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How close are you and your spouse spiritually? MP reports how couples are living out their faith.

My husband and I feel the spiritual aspect of our marriage is pretty healthy. We make it a point to pray together every day, read the Bible together every evening after dinner, and attend a couples' Bible study together every Wednesday night. On Sunday, we usually go out for lunch after church for the sole purpose of discussing our pastor's message and applying it to our lives.

Okay, I repent. Everything except the first sentence of that opening paragraph is a lie!

It's more like this:

My husband and I feel the spiritual aspect of our marriage is pretty healthy. We're comfortable praying for and with each other when we feel the need, we often find ourselves discussing spiritual matters, we serve together as elders at our church and provide pre-marital counseling for couples.

It wasn't always like this—we've sort of grown into it as we've matured. Or maybe we've matured as we've grown into it.

A few years back, Marriage Partnership surveyed nearly 2,600 married people to find out what spiritual activities they and their spouses engage in (and here's the catch) intentionally and together. We're not talking about routinely zipping off grace before a meal! We mean deliberately praying, attending church, doing devotions, reading the Bible, attending a Bible study, discussing spiritual matters, serving, giving … together.

Averaging 14 years of marriage with a median age of 40, the couples we surveyed are, for the most part, active together spiritually in some way. Two thirds (66 percent) have children living at home, the largest concentration of which are in the early elementary years of kindergarten through fifth grade (45 percent). Nearly all respondents (99 percent) said they are Christians, and 90 percent say their spouse is also a Christian. More than 8 out of 10 (86 percent) of these couples indicate they regularly engage in at least one spiritual activity together.

Almost half (48 percent) say they are very satisfied with their marriage in general, however only one fifth (20 percent) say they are very satisfied with their marriage on a spiritual level.

But consider this: 9 out of 10 (90 percent) of those who are very satisfied with their marriage spiritually are also very satisfied with their marriage in general. This doesn't surprise Gary Thomas, mp regular contributor and author of numerous Christian marriage books, including Sacred Marriage. "Consider the spiritual reality of marriage," Thomas observes. "One person who 'stumbles in many ways' (James 3:2) married to another person who stumbles in many ways. Apart from God's grace and presence, that's a prescription for disaster! If spouses don't maintain God's view of their spouse, they'll soon lose respect and appreciation for each other. If a couple doesn't maintain spiritual intimacy, their conversation will become judgmental and accusatory, instead of encouraging and nurturing."

Let's take a look at what these couples are doing to develop and maintain that spiritual intimacy.

Attending church together …

Three quarters (75 percent) of those who responded to the survey said they attend church with their spouse at least three out of every four weeks. Four out of ten (41 percent) serve in a church ministry with their spouse, and eight out of ten (81 percent) give financially to their church.

According to Mark Galli, author of Jesus, Mean and Wild, and managing editor of Christianity Today magazine, "When a couple is active together in a church, that is the most important spiritual activity to engage in—that they are involved in the life of a Christian community. Our life as Christians is primarily communal, and therefore our spiritual lives as couples should be communal, set first and foremost in the context of the church."

Praying together …

On the average, those surveyed pray together 2.4 times per month, and a little more than one third (35 percent) said they and their spouse pray together at least once a week. "My spouse and I agree that prayer has been immensely helpful in strengthening and growing our marriage relationship," says one survey respondent. "As we draw closer to God together, we are drawn closer to each other!"

Yet many expressed the desire to be praying—or praying more—together. Others admitted they feel too vulnerable or embarrassed to pray with their spouse.

In a Marriage Partnership interview about his book, The Art of Prayer, Timothy Jones (MP, Fall 1997) addresses this hesitancy to pray together: "Several things hold us back. First, we fear that we won't measure up; that prayer is complicated and something only certain people do right. In reality, it's the simplest language in the world. God hears our humblest words. Prayer is more a matter of the heart than an eloquent vocabulary, whether you're praying by yourself or with your spouse. Begin with small steps. Pray the Lord's Prayer together out loud, or use an acrostic like A.C.T.S. (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication), speaking simple sentence prayers. Then let your times of prayer develop and deepen at their own rate."

Devotions and Bible reading …

Only one quarter (26 percent) of those surveyed said they do devotions with their spouse, and three out of ten (30 percent) spend time reading or studying the Bible together. Perhaps this reflects a difference in approach rather than a lack of spiritual intimacy. Speaker and church consultant Nancy Ortberg, whose husband, John, is a teaching pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, observes, "It's one thing if you both share the same devotional style or approach Bible study in the same way. But John and I have learned you can't force your spouse to have the same approach you do—the point is to grow together spiritually, not make your spouse like you."

Gary Thomas agrees: "Each of us relates to God in different ways, according to our spiritual temperament. Based on that, I think it's reasonable for most couples to assume that the husband's primary approach to building intimacy with God may differ radically from his wife's approach. The natural result of this is that our devotional times as married couples should supplement our devotional lives, rather than form the core. Expecting an enthusiast and a contemplative [a spiritual extrovert and a spiritual introvert] to always or even regularly share the same type of devotional experience is just as foolish as asking my wife to run marathons with me when she has no desire whatsoever to run 26.2 miles in a single stretch."

Several of our survey respondents commented that rather than doing devotions or Bible study together as a couple, they prefer to take their own individual devotional and study approaches and share with each other what they are learning and how they are growing.

However, a majority of those we surveyed find involvement together in a small group or Bible study group beneficial for their marriage. Seven out of ten (71 percent) have been in such a group together and find it is helpful for them to interact with other adults (84 percent) and learn from other married couples (68 percent).

God talk …

Survey respondents said they have spiritual conversations with their spouses an average of 5.7 times per month, and slightly more than half (53 percent) say they talk about spiritual things at least once a week. Nancy Ortberg asserts that this can be one of the richest spiritual activities a couple can engage in together, provided there is freedom to express truth, differences, and negatives. "You may tell your spouse, 'I want us to talk more about spiritual things,' but are you okay with him saying, 'Okay, well, I look for God everywhere but I just can't seem to find him lately'? You have to give each other permission to be honest without judgment or criticism."

Mark Galli agrees, "We assume that if we're different, something is wrong with me, or with my spouse. And then we become afraid of our differences. We're afraid that if we really found out how different we are, the marriage would fracture. And so we go on together with a sort of superficial unity. It's all a crock. Men and women are radically different—thank God. And individual men and women more so. And until we can accept that as a given—accepting both our spouse and ourselves—we're not going to make much progress in intimacy. The golden rule of intimacy is this: the more different we are, the closer we can become, because it is only when we're different that we have something unique to offer each other."

He won't; she won't

Many of those we surveyed expressed frustration with their spouse spiritually—mostly wives wanting their husbands to be more spiritually involved; husbands feeling nagged or judged by their wives. Nancy Ortberg suggests a gentle and loving approach, "Everyone who has ever been pushed to do something knows that it just makes you pull away more."

In light of that, says Gary Thomas, "Women need to understand that when men feel incompetent, they tend to quit trying. If you contribute to your husband's sense of 'spiritual incompetence'—verbally or nonverbally—you're creating hurdles for him to grow in that area. If he's made to feel like he doesn't measure up, his natural tendency will be to avoid it altogether. In many cases, it's not that men don't want to provide spiritual leadership, but rather that they feel incompetent. So a woman's best approach is to take an encouraging stance and begin asking her husband something to do that is rather simple for him to master."

How can a couple do that? "Instead of starting with, 'We need to pray together more often,'" Thomas suggests, "try asking him to pray with you about a specific topic: 'I'm really concerned about Amy's choice of friends. Will you pray with me about that?' And then give him things to do that are focused: 'Jimmy is ten years old now and is going to be facing all those lust issues. Do you think you could talk to our pastor and some other men at church and see what they're doing with their boys?' The more you make these tasks specific, focused, and achievable, the more likely your husband is to take them on. Now, this is the key: once he begins 'tasting' spiritual leadership, he'll start to grow in that area. Your goal is to start him on that path, and let God bring him along."

What is "spiritual activity"?

One survey respondent spoke for many when he or she said, "I wish we shared more together spiritually. We don't know where to start, and we don't know what to do." Nancy Ortberg warns, "Don't do spiritual things just for the sake of doing spiritual things. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah (29:13), the Lord says, 'These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men.' If we set out to pray together everyday, but our hearts aren't in it, even prayer becomes 'rules taught by men.' Start with the heart, and the action (whatever form that takes) will follow. Initiate conversations that get to the heart. Take a walk with your spouse and ask, 'When have you felt closest to God?' and really listen to what he or she says."

Mark Galli cautions against defining spiritual activity too tightly. The spiritual activities explored in this survey certainly are not the only means to achieving spiritual intimacy. "We have to broaden our understanding of what a spiritual activity is. Sharing a meal together under the canopy of God's ever-present love can be a spiritual activity, even if nothing specifically spiritual comes up. To be sure, a meal can be just a meal if we're simply stuffing food into our mouths before we get on to the next thing in our day. But a shared meal together in which conversation and food are savored is a godly thing."

Survey says …

Beware the danger of surveys: comparison. It's important to remember that the spiritual activities that work for one couple may not work for another. On the other hand, survey results may introduce us to ideas we can use or tuck away for another season of marriage.

Kate V. Bryant, a freelance author, has been married to Paul for 25 years.

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

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