Spiritual Intimacy: The Challenge and Delight

Read how couples could work together to enjoy the spiritual intimacy that God wants for them.

Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is a family therapist and freelance writer residing in Perthshire, Scotland

Three months into our marriage, Bernie and I were having worship together. We were quietly reading the same passage of Scripture, preparing to share our insights and ideas. I immersed myself in the verses, trying to experience what it would be like to be there with Jesus in that moment. I was breathing the air, living the story, and touching the complex emotions of the different characters.

I shared first, full of passion and excitement about my inspiring new insights and fresh perspectives. And then Bernie spoke, redefining my creative thoughts as some kind of ology or egesis. And then he explained what he had learned in one of his theology classes about the real meaning of the passages.

Bernie was sharing the best of his experience of these verses; I was sharing the best of mine. There was nothing wrong with what either of us said. But we were speaking two different “languages.” At that moment, I did not want to analyze the verses and know the Greek or what a Bible commentator had said. I wanted to live inside the story and make sense of it in a way that inspired me. Bernie was approaching the Bible verses as a verbal learner; I was approaching the story as a sensory learner. I was reading the story as a writer, while Bernie was reading it as a seminary student and pastor. 

So we struggled to connect during worship. We did not know how to experience spiritual togetherness when we were so different. I did not want to feel that Bernie was preaching at me or teaching me because that positioned us in a pastor and church member relationship rather than a husband and wife relationship. I felt
inadequate. I thought it was my fault that we found it difficult to share a devotional space. Maybe if I were more spiritual or had Bernie’s theological insights and interests, this would all be so much easier.

How can couples work together in order to enjoy the spiritual intimacy that God wants for them?

Different approaches

Many couples find spiritual intimacy challenging. It is one thing to be spiritually vulnerable and open with God, but quite another to be spiritually vulnerable and open with God in the presence of another human being, even one we love dearly. Very few couples are equally balanced in their spiritual development, biblical understanding, learning styles, and preferred approaches to Bible study, prayer, and fellowship.

Each spouse has different biblical and spiritual interests, learning styles, and preferences. Some people like to analyze Bible passages. Some like to explore them creatively. Some want to think about the practical difference the passage will make in their lives. Some want to be filled with praise and wonder. Some want to find out the facts. Couples’ worship can incorporate all of these perspectives. When one partner has had a theological and hermeneutical education, the spouse can feel spiritually inadequate or discouraged by his or her partner’s knowledge and expertise.

We should recognize the importance of understanding our differences, value the rich perspective of each other’s styles, and plan a balanced diet of worship activities that accommodate each person’s needs that will keep your devotional life fresh and interesting.

Confusing messages

Another challenge for pastoral couples is working out the different roles and expectations. This can be complex. We might give each other mixed messages:

  • “I don’t want you to fix me, preach to me, or teach me. But I do want you to be there and help me explore my thoughts, beliefs, values, and ideas.”
  • “Ministry is my profession, my passion, and my vocation, but I also need to come home and chill out so that I can be reenergized.”
  • “I have spiritual needs needing your ministry too. But I don’t want you to treat me like just another church member
  • “You’re a pastor (or pastor’s spouse), so you can manage spiri­tually on your own if you’re too busy for our worships.”

Nonpastoral partners are also trying to manage the complex and often conflicting expectations of their spouses and church members. This can sometimes be so overwhelming that they pull back from spiritual activities in the home, feeling that they have already given more than enough to the church, God, or their partner, or that the pastor should always take the initiative for the spiritual activities in the home.

The pastor may also try to use the couple’s devotion time to develop sermon ideas or slip into a preaching or teaching role, rather than taking time to listen to the spouse’s ideas and needs. Ellen White suggests the biblical model of the husband being the priest, who humbly confesses his sins first.* This is a servant-leader position, which is a more helpful spiritual model for healthy couples than having one spouse spiritu­ally dominating the other.

Finding spiritual intimacy

A married couple’s spiritual inti­macy is an amazing gift from God that can help them grow closer to Him and each other. This is a place where we can study and learn more about God’s Word, learn about forgiveness and grace, and be changed more and more into His moral image.

God has given us this special dimension of our relationship to bless each other, not to cause hurt and cre­ate distance. So whatever we choose to do in the spiritual dimension of our marriages, we need to ask ourselves: Does doing this, or saying this, bring us closer together spiritually, or does it cause us to withdraw from each other?

We also need to recognize the importance of helping each other feel accepted, forgiven, encouraged, hopeful, loved, and respected, as these experiences can encourage spirituality to flourish. In contrast, criticism, resentment, loneliness, abuse, discouragement, and rejection can be roadblocks to spiritual closeness between partners and between each person and God.

Try talking about your spiritual intimacy in a nonthreatening or poten­tially nonjudgmental way. You can do this by telling each other some of the hopes you have for your spiritual inti­macy and your worship times together. Focusing on your hopes, rather than on your complaints, frustrations, and fears, helps you to have positive and constructive conversations. Look for the hopes and ideas you share so that you can build on your common goals. Talk about the times when your devo­tions together have been inspiring for both of you, and think about what helped you to enjoy your spiritual closeness.

Learn about each other’s spiritual­ity. Ask questions such as, Please tell me what inspires you the most. When do you feel closest to God? Or, What would you like me to do to nurture your relationship with God? Help your spouse discover and use his or her spiritual gifts and create opportuni­ties for him or her to flourish. Look for projects where you can use your spiritual gifts together to serve God and help those around you.

Be respectful of each other’s spiritual preferences, learning styles, challenges, and spiritual journeys. Do not push your partner into having worship in the way you prefer because it may be counterproductive. Ask yourselves, How can we work together to create a safe, enjoyable, and shared space for our spiritual intimacy?

When you walk along the road

The traditional concept of couples’ devotions being two people studying the Bible and praying together early in the morning, is a beautiful ideal. But it is not always practical in today’s family where both partners may have different work schedules and preferred worship times. So how can we inspire, support, encourage, nurture, and pray for each other in our busy and unpredictable lives?

Deuteronomy 6:4–9 holds some answers. Just as we can worship God with our children and families and learn about Him when we rise up, when we sit down, and when we walk along the road, we can apply the same principles to our joint devotions.

Here are some ways to infuse your relationship and your everyday lives with prayer, a fresh approach to Bible study, and creative opportunities for spiritual connection.

Praying together throughout the day

  • Call, email, or text/SMS a short prayer for your partner during the day. Or slip a hand-written prayer into a lunch sack.
  • Write down three prayer points in your journal each morning:
  • Today, I most want to praise God for . . .
  • Today, I most want to thank God for . . .
  • Today, the most important thing I can pray is . . .
  • Share each of your three prayer points in your favorite way (email, call, or write) at some time during the day, and then talk about them when you travel, exercise, or eat together.
  • Create a shared prayer list. What are you praying about together? Your family’s spiritual develop­ment? Your health? Your ministry? Your hopes and goals? The needs of people around you, and other prayer thoughts?
  • Pray for specific things at specific times throughout the day, even when you are apart. This helps to stay connected spiritually when you both have busy schedules.
  • Thank God together when your prayers are answered. After talking about your prayer requests and needs, you can pray aloud together or hold hands and pray silently. When the first person has finished, he or she can squeeze the other’s hand; when the second person has finished, he or she can say “Amen.”

A different framework for Bible study

If you find it hard to study the Bible together, try the following approach: study what you each feel guided to read by the Holy Spirit or use a simple Bible reading plan. Then meet together for a few minutes and discuss the following questions:

  • What did you enjoy most about the Bible passage you read?
  • What do you think was the most important message in the passage you read?
  • What did you read that was the most about you or that connected the most with where you are right now?
  • What did you sense the Holy Spirit inspiring you to do in response to these verses?
  • What other insights did you have while you were reading these verses?

These questions are useful ones to discuss when each of you are at differ­ent levels of biblical scholarship and understanding, because they move away from a knowledge orientation and into a “wondering and curious” space where you are more equal. Or choose some other questions that you both like.

Print these questions with spaces for your written responses. Write down your answers and ideas. Then swap your pages, email them to each other, or discuss them when you have time together.

Spiritual connections for busy couples

  • Find something beautiful and natural to explore together for a few minutes, such as a flower, stone, tree, or sunset, for instance. Talk about all the ways God made it so perfect, and share a moment of wonder together.
  • Listen to worship music together, and learn to sing a new song to the Lord. Listen to scripture songs, so that you are praising and learning Bible verses at the same time.
  • Tell each other about the time you most experienced God’s love during the day.
  • Sit peacefully together in a quiet and beautiful place. Be still and listen to God. Tell each other your thoughts.
  • Listen to the same Bible passages or an inspiring book as you walk or drive in different places, and then talk about them when you meet again.
  • Memorize Bible passages together. Learn a whole book, such as 1 John or Philippians.
  • Find a shared ministry that blends each of your spiritual gifts in a way you both find inspiring and rewarding.
  • Attend a Christian couples’ retreat together, sign up for daily couples’ devotion emails at www.familylife.com or find a good couples’ devo­tion book to use.
  • When you wake up, list ten differ­ent things for which you want to thank God. Tell each other what is on your list.
  • When you go to bed, recognize and list the ways God has blessed you during the day, and thank Him for His blessings.
  • Create inspiring pieces of art, music, or poetry together, based on a favorite Bible passage.
  • Plan and carry out secret acts of kindness together to bless needy families in your church and community.

Love above all

One of the greatest hindrances to our spiritual intimacy is fear. And one of the greatest keys to our spiritual intimacy is love, because “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NIV). The more secure and loved I feel, the closer I want to be to Bernie and to God, and the easier it is for us to worship together.

The pattern is circular. The more we understand about God’s love, the more fully we will be able to love each other. And, the more we love each other, the more completely we will understand God’s love. When we love each other deeply, we create the optimum environment for God to work His will in each of our lives. Everything we do unselfishly and lov­ingly for our partners is also a gift of love to God. These kind and generous actions are also the everyday “sitting, walking along the road, lying down, and getting up” acts of worship that bring us closer to each other and to God.

References:

* Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 212.

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Karen Holford, MA, MSc, is a family therapist and freelance writer residing in Perthshire, Scotland

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