My name is Jim, and I'm in a slump. ("Hi, Jim.") It's been two weeks since my last heartfelt prayer—not counting "Lord, help me with this presentation at work" and "Please, God, keep us all safe today." It's been even longer since I spent meaningful time reading my Bible. Oh, it's right there on the table, within arm's reach. I agree with everything that's in there. It's just that . . . well, I'm tired, I'm distracted, I'm not motivated.
More times than I care to admit, this Slumpers Anonymous speech isn't far from the truth. And, be honest: you probably could have attended a few meetings yourself. For whatever reason, you've had the spiritual blues.
Fortunately, marriage can be the ideal spiritual-slump remedy, because usually only one partner is in the slump. The other can be the encourager—you know, "iron sharpens iron." But what do you do when you both careen into the same roadblock? What do you do when neither of you much feels like picking yourself up, let alone your spouse? And when you do finally give a half-hearted effort, everything you try just seems to make things more uncomfortable between you. Meanwhile, you both drift farther from God.
Spiritual slump blues
Dean and Mary Ann know how it feels to hit a spiritual wall. Early in their marriage, they tried unsuccessfully to have children. During those years of increasing frustration, their church split, painfully, over doctrinal issues. Rather than choosing sides, Dean and Mary Ann simply stopped going.
"We felt a little abandoned by God," Mary Ann admits. "We weren't necessarily leading sinful lives; we just weren't bearing fruit and growing."
Their situation points to one type of slump: disappointment with God that leads to a "what's the use?" attitude. In a second category, your spiritual life simply gets crowded out. You're going through some of the motions, attending church, praying together once in a while. It's not like you've junked your Christianity to become drug kingpins. But the fire has gone out. Through our own 13 years of marriage, my wife and I can trace some spiritual slumps to times of being overworked or discouraged about our circumstances.
If those don't describe your situation, consider category three: self-imposed distractions. That's not hitting a wall; it's building one. The usual suspects are too much TV, busyness that leaves us too tired to talk about spiritual matters, and activities that consume our creative energy.
There's a fourth slump category, the most powerful of all: an unwillingness to let go of a particular sin. Sticking with the support-group theme here, I'll 'fess up. From time to time, my wife and I have watched movies that have no place in a Christian home. Not coincidentally, those were the times we felt little desire to spend time with God.
Maybe your problem has nothing to do with home entertainment. It could be not wanting to give up control of how you use your time or not wanting to be generous with your money. No matter what the struggle, it's usually easier to get comfortable in the slump than to pursue a consistent, genuine spiritual life that you know will convict you of some bad habits. So what can you do?
Climbing out of the rut
If you've been feeling disconnected from God and each other, it's time to call in the cavalry. In this case, I spoke with some experts on spiritual intimacy: Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and authors of Becoming Soulmates (Zondervan), and Dr. David Stoop, clinical psychologist and author of Seeking God Together (Tyndale). These experts agree that the first step toward pulling out of a simultaneous slump is to admit there's a problem and then talk.
"That breaks the impasse," Les Parrot says. "In that moment of authenticity you start turning things around."
Along with that, he adds, needs to come total honesty. Sometimes a slump can be traced to a particular crisis or a behavior problem (see Sin, Habitual). Sometimes it's just the blahs. Don't be embarrassed to admit that. And when you do address the issue, check your pride at the door.
"When you lack spiritual energy, it's easy to blame your spouse," says Leslie Parrott. Stoop agrees. "Make it we, not you," he says. "If you get into that 'you' pattern, you shut down communication."
How'd we get here?
Okay, you both acknowledge you're in a rut. Next is understanding how you got there and looking at ways to break out. Here are some reasons we encounter slumps.
Guilt. The big one. It leads to self-condemnation, and it's a barrier to spiritual intimacy. Ask yourself: Is this guilt warranted or self-imposed? A feeling that "I can't approach God after not measuring up to what he wants me to be" is false and self-defeating.
Or the guilt could be spouse-imposed: "Why don't you for once blow the dust off your Bible and spend some time with God?" That may be a sound suggestion, but use this tactless approach and it will buy you a night on the couch. Guilt isn't the best reason to start doing something, even when it's the right thing to start doing.
Dean and Mary Ann admit that, at the depth of their disillusion, they had reverted to being Christmas-and-Easter Christians.
"I was raised in a hellfire and brimstone church," Mary Ann says. "In the back of my mind, there was that guilt and nagging from my conscience: 'You've got to get back to church.'"
Right idea, wrong motivation. Guilt only made going back more difficult, having to answer the "Where have you been?" questions.
They tried another church, and gradually they attended more often. What they heard in church created a hunger to spend more individual time with God, and they began to feel his presence again in their marriage. Their motivation for going to church and feeding their spiritual lives changed from guilt to willingness. And their outlook on trying to have children changed, too.
"Our prayer went from 'Lord, give us children,' to 'Lord, let us see your will,'" Dean says.
A desire to please. Les Parrott says if you try to establish spiritual disciplines as a couple, be sure it's not simply to please your partner. It needs to be motivated by a desire to build three-way spiritual intimacy between you, your spouse and God.
A variation on the desire to please is the desire to stop the nagging: "Okay, if I pray with you once a week will you get off my back about it?" Good habits that grow out of a sense of obligation often don't last.
Chronic prayer neglect. If you have experienced a prolonged slump, chances are it involves a reduced, or nonexistent, shared prayer life. As a slump buster, prayer is a no-brainer. So why can it be so doggone hard to do?
Often, it's because spouses have different expectations. One may be structured and scheduled, the other spontaneous. They'll try to coordinate prayer time together, become frustrated because it seems unnatural, and the subject eventually becomes untouchable because it always starts a fight.
If that sounds familiar, don't give up. The best protection against a simultaneous spiritual slump is earnest, regular prayer together. No amount of marriage seminars and sermons can replace it.
Of course, there could be a more basic issue at work. You have to be comfortable praying individually before you can pray together. Bill Hybels, in his book Too Busy Not to Pray (InterVarsity), mentions several "prayer busters" that can choke a relationship with God: unconfessed sin, unresolved relational conflicts, selfish motives, and uncaring attitudes toward people in need. You'll need to do business with God on any or all of the above before you can enjoy a strong prayer life.
Trying to build with no foundation. As we've mentioned, you can't have a consistent prayer life together if you don't first have it individually. The general feeling of those I talked to is that shared prayer should supplement, not replace, individual prayer.
However, husbands and wives do need to share with each other what's happening in their individual times of prayer and study. If they don't, "It becomes something that's mine and not ours," Stoop says. "Couples grow at different rates, but you've got to talk about those things together."
Leslie Parrott agrees. "When you're having an exciting time of spiritual growth, it's easy to get prideful and resentful that your partner isn't. Remember that just because you don't see the evidence doesn't mean your partner isn't having a journey, too."
Drop and give me 20!
A couch potato who wants to lose 25 pounds won't do it by plunging into an Olympic marathoner's training routine. Neither will the typical slumping couple break out of a rut by tackling an ambitious schedule of spiritual calisthenics three times a day, seven days a week.
"That kind of structure and regimented style can sap the joy out of it," says Les Parrott. "Don't chart out a big plan. Then it becomes like a New Year's resolution and it's like going from neutral to high speed. Find ways to connect that are meaningful to both of you right now."
That meaningful way of connecting can be as simple as going to church together and talking about it afterward, or reading Scripture or a Christian book together (taking turns reading aloud).
"When we've been so stressed and busy," Leslie says, "something as simple as a new packet of sermon tapes can make a difference—even if we're listening to them at different times. We're getting new input from a fresh perspective."
Encouragement can take many forms. As Dean and Mary Ann struggled, Christian music began to speak to them.
Since re-energizing their spiritual life together, Dean and Mary Ann have seen their share of mini-slumps, but not severe enough that they weren't quickly able to snap out of it.
"A lot of it is surrounding yourselves with the right people and the right cultural influences," Dean says. Draw strength from friends, small groups, a mentor couple, anyone who can relate to where you're at spiritually, someone who can hold you accountable without being harshly judgmental. But that should never take the place of relating directly to each other and to God.
"We need to strive to keep each other informed of where we are," Stoop says, "even if one partner is put off by that. Then you need to find out why. If one partner becomes defensive, a lot of times the other will think, 'Okay, that ends that conversation.' Instead, you should think that now you've got something new to talk about."
Stay connected, going so far as to talk about each other's short-term and long-term spiritual goals. Les and Leslie Parrott protect themselves by scheduling extended time at least twice a year to reflect on and evaluate their shared spiritual life. "That way you can't just sail past those points," Leslie says. And, between those scheduled checkpoints, they look for ways to develop spiritual intimacy.
"Sometimes going back to the simplest shared experience is all you need to recharge your spiritual life," Leslie says. "That can mean intentionally sharing a worship service, talking about God's blessings in your lives, reflecting on God's work in your marriage in the past."
"There's no one right way to do this," Les adds. "Every couple carves their own path and cultivates spiritual intimacy in their own way."
Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He and his wife, Lauren, have three children.
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