Couples sometimes enter marriage counseling already feeling defeated. Years, or even decades, of marital miscommunication, discord, and disappointment have taken their toll. How can we instill hope in couples who have so little?
Counseling starts with the sense that this is their last attempt at fixing the marriage. They’ve read the marriage books, attended the retreats, and perhaps made previous attempts at marriage counseling. Each intervention had a positive effect for a time, but they slid back into old habits. They are critical of each other and defensive about themselves, but are also anxious and discouraged. What if their patterns of sin are too deeply engrained to change? What if the cascading consequences of sin are too overwhelming to stop? What if the Lord has given up on them, and this is the marriage they’ll have for the rest of their days?
A Walk Through Psalm 106
Psalm 106 is, perhaps, not an obvious choice in such situations, beginning as it does with an outpouring of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord. Discouraged and distant couples are not likely to consider themselves ones who “do righteousness” (v. 3). But the opening words of praise are quickly followed by a personal plea for help: “Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people; help me when you save them” (v. 4).
Following this plea is a litany of the sins of God’s people from the Exodus to the Babylonian captivity. It is a devastating recitation of failure by those who knew the Lord and had witnessed his power, kindness, and provision in myriad circumstances and ways. Here we can slow down and help the counselees determine whether they see themselves in any of Israel’s sins:
- Lack of faith in God’s care and provision (vv. 7-12) — How have they forgotten God’s demonstrated loving kindness and care for them?
- Discontentedness and complaint (vv. 13-15) — Where have they been tempted to ignore evidences of grace and focus only on what they do not have but believe they need?
- Jealousy (vv. 16-18) — Have they stirred up jealousy in each other, or are they jealous of others who have the marriages they desire?
- Idolatry (vv. 19-23) — Where have they put desires for things like comfort, security, pleasure, achievement, or approval before worship of the Lord and love for each other?
- Rebellion (vv. 24-27, 43) — In what areas are they unwilling to die to themselves and follow the Lord’s commands?
- Provocation (vv. 28-33) — How has their behavior provoked each other and the Lord?
- Worldliness (vv. 34-42) — How have their lives become characterized by worldliness instead of increasing growth in Christ-likeness?
Looking at this catalog of sins, couples should identify at least one area of failure that they share with the Israelites, which provides a point of connection with this psalm. It is admittedly a shameful history that, when recounted on its own, does not inspire much hope.
The turning toward hope comes in verses 44 and 45: “Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.”
That unexpected word — “nevertheless” — means that God’s mercy and kindness are not dependent on our worthiness. Our hope is not rooted in our history of good choices or our own capacity for change. Our hope is always rooted in the steadfast love of the Lord. He pursues the unrighteous for his own name’s sake. For the Israelites, the Lord “caused them to be pitied by all those who held them captive” (v. 46) and they were ultimately released from their captivity.
How much more has he done for us in Christ! Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, “we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Rom. 7:6). It is Christ who has taken on our record of wrongs and enacted the unfathomable exchange whereby we now have his record of righteousness (Phil. 3:9). It is He who offers “hope laid up…in heaven” (Col. 1:5), and enables us to be “filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father” (Col. 1:9-12).
Because of our union with Christ, we have hope for grace and change. God is always at work in his children, molding them and shaping them into the image of His Son. Circumstances that once seemed intolerable or intractable can become the welcome means by which we grow in faith, obedience, and holiness.
So we lead our counselees to ask the Lord for help only He can provide, “Save us, O Lord our God” (Ps. 106:47) and offer him the doxology of praise due His name, “Blessed by the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! And let all the people say, ‘Amen!’ Praise the Lord!” (v. 48).
Questions for Reflection
What are ways you have helped counselees look to the riches of God’s grace instead of their own resources? What Scriptures instill hope and remind them of the depth of God’s mercy toward us in Christ?