When my husband and I married nine years ago, we were flooded with aids to structure our devotions together—needlepoint mottos ("The Couple That Prays Together, Stays Together"), Bible-reading schedules designed for two, prayer journals with two columns and lots and lots of books. So we figured that joint devotions were just one of those things married people do—like sharing a bathroom or sleeping in the same bed.
Sleeping in the same bed wasn't easy (we're both sprawlers, snorers and leg-jigglers), but eventually we figured out how to fall asleep together. But joint devotions? We decided to start out by praying together in the morning, but we couldn't manage to synchronize our body clocks. I got up early to swim, but my husband slept in. We switched to bedtime. My vocal prayer style is short and terse, while my husband's is conversational and wandering. I would pray in a few brief sentences and then, listening to the soothing sound of his voice, I would find myself mentally rearranging the cabinets or (worse) dozing off.
We hadn't been married long before I realized that I was having trouble finding time for my private devotions—let alone additional time for joint prayer. I was staying up later at night, talking to my husband, entertaining company, trying to finish up work I hadn't done during the day. And I was getting up later in the morning. When we had a baby (and then another and then another), time alone got even more scarce.
Over the years, I've managed to carve out time for private devotions. There are weeks when prayer falls out of the routine, but I usually manage to haul it back onto my schedule before too much time goes by. But in the decade we've been married, my husband and I have never been able to establish joint devotions. This is partly due to the pattern of our lives. We both work, we don't use childcare and we home school. I get up and work from seven a.m. until one in the afternoon, while he has child-duty, and then take over the kids. My husband then works from one until seven or eight in the evening. We all eat a late dinner, and then we put the kids to bed and fall onto the sofa in exhaustion. Weekends are family time. Every two weeks or so, we leave the kids with my parents for an evening and have a date (on our way out the door, my husband likes to say, "Run away! Run away!"). We like our life, but there's not much time in there for shared devotions.
And frankly, we've never gotten much out of shared quiet times. We tried joint Bible reading, but we read at different speeds, so one of us was always done way before the other. We tried doing devotional readings, but our styles are widely divergent. I get a spiritual charge out of working through a systematic theology and taking notes, but my husband finds this too much like graduate school (hardly a devotional experience for him). We tried reading spiritual classics out loud to each other, but both of us would much rather read to ourselves.
I used to wonder what was wrong with us. Didn't we have a good marriage? Wasn't living for God our most obvious shared goal? Weren't we growing spiritually? But our marriage was solid; God was constantly in view; we were working through problems together, disciplining and loving our children together and prospering spiritually (separately). Why couldn't we manage a simple quiet time together?
I felt guilty over this for years, until a simple truth dawned on me: joint devotions aren't the same as a shared spiritual life. My husband and I lead worship together at church. We talk constantly about our individual spiritual journeys, generally in the car (or over lunch or while we're doing household chores). I tell my husband, often, what I'm struggling with and ask him to pray for me. I regularly ask him how I can pray for him, and I write those requests down (I have a memory like a colander) and pray for them daily. We often pass books to each other and then discuss them. Recently my husband turned Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind over to me, with the comment, "Now I understand why your Ph.D. studies are so important." I had just read Thomas Merton's Seeds of Contemplation for the first time. I was enthralled by the book, so I gave it to him and asked him to tell me what he thought. Our spiritual lives are connected; it's simply our approach to God that remains private.
Yes, we have family prayers and Bible reading with the children, but that's not really a time of devotion for us; it's a time when we model behavior that we want the boys to adopt. Yes, we do sometimes pray about a particular need or crisis together, especially when we hear about a problem and drop everything to beg God for intervention and mercy. Recently a member of our church family called with news that her breast cancer—successfully treated, we thought, with surgery and chemotherapy—appeared to have returned. We prayed right then and there, on the phone, and then over every meal, at church, at worship practice and at bedtime.
But Peter and I will go on meeting with God privately, keep on swapping books and prayer requests, keep on talking with each other about what goes on in our separate times of devotion. We've been doing this for nine years, three babies and a series of financial ups and downs. We've just celebrated an anniversary, and our marriage and our commitment to God are stronger than they've ever been. I think I'm finally accepting this as the way our marriage works. And there's some freedom in that. Peter and I are joining our spiritual lives. After all, there are plenty of commands in Scripture for believers to join in prayer (Matt. 18:19-20; Col. 4:2) and in serving (Eccl. 4:9-10; Acts 18:2-3, 18), but the words "joint quiet time" can't be found anywhere in my Bible's index.
Susan Wise Bauer teaches English at The College of William and Mary and is the author of two novels and co-author of The Well-Trained Mind (W.W. Norton), a book on classical home education. She and Peter and their three sons live in Charles City, Virginia.
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.