Totally without hope one cannot live. To live without hope is to cease to live. Hell is hopelessness. It is no accident that above the entrance to Dante's hell is the inscription: "Leave behind all hope, you who enter here."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Katie, a thirty-five-year-old mother of two, first came to Pastor Frank Garrett to ask his help with her failing marriage. Her husband, Clark, had never been a churchgoer, and he resented Katie's involvement. They had married young; Katie had known Clark was not a Christian, and to marry him she defied her parents' wishes. Now Clark was refusing to let her bring the kids to church and ridiculing her mealtime prayers.

Pastor Frank tried to contact Clark, and Katie tried to get him to come for joint counseling, but he refused "to see any preachers." Eventually Clark walked out on the marriage and filed for divorce.

Strangely, however, this story is not about Clark's refusal to accept help. It's about Katie's.

Within three months of the divorce being finalized, Katie was engaged to another man — an acquaintance from work, who also never attended church and, as far as Frank could tell, had never made any sort of spiritual commitment.

When some of her friends began suggesting it was too soon to be dating again, let alone remarry, Katie began withdrawing from her church friends. When Frank phoned her, she seemed curt. He asked, "How is your relationship with Will any different from your relationship with Clark?"

"You just don't understand how tough it is to be a single parent," Katie told him. "I need a man in my life. My kids need a father."

She would not change her mind. She and Will got married in a civil ceremony, and Frank never saw Katie or her children again.

"She was getting into exactly the same situation. Everyone could see it but her," said Frank.

How do you help such people who have blinded themselves, who refuse to see? In the play Faustus, Goethe has the Devil introduce himself, "I am the spirit that denies" — an apt description of the spirit of self-deception within each of us.

Two reasons people often resist help are (1) they don't realize what they truly want out of life or (2) if they do, they don't believe they could ever achieve it. As a result, they ossify, forming patterns difficult to break.

If the first step in helping these people is creating an environment conducive to change, the next step is instilling a desire to change. When both the external and internal environments are realigned, real help is possible.

Here are some ways pastors have found to help individuals see the need for change.

Deep Desires, Not Deficiencies

One of the best ways to begin instilling a desire to change is to turn the conversation to the person's strengths.

"I don't approach people as if I'm the one with all the answers, as if I'm the doctor and they're sick. Instead, I begin by focusing where they're healthy. I want to find out what they are excited about," says Gary Gulbranson of Glen Ellyn (Illinois) Bible Church. He finds it helpful to work through a series of questions.

• What do you do well?

• What would you like out of life? What are your dreams? If you were in control of the world, if you could really take the reins of your own life, where would you go with it?

• What do you think it would take to live that kind of life?

• Is what you're doing now heading you in that direction?

"Sometimes we don't even have to get past the first two questions before people wake up to their self-destructive behavior," he says. At times, people haven't faced the fact that the long-term results of their present behavior are not going to be what they want.

He used this approach while doing hospital visitation. He found himself talking with a college-age girl admitted for an eating disorder. As part of her therapy, she was supposed to go through a list of dissatisfactions in life and honestly evaluate how she felt about them.

When Gary asked what she was learning, she launched into the standard resentments: "I don't like my mom and dad. They put too much pressure on me to get good grades. My values aren't the same as my parents' — they're only concerned about making money. And they don't get along. I don't respect their relationship; that's why we have problems. They want me to get good grades because they're both really into education, and I don't get good grades, which makes them look bad to their friends."

Gary knew that tension with parental values is a normal part of growing up. It's certainly not enough to hospitalize someone with an eating disorder. But he let her air these surface issues. Then he simply got her to talk about herself.

"I appreciate the things you've shared," he said, "but I want to know who you are. You're an interesting person. You've told me a lot about who other people think you are. But who are you really? What do you like to do in your spare time, for instance?"

She mentioned reading murder mysteries. They discussed various mystery writers for a while.

"What else do you enjoy?"

"I like aerobics and exercise. Anything to make me sweat."

"Why is that important to you?"

She mentioned wanting to look good, but as she talked further, it eventually became clear that she was different than the other three members of her family. Her real problem was trying to change everyone else rather than recognizing the uniqueness of her own personality, accepting the differences, and fitting in.

Gary asked about her relationship with the church.

"My parents are religious, but I don't want to be like them."

"What kind of relationship with God would you like? How do you visualize God now?"

They talked for the next hour. "She really blossomed," Gary said later. "I can't say she immediately turned her life around, but we did break through that hard shell she'd put up." The key was starting with a healthy area and moving to goals and dreams before tackling the problems.

The idea of helping people articulate their goals and desires is especially effective in perhaps one of the most common dilemmas pastors face: handling wedding requests by couples with little or no spiritual commitment. Normally these couples want little more than to have a licensed member of the clergy fulfill a function. But most pastors recognize their deeper need for a spiritual foundation, even if the couple does not.

When Mark Bowman and Greta Holloway first walked into the church office, Kent Carlburg could tell they were angry. The way Mark, especially, sat on the edge of the chair, leaned forward, and glared at him, Kent felt like he was spoiling for a fight. When they'd called to set up an appointment with "a pastor," he figured they wanted someone to perform a wedding. He was right.

Mark growled, "We're getting married and need a preacher."

Kent tried to help them relax.

"Congratulations. I'm glad you're here. Tell me how you decided on me."

"Because the guy over at Heritage Church refused to marry us, but he said you might," Mark said.

Greta spoke up. "I used to go to Heritage when I was growing up, so we thought we'd be married there. But Reverend Morris refused to perform the ceremony unless we were members of the church. He said we were 'unequally yoked' — whatever that means. And he didn't approve of 'the way we handled our courtship,' which I don't consider any of his business. We thought it was a pastor's job to do weddings."

Kent made a mental note to ask Billy Morris at the next ministerial breakfast why he left the dirty work to him, but he grinned and said, "Tell me about yourselves. A wedding is a rather personal thing, and we preachers like to know whom we're working with."

Mark and Greta began to relax as they talked. Greta, it turned out, had made a commitment to Christ as a child but had stopped attending church during high school. Mark had never had any church experience. Neither had been married before.

"I'm not here to sit in judgment on you," Kent said. "You've decided to marry, and since there are no legal impediments I can see, you have every right to do so. But tell me, why do you want to be married in a church? Why not a civil ceremony?"

Mark and Greta looked blankly at one another. Kent let the silence linger. Finally Greta said, "I guess we want God's blessing on our marriage."

"What does God's blessing mean to you?"

"Well, uh, I guess it means he'll help things go smoother."

"God's blessing is a very important thing to seek," said Kent. "I'm glad it's important to you. How do you think you get God's blessing?"

"I suppose by, you know, following his rules."

"Have you been following them?"

"Well, no."

"But you really want God's blessing," repeated Kent. "Why is that important to you in the days ahead?"

As they talked, both Mark and Greta admitted they were somewhat insecure about entering marriage, in fact even their present relationship — they were living together — was a result of their feeling alone and insecure. "We felt we needed to know each other," Mark said.

Kent pointed out that part of God's blessing is his protection and security when facing uncertain days. "The way to be certain of God's blessing — and to know the security of belonging to him — is to become part of his family."

Over the next several weeks, as Kent continued to meet with them, Mark decided to commit himself to Christ, and Greta reaffirmed her previous commitment. They have since joined the church and attend regularly.

The turning point from their anger and defensiveness to an openness to the gospel came as a result of the pastor pointing not to their deficiency but to their previously unarticulated desire.

Rebuilt Hope

The second reason people often resist help is because they truly do not believe any better way is possible. They've lost hope and therefore the desire to try.

As Jurgen Moltmann writes: "Men die when they are suddenly struck with the impression that everything is without prospect for them. They simply give up, even if there are no physical causes for their death. Others become criminals out of hopelessness. One young burglar in Berlin related that he had sought a job at different places but was again and again thrown out. 'And then came the point where nothing made any difference to me.' This is typical. He became a criminal because his hope in life had turned into self-hate and he had given up on himself."

Pastors most often see this phenomenon in people who complain, "Nothing can be done anymore. If we'd done something fifteen years ago, maybe things could be different, but not now." Perhaps bankruptcy looms. Perhaps the marriage is crumbling or opportunities are lost. The problem lies deeper than not wanting help; it's doubting that any help is possible.

Maybe they weren't aware enough when the problem was younger and could have been dealt with, and now, by the time they're really in pain, they assume the situation is hopeless. Perhaps they have already tried inferior solutions that offered the appearance of relief — a husband chasing another woman or a mother leaving the family to pursue two jobs and aerobics.

With these providing a temporary outlet to their pain, they do not want to attempt the massive reconstruction on their marriage, the real problem. They don't see any hope for marital improvement. Often the turning point for embattled spouses is actually believing things can get better.

Counselor Robert J. Carlson has found an important element in the recovery of hope: He brings hopeless couples together and introduces them to couples whose marriages were once in serious trouble. These couples simply tell their survival stories. They describe how they returned from the brink of divorce.

He reports the response of Dawn, a woman ready to give up. After meeting with three other couples whose marriages were founded in hope, tested in disillusionment, shaken by pain and misunderstanding, and rebuilt through a long, significant process, Dawn said: "You know, we've got a lot of problems. Our families are a mess. All of Bob's brothers and sisters are divorced. His father has been married three times and now has taken a male lover. My father abused me, and my mother hated me. I know Bob and I have been terribly cruel to each other, but when I heard today what those couples have been through, I believe we can make this marriage work, too. I don't know yet how to go about it, but I believe we can find a way. I'd like to tell you what I think some of our problems are. Maybe you can help us with them."

This kind of response is not unusual, according to Carlson. "To hear someone else speak about the unspeakable — personal failure of a marriage contract, the death of dreams, the despair and pain — yet with a message of hope is a powerful encouragement. Again and again, I've seen couples find they can begin to believe in the possibilities of the future. That's what hope is about. It's the necessary ingredient for people to do the hard work necessary to rebuild."1

Hope Blended with Realism

As important as hope is, it must be not be offered apart from the reality of the situation, with all its seemingly hopeless elements. A snappy "Don't give up … things will work out … believe me" rings hollow unless the pastor or counselor clearly communicates that he understands the depth of the problem.

Perhaps this can best be illustrated by the story of one young husband who didn't particularly want help with his crumbling marriage. It shows how one pastor broke through the barriers — after others had failed.

Jed Rauch prided himself on being able to take care of himself. He was raised on a farm and learned from his father that work had to be done whether you felt like it or not. In high school, Jed earned a black belt in karate, which led to a lot of self-confidence, which extended even to his spiritual life.

"I was so macho I remember praying, 'Lord, if you ever need someone to take on the Devil, here I am, ready to go one on one with him,'" Jed admits.

Yet Jed had a quiet side. Hours in the fields had taught him to enjoy moments of solitude. "There's nothing I enjoy quite as much as sitting alone on the tractor watching the sun go down."

His most vivid memory from growing up took place while driving the tractor through a weedy slough on the twenty acres farthest from the house.

"The sun was going down between two clouds in an otherwise clear sky," he recalls. "I was watching the sun set as I brought the tractor into a turn, and suddenly, a pheasant took to flight just to my left, and before it could clear the weeds, I saw a fox leap up, pick it out of the air, and begin dragging it across the field. I followed at a comfortable distance just to see what the fox was going to do. When she got near the creek, I shut the tractor down to watch. The fox dragged the pheasant to her den, and I saw three pups have dinner while the mother just sat and watched."

After that Jed considered the field animals almost friends.

"I began to notice the fox pups would chase the implements I was pulling with the tractor. But if I shut down the machine to get a better look, they'd run and hide. I also began to notice nests that killdeer had built in the middle of the field. Stupid birds. I guess they figured no animal would look for prey in an open field. But they forgot about tractors. I'd be driving when suddenly I'd hear the squawk of the mother, even above the noise of the tractor. Then I'd see her trying to lure me away from the nest with her broken wing act. But I'd find the nest and move it to part of the field I'd already worked. The mother would always come back to it! I guess I learned you don't have to always be 'doing something' to enjoy life."

Shortly after high school, Jed met Sandy, a hair stylist, while getting a haircut. She had recently moved to the town from Chicago. Jed was attracted by her vivacious personality; she seemed to enjoy talking with everyone and made friends quickly. In turn, Sandy was attracted to the strong young farmer who could also talk about birds and sunsets. Before long, they were dating, engaged, and within a year, married.

The very qualities that attracted them to each other, however, soon became the source of severe problems in their marriage. Jed was a hard worker, but after he started his own trucking business, his work began to consume him.

"I knew the proper priorities were God first, family second, and work third," says Jed, "but if I would have been honest, I'd have had to admit my priorities were work first, work second, and work third."

After a day of work, Jed would sit outside, stare at the sunset, and ponder his work problems. If Sandy, who was eager to talk to her husband or get together with friends, tried to strike up a conversation, Jed would tell her to leave him alone.

Within a couple years, after the birth of their daughter Adelle, Jed found both his business and marriage floundering. A number of accidents and breakdowns with his trucks left him with huge debts. More and more arguments were erupting with Sandy, and while Jed prided himself on "winning" the arguments, he also saw his relationship with Sandy deteriorating. But he didn't want anyone's help with either the business or the marriage.

"Asking for help is humiliating," he explained later. "For someone raised to take care of himself, asking for help is an admission of failure. I wasn't ready to do that.

"After Sandy's repeated requests, we finally did try to get counseling. But it was a bad experience. We first went to the pastor at our church, and we liked him, but he was so busy, he couldn't see us more than once a month. That wasn't enough, so he referred us to a counselor at a pastoral counseling center. But the eight sessions were worthless as far as I was concerned. My attitude was bad to start with, and the guy didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. He tried to get me to 'share my feelings.' It was hard for me to say honestly how I felt toward Sandy. I didn't know. I'm not used to talking about feelings."

Jed also felt the counselor tried to pigeon-hole them into a certain problem category.

"When he said, 'Well, 53 percent of people with marriage problems have the same situation you two do,' I knew the guy was a jerk. He didn't know us well enough to generalize about our situation. I decided I wasn't going to be honest with him. I manipulated the rest of the sessions for my own advantage — using them as bargaining chips with Sandy, so I could say 'I'm doing what you want.'

"Sandy took the counseling seriously, but I didn't. The counselor kept talking about 'spending more time together.' He said we should 'go to the zoo,' or do things together at home. I said, 'We do! We spent all last Saturday planting flowers together.' It was a slight exaggeration — Sandy had worked in front and I was in the back yard, but I was playing games with the counselor because I knew our problems were deeper than lack of time together. I decided I wasn't going to open up until I found somebody worth opening up to, and this clown wasn't. If we had problems, they were things we were just going to have to work out."

Unfortunately, they couldn't "work things out," and their relationship became increasingly strained. The business also continued to crumble as more trucks and trailers were disabled. He had a hard time finding good drivers. With more downtime, the debts skyrocketed. Jed called his lawyer to investigate bankruptcy procedures.

He began to fantasize about jumping in his pickup truck, driving to the mountains and living alone, supporting himself with day labor.

Suddenly he began to realize he had a choice to make. Up until now, he had basically drifted along in life. "I felt like I was living my life and God was in my hip pocket — always there, but not someone I had to take seriously. Now I knew I had a decision to make — to stay and try to work things out, or to bail out.

"I have to admit, when Sandy said, 'We are going to get a divorce unless something changes around here,' I wasn't surprised or particularly concerned. I was sort of numb. The idea of divorce actually sounded attractive because at least I'd have my peace and quiet again. But at the same time, I'm big on commitments. When I make a promise, I pride myself on keeping it, and I didn't want to be the one responsible for the marriage falling apart."

One of Jed's high school friends, Eric, knew about their marital difficulties. Eric attended another church in town and kept telling Jed, "Our pastor is an excellent counselor. Why don't you give him a try?" Sandy, of course, knew he wasn't cooperating with the other counselor and was willing to try anyone.

"After six weeks of Eric talking about Pastor Barry, I gave in," says Jed. "Sandy and I went to the Sunday services, and I was impressed enough that Barry seemed like an intelligent but real human being that we made an appointment to see him."

The counseling approach with Pastor Barry was completely different from their previous experience.

They found Barry easy to talk to, and unlike the previous counselor, he didn't say, "I know what your problem is, and I know what you have to do to fix it." He took a hard, honest approach.

"What really impressed me," said Jed, "was at the end of our first meeting, Barry said, 'I can't say whether you two should stay together or get a divorce. We'll have to see.' This is a pastor talking? I thought. And he doesn't know if we should stay together or not? I'd been sure he was going to tell us to stay together or else, but he didn't have that attitude. He let us know that either way, we had to make the decision — and live with the consequences."

Suddenly Jed realized he was responsible for the relationship. It had a chilling effect. Finally, here's a guy who's being realistic, he said to himself.

"Barry said, 'You've got serious problems in this marriage. I don't know if we'll be able to work them out, but I'll try if you will. And we'll ask God to help heal this relationship. I'd like to meet with you for as long as it takes.' He didn't put a time limit on it, which I liked."

In subsequent sessions, Barry explained how he felt about divorce and its consequences, but he continued to say, "but how I feel is not as important as the decision you have to make."

"Instead of telling us to 'take trips to the zoo and everything will work out,' he got us to work on the fundamentals: learning to love again, praying for one another, including God in our relationship, doing acts of kindness."

He also covered specific problem areas. "He pointed out that Sandy needed to back off when I first came home from work, to give me some time alone," said Jed. "But he also told me I couldn't stay in a coma all evening. I had to begin to open up, too. He made sense. He gave us an exercise: The first thing we said to each other after I came home at night had to be positive, something good that had happened that day or something we appreciated about each other."

The relationship between Jed and Sandy is still not without tension. Jed's business is exhausting and demands much time away from home. He and Sandy are still learning to communicate without being accusing. But after two years, they are still together, and they're still working at it. For them, the key was a pastor who took their problem as seriously as they did.

A Long-Term Process

Through the power of suggestion, pleading, or coercion, a person's behavior can be changed for short periods of time. But long-term results rarely happen as a result of one sermon or a single confrontation.

Not only do people want quick solutions, sometimes the counselors do, too. As one pastor said, "After you have the couple hug each other and pray, and they leave, and then they come back a week later with the same problem, what do you do? Tell them to hug and pray again?"

There is a temptation to give up. "I can sympathize with my colleagues who recommend divorce, even though I strongly disagree with them," said a Christian counselor. "When you keep meeting with someone who has a problem that seems immovable, and the person's been acting this way for three months, it seems like forever. So to help stabilize the person, you say 'Go ahead, get the divorce' because it seems like the way to ease the pain. But unfortunately, it is only the beginning of woes."

Long-term change happens over time as God works. The key for the pastor is to look for God's subtle activity, to high-light it, to bring it to consciousness and affirm it. It means asking, "What is God doing with you?" It's a process of helping resistant people discover the reasons they are in their present situation, then convincing them things can be better, and then training them in a new way of life. This process usually takes years, not months.

"People can learn a lot in a short time, but to actually implement it, to make it functional, may take years," said a Wisconsin pastor. "When people have spent five or twenty-five years learning bad habits, they can't unlearn those and learn other habits overnight. Skills take time to perfect. I tell struggling couples that we're talking about a four-year process of learning to relate again. It's not unlike a college education."

It requires — and devours — time.

In the meantime, the job of the minister is to keep the channels open — and, since hidden factors are often at work, to make sure the real issues have been identified.

Robert J. Carlson. "Hope for Hurting Marriages," Leadership, vol. 7, no. 1 (Winter 1986), pp. 34-35.