Tackling the Tough Issues
About the Guest
Jonathan Holmes, the founder and executive director of Fieldstone Counseling, tackles common problems couples face today, like infidelity and pornography. He also talks about the importance of forgiveness and the necessity of rebuilding trust.
Jonathan HolmesJonathan Holmes is the Founder and Executive Director of Fieldstone Counseling. He also serves as the Pastor of Counseling for Parkside Church Bainbridge and Green. Jonathan graduated from The Master’s College with degrees in Biblical Counseling and History and his M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of The Company We Keep and Counsel for Couples and the forthcoming Rescue Plan (P&R Publishing, 2020). Jonathan has written for a number...more
Jonathan Holmes tackles common problems couples face today, like infidelity and pornography. He also talks about the importance of forgiveness and the necessity of rebuilding trust.
Tackling the Tough Issues
Bob: When husbands and wives sin against each other in marriage, are they committed to seeking and granting forgiveness, as the Bible teaches? Jonathan Holmes says that happens less often than you think.
Jonathan: I find—not only are couples not having a biblical-theology of forgiveness—they don’t even use the word, “forgiveness.” Couples will use the language of apology. I tell couples all the time, “You’re never going to find the word, ‘apology,’ in the Bible—it’s just not there.” It’s the language of forgiveness. David Palisin, who recently passed away, famously said that the five hardest words to say are: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” in marriage. Being able to say that—that requires a lot of humility. I think that it requires the Spirit’s leading in people’s lives.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, August 27th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. We’ll talk today about the path couples can follow that leads them to forgiveness, reconciliation, rebuilding trust and hope for their marriage. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I want you to imagine that this is your day tomorrow; okay? You call your administrative assistant, and you say, “What’s on my calendar for tomorrow?” She says: “Well, nine o’clock, you’re meeting with a couple—one of the spouses has cheated on the other. You’ve got an hour with them. At ten o’clock, you’re meeting with a couple. The husband has—she’s just found out that her husband’s looking at porn. At eleven o’clock, you’re going to meet with a couple—and it’s actually with the man who just wants to talk with you, because his wife’s not a believer—it’s a wedge in their relationship.
“Then after lunch, there’s a guy who wants to meet with you because his intimate relationship with his wife—he’s frustrated. Then, there’s an abuse case that afternoon. Then, there are couples, who are wrestling with issues with their kids.”
You’d call in sick; right? [Laughter] Isn’t that what you’d do if that was your schedule for tomorrow?
Dave: Not going to the office that day—I’d send in Ann. [Laughter]
Ann: Yet, you’ve had and we’ve had all those conversations.
Dave: Oh, sure.
Bob: That list is not something I just pulled out of thin air. It’s actually from the table of contents from a book called Counsel for Couples: a Biblical and Practical Guide for Marriage Counseling written by Jonathan Holmes, who’s joining us this week on FamilyLife Today. Welcome, again, Jonathan.
Jonathan: Thank you for having me.
Bob: Jonathan is the pastor of counseling at Parkside Church in Ohio, where Alistair Begg is the senior pastor. He’s Executive Director of the Fieldstone Counseling Center there—that’s part of the church; right?
Bob: The second half of this book, you take each of the scenarios, that I just shared for Dave, and kind of go piece by piece. These are the big issues that you’re dealing with in marriage.
Jonathan: Right; they’re the big issues of both sin and suffering. We address issues—not only of sexual sin or communication—but couples struggling with their children, couples struggling with being in unequally-yoked marriages, or infertility and miscarriage.
One of the things that, I think, can frighten pastors, or just everyday people in the church, is—we don’t have answers for that specific issue. What I try to do in every chapter is give you a starting point: give you some questions to ask, give you some passages of Scripture that you can go to, as well as including some real-life stories. There’s actual testimonials in every chapter from couples, I’ve had the privilege of walking alongside, to bring a very normal flavor to the work we’re trying to do here.
Bob: I mentioned that Dave would call in sick if this was his day. This is your day—
Jonathan: This is my day. [Laughter]
Bob: —pretty much, day in and day out.
Jonathan: Yes; yes.
Bob: Let’s model this for some folks. Let me just start with the first one—the first one is: “My spouse cheated on me.” If you’re sitting down with a couple—and you say, “Tell me what’s going on,”—and the husband says: “Well, I got home from work the other night. There was a message on the cell phone/my wife’s cell phone, and I asked her about it. It all unraveled; she’s been with a guy for the last six months.
“I’m wondering: ‘What do I do?’/‘What do we do?’—whether this is the end of our marriage. I’m angry. So, help us out, Jonathan.” How are you going to start that conversation?
Ann: “Save us!”
Jonathan: Well, listen, when we think about infidelity—I mean, infidelity happens. It happens in the church; it happens in Christian marriages. One of the first things I think that counselors, and pastors, and ministry leaders can do is—don’t express surprise—this is real life in a messy world. Instead of conveying surprise and “Oh, I can’t believe this is happening to you,” we want to move forward and we want to listen.
We’ll say: “Well, talk to me. What’s going on? How can I be of help?”—that’s always one of the very first questions I’ll ask, “How can I be of help?” Before I ever start saying: “Hey, you should do this,” or “Kick that guy to the curb,” or “Hire a lawyer,” or “Where are the kids at right now?”—I say, “What would be most helpful for you right now?”
The follow-up to that is to make sure we don’t over-promise and under-deliver on care. Unfortunately, in the church, a lot of times, I see that—where people will say, “Whatever you need, we’re here for you!”
Ann: Good intentions.
Jonathan: Good intentions: “Here’s my cell phone number. You can call or text me any time of the day if you need anything.” It can set up unhealthy expectations, which I think then, a lot of times, that’s what causes people to move away from that type of care; because they realize they can’t fulfill those types of expectations.
So, going into it, inquiring of how you can be helpful; and then making sure that you don’t over-promise and under-deliver on your care: “Here’s what I’m able to do…” “Here’s what I want to be able to help you do in the midst of this trial…”
Bob: My first instinct in that situation—if I’m sitting with this couple, I’d want to hear the story; let them tell the story from both sides. Then I’d want to make sure that, in the midst of that, I acknowledged the reality of the harm/the pain—that I didn’t just quickly move to solution—
Jonathan: Yes; absolutely.
Bob: —but to just say, “What you’ve just described to me is really a big deal and something that is devastating for marriages. I can’t imagine the suffering that you’re feeling—the guilt/the shame you may have.” To kind of have that description—that’s important, as a baseline, before we get to solution. Why is that so critical?
Jonathan: It’s critical because we don’t want to move forward without having understanding of the people in front of us; because, if we do, we can offer short-sighted answers; we can offer simplistic answers; we can offer unbiblical answers—we can offer things that, at the end of the day, are actually going to hurt the relationship.
We can have such a high view of marriage that, when we are moving towards people in grief and pain, that sometimes, we can minimize their experience; because we just say, “Listen, God loves marriage. He wants you to be married. You guys are going to get through it.” We try to tie a bow on their grief and on their suffering—especially the spouse who has been offended and who’s been on the receiving end of their other spouse’s adultery. I think we can actually have a high view of marriage and walk with couples in the midst of their pain and suffering during infidelity.
But that aspect you mentioned, Bob—of having a good understanding of what’s going on—is critically important.
Ann: When I think about meeting with a couple, I think about all the small group leaders in churches that are confronted with this; and this maybe happens in their group. Anyone can ask the question, “How can I help?” What’s the response that most people will give from that question?—what will they say?
Jonathan: A lot of times, I think they want pragmatic advice. They want to know what they should do: they want to know if they should leave; they want to know if they should have their spouse leave; they want to know what they should do with their kids; should they call a lawyer?—should they get a restraining order? A lot of times, what they want to think about are more pragmatic things.
One of the things I’ll encourage couples to do is—I’ll say: “We don’t need to make any big decisions right now. You’re feeling a lot of pressure to make arrangements or address this. Let’s just push ‘Pause.’ For one week/for two weeks, let’s just get a handle on what’s going on.”
One of the reasons for that is, oftentimes, when you’re counseling couples, who have been through infidelity, there’s a timetable issue—I like to say—that the spouse, who has either had their infidelity discovered or he’s confessed it, is at a different timetable than the spouse, who’s receiving this for the first time. He might have had a long time to deal with it—to process it, to come to a sense that he needs to share this with his wife, and he’s ready to—he’s actually ready to move forward in reconciliation.
His wife is hearing this for the first time, and she is at a completely different spot. What we can do—in an unhelpful way—kind of hurry the process along because we want to mend it back together and not do the hard work of really addressing what’s going on.
Dave: What do you see in terms of—I know you have stories throughout the book and testimonies—do marriages, that fight through an affair, do they make it?
Jonathan: Yes; I want to say an unqualified, “Yes,” to that. In secular marriage therapy, affairs can go either way. A lot of therapists would say that you can survive an affair, but I would say a large percentage of marriage and family therapists would say: “You know what? Affairs are marriage-enders. You probably aren’t going to be able to recover.” One of the reasons why I think they can’t recover is that they don’t have a theology of forgiveness. They don’t have a biblical theology of: “What do I do with this hurt and with this pain?”
I would definitely want to make sure that the timing is right, but I always want to offer hope to couples that are victims of infidelity. That might not be the very first thing I say the first few sentences; but definitely, within the span of that first session, I do want to offer them hope. I want to say: “Listen, I want you to take my word for it. I know that you’re maybe not there right now, but I do want you to know that this marriage is not beyond the reach of God’s grace and beyond the reach of hope. I know that you might not feel that right now; but I want you to know that, from me, right now.”
Bob: So, the person, who says: “I just found out my spouse cheated on me. I just got the Get-out-of-marriage-free card, because adultery is one of those things I can have a divorce.”
Ann: It’s grounds for divorce; right.
Bob: Right; so, if that’s their first thing—is kind of like: “Okay; I’ve been waiting for a chance. Now, I’ve got the card. I’m ready to play it,”—what do you say to them?
Jonathan: Again, that’s where I try to counsel people not to make big decisions. I’ll try to build rapport; I’ll try to empathize—I’ll say: “I can understand why you’re saying that. I can understand the frustration/the heartache. I can understand the desire to want to get out of this marriage,” “…to want to kick him to the curb/to kick her to the curb,”—or whatever—“But let’s push, ‘Pause,’ on that. We don’t need to make that decision right now. You’ve invested 10-15 years into this. I would hate to see you just, in a rash moment, just make a declaration that is going to throw away that amount of time that you’ve invested in the relationship.”
Bob: You mentioned forgiveness and the theology of forgiveness—I think you’re right; that’s central to all of this. I’d say, before you get to forgiveness, the person, who has been the offender, needs to really own and understand the depth and the weight of their offense—not trivialize it/not write it off—but really understand, “What I did…”—the way David understands it, in Psalm 53, when he says, “God, against You, and You only have I sinned…"—
Bob: —and recognizes the crushing nature of that. There’s genuine, not just worldly sorrow, but godly sorrow; right? Then you get to, “How do we deal with this and come to forgiveness?”
There’s another aspect here—where we’ve now gotten forgiveness—but the rebuilding of trust—this is where, I think, a lot of couples think: “When we get to forgiveness, we should be at the end of the road.” And yet, there’s still another step: “How do we rebuild trust?” “How can I ever trust this person again, when we had two years, and I didn’t know this was going on for two years? I thought everything was okay. How can I ever trust this person again?”
Jonathan: Right; a lot of times, when infidelity happens, I’ll find that husbands will say: “Hey, I asked her to forgive me; I confessed, and she’s not trusting me again.” That’s where you realize you have to do a little bit of teaching, and marriage counseling, and marriage enrichment—that forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation. Forgiveness is the event that paves the way for reconciliation to happen.
That process of rebuilding trust takes time. That process of rebuilding trust is also active. You know, we talk about trusting the Lord—that’s not something that just happens naturally; it’s something that we, actually, actively participate in.
When couples are trying to rebuild trust, a lot of times, I feel like they feel like it’s just something that’s going to happen to them: that the wife’s just going to naturally develop more feelings of trust; or the husband is, naturally, going to feel more feelings of trust for his wife. I actually find that couples have to work at it. They actually have to rebuild trust through some practical things—through seeking each other’s forgiveness, through staying true to their word, through accountability, through counseling, through a lot of different things that actually prove out the genuineness of their confession and repentance.
Ann: So, when the one spouse, who cheated, says: “You just need to forgive me. You just need to trust me,” what should the response of the other person be?
Jonathan: I say an honest response to that is, “I’m not ready to trust you right now, and I’m actually not ready to forgive you right now.” I actually want couples to be honest about that before they prematurely offer it and then hold themselves to the promises of what biblical forgiveness is. Then, what happens is—a couple will say, “You need to forgive me,” or “You need to trust me,” and the other spouse will feel pressured to do that.
They’ll actually take that word, “forgiveness,” and they’ll sully it. They actually won’t do what the Bible requires them to do with forgiveness—it kind of loses its power. A husband will say: “Forgive me,” “Forgive me for that,” “Forgive me for that,” or they’ll make endless apologies.
I actually want you to know what you mean when you’re asking your spouse to forgive you.
Dave: Talk about that. You have a theology of forgiveness in the book; you talk about it’s vertical and horizontal. You just mentioned biblical forgiveness. I think some of us are like: “Okay; get specific. What do you mean?”
Jonathan: Biblical forgiveness, to me, is this—is that we go to the Bible to define it. In Matthew 18—in the parable of the unmerciful servant, we see three movements in Matthew 18—where the king, as it relates to the servant, is moved with compassion. He forgives the debt, and he cancels the debt.
I think that threefold movement of forgiveness there is what embodies and exemplifies God’s forgiveness of us—that He moves towards us in love—that He shows us His love in that, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,”—that He forgives us of our debt—but that He actually cancels our debt too. It’s not that He just says, “Listen, you can get out of jail”; it’s as if that debt were no more because, “I now see my Son’s righteousness accredited to your account.” That’s what I mean when I talk about forgiveness.
When a couple is talking about forgiveness, or a couple that maybe doesn’t have the biblical teaching of forgiveness, I normally find that they use the language of apology. They actually don’t even use the word, “forgiveness.” They’ll just say: “Well, I apologized; I said, ‘I’m sorry.’ I told her I’m sorry that I’m not the husband that she needs,”—
Ann: I’ve heard that so often!
Jonathan: —or “I’m sorry I can’t be the wife…” [Voices talking over each other.]
I find—not only are couples not having a biblical theology of forgiveness—they don’t even use the word, “forgiveness.” Couples will use the language of apology. I tell couples all the time, “You’re never going to find the word, ‘apology,’ in the Bible—it’s just not there.” It’s the language of forgiveness. David Palisin, who recently passed away, famously said that the five hardest words to say are: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me,” in marriage. Being able to say that—that requires a lot of humility. I think that it requires the Spirit’s leading in people’s lives.
Bob: And again, once forgiveness is sought and granted, we’re still not at the end; because the rebuilding of trust: “I can forgive you”—I’ve used this illustration—your son comes home, walks in and goes:, “I messed up with the car tonight. I was driving too fast. It spun, and I ran into something.”
Your first thing is: “Are you okay?”—right? “You’re okay; how about the car?” “The car is a mess; and in fact, it’s probably totaled.” You sense, as a parent, from your son: “I realize what I did. I was not being responsible. I am really sorry. Will you please forgive me?” As a parent, you say, “Yes; I forgive you.”
Then he says, “Can I have the keys to Mom’s car?” [Chuckling] You go: “No, no, no, no, no. We’ve still got some work to do before you’re getting the keys to Mom’s car.”
This is where a lot of couples will get to the forgiveness moment in an infidelity situation and they’ll say, “Okay; we’ve forgiven each other; now, we’ve arrived.” But the rebuilding of trust—the formula I’ve told people through the years is: “Your spouse is going to need to see consistent behavior over time. They’re going to need to see that you are functioning differently than—this is what they thought before; they need to see something different than they thought before to know that you’re a different person: your values are different; you’re not falling prey to this again.”
I’ve had friends, who have said to me, “How long is that time?” I say, “We don’t know.” “Like weeks?—like months?” “It could be years.” “You mean, I could be in prison for years?” I go: “No; you shouldn’t be in prison, because forgiveness has happened. But you should be accountable. You should be wanting to rebuild trust; you should be wanting your spouse to say, ‘I can trust you,’ so you should be bending over backwards to say: ‘I want to demonstrate my trustworthiness to you. What is it going to take for me to do that?’”
Jonathan: That’s where Luther said, “All of the Christian life is repentance.” I think, sometimes, husbands and wives want to put an expiration date on that process, especially in infidelity. The husband will say: “Listen, I’ve had good behavior for four years,”—or “…for four months,” rather—”I haven’t looked at pornography for four months,” or “I’ve not done this or that.”
I always tell them that part of godly sorrow that leads to repentance—there’s an eagerness; there’s a zealousness, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians, to clear your name—that there’s an eagerness to see right things done. That is a process, and I don’t think we can put an expiration date on it.
Ann: As we talk about trust, and this whole issue of forgiveness, would this be the same kind of thing if a spouse comes and says, “I need to confess I’ve been struggling with porn”?
Jonathan: Ann, that’s such a good question. I think it probably varies from couple to couple.
One of the things I try to be sensitive to, when there’s pornography involved—for sake of illustration, I’ll just take the husband, who’s looking at pornography in a marriage. A lot of times—I’ll try to get a session or I’ll get some time alone with the wife or with another woman with her, to just say:
Hey, I think that, biblically and relationally, you’re entitled to know what your husband is doing—to talk about what he’s viewing/the content. But I also want to let you know that the more that we get descriptive, in terms of what’s going on, the more difficult it’s going to be, I think, for you, as a woman, to deal with that, and with your heart, and with your mind.
One of my encouragements would be to engage the use of an accountability partner, or a close friend, or a pastor, or a mentor, so that he can be discussing and dialoguing through some of these things with your husband; so that you can be a wife, and not a counselor or an accountability partner.
Bob: You ready for a hard one? [Laughter]
Jonathan: Yes; I feel like all these have been hard! [Laughter]
Dave: I was going to say, “Hard-er?!” [Laughter]
Bob: Have there been situations, where you’ve sat with a couple, in the case of repeated infidelity—and that’s been the issue in their marriage—and you’ve come to the conclusion that divorce is the right solution in this situation?
Jonathan: That’s a good question—it’s a hard one. I would say, personally, I would never commend it to a couple as an option. What I will do, though, is—I will say: “There is permission. There is a clause here that we see in Scripture that you do have a way of escape. I’m not counseling you towards that—I’m not saying, ‘Go to that,’—but I’m telling you that it’s an option/that there is a permission here that Jesus gives us, here, in the Gospels.”
Bob: I think that’s a good approach/a good answer to say to somebody, “My hope/my desire is that both of you can get to a place where you can pursue reconciliation.” I think that’s God’s hope; that’s God’s desire. The Bible is a story of reconciliation—a fractured relationship, where there was infidelity/spiritual infidelity, and where God bent over backwards, sending His own Son, to be reconciled with the infidel. That’s the big story of the Bible—is that not what God would want for your marriage?
With that said, I have been with a wife, where the husband was not repentant—was a serial adulterer, persisting in his sin. For the sake of protection/for her physical protection, I’ve had to say, “With a heart still aimed at reconciliation, it may be that either a legal separation”—in some cases there’s not provision for that in the civil law—“but you may need some protection that the state requires while you continue to pray for, and hope for, and want your husband to repent and the marriage to be reconciled.”
Dave: What happened?
Bob: In any level of accountability with that husband, he fled accountability. I would say, before the wife had to pursue anything, the unbeliever left. I think, sometimes, when you pursue somebody, who’s in sin and keep holding them accountable—not just as a spouse but as a community of faith coming around—that person is either going to repent or they are going to say, “I’ve got to get out of here.”
Dave: I’m encouraged by this conversation, because we just tackled a couple of the biggies. Maybe I’m wrong; but I’m sitting here, thinking, “Man, all you talked about was speaking the truth in love.” Obviously, there are some big decisions that you are going to help a person or a couple walk through; but I’m encouraged; I’m thinking, “Any follower of Christ could do what we just talked about,” especially if they picked up your book, to say, “I need some—
Ann: Yes; that book would help!
Jonathan: There are some additional resources in the book; yes.
Bob: We do have copies of the book available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy of Jonathan’s book, Counsel for Couples: A Biblical and Practical Guide for Marriage Counseling. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com to order; or call us if you’d like to order a copy. Our number is 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-FL-TODAY— 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
One of the things we’ve been excited about, here, at FamilyLife®, over the past several months, is seeing how God is using a resource we created a year ago called the Art of Parenting®. Not just here in the United States, but in Central and South America, there have been tens of thousands of people getting into Art of Parenting groups. They’ve seen the movie, Like Arrows, which was translated into Spanish. The video series has been translated as well. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve seen the two of you speaking Spanish.
Ann: No; really?
Bob: Yes; I should show you a clip of this.
Dave: Que paso?
Bob: Actually, you do better than that; because we’ve had translators come in and do the whole video series in Spanish. There are, now, tens of thousands of people in Central and South America, who are going through this content. We’re hoping to do the same thing in Mandarin and in Arabic.
Stop and think about the impact of that in marriages and families—
Ann: —around the world.
Ann: That is amazing.
Dave: Honestly, when Ann and I sat and watched the Art of Parenting—
Ann: Nice job, Bob; because you produced it.
Dave: It was tremendous. We honestly thought: “This is legacy changing. Every young family, and older family, needs to watch this.” Here’s the thing nobody thinks about, “How did it happen?” Somebody made a donation; somebody said: “I believe in this. I want to help others who have helped me.” It’s a sacrificial gift they made, and it’s changing the world!
Bob: And now, for that to spread, we need listeners to help us move things further. The good thing is—if you make a donation this week, not only are you helping advance the ministry of FamilyLife, but your donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, up to a total of $500,000. We’re hoping to take full advantage of the matching gift. We need to hear from you this week in order for your donation to be matched.
If you’re able to donate this week, we’d love to say, “Thank you,” by sending you a copy of Dennis and Barbara Rainey’s book, The Art of Parenting,either to keep for yourself or to pass on to someone you know, who would benefit from that book. It’s easy to donate. You can do it, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to donate. We want to say, “Thanks,” in advance, for partnering with us and extending the reach of this ministry to people all around the world.
We hope you’re able to join us, again, tomorrow. Jonathan Holmes will be here again. We’re going to talk about how we can come alongside couples in difficult, stressful situations and bring them comfort and bring them hope from the Scriptures. We’re going to talk about what you do if you know somebody, who is in an abusive relationship, tomorrow, among other things. I hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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