Persons Not Projects

Marriage counselors spend much of their time repairing relationship ruptures. This task does not mystify Christian counselors because they understand that these conflicts are an inevitable consequence of our fallen anthropology. James diagnoses the cause of these breaches in this way:

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel (James 4:1-2a).

Understanding a couple’s presenting problem has less to do with the reported situation and more to do with the hidden agendas lurking in the darker recesses of the participants’  hearts. Helping couples recognize these dark desires requires scriptural-based wisdom.

In Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, Christian marriage counselors find such wisdom. In this Christian classic, Bonhoeffer writes about authentic Christian community. Since marriage is the earthly expression of this heavenly reality, astute counselors can glean much from this Lutheran pastor by discovering parallels between his thinking about community in church life and their own conceptualizations about community in marital relationships. Over the next few posts, we will examine some helpful insights that marriage counselors can draw from Life Together.

Truth #1: Each Spouse is a Person Not a Project

Our spouses are gifts from God not our own restoration projects. When we see our husbands or wives as things that “must be fixed,” we assume a position of god-like superiority. This self-deification typically meets rejection from our spouses thereby almost immediately sparking needless power struggles. These struggles represent our hopes of changing our loved ones into who we want them to become. We desire to re-fashion them into our own images instead of enjoying them as the images that God has already created. This type of “project management” displeases God because by engaging in it, the offending spouse usurps God’s role in the redemptive task. Bonhoeffer observes what happens to the “project manager” in these situations:

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters a community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together (173).

Visionary dreamers miss the blessings that God gives them in the midst of their imperfect marriages. Desiring a marriage of their own devising, these spouses become the Law Giver and the ultimate test of the orthodoxy of all that occurs in the relationship. When this meets resistance, the Law Giver becomes the Law Enforcer and this usually makes thing worse. They become so distraught over what they “need,” they miss what God has already provided. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, they become content making mud pies, when God offers a holiday at the beach. This leads to an overall lack of thankfulness and an abundance of prayerlessness. Bonhoeffer observes:

If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if, on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ (193-198).

So, if we want our spouses to change, we must focus, not on what is missing, but instead, we must see what is there. Our marriage is a divine reality that we participate in, not an ideal dream constructed by our self-deceived and idolatrous hearts. In the next post, we will see the role that Christ plays in fostering true community in couples.