Marriage counseling isn’t one of my favorite parts of ministry. It’s not that I’m bad at it, I don’t think. I’m a passable counselor. And it’s not that I mind being available to couples during stressful junctures in their marriage.
Mostly its that whenever I find myself offering advice to couples, I can’t help but imagine my own wife listening in, smirking lovingly, knowing full well I’m less than a perfect spouse and hardly one to qualify as an expert.
A while back though I gave a couple advice. I seldom give out and out advice while counseling. I was trained not to advise but to offer active listening, which I know can seem passive to couples starved for something to try and salvage their relationship.
Having no other clue how to help them stop the spiral of resentment and recrimination in which they found themselves trapped, I told them:
‘I know you have every reason to think you’re right and every reason to be angry. I know you don’t he understands how he’s hurt you and you don’t think she’s ever going forgive you and let go. I want you to put that away for a week. Forget about it and instead just focus on loving and serving the other. Whenever the old words and feelings creep up, do something, anything, to pour yourself out and serve the other instead.’
In truth, I was desperate, had no clue how to help them and thought this sounded just Jesusy enough to leave them thinking I’d done my job. I was surprised when they told me the following week that trying to do that had been the best week in their marriage in longer than they could recall.
‘Why is that?’ the husband asked me.
This week for our fall sermon series, Seven Truths that Changed the World: Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas, we’re talking about the Imago Dei, the scriptural notion that having made everything good in creation God creates us in God’s image.
The Imago Dei often gets treated vaguely- ‘we’re all children of God’- and left at that; however, Imago Dei cannot be abstracted from Trinity.
Christians often fail to recall that the God in whose image we’re made is three-personed: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the relationship that marks God’s own life, the love shared between Father, Son and Spirit, is the prototype for the kind of life and love we’re intended to share.
Theologians call it perichoresis. It means ‘mutual self-emptying’ or ‘mutual self-giving.’
When we talk about the Trinity, who God is internally and eternally, we believe God is perichoretic love. God is in God’s own life a community of self-giving, vulnerable love. God is a community, Father, Son and Spirit, where love is eternally given as a gift and nothing is expected in return.
We’ve been made in the image of this three-personed God. Moreover, as Karl Barth argues, we’re not made in God’s image as individuals. Rather it’s Adam and Eve together- their relationship- that comprises the image of a God who is, in himself, relationship.
Back to that couple.
The reason, I think, their vow to put resentments aside for a week and focus on loving and serving the other ‘worked’ is that such loving service best captures who, at their core, they were created to be. This is the image of God in them and that can mean no less than this is what it means to be fully alive. Any lasting healing that might come to their marriage surely must come by this route alone.