Growing Toward Spiritual Intimacy

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We have never been what you would call ?spiritual giants,’ but we did get married hoping for God’s presence in our lives and in our family. We surely haven’t done it right all the time, but it seems like we did make an effort. Today, however, I don’t feel connected to my husband, and I definitely don’t feel a spiritual connection to him.” 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?6 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 Spiritually Together

Growing 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!

Busyness

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.

Low-Level Anger

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.

“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).

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.

Spiritual Warfare

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.

Refreshing Your Marriage Spiritually

As I have mentioned throughout this book, intentionality is the key. There isn’t anyone reading this book 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.

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Pray 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 —
  • Prayer —
  • 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.

Other Ideas

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?

Copyright © 2006 Jim Burns, Used with permission.

Read more from Jim at homeword.com

In response to the overwhelming needs of parents and families, Jim Burns founded HomeWord (formerly YouthBuilders) in 1985. HomeWord is a Christian organization designed to provide assistance to adults worldwide as they help young people make wise decisions and lead positive, vibrant, Christian lifestyles. Multiplication and Leverage: While absolutely committed to young people, HomeWord equips parents, grandparents and youth leaders; those who daily reach out to kids. By equipping adults, and leveraging those adults to reach kids, HomeWord reaches more young people more cost effectively.

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About Jim Burns

bio-burnsJim Burns, Ph.D., is a renowned youth and family expert, an acclaimed author, and the founder of HomeWord, a radio program that reaches more than a million people across the country each day. In partnership with Azusa Pacific University, he established and now provides leadership for the HomeWord Center for Youth and Family, a research and training institute offering biblically based resources for parents and youth. Under Burns, the center has become the largest provider of Christian parenting and youth seminars in the United States. His passion is communicating to adults and young people practical truths to help them live out their Christian lives. Burns is a three-time Gold Medallion Award-winning author and has written books for parents, youth workers, and students. He also speaks in person to thousands of people each year around the world. Burns and his wife, Cathy, and their daughters, Christy, Rebecca, and Heidi, live in Southern California. For more information about Burns, visit homeword.com.
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  • faithinChrist

    It was difficult at first to find a time to pray together, and felt awkward at first. I really was praying for a more intimate spiritual connection with my husband. Every article I read showed couples who prayed together reaped a better relationship. One day I believe the Holy Spirit gave me an idea to make a short prayer poem we could pray together each day, and then add any other concerns we needed to pray about. This was the first day we started and it turned out great so far. Here was the prayer we started with: “Lord, keep our marriage safe and strong. Let it shine bright and strong. Amen.”

  • faithinChrist

    Sorry, correction to the poem: “let it shine bright and long.”

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