In a church our size (4,200+ members) there are many weddings each year. And every year there are parents who find their way to the counseling center who have concerns about a prospective son/daughter-in-law. “What am I going to do…” is usually the way the session begins. There are a variety of issues that may complete the question and the way they are answered will likely determine whether parents become a good or bad in-law.
Common Issues to Be Faced
In each of these situations the prospective in-law desires to change something about their son-in-law or daughter-in-law to be. The most frequent concern in my counseling experience revolves around either the uncertainty of the young person’s salvation, the interracial nature of the relationship, or a previous marriage. These three issues are not complicated for the biblical counselor to address, but may not be the easiest for the parents to process.
In the case of the non-believer, the parent already knows theologically that the child should not enter a marital relationship with his/her mate choice. Our job is to help that parent understand how to approach the issue.
In the case of the interracial couple, parental attitude is the real issue. While in the Old Testament interracial marriage was forbidden, it was not race that was the concern, but rather the pagan belief system of other nations. Israel was not to marry across those boundaries lest they be drawn after other gods. Under the New Covenant there is no law condemning interracial marriage.
With respect to a previous marriage, often parents either fear an established divorce pathway for conflict resolution or incorporating step-grandchildren into the family.
Examples of Other Issues
There are more problematic issues that can arise. Suppose Jacob, the son of John and Mary, has engaged in a meaningful relationship with Rachael, who is a passionate evangelical Roman Catholic. John and Mary find themselves very conflicted. Rachael is a charming and vivacious professing Christian. Jacob is obviously in love with her. These parents find themselves angry that Jacob has put them in this situation by his choice. They are also experiencing significant fear that their grandchildren will be exposed to the Roman Catholic Church.
Clarence and Hannah have a different problem. Their son has chosen a young woman who reinterprets the Bible to support her feminist views. Their son, Jack, has informed them that he and Karen do not intend to have children. Again, as the counselor you find yourself with a set of Christian parents who are often deflated, discouraged, angry, and resentful because they have desperately and unsuccessfully attempted to convince these young people that they are wrong. In fact, Clarence and Hannah have flat out told Jack that he has signed on to a divorce track if he marries Karen.
In all of these situations, the bottom line for the counselor is the fact that he/she must address the attitudes of these parents. The children are not the counselees; the parents are. With the parent’s sinful attitudes in place, little progress will be made in changing their children’s minds. In fact, in most instances the parents will need help in constructing an apology and in seeking forgiveness. Most parents will need assistance thinking through the manner of approaching their children without ending with a critical remark or blame-shifting.
Parents Can Push in the Wrong Direction
It is also necessary to help the parents understand that their own sin is not only driving a wedge in the relationship with their children and prospective mate, but it will also contribute to pushing them in the very direction they were already going.
I have found it necessary to lead these parents in figuring out how to love their children when they find themselves disappointed in their children’s decisions. Learning to accept the difficult fact that their children are adults and responsible for their own decision is disheartening when the child’s decisions are in opposition to the values the parents have taught. Resting their children in the sovereign providence of God is extremely challenging in such circumstances.
Assay the Relationship and Coach Accordingly
So how will the counselor approach these parents? First, some foundational questions should be asked: “Tell me about your on-going relationship with your child?” “How frequently have you had intimate conversations with your child?” “How often has your child come to you to discuss issues of life?” “How have those discussions gone?” These questions will help the counselor assay the possibility that a personal discussion with this child can be productive. If the conclusion is that such a discussion will be unproductive, it would be wise to volunteer to mediate such a discussion. If, on the other hand, they have a history that suggests that a discussion may be difficult, but productive, then the counselor will do well to help the parents prepare for the discussion.
The counselor will need to help the parents determine if the relationship is sinful or not. Is the relationship permissible but not the better part of wisdom? It may be wise for them to explore with the child what may be motivating this relationship other than a genuine affection. It will also be important to encourage the parents to assure the child that they love them and will love them even if they follow through with the marriage.
Biblical Preparation for Progressing
Much of this discussion will be focused on wisdom. To lay a foundation for this wisdom discussion, I would suggest that the parents (and the child if you as the counselor have access to them) prepare for this conversation by studying the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12) and very intentionally asking the question, “How does each of these crisp sayings of Jesus impact how we process this issue?” Ephesians 4:15; 25-32 and James 1:19-23 will also give critical guidance.
Question for Reflection
How have you helped prospective in-laws face challenges with their potential son/daughter-in-law?
Howard Eyrich (Th.M., D.Min.) recently retired as Pastor of Counseling Ministries at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. He continues to chair the MA Biblical Counseling and the Doctor of Ministry Biblical Counseling programs for Birmingham Theological Seminary.