About two years ago I got a phone call from a friend wanting to know what he should do about a couple from his church who had come to him seeking help with their marriage. He told me that this couple had run into a variety of issues as the husband’s job forced him out of the home for large amounts of time. The wife had reason to believe the husband was having sex with another woman, and the wife was bitter, upset, and betrayed. My friend felt helpless in how he could proceed with counseling this couple, so he reached out to me for help. The problem is that as my friend gave me more and more details over a period of time I also felt way in over my head. As pastors, we often want to offer help to couples, but we simultaneously can feel like we are hiking through the deep Smokey Mountains without a guide or a compass; we feel we don’t know what to do or where to go, so we just keep walking for better or for worse and we hope it all turns out alright. I remember thinking out loud with my friend, “Somebody should really write a book to help people like you and me. You know something like ‘a biblical and practical guide for marriage counseling.’” I now have the resource I was looking for in the new book by Jonathan Holmes, “Counsel for Couples.” What Jonathan has written amounts to a “big picture” of marriage counseling, a practical guide for helping through unique and specific issues which often arise in marriage counseling, and a pastoral reminder for those who counsel to also be cared for.
The first six chapters of “Counsel for Couples” allow readers to think biblically about the big picture of marriage counseling. Jonathan has written his chapters in very digestible sections and lengths by addressing main theological concerns first, and then nuancing further questions or issues, before ending these chapters with summaries, real-life stories, “Counselor Fieldnotes,” and even further resources on the topics. He helps pastors to see we are all called to be counselors, and then he gives us a framework for how we can trust the Holy Spirit to enter into counseling with couples, and we can trust God will work through the counseling process in the lives of those we counsel, and also in our own lives. Jonathan frames the “heart of the issue” by looking at marriage counseling within the framework of the storyline of Scripture as a whole. He writes, “Any theory of human motivation must begin with a biblical understanding of who we are. What we do is driven by what is in our hearts.” It’s important Jonathan writes in this way, because it helps readers to see marriage counseling isn’t merely an isolated study or practice, but marriage is an institution from the foundations of our world until the new heavens and the new earth, but sin entered our world and messed up the way we see and relate to marriage, and so we must understand marriage counseling within this big picture framework. “Counsel for Couples” is full of practical guidance for the marriage counselor, but one of its strengths is that everything Jonathan writes begins and ends with the truth of the Gospel and the written Word of God.
Subjectively, I have found chapters 4-6 to be the best chapters for my own personal gain. Chapter 4 is a theological treatise written on the biblical truth of forgiveness. He writes very pastorally to help us hear what we need to hear about the biblical view of forgiveness, which can tend to be very different than how many approach forgiveness. He writes on page 71, “Put another way, those who believe they have been forgiven little tend to forgive little.” For one to begin to have a biblical view of forgiveness they must understand how sinful they truly are, so they can see how “marvelous and how wonderful,” Christ’s work on the cross truly is! So, Jonathan brilliantly leads readers to see the need to, and how to, “Help the couple cultivate a culture of forgiveness.” It’s exciting to see a book that is utterly gospel-centered in its approach to marriage! Chapter 5 moves on to counter most cultural views of love, which tend to be feelings oriented, by instead explaining the biblical view of love begins with an understanding of God’s wrath against sin. The book is chock-full of quotes worth re-quoting, such as the one on this topic, “When we were at our worst and most unlovely, Jesus died to make us holy and reconciled to God. Only when we understand that the wrath of God necessitated and required the death of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ, can we begin to understand the immensity and depth of God’s love for us.” So, I personally suggest reading his section on “Husbands and wives as lovers” found on pages 90-98. Chapter 6 helps counselors to practically structure sessions for success in marriage counseling. Are readers looking for practicality? Well, consider this quote from page 110, “By communicating care, the gospel, the big picture, hope, and what will happen next, you are helping set the stage for a healthy, biblical, Christ-centered counseling relationship.” Chapters 4-6 do a fantastic job of walking readers through each nuance of this quote—bravo to Jonathan on these ever helpful chapters.
Part 2 of “Counsel for Couples” offers a practical guide for helping through unique and specific issues which often arise in marriage counseling, Most of the biggest issues people seek counseling for will be found in this section. So, ask yourself if you’ve ever needed help thinking through these issues for your own marriage and/or a married couple you’re counseling:
- A spouse looking at porn
- A Christian married to a non-Christian
- A bitter spouse who often says, “I can’t do anything right.”
- Husband and wife just don’t talk to each other anymore
- Kids are a wreck
- Infertility or the death of a child
- A couple is no longer having sex, or it’s selfish sex
- Problems with in-laws, or problems with a spouse having problems with in-laws
I’m not yet to 6 full years in pastoral ministry, but I can assure you I’ve already heard of each of these issues in the lives of married couples seeking counseling at my local church. Jonathan has provided a helpful theological work with practical counseling guidance for each of the issues listed! He helps readers think through the issue at hand, some of the possible responses and reasons for responses from each spouse, how to listen to each spouse, practical considerations surrounding the issue, how to move forward in the immediacy of things, how to care for the couple long-term, etc. I, for one, know for a fact that I will be keeping a copy of “Counsel for Couples” in my office at all times, so when issues arise I can have a refresher from a helping hand (Jonathan) when I absolutely need it.
The final chapter of “Counsel for Couples” is another very solid chapter which expresses a need for and a how-to care for the counselor. Sure, the couple needs to be cared for, but the one helping the couple through counseling needs to also be cared for. Jonathan provides “10 Things to Remember in Marriage Counseling.” These things include, remembering the shortcomings of human leaders, remembering that the Word of God does the work of God, knowing it’s OK for a counselor to get counseling, remembering to get rest, and so on and so forth. Then, Jonathan closes out the book by offering an entire page of additional resources for help in marriage counseling, beyond “Counsel for Couples.” Check out pages 281-282, which include helpful resources from the likes of Paul Tripp, Alistair Begg, Bryan Chapell, Tim Savage, and many more.
So, who will want to read this book? Who is going to benefit from a book offering “A biblical and practical guide for marriage counseling?” First and foremost, I believe if you’re a pastor then you should read this book—you are the main audience of this book. Secondly, I would suggest this book to any couple in the midst of a particular difficulty. Thirdly, I would suggest this book to any married couple, because they will find in its content a gospel led way of life for married folks. Fourthly, I would suggest this book to a Christian who may find themselves in the position of lay-counseling for pre-marital or marital counseling. Fifthly, I would suggest this book to a Christian in a local church who has married friends or family, because you will eventually find yourself in a position I found myself in this reviews’ introductory paragraph—with somebody asking you for advice about a married couples’ situation. Sixthly, I would suggest this book to teachers and professors who are educating the future leaders of our local churches. Essentially, I would recommend this book for anybody considering the importance of counseling couples, and considering the bible begins with a marriage ceremony (Adam and Eve), and ends with a marriage ceremony (Christ and His church), and the centrality of the doctrine of the marriage covenant throughout Scripture, then I’m recommending this book for all followers of Christ.