Editor's Note: This is Part II of a two-part series on spiritual intimacy in marriage. To read Part I, click here.
As I have mentioned, intentionality is the key. There isn't anyone reading this that would not begin with a plan if he or she was starting a business. Yet most couples not only do not have a plan to grow together toward spiritual intimacy ... they don't even talk about it. Often it is a back-burner topic at best.
Yet when I discuss this topic in conferences or on my radio program, many people say with almost a far-off yearning look, “I wish my spouse and I were closer spiritually.” It’s not going to happen without a plan. To quote one of my favorite movies, What About Bob?, it will best be done with “baby steps.” It is very rare for a relationship to move from lacking spiritually to strong growth overnight. It takes nurturing and pruning over time to have a beautiful garden; in the same way, it takes time and careful cultivation to grow toward spiritual intimacy. And it won’t happen by osmosis. It will happen when one or both of the spouses start by planting the seeds of spiritual growth.
You can start the process by praying daily for your spouse and your relationship. Paul’s advice to Timothy was to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). I’m not talking about hours of prayer, but simply a daily time (however short) to pray for your spouse. Give your relationship to God. Pray for your spouse’s needs and seek God’s will for how you can serve your spouse. Even this one simple act of daily disciplined prayer for your spouse will make a difference. As you pray, look for an opportunity to create a plan. The old adage “Fail to plan, plan to fail” is so true when couples desire to experience spiritual growth together.
If your spouse is open to it, pray together daily. If your spouse is not very spiritually motivated, then keep prayer very short and do it at a meal or another time that seems less intimidating. I know one couple who started praying together every day with the wife simply saying, “God, thank you for our food. Thank you for the children. Thank you so much for Jack. Help us to be a God-honoring couple and family. Amen.”
One day, after months of that prayer, Jack said, “Let me pray, too.” He said, “God, I’m not much of a pray-er but I agree with Janet, and thanks for Janet’s heart for you. Amen, again!” After a while the kids got involved too. After a year Jack and Janet were feeling more comfortable praying together.
Our pastor made an amazing statement one day in church. He said, “I have never seen one couple go through with a divorce after praying together, on their knees, every day for a month.” Praying together is the glue that binds our hearts together and focuses us on God’s power in our marriage and family. The mistake some couples make is that they start with goals that are too high, and they expect too much too soon. Praying together is a bit like going to the gym. We may be excited about getting started on a physical fitness program, but the long-lasting results happen only after time and discipline.
The Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Paul Tournier wrote,
It is only when a husband and wife pray together before God that they find the secret of true harmony: that the difference in their temperaments, their ideas, and their tastes enriches their home instead of endangering it. When each of the marriage partners seeks quietly before God to see his own faults, recognizes his sin, and asks for the forgiveness of the other, marital problems are no more. They learn to become absolutely honest with each other. This is the price to be paid if partners very different from each other are to combine their gifts instead of setting them against each other.
Praying together can bring about spiritual intimacy and it can also restore a broken marriage. Praying together can strengthen a marriage that is lacking in communication and intimacy. It is certainly worth a try. The saying is true: “Couples who pray together, stay together.”
Worship Together Regularly
As I’ve already mentioned, the Scripture teaches us that the Lord inhabits the praises of his people (Psalm 22:3 kjv). If you want the Lord to inhabit your relationship, then a natural ingredient is worshiping together. Unfortunately, some couples don’t have the benefit of worshiping together. Perhaps one works or just won’t go to church. This is an area to keep on your prayer list; look for ways to find meaning together when you can.
I know of a husband who agreed to go to church with his wife once a month. Instead of nagging or condemning about the other three weeks, she made a big deal out of that one morning a month by serving fun food and turning it into a pleasurable event. Within the year he was going most Sundays. Today, after many years, he is a leader in their church. Set the tone for a good experience. Pray for God’s Spirit to inhabit your worship.
Develop a Regular Spiritual Growth Time Together
It isn’t easy to discipline yourselves as a couple to spend regular time together focusing on your spirituality. Even though Cathy and I speak and write on this subject, we have struggled throughout the thirty-one years of our marriage in this area. We have tried reading books together and doing Bible study booklets. We have listened to CDs and watched videos together on spiritual growth. We have tried to have a daily time and a weekly time to focus on our spiritual growth. Like so many others, it hasn’t always worked for us.
Sometimes the reasons were found in the list of blocks to spiritual growth found earlier in this chapter. We always meant well, but it just didn’t seem to last. Finally we found something that worked for us. We call it our Weekly Time. It’s really rather simple, and for some it may be too short, but it has worked for us. We have shared it with thousands of people and some are now actually more faithful at it than we are. It started from our need to focus together spiritually, but we didn’t want to just do another Bible study or devotional. Both Cathy and I are disciplined with our own daily devotional time, and adding one more devotional as a couple just wasn’t working. That’s when we came up with the following.
Jim and Cathy’s Weekly Time
- Devotional time of the week
- Greatest joy of the week
- Greatest struggle of the week
- An affirmation
- A wish or a hope
- Physical goals
- Book of the month
We decided to take the pressure off of meeting more often than once a week, and just share with each other what we had been learning from our own time with the Lord. Sometimes that takes a few minutes and other times it is a bit deeper. Then we move to the greatest joy of the week. For Cathy, it is almost always something about one of our kids. For me, it might be about our kids or a ministry experience.
We then share our greatest struggle. Yes, there have been times when Cathy has said, “The greatest struggle of the week is you, Jim!” Then we may have a conversation about the struggle before we can move back into our devotional time.
We each share an affirmation about the other. Next, it’s a wish or a hope we share. I don’t remember why we added that section, but it is a catch-all for good conversation. When Cathy’s father was near death, we talked about her relationship with him. Other times it has been a hope for a vacation weekend. Then we deal with our physical goals. Since Scripture is clear that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), we try to work on our physical goals. If you were looking at both Cathy and me in person, you would see that she does a better job in this area than I do! However, that weekly checkup is a very good accountability factor for both of us.
Then we pray. Lately, we have spent some time praying on our knees. It is a time of drawing close to God, and it has also become a time of drawing closer together. I love this time of communication. There is nothing magical about this spiritual exercise, but it works for us. The important issue is to find something that works for both you and your spouse. You’ll also notice above that I included “book of the month” as one of the points under our plan. It is a great idea. We tried it, and it didn’t work for us. But maybe when life slows down a bit, we’ll find it helpful.
Time With Other Couples
You will notice that a common theme in what they call the “temptation narratives” in the Bible is isolation. Even when Satan tempted Jesus, he took Him to the wilderness and isolated Him from other people. Far too many couples are isolated from any other replenishing relationships. Who has access to your life as a couple? I believe we need at least three types of spiritual and relational accountability. We need mentors, peer support, and whenever possible, we need to be mentoring other couples.
Do you have mentors in your life as a couple? I know for us, Cathy and I had very few role models when we first got married. We didn’t know many couples we wanted to imitate in our own marriage. One day we were talking about the need to find mentors for our marriage, and a couple from our church came to our mind. They had successfully raised three kids and had been married for a number of years. We asked if we could come by and ask them some questions about building a God-honoring marriage.
If we would have said, “Will you mentor us?” they might have said, “No, we don’t see ourselves as mentors.” Fortunately, we didn’t give them the option to turn us down. We simply asked if we could get together. The meal time and conversation was so pleasant and helpful that we asked if we could get together again sometime. Today, this couple would probably say they have been mentors to us, but it didn’t start that way in their minds.
We are most fortunate to have couples on our board of directors at HomeWord who we would consider mentors as well. These are not people who have every aspect of their lives together. However, they are a bit older and wiser than we are and are open to sharing their lives with us. If you don’t have a mentor couple, I suggest you begin to talk about who might help motivate you to grow spiritually and through their lives show you how to be more effective in your marriage and family.
We also believe strongly in peer relationships. I meet with a group of four other men on Tuesday mornings, as well as every couple of months with a friend whom I respect greatly. We share the hard questions and challenge each other in our marriages, spiritual life, child-rearing, integrity, and being faithful in our calling. Cathy and I were in a couples’ group for several years, and even though each session wasn’t on marriage, it seemed like whatever we were studying in that group came back to our marriages and families. I learned much from how other couples approached their relationships. We often say that this particular group helped us raise our kids and taught us more about marriage than any book we have ever read.
Then how about mentoring a younger couple? Your church probably has a mentoring program for newlyweds or younger couples. It might be something as formal as going through a book together or as informal as sharing a few meals a year with a younger couple. I know for Cathy and me, when we are in conversation with another couple about our marriage, we are much more intentional about working our spiritual growth plan.
As we looked at refreshing our marriage spiritually I mentioned that we all need a plan. When a couple is living with the same set of blueprints, they do so much better. The above ideas are a major part of Cathy’s and my plan. You will want to create your own. It has to work for you and for your situation. I know couples who have taken a five-hour solo/Sabbath time regularly to rest, pray, read inspirational literature, hike, and then come back together to talk about their experience. They do it almost every week. Sure it takes time, but by the looks of their marriage it is definitely worth the investment.
Another couple I know plans two retreats a year. One of the retreats they do is a getaway together. They go away to a cabin in the mountains or a place at the beach. At different times they have read books together, listened to tapes, or followed a Bible study booklet. Their time together is spent taking extended time to walk, rest, pray, relate, and focus on their marriage and their yearly goals. They also participate in one retreat a year with other couples. They attend a marriage conference or go to a retreat center where the topic is marriage and family.
These are some of the people we would consider “mentors” in our lives. They do really well in the area of spiritual intimacy because they invest heavily in their marriage. Another couple I know reads at least one book a year together on marriage. They got started doing this because in the business world he was reading about three books a year on his specific business to keep up with his line of work. One day it dawned on him that he had never read even one marriage book to help keep his marriage in shape, so as a couple they instituted the “once-a-year book plan.” They choose the book together and then plan when they are going to read it. One year they went on a long driving trip and read a book on sexuality out loud to each other during the trip.
Spiritual growth and intimacy is like anything else. It takes time and commitment. It is more about training than trying, and just like the Scripture says, you will reap what you sow (Galatians 6:7–8). Don’t shortchange yourself or your spouse by not focusing on spiritual intimacy. At the end of your life you won’t be focused on your IRA retirement plan, the kind of house you live in, or what your bank account looks like. You will be interested in a right relationship with God and a right relationship with your loved ones. Since that is doing relationships with an eternal perspective, why not start sooner rather than later?
Growing Towards Spiritual Intimacy
Questions for Me
1. Which of the following blocks to spiritual intimacy affect your life the most?
- low-level anger
- lack of forgiveness
- lack of respect
- spiritual warfare
2. What can I personally do to bring more spiritual intimacy to our relationship?
Questions for Us
1. Share with each other your answer to question #1 from Questions for Me.
2. Complete this sentence: If I could receive more spiritual intimacy from you it would be in the area of ________________________.
Our Spiritual Growth Plan
Create together a simple plan to enhance your spiritual relationship as a couple. Remember to keep it short and simple so you don’t get too overwhelmed. Put down on paper things like:
- Pray daily.
- Worship together weekly.
- Join a couples group.
- Participate in a marriage or spiritual retreat.
- Develop a regular spiritual growth time together.
To get you started, how about taking a few minutes and working through the Weekly Time together.
Our Weekly Time
Devotional time of the week (If you need an idea for this week, try reading through Ephesians 5:22–33.)
Greatest joy of the week
Greatest struggle of the week
A wish or a hope
Book of the month
Excerpted from Creating an Intimate Marriage by Jim Burns. Copyright 2006. Used with permission by Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved.
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.