As newlyweds, one of the first times my husband, Tim, led me in prayer aloud, I made the awful mistake of laughing at him when he stumbled over his words! Many years into our marriage, Tim still remembers how uncomfortable I made him feel.
Most couples have difficulty developing an intimate spiritual life not just in the early stages of marriage, but throughout their lives. Yet there's nothing more significant than consistently and intentionally coming together before God to know him better and to serve him more fully. Unfortunately, according to author Neil Clark Warren, only 10 to 15 percent of couples really enjoys true intimate spirituality.
Why is spiritual intimacy difficult to achieve? For Tim and me, so much seemed to compete for our spiritual affection. The desire for spiritual intimacy was there, but we got lost along the way and eventually became discouraged. Here are other barriers that can prevent you from being on the spiritual-intimacy track:
Stress. When you're stressed, all your energies are focused on protecting yourself and solving the problems that created the stress in the first place. That leaves very little energy to develop a deep relationship with your spouse and with your Lord. Managing everyday stress is a problem everyone needs to work on.
Time. In his book Margin, author Richard Swensen states that the average couple spends as little as four minutes a day in meaningful couple time. It's hard to spend much more when you're also balancing the demands of a job and children. But as my mother told me when I was a teenager, "If you don't take time for the Lord now, you'll never have time later on." Make time with both your spouse and God a high priority every day.
Satanic assault. Ephesians 6:12 says, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." We are in spiritual warfare, and our enemy is Satan. I believe Satan's key targets are your relationship with the Lord and your marriage.
Traditions. We all grow up with different ways of worshiping God. In some homes, parents valued and modeled spiritual intimacy; in others, parents didn't. Regardless of your background, remember that parental influences and traditions go deep. Bringing together two different ways of seeking out God can be quite challenging.
Negative emotions. Fear, discouragement, anger . . . so many negative emotions can block spiritual intimacy. For instance, many couples are afraid to pray in front of their spouse, as Tim was in the beginning of our marriage. Or there may be times when you feel discouraged about life and disconnected from God to the point that you don't think God even cares about you. Anger is another emotional roadblock. It's hard to pray with your spouse when you're frustrated and angry at him.
Your emotions signal troubled waters and a need for intimacy—but don't let them be barriers to God. Take each one of them to him.
Knowledge. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that anyone who "comes to [God] must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him." Maybe one or both of you don't understand who God is and how to approach him together. Or perhaps you don't know how to pray or start reading the Bible. I recommend you seek out a Bible-believing pastor, get involved in your local church, and begin (or restart) your journey.
The gender gap. Intimacy can mean one thing to your husband and another to you. That's why we have to connect and discuss these differences upfront. I've heard many a husband say, "I'm pretty intimate as a husband. I've really invested in our marriage. I took my wife out to eat this week. I mowed the lawn and I bathed the kids. I invest a lot of time in my wife and family."
Well, according to his wife, he's far from a ten out of ten. He might be a six out of ten. She may think, I'm not going to settle for six out of ten. I'm not getting my needs met, and that's important to me. If this is the case with you, talkit out rather than fight it out. Discuss your differences. Learn to connect.
One-upmanship. Perhaps you're the one who's spiritually in tune with the Lord. You were brought up in a Christian home, you went to Bible school, and you may even be able to read Greek and Hebrew. If so, your spouse may feel intimidated to read God's Word with you and to try to apply it to life. Maybe you're overly active in the church and you hound your spouse with, "You need to do the same."
Be careful of the message you convey; you don't want to come across as a know-it-all and subtly turn your spouse away from God. Remember, spiritual intimacy isn't about impressing your spouse; it's about building a relationship with Jesus Christ together.
Getting Back on Track
"Spontaneous structure" is an oxymoron just like "jumbo shrimp." In reality, knowing God involves spontaneity and structure.
Too many times we want a 12-step program to help make us become more spiritual. How Tim and I tried that approach! I smile when I think of all the different things we've done to know God—devotionals, books, one-year Bibles, and so on. I think sometimes we feel we need to work hard in order to know God. But we need to remember that God wants to know us. He actually pursues us. That's what "spontaneous structure" is about. True spontaneity involves those unplanned moments, those special moments in your life when God just drops in.
For instance, I spend a lot of time running errands or taking our children to school or to other activities. During my drive time I usually turn on the radio. Occasionally an announcement or some special song reminds me of my need for God. That's a special moment God brings into my life. But many times we're so preoccupied that we miss seeing God's work. Thankfully, we have One who pursues us at any cost—in busyness or pain or beauty or rebellion—to win our hearts. That's a great God. So start looking for God around you. You might be shocked at how busy he is in your life and your marriage.
In addition to spontaneous moments, focus on the more structured moments—those scheduled times and deliberate efforts that make up a disciplined spiritual life. This includes Bible reading, Bible study, praise and worship, church attendance, fasting, prayer, and more. In his book Celebration of Discipline, author Richard Foster states: "We so many times believe we have to have everything just perfect or everything just right in our life before we can start a spiritual life with the Lord." We will never be at that point, will we? So what we need to do, he says, is to come to God no matter what.
Probably the easiest place to start a structured spiritual life together is to concentrate on prayer. Here are some thoughts to keep you focused:
Get started. If you aren't already, begin attending church, reading the Bible, listening to Christian music, praying, and more. God wants to spend intimate time with you. Approach God with a spirit of expectation, just as your children approach you. They know you love them, that you'll provide everything for them. Likewise, God loves you and wants you to come to him believing he'll fill your needs. If you're tired of trying or simply are exhausted, be reminded of Philippians 4:13, which says, "I can do everything through [Christ] who gives me strength."
Don't set yourself up for failure. Don't expect to read an entire book of the Bible your first night of couple devotions. If your husband has never prayed with you before, don't expect him to pray for 30 minutes. Set short-term goals and use variety. If you've never prayed together as a couple, begin by having silent prayer in the same room. In time you might be ready to hold hands and have silent prayer. Eventually you may be able to share prayer requests with each other and take turns praying in a sentence format. After a while you'll actually be able to have a deep meaningful prayer time together. Few moments in a marriage are as powerful as praying for and with each other.
Never give up. James 4:8 says that when we draw near to God, he draws near to us. Don't letdistractions or discouragement rob you of his presence.
In today's fast-paced world, it's hard to relate one-on-one. As a result, too often our conversations with our spouse become superficial. But one blessing of a spiritually intimate marriage is that as you spend time together with God, your conversations and thought life begin to change. Spiritual intimacy increases your ability to relate to each other. As you both grow in Christ, you develop more shared values, shared directions, and shared goals. As you read God's Word together, you learn God's way of handling the problems that come your way. And you both develop a keener sense of his will for your marriage and life.
Spiritual intimacy is also a wonderful way to express love. When I know Tim is concerned about my spiritual growth and our growth together, I feel safe and assured of his love. And it challenges me to love Tim in the same way.
So ask God to put within you a yearning to pursue spiritual intimacy like you've never pursued it before. And hopefully, as a couple, you'll be able to say with the apostle Paul, "[We] have fought the good fight, [we] have finished the race, [we] have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).
Adapted from The Joy of Marriage God's Way (Integrity Publishers). Copyright 2003, The American Academy of Christian Counselors. Used by permission of Integrity Publishers.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.