Those were the words of a woman who was telling me her story after one of our conferences. Her marriage wasn’t on the rocks, but she was realizing that they had become so busy with kids, mortgages, work, school, and so many other things that they were missing the spiritual connection that she hoped for when they first got married. Other couples tell me that they didn’t have much of a spiritual bent when they got married, and I am amazed at how many people tell me that they are spiritually motivated, but their spouse has little or no interest. Regardless of where you are at as a couple in the spiritual intimacy department, there is probably room for growth. For the majority of people who read this book, spiritual intimacy is perhaps the least developed area of their marital relationship.
Jesus described marriage on a very spiritual level: A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. Since they are no longer two but one, let no one separate them, for God has joined them together (Matthew 19:5 nlt). It’s very possible that those verses were read at your wedding. And for most of us, those words would be the desire of our hearts. When you look at this beautiful statement, isn’t that what you would hope for in your relationship? A man and woman leave their parents to become united. They become literally one flesh. You and your spouse are definitely two individuals, but if you are like most people, you have a desire to become more intimate emotionally, physically, and yes, even spiritually.
Jesus’ words “Let no one separate” expresses our desire for God’s presence to be in our relationship. But to want something and to have it are two different things. We may desire a spiritual connection as a couple, but sadly it is usually the least developed area of the relationship. It takes time, open communication, humility, grace, and a desire for spiritual growth for any couple to grow together spiritually. Even then, there are major blocks we must overcome to achieve it. It goes back to one of the main themes running through this entire book, and that is intentionality. Before we can put much of a plan together, we have to look briefly at a few of the things that can block our spiritual intimacy. They aren’t that much different from what blocks other types of intimacy.
Blocks to Growing Together SpirituallyGrowing together spiritually is not our natural bent. Most people had very few role models in this area; maybe their own parents’ marriage was less than helpful in setting an example. And of course, even with good role models and knowing what we should do in terms of building spiritual intimacy, we often let other less-important things get in the way. Cathy and I have tried every “spiritual growth marriage program” available. They are all good, but too often something gets in the way.
Before you create your own plan that will work for you, you’ll have to ask this question: What is holding us back as a couple? Some people can answer that question easily, while others just don’t know how to get past some of the roadblocks. If you know exactly what to do, then skip this part and move on to creating a plan to grow closer together and connect on a deeper level spiritually. If you aren’t sure why you seem to be blocked, read on!
This is beginning to sound like a broken record, but busyness is perhaps the main issue to blocking intimacy of all kinds—especially spiritual intimacy. When Cathy and I were first married we had high hopes that we would have a deep, connected spiritual life together. We assumed it would happen just because we wanted it to happen.
Our first excuse was that we worked very different hours and couldn’t find the right time. I wanted to spend some time with Cathy in the morning and she is more of an evening person. I was too tired in the evening and she wasn’t breathing when I wanted to spend time with her and God in the morning. Next came a very demanding ministry position, then a child, then more kids, then crisis-mode living and too many plates to spin. We were both tired and distracted and kept making excuses. Pretty soon we had to just admit that in our busyness of life, it was easy to miss being intentional about working on our spiritual intimacy.
Why is it that couples can feel closer on a vacation or a church retreat? There really is a simple answer to that question: We slow down and focus on each other. Somehow we have to figure it out in the midst of our life and make it a priority and part of our everyday routine.
If we are honest about our relationship with our spouse, it is very easy to have at least low-level anger at all times. As I have said before, “You can be angry at your spouse and teenagers 24/ 7/365.” Relationships are bumpy. Without good communication and healthy conflict resolutions we build up resentments and minor irritations that escalate more than they should. Pretty soon we are carrying around a whole lot of baggage called anger, annoyance, fury, as well as other resentments. When these issues are left to boil, it is very difficult to come together spiritually.
The Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). That’s good and right advice. However, sometimes it’s easier with the big concerns that are more obvious. We have a tendency to let the little annoyances simmer and build up into what become larger-than-life issues because we don’t deal with them right away.
One couple told me that they have had to learn to pray together even if they are angry. First, they try to deal with the conflict. If they still can’t get resolution, then they take a moment, hold hands, and pray together. The only rule is that they can’t preach at each other in their prayers. Low-level anger can put the spiritual fires out as quickly as anything else.
Lack of Forgiveness
When your spouse has done something against you and you are unable to forgive him or her, you are blocking spiritual intimacy. Forgiveness is a necessary ingredient for a right relationship with both God and your spouse. We live in a society that has taught us to have conditional love, and that kind of love harbors a lack of forgiveness. This may be a major issue for your relationship; if you can’t resolve it, you probably won’t grow spiritually.
Jerry was a youth worker in a church who had what he called an “emotional affair” with a co-worker. He and the co-worker had lost their boundaries and they were definitely violating their values. Finally one night he came clean with his wife. He told her everything and told her he needed help. During the crisis, his wife was wonderful. She was understanding, firm, helpful, and supportive. Jerry got the help he needed, and the co-worker ended up changing jobs. Two marriages were saved, and the potential heartbreak for the children and families of both couples was averted.
However, after one of our Ministry and Marriage conferences, Jerry’s wife came to me and told me about her ongoing struggle. She had been through so much, and she had done a great job. She wanted to talk because she still wasn’t connecting with Jerry spiritually. The more we talked, the more I began to see that she had never forgiven Jerry for abandoning her emotionally. Jerry had asked for forgiveness from both God and his wife, and it looked like he had truly repented of his behavior. Although she wanted to forgive him, she was still harboring a lack of mercy. Her resentment was affecting their relationship, especially their spiritual intimacy.
As much as Jerry was in the wrong, it was his wife who would have to deal with her lack of forgiveness in order for their relationship to grow. Most of the time this kind of situation is not a quick fix. It often takes seeking out some counseling from a pastor or Christian therapist to work through all the issues. But it was important to their marriage that Jerry’s wife be willing to do what it took to find forgiveness in her heart. Only then could they hope to flourish in the area of spiritual intimacy.
Lack of Respect
Isn’t it amazing that two fairly normal and actually pretty nice people can get married and treat each other like complete idiots? Someone once said, “If you took all the problems in your neighborhood and threw them out in the street, after sifting through them, you would probably pick up your own problems and take them back home with you.” No one would disagree with the biblical statement “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Marriage brings out both the best in us ... and the worst. Cathy knows me at my very worst. She has every reason not to respect me and call me a hypocrite. Every married person can say the same about his or her spouse. Perhaps your spouse has some major issues, such as addictions, and it is very difficult to respect their behavior. I am not telling you to look the other way in major issues like that. But in the general areas of human frailty we need to overlook a lot if we want to grow together spiritually. It doesn’t take perfection to achieve spiritual intimacy—it takes transparency and integrity. You can still respect people without approving of their sin. The biblical term grace means unmerited favor. God gives us grace, and we in turn should give it to our spouse.
The Jews brought a woman to Jesus who was caught engaging in adultery. No doubt she was deeply ashamed as they discussed her fate in her presence.
Jesus treated this woman who had definitely been caught in serious sin with amazing respect. He knew the law and did not gloss over her transgression. But he did not look down on her or treat her with scorn. His respect, gentleness, and mercy (while still admonishing her to leave this kind of behavior behind) is a good model for us as we interact with our spouse. Unlike Jesus, we can’t afford to be too smug as we point out other people’s faults since we are just as guilty as they are. If we are serious about building spiritual intimacy in our marriage we need to be careful. If we demonstrate a lack of respect and disdain for our partner we’ll forfeit the gains we are seeking.
“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, stone her. But let those who have never sinned throw the first stones!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to her, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more” (John 8:4–11 nlt).
I don’t know about you, but I believe there is a spiritual battle that takes place for the soul of every marriage. Satan opposes spiritual growth in couples for obvious reasons. I can’t speak for Satan, but I believe he never hesitates to go for the jugular, which is your marriage. Sure the power of evil brings sin into our lives, but Satan also does something else that is more subtle: He causes a couple to settle for a lack of spiritual intimacy. He knows there is heavenly power against him that can pay dividends for generations to come when a couple walks together spiritually!
At a conference recently I asked five hundred couples in ministry if any of them believed they had witnessed spiritual warfare taking place in their marriage. All of them raised their hands! As we began to share about spiritual warfare, they said they needed God’s power the most when dealing with marital challenges. The Bible is clear: “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4 nasb). James 4:7–8 gives us the strategy for winning in this battle: “Submit yourselves ... to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you.” Don’t underestimate the spiritual battle taking place for the spiritual intimacy of your marriage. You can’t expect your marriage to grow spiritually merely by circumstance and chance. You must be intentional about refreshing your marriage spiritually.
Next week: Refreshing Your Marriage Spiritually
Jim Burns, Ph.D., founded the ministry HomeWord in 1985 with the goal of bringing help and hope to struggling families. As host of the radio broadcast HomeWord with Jim Burns, which is heard daily by more than one million listeners, Jim's passion is to build God-honoring families through communicating practical truths that will enable adults and young people alike to live out their Christian faith.
In addition to the radio program, Jim speaks to thousands around the world each year through seminars and conferences. He is an award-winning author, whose books include The 10 Building Blocks for a Happy Family and Devotions on the Run. Jim and his wife, Cathy, and their three daughters live in Dana Point, California.