Surveys reveal December to be the most popular month for engagements, so now that we're well into the new year, most of us probably know someone who is planning a wedding. With all of the information overload that comes with planning a wedding, it's easy to put certain things off, or maybe not even think about them until later. This can include finding a pastor to marry the couple and finding someone to do pre-marital counseling.
In an ideal world, these two people could be one-and-the-same--a local pastor performing the ceremony after meeting with the couple over several months, getting to know their struggles and triumphs, and showering them with the truth and grace of the gospel. Sometimes this isn't possible, but regardless of the particular situation, one of the first things a couple should do is find someone who will counsel them during their engagement season.
So I asked my friend Tricia Oaks to share what she learned from her pre-marriage counseling, and today's post is her beautifully-written answer:
Nearly three years ago, wide-eyed, ruddy, and foolish, I walked into my first pre-marital counseling session with my (as I was thrilled to call him) fiancé. Each of us armed only with second-hand knowledge and high hopes, we were confident that our “counseling” would be rather uneventful. We grew up in Christian homes after all. But we learned so much and we continue learning every day.
Looking back on my counseling experience, I think the amount of help it provides is dependent largely on three factors:
1. Are both parties (husband and wife-to-be) born again?
2. Are the counselors someone the couple trusts?
3. Is the counsel biblical?
If the answer to any of those questions is "no,” then you lose a vital pedestal leg. If both parties are born again, you will start on common ground when you broach topics such as self-sacrifice and grace. When the counselor(s) are someone the couple trusts it becomes easier to ask and answer the more difficult questions. And if the counsel given is biblically informed and spoken in love, it can do the miracle that only the “right handling of the word of truth” can do—which is to say that unlike self-help pep-talk jargon, it can divide soul and spirit. It can actually change people.
Our counselors were a wonderful couple in our church that had been married nearly 20 years. I discovered that the simple act of GOING to counseling was hugely helpful because it demonstrated that no one, including the counselors, has all the answers to create a fool-proof, problem-free marriage. It is a humble declaration of our need for grace to seek wisdom from elder, wiser couples. Furthermore, it was good to have that experience under our belt before diving into the marriage covenant because it would not seem so devastating if we ever needed or wanted to go to counseling again. What I mean is that sometimes I hear people talk about counseling, even in Christian circles, as if it were the last nail in the coffin of a dying marriage (I heard that Jane and John had to go to marriage counseling, can you believe that? I hope their kids turn out ok.) But if, as in our case, your pre-marital counseling creates a relationship with the counselors, it is not such a foreign idea to call them up again. Or, even if you don't go to the same people, at least you have experience asking for help.
I think our counselors did a great job because I know it would be impossible to cover everything you might encounter over the course of a marriage. One of the most important things I learned from pre-marital counseling was about "cutting the apron strings." I grew up in a very close family and our counselors, being trusted friends and giving sound biblical wisdom, encouraged me to break away from my parents and allow my husband to lead our new family unit. They were expressing that essence of marriage, articulated over and over in scripture (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9,Ephesians 5:31-33) that “a man (and a woman) should leave his (or her) father and mother and hold fast to his wife (or husband), and the two shall become one flesh.”
If I were going to do it over again, or if I were ever asked in the future to be a pre-marital counselor, I would put a great deal of emphasis on the Gospel in marriage and what it all means. In fact I would take the couple right through The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. I had read tons of books about marriage and many were helpful, but not all had what I’d call “enduring wisdom.” This is not a book about marriage that applies the Gospel; it is a book about the Gospel demonstrated by marriage. And that is significant, because after you’ve tasted and seen the glories of Christ in all of life it becomes easier to drink them in the context of marriage. And we all, unmarried and married, can benefit from drinking of those glories more deeply.
Tricia Oaks has been married to her husband for three years (they just celebrated their anniversary on January 1). She lives with him and their dog in Denver, Colorado and are excited to welcome their first child this summer. She works part time for both the federal government and as the worship leader for their local church (www.praisechurch.org).
You can find more from Tricia here.