrath, but “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Children are to honor and obey their parents. All this from Ephesians 5 and 6.2 In 1 Corinthians Paul spends a few verses to tell spouses not to defraud one another sexually (1 Cor. 7:3–5); then he goes on to discuss divorce, remarriage, and staying single. And in his First Epistle, Peter adds a bit more about husbands and wives, but altogether he only uses seven verses.
It seems the apostles’ first concern wasn’t analysis and understanding, but obedience to God. While Paul and Peter make no promises of perfection, they seem to think that quite ordinary Christians can have happy and fruitful marriages. Fancy that.
Asking Too Much
The family is fallen. Or more accurately, each one of us is fallen, and there is nothing in the structure of the family that can undo that. Marriage is not a sacrament; infant baptism does not regenerate. Covenant children are not automatically bound for heaven. True love does not transform the soul. A family, even a Christian family, is a collection of sinners living in a very confined space. That can be messy. We do much harm if we ask too much of the family. The pursuit of perfection, the insistent desire for a storybook family, will leave us either in terrible disillusionment or in vicious hypocrisy. It just depends on how honest we are.
Consider the families we meet in Scripture. In Abraham’s we find polygamy; in Isaac’s, rank favoritism, sibling rivalry, and profanation of the covenant. In Jacob’s all this was multiplied—by four wives and twelve sons. David’s family was torn apart by adultery, incest, rape, fratricide, and high treason. Even within our Lord’s family, there were younger brothers who didn’t believe, who openly mocked the Son of God. Which of these families should we take as our model? Which is good enough, pure enough? And yet God used each of these families in powerful ways to advance His Kingdom and His purposes in the earth. God obviously doesn’t need perfect families to bring His Kingdom to men.
But shouldn’t Christian homes be better—happier, holier—than pagan homes? Yes, they should. For resurrection life works in every child of God. We are united to Jesus Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. We are freed from sin to serve God as those alive from the dead (Rom. 6). But we must distinguish between perfection and godliness, between the “home beautiful” mentality and the perseverance of the saints. Francis Schaeffer spoke of “substantial healing” in personal relationships.3 That’s exactly it. Not a perfect marriage, not an ideal family, but real change and growth towards wholeness, godliness, and peace. Christian homes can be happy and fruitful. Here, again, are some of the basic instructions the Bible gives us.
How Shall We Then Live?
We must not make marriage or family an idol. The Lord alone is God. He is our Savior, our Life, and our Joy. If we put our marriage or family in His place, we will destroy it.
God ordained the family in the context of man’s call to dominion (Gen. 1:26–28, 2:15–25). Since no two men have exactly the same calling, no two marriages, no two families, will look exactly alike. If we miss this, we can do great harm. It is all too easy to jump on the latest religious bandwagon, to identify with the latest fad or faction that offers a quick fix for serious spiritual problems. There’s safety in numbers, and fleshly confidence in bland uniformity. But as we come to understand the unique calling God has laid on our own family, we can move ahead with a clearer sense of direction, with real spiritual confidence, and less stress and strain all the way round. We can find great joy and contentment in being what God made us to be.
The structure of marriage, however, is the same for everyone. We are not allowed to reinvent the institution for our own convenience. God’s commands are what they have always been. And they are good (Gen. 1:31).
The husband must love his wife sacrificially (Eph. 5:25–33). He must lay down his life to nourish and cherish her. The standard here is Christ’s own sacrificial love for His church. This is a daily business. Initiative, communication, and service must become a way of life. More than that, the man must rejoice in his wife, romantically and sexually, and he must be faithful (Prov. 5:3–20).
The wife must submit to her husband (Eph. 5:22–24, 33). The pattern is the church’s submission to Christ. The wife must follow her husband’s lead and help him in his calling (Gen. 2:18). She must be ready with counsel and encouragement. She must guard the home (Titus 2:5) so that her husband may more freely pursue his call to dominion. She must respect her husband—“reverence” is the Biblical word. Sarah called Abraham “lord,” we are told; that is, she spoke and thought of him with respect.4 Peter commends to us her example (1 Pet. 3:6).
Furthermore, both husband and wife must do what God has commanded because God has commanded it. The issue is not personal fulfillment or success or happiness. Husband and wife alike are to live by every Word of God (Matt. 4:4). The husband may not abandon love because he finds his wife unlovely; the wife may not throw off respect because her husband has failed to earn it. Each must keep covenant with God regardless of the other spouse’s track record; each must trust God for the outcome.5
But there’s more. To most marriages, God gives children. They are a blessing and a trust. They are arrows shot into the future, cornerstones upon which God will build palaces (Ps. 127:4, 144:12).
Fathers must, therefore, bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; but they must not provoke their children to anger or discourage them in the process (Eph. 6:1–4; Col. 3:21). While Christian discipline and nurture involve a great deal, the heart of the matter is simple. Fathers must humbly and patiently teach their children the Word of God. Mothers must help (Prov. 1:8). Aside from Christ Himself, Scripture is the most valuable thing God has given us. It is truth; it is life. It is the law of our King. We must teach it to our children diligently and daily (Deut. 6:6–9). We must teach it as a book, as a system of truth, and as a way of life. We must teach it by word and example.6 This isn’t easy. In fact, it’s challenging and time consuming. But the fruits are eternal.
In the Spirit’s Power
Can we do all this? Not perfectly. Not in the flesh. But through the finished work of Christ and in the power of His Holy Spirit, we can begin. We can act in faith and walk in love. And when we fail, we can repent and ask forgiveness—both of God and of our spouse or children. “Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it,” the psalmist tells us (Ps. 127:1). Christian homes are products of divine grace, nothing less. And therefore our homes must be full of the gospel and full of prayer. We must trust God; we must rest in Jesus Christ.
So away with psychoanalysis. Away with dreams of the ideal family. Let’s love the family God has given us and trust Jesus Christ to accomplish His purposes in our frail and faulty lives.
1. “Born Again Christians Just As Likely to Divorce As Are Non-Christians.” The Barna Update, September 8, 2004, www.barna.org.
2. Paul says much the same thing in Colossians 3:18–21—only four verses.
3. Francis A. Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1971), chap.12.
4. When Sarah called her husband “lord” in Genesis 18, she did so “within herself,” in her thoughts.
5. This means that divorce should be a rarity in the Christian church. While God has ordained divorce as a remedy for certain terrible sins (Matt. 19:3–9; 1 Cor. 7:15), its light and selfish use is something He hates (Mal. 2:14–16).
6. And, yes, we must often use the “rod of correction” to punctuate the lessons (Prov. 22:15).