Given the times we live in, and that fact that it is an evil day, I believe it is necessary to explain and defend a particular assumption that should under-gird all pastoral counseling, particularly marriage counseling. I first learned this assumption from my father decades ago, and it has been an integral part of my approach to counseling ever since. It has always been difficult for many people to grasp, but in recent years the growth of victim culture in the world of counseling, including much Christian counseling, has made this biblical approach seem perverse. Though it only seems that way, an apologia for this approach has still become necessary.
First, the principle raw and unpolished:
“Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.” (John 21:22).
“Child,’ said the Lion, ‘I am telling you your story, not hers. No one is told any story but their own” (The Horse and His Boy).
The Unfairness of Grace:
We must first come to grips with the fact that sheer grace always strikes us as radically unfair. This reaction makes us want to demand justice, but there is no more dangerous thing for a sinner to do. Sheer justice, raw justice, has a name, and the name is the outer darkness. As a friend of mine has said, “If life were fair, we’d all be in Hell.”
Consider the import of these passages and meditate on them.
“And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
“But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf” (Luke 15:30).
“Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day” (Matt. 20:12).
“And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth” (Mark 10:20).
“And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
This is a real stumbling block to the self-righteous heart, but it gets even more complicated if it is a wounded self-righteous heart.
It is one thing when someone shows up in the story, already a sinner. All his victims are in his past, off stage. It is quite another when his principal victim is sitting across the table from him, and the point of the meeting is to attempt reconciliation.
Divvying It Up
So here is where the misconceptions start. The natural temptation is for the antagonists to regard themselves as in a 100% situation, and that the job of the counselor is to help them divvy up the responsibility. Does he get 75 and she get 25? Or is it more of a 50/50 sort of thing? Or perhaps one party only is the scoundrel, and it is 100/0. But in all cases, the thinking goes, the total must add up to 100%.
But individual responsibility in such situations doesn’t work this way. Whenever you have two or more people in a sinful tangle, you don’t have a total of 100%. You have at least two one hundred percents. A separate topic for another time is the question of the responsibilities of covenant headship, which brings in a third 100%.
What we don’t have — since we are dealing with the interactions of two moral agents — is a zero sum game. In a zero sum game, it always has to add up to 100%, taking all the sin-contributions from both parties. But this is not how moral responsibility works.
This is a misleading assumption that makes some counselees believe that if the counselor ever tries to help them see what they need to do as they deal with the issues in their life, that he is necessarily trying to diminish the responsibility of the other party. And since the other party is obviously as guilty as SIN, this causes trust in the counselor to erode.
And it doesn’t matter if the issue you are trying to address is trivial or not. How dare the counselor suggest that she might want to consider “this” as an issue? Any increase of any responsibility on her part must necessarily mean a decrease of his responsibility, and since that is obviously absurd, we need to reject the whole enterprise out of hand. And then look sideways at the counselor, who obviously needs to learn how to cultivate more sympathy for victims.
Until the Arm Falls Off
Suppose one person, unprovoked, stabs another person in the arm. That person is 100% responsible for the assault, and should be held responsible. He should be charged with the stabbing, and face the consequences of being a stabber.
But the person who was stabbed is not a block of wood, and has certain moral responsibilities in the situation. Let us say the doctor gives him strict instructions on how to clean and change the bandages. And let us say further that for various reasons he refuses to do so, and as a result his wound get seriously infected. If the doctor remonstrates with him about this, it will not be to the point to accuse the doctor of trying to justify the stabber, or minimize his guilt in anyway. “No,” the doctor might say. “I just don’t want your arm to fall off one of these days.”
If the arm falls off, the responsibility for this would lie 100% with the patient who wouldn’t follow instructions. That 100% is not in any way a reality that diminishes the responsibility of his assailant.
The same principle applies to actions of the victim prior to the stabbing. Lets say he got stabbed because he disobeyed his parents, stayed out after curfew, borrowed a friend’s car without asking, and was on the wrong side of town at 2 in the morning. The stabber should still go to jail. Can we all agree that he is vile? He remains 100% responsible for his dangerous criminality. But the dunder-headed victim remains 100% responsible for doing the things he should not have done.
But in saying this, I do NOT mean that the 100% responsibility for each is the same size. These are percentages of something, not fixed weights and measures. The criminal is 100% responsible for his 100 lbs. of crime while the victim is 100% responsible for his 2 lbs of stupidity. To change the metaphor, the bad guy is 100% responsible for 10 yards of vile, and the dummy is responsible for 2 inches of conceit. But they are both responsible, 100%, for their own sin and/or folly.
In other words, we are not flattening anything out. We are not creating a moral equivalence between the two. This is simply the precondition for understanding the biblical notion of personal responsibility.
Let me take an illustration I got from my father. Say you break up a fight between a couple of boys on a playground. You separate them and say something like this. “Boys, let’s do it this way. I want each of you to tell me what you did wrong, and when you each tell me what you did wrong, then I will know the whole story, right? Right. Now, what happened? Instantly, the fingers are pointed at the other person.
If we are sinfully tangled up in a situation where more than one person has sinned, we regularly have the worst time confessing our own sin, and simply stopping there. “The woman you gave me . . .” (Gen. 2:12). What Adam was saying was true. God did give him the woman, and the woman did give him the fruit. What Adam was saying was true, and completely and entirely beside the point. God was asking Adam about Adam.
You can can confess the sins of someone else all day long, and your joy is not going to return.
The Set Up
Now before reading any further, you the reader have to agree to remember all the qualifications I have made above. I made all those qualifications for a reason. Do we have an agreement? Shake on it?
Taking one thing with another, over the years I have seen many instances of men doing awful things to their wives and daughters. And when I say “awful,” I mean awful. Their abusive treatment has ranged from wicked to blindingly stupid. Not only do I not excuse it or explain it away, I rejoice in the liberty that I still have in such instances to call sin sin. When a man mistreats a woman, the current climate still allows a pastor to confront him, and to deal with it thoroughly. Even though the world gets conviction of sin all wrong, this climate does mean that the simple message of repent and believe is one that can still be delivered to men. The men usually expect it, which is good, because they deserve it.
But that is not the case anymore with women. Any counselor who actually tries to address feminine shortcomings in a dysfunctional relationship is a brave counselor. One of the things that happens is that any such an attempted address is immediately construed as “taking the side” of the abuser. And to anticipate an objection here, this is not a function of the counselor being male — my wife has seen the same reaction that I have, and sometimes more quickly.
Now I know that some women have done awful things to men also, and I take it as a given that this can and does happen. I do not assume that the man must be the worst offender. But in the counseling I have done over the years, the thing that usually wrecks the woman’s joy is not the fact that her sin is equivalent to the man’s, or greater than the man’s, or less than the man’s, but rather the fact that her sin is untouchable. We are dealing with a culture-wide insistence that women not be held responsible for what they do. This assumption has crept into the church, even into the conservative wing of the church, and has now been weaponized.
About the only time you can address the “different temptations” of men and women in relationship is when it is a seminar where all the relationships represented are basically healthy, and nothing has been weaponized yet. But if the sins have been grievous, and the marriage is on the rocks, this is very hard to communicate.
This really is a tragedy, and it is one that keeps many women miserable. They are miserable because the current climate doesn’t want gospel to be brought to them, and gospel means repent and believe. The spirit of the age doesn’t want gospel brought to women because the spirit of the age hates women — it hates their glory, it hates their fruitfulness, it hates their beauty, and it hates their joy in motherhood. It hates the fact that it was the seed of the woman that crushed the serpent’s head.
In the name of liberating women, the world has sought to make sure that none of them can be treated as Christian women, that is, as heirs of a freely offered and constant joy.
Basic Christian Moral Thinking
In Sense and Sensibility, after Marianne has come into her wisdom, Elinor, speaking of Willoughby, asks her this:
“Do you compare your conduct with his?”
“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”
If we arbitrarily turned such a thing into a sin contest, Willoughby would have won it, walking away. That really does go without saying. But the basic moral reasoning of moral agents should not compare Willoughby to Marianne, but rather the foolish Marianne to the Marianne who was called to be wise. Literary critics may compare one character to another if they wish, but the characters really shouldn’t. Such comparisons do nothing but retard growth in sanctification. If these new methods of ours were in place back then, Marianne would have been in counseling for the next 35 years.
If all of this seems too harsh, and not eager enough to indulge the temptations that victims do in fact encounter, then I suggest that the person who feels this way should abandon Christian counseling entirely. Find someone who will take a fee, like an attorney, call her a client, like an attorney, and who will therefore feel the pressure to never tell her anything she doesn’t want to hear.