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Get in Sync Spiritually

9 strategies for overcoming a marital stalemate
Get in Sync Spiritually

Just because you and your husband are Christians doesn't mean you're automatically in "spiritual sync." Often one spouse lags behind in spiritual development—sometimes far behind. Your husband may be indifferent about growing spiritually; other times, he may show enthusiasm for deepening his faith, but your progress vastly outpaces his.

The reality is, we're all fellow strugglers seeking to become more Christlike, and God works in each of us differently. But if it appears you overshadow your spouse in spiritual growth, the following steps can help you achieve better marital balance. Use this checklist to proceed with godly sensitivity, loving concern, and an encouraging heart.

1. Ask the tough question: Is your spouse really a Christian? The Bible makes it clear that some people who claim to be followers of Jesus really aren't. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven," Jesus said in Matthew 7:21.

Those are sobering words! The truth is, many sincerely believe they're Christian, but there's no evidence in their lives to back up that assertion. At the root of their problem may be a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to become a Christ-follower.

John 1:12 describes what it means to become an authentic Christian: "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." A person must not only believe Jesus is the unique Son of God who died for our sins, but he must receive him as his forgiver and leader. Only then does a person become adopted into God's family.

An individual cannot strengthen his relationship with Jesus if he's never met Jesus. Without the Holy Spirit's indwelling power, the desire, capacity, and ability to change and develop are sorely limited.

2. Attend a church where you both flourish. My wife, Leslie, and I have seen cases where a church is well suited to the temperament, personality, style, and taste of one spouse, but the other partner languishes spiritually because he doesn't connect with the church's approach to worship or ministry. As difficult as it can be to change your faith community, this might be necessary if you both are to thrive spiritually.

Try attending a few other local churches together. First run the church through a doctrinal grid to make sure it's biblically sound, then see if the congregation's atmosphere is conducive to both your spiritual journeys.

Some personal compromise might be required. The best church for you might stifle your spouse, so settle for a church that's good for you while at the same time appropriate for him. Be honest with each other as you evaluate possibilities. Take your time. Remember, no church is perfect, since they're all made up of imperfect people such as us!

3. Help your husband discover his spiritual gifts. Todd grew up in a church where the leaders always seemed to be scrambling for volunteers to help with babies in the nursery or to clean the sanctuary before services. He felt pressured to participate, at one point spending an entire summer teaching Sunday school to a class of rowdy, inattentive third graders. That prompted him to give up on volunteering and to shy away from church.

"I've done my time," he said when his wife asked why he wasn't interested in getting involved in their local congregation. "Nobody's going to guilt-trip me into volunteering for some mind-numbing job." As a result, he became a "pew potato," a spectator whose spiritual growth became stunted.

All that ended, though, when his wife gave him a book on spiritual gifts. After taking the assessment test, he learned God had given him a spiritual gift of administration. He loves to keep track of paperwork, to computerize records, and to help pull off a ministry event by making sure all its myriad details are handled efficiently. When he started exercising that gift, Todd found great satisfaction and joy.

Today Todd's deeply involved in administrating an elaborate athletic ministry at his church. This has enabled him to build new relationships with other Christian men, and now he's finally flourishing in his faith.

When an ineffective, stagnant Christian discovers how God shaped him to make an eternal difference through a local church—watch out! He finds unique excitement, enjoyment, and inner reward in experiencing God working through his gifts, passions, skills, personality, and experiences.

4. Go beyond surface prayers. "Sometimes it's tempting to try to pick apart your spouse to figure out why he isn't responding the way you respond spiritually," says Brad Mitchell, director of men's ministries at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. "So you wonder things out loud (where he can hear you), talk to your friends on the phone in disappointed tones (again, where he can hear you)—all in an effort to guilt him into action. But the most important thing you can do is pray—because God's the only One who can engage your spouse. It has to happen from the inside out."

Brad's right. We need to offer prayers that go beyond the simplistic "Please, Lord, get him to church next week." Instead, pray for your spouse's heart. "You don't want him coming to church to please you," says Tom Holladay of Saddleback Church in Southern California. "You want him to come to church because of his love for the Lord."

Our ministry partner Brad Johnson, also a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church, recommends you don't forget to pray for yourself, too. "Most prayer is, 'Change that man,'" Brad said. "That's fine, but I would suggest another tack: 'God, change me. Give me patience, wisdom, and strength of character. Build in me, Lord, a loving heart for this man. Help me to see him as you do and to remember daily that you died on the cross for my spouse. Help me to love him like that.' Ruth Graham once said, 'It's God's job to change Billy Graham. It's my job to love him.'"

5. Give yourself an attitude check. The Bible's filled with colorful imagery to describe the effects of one spouse trying to change the other through badgering and berating. "Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife," says Proverbs 25:24. "A nagging wife," says Proverbs 27:15 (NLT), "is as annoying as the constant dripping on a rainy day." Not a pretty picture, right?

Nobody purposefully sets out to nag her partner. But that's the effect when you repeatedly point out his flaws, highlight his shortcomings, and criticize his lack of spiritual progress. Many times we're not even aware of how critical we're being. We think we're merely being helpful—but Christian counselor and marriage expert H. Norman Wright emphasizes this attitude of faultfinding actually is counterproductive to the change you'd like to see in your spouse. When you dwell on your partner's shortcomings, you subtly reinforce them. A spouse generally fulfills whatever vision of his life that's painted by his partner, positive or negative.

A far better approach is to accentuate the positive and to sincerely and enthusiastically applaud whatever spiritual progress you might see in your partner. Speaking gentle words of respect and encouragement, whether in private or in front of others, can be extremely influential in bringing about a desire to change.

6. Adjust your expectations. Susan's an extrovert who enjoys interacting with other people. It's not surprising that a lot of her spiritual growth takes place in the context of relationships, where she gets elbow-deep into other people's lives through her ministry of hospitality. On the other hand, Dan, her husband, is a soft-spoken introvert. He's less likely to speak up during their small-group meetings, and he shrinks back from getting involved with church activities that involve a lot of people. Because of that, Susan thought her husband wasn't growing in his faith.

The truth was, Dan was merely growing in a different way than Susan. He's an intellectual who experiences God through reading weighty theological tomes that illuminate God's attributes and character. Then he writes in a journal about how these new insights can help him change his character and values to be more Christlike. Because these are private spiritual exercises he's shy about discussing, his wife wasn't aware he actually was growing as much as he was. She equated spiritual growth with group activities and public ministry, but that's not the only sign of someone's spiritual development.

It helps when spouses candidly discuss the ways they tend to grow spiritually. That way, they can encourage each other and even join in the other person's spiritual exercises when appropriate. For example, if your spouse experiences God most readily through the beauty of nature, why not spend time with him hiking in the mountains? Peeking into his world can give you a new appreciation for how he's wired to relate to God.

7. Facilitate same-gender friendships for your spouse. A husband's spiritual development often soars when he gets into relationships with other Christian men. Often these kinds of friendships can be the catalyst to get a spouse on track with his spiritual life. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another," says Proverbs 27:17.

"I'd encourage a wife to look for Christian men who might have points of connection with her husband," says Brad Johnson of Saddleback Church. "For instance, maybe she's in a Bible study where another woman says, 'My husband just got a new mountain bike. He's been wanting to take up riding for some time, but he's looking for someone to ride with.' She might think, Hmmm. My husband's an avid mountain biker, and her husband's a dedicated Christian—maybe they can connect. So she mentions to her husband that her friend's spouse is looking for a biking partner for occasional rides. Would he be willing to include him sometime?"

Another avenue is to see if your spouse would be interested in joining a couples small group. Often men are indifferent to attending church because they lack personal relationships with others in the congregation. But they become much more enthusiastic when they have a close friendship with some other men who are part of the same fellowship.

One tip: Put a time limit on the first small-group experience. Don't make it an open-ended commitment that your spouse envisions as a lifelong obligation. Create an escape hatch by joining say, an eight-week Bible study on the book of Ephesians or a ten-week group built around improving parenting skills. This will make it more likely that your spouse will agree to join—and any budding friendships that develop certainly can continue into the future.

8. Check your motivation. "Be careful you're not using church attendance or Bible studies to escape struggles in your marriage," says Tom Holladay of Saddleback.

Ask yourself whether you want your husband to grow spiritually because you honestly want to see him relating better to God—or because you're embarrassed he's not more involved in church. Or because you secretly wish he was more like Darla's husband (who's a widely admired small-group leader) or Jenny's husband (who teaches a popular Sunday school class). If you're subconsciously comparing your spouse's spirituality with someone else's, your husband will sense it in your tone of voice, your disapproving looks, and your subtle remarks.

Make sure the proper fuel—a sincere yearning for him to know Jesus in a deeper, more meaningful way, and to fully experience the joy and adventure of a sold-out Christian life—propels your concern for him.

9. Keep moving full steam ahead! One final caution: While you're encouraging your spouse's spiritual growth, don't slow down with your own. After all, getting in sync shouldn't mean you put the brakes on your spiritual development in order to match his slower pace!

"God has an important plan for how he wants to work in and through you," says Mark Mittelberg, coauthor of Becoming a Contagious Christian. "Keep pursuing that plan! Don't flaunt what you're learning or the changes you're experiencing, but don't hide them, either. Sometimes there's a side benefit: The progress your spouse sees in you may wind up motivating him to grow!"

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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