Thursday, March 23, 2017

Spiritual disciplines for couples (pt. 3): Voice of prayer

     Imagine having the access to walk into the Oval Office and talk to the president whenever you want, or to drop by Buckingham Palace at any time that you want tea with the queen, or to bypass all the security for any international leader, or celebrity, or person of power and influence you can think of, and go for a walk with him or her just because you want to have a casual chat.  It’s unlikely that most of us will ever be afforded that kind of privilege or opportunity, yet we have the ability to come into the presence of the single most powerful One on earth, the Creator or the universe.  No appointments.  No later call backs (because He’s never too busy for you).  No topic you want to discuss is off limits.  Nothing you have to say or that you feel is ever labeled as silly or ridiculous.  And most of all, you don’t have to put on a façade.  You can actually just be you—no matter how good, bad, or ugly you think that might look.  He loves you for you, and He wants to hold you close.
     To truly embrace that idea is so comforting, so life-giving, so peaceful, that at times it truly is beyond comprehension.  Now imagine coming into God’s presence with the one you love on this earth more than any other.  Imagine approaching God as one flesh with your covenant lover, each of you still distinctively, individually made in God’s image, but through your marriage now also uniquely one.
     When you and your mate engage in prayer together, you can hear things in each other’s prayers that you might not hear (at least on the same level) in your normal conversation.  For example, imagine a husband whose father is terminally ill.  His wife is aware and she can acknowledge what she’s hearing about her father-in-law’s physical condition and the doctor visits and all that is involved.  But when she hears her beloved’s voice of prayer, she hear something very, very different.  She hears a little boy who is scared to lose his daddy, and in his powerlessness he is taking it to his Abba Father.  Or imagine a wife who, after years of devastating miscarriages, praises God when her first child is born, and in her voice of prayer her husband hears joy beyond description.  It doesn’t matter what the circumstance.  Whether you’re on a bright mountain top or in a cold, dark valley, when you and your spouse engage in prayer together as a regular, daily practice, you will hear things.  In those moments of hearing each other’s voices of prayer, you give each other access in an open and vulnerable way that won’t happen in normal horizontal conversation.
     So, why is this practice so hard for many couples?  In 25+ years of pastoral and clinical counseling, it has been my experience that most Christian couples do a good job of praying for each other, but most struggle to pray with each other, and there is a profound difference between the two.  Here are some considerations for sharing in your mate’s voice of prayer.

  • Find a time and a space.  Just like with sharing in the Word, if this is going to be a priority for you and your spouse, then you have to be intentional.
  • Don’t get caught up in how the prayer sounds.  Yes, you are praying with someone else present, but your mate is not grading you (or at least shouldn’t be) on whether or not the prayer is poetic or flowery enough, or flows smoothly, or you use the right words.  Just speak honestly and openly to God.  Remember, the prayer that carried more weight was simply “God have mercy on me a sinner” (Luke 18:9-14).
  • Don’t bring judgment into the prayer time.  “Don’t you have more to say than that?”  “That prayer was too short.”  “I thought that prayer would never end.”  “You might as well say it, because God knows anyway.”  Few things will destroy this shared discipline faster than criticism and/or self-righteousness.  It is difficult enough to admit our fear, failure, uncertainty, or other feelings and situations that plague us, much less when we feel we’re being critiqued for it.  Ask yourself, “What am I doing to create and maintain an environment of safety, love, and empathy when my mate is willing to take the risk of being vulnerable?”
  • Couple’s prayer doesn’t replace other aspects of your prayer life.  While the goal is ever-increasing transparency with our mates, we all need our own time with God in prayer too.  Also, every husband and wife needs to be part of a like-gender accountability group.  Men have struggles that only other men can fully understand, and women have struggles that only other women can fully understand.  While we must seek spiritual intimacy primarily with our spouses, we also need others of like-gender to pray with and for us.  We need others in our lives that have permission to crack down on us and hold us accountable if they see we are doing things that will harm our marriage or our spiritual walk.

     Remember, if this is something new, it might seem awkward and forced at first, but the more you and your mate pray together, the more power God has to make your marriage something “beyond all you could ask or imagine” for the sake of His Kingdom.  Pray for your spouse.  But more significantly, honestly and openly pray with your spouse.  It will open up a whole new level of intimacy and connectedness between you.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Spiritual disciplines for couples (pt. 2): The Word

     Every person ought to be able to study and understand the Bible for himself or herself.  That is the ideology that permeated many religious groups in the U.S. throughout the 1800’s and 1900’s.  It fit well with the independent, pioneer spirit, and in some ways, it was a good thing, prompting people to engage scripture for themselves rather than blindly accepting a theological position handed down from a church hierarchy.  But, as too often happens, the pendulum can swing too far and a mentality of “personal faith” supersedes scriptural discernment within the community of God’s people.  Taken to the extreme, religion becomes a personal thing with one recognizing no higher authority than one’s self.
     Scripture reading occurs on multiple levels.  It should happen on an individual level.  The Psalmist says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).  No one else can learn God’s Word for you, or put it into your heart.  Scripture reading also should happen on a congregational level.  Thankfully, the strictly-individualistic practices mentioned above are beginning to correct as more and more faith communities are engaging God’s word as a group, bringing their individual understandings and life experiences into a collective setting, allowing greater love, empathy, and attentiveness to God’s work among us.  But there is also a third often-ignored level on which scripture reading needs to occur, and that is a couple level.  If we want Christian marriages, we have to begin and end with God, so it is imperative that couples intentionally seek God together through his Word.
     If engaging the Word as a couple is a new venture for you, be aware of some of the barriers that can make it difficult.  First, if you do not believe you and your mate are at the same level of knowing and understanding scripture, it can be easy to be self-conscious (if you think you know less) or exhibit spiritual pride (if you think you know more).  It is important to remember what God is seeking when husband and wife come to Himboth humbly hearing His voice through the Word.
     Second, how do you study?  There are numerous ways to hear scripture—reading thru a particular book of the Bible, topical studies, word studies, memorization, chronological study, historical study, and on and on the list goes.  And, there is as good a chance as not, that you and your spouse won’t agree on what is the most profitable or most enjoyable way to get into God’s Word.  Still, the key is to just do it and trust that whatever method you use, God’s Word will begin to work in you and your spouse’s life.
     Third, any time we dive into scripture, there is fear, because God’s Word will convict me of things that need to change.  And while change is not always comfortable, it is necessary for a healthier marriage.  One strong caution that I would give couples—focus on the change within yourself that scripture is highlighting to you.  It’s always easier and more convenient to look at the change your spouse needs to make, but if you harden your heart against God’s Word working in your life, you will equally harden your heart against your mate.  When Hebrews 4:12 tells us the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” the analogy is to a surgeon’s scalpel turned inwardly to make me better, not a warrior’s sword turned outwardly for beating up my mate over what I perceive they are doing wrong.
     So, what can help you and your spouse take one of the most widely used disciplines and begin using it together, reading scripture on a couple level?  Because there are so many ways for couples to get into the Word together, I don’t want to outline a “right” way to do it, but here are some thoughts no matter what method you choose:

  • Make it a priority.  Find a time and place that this will really happen.  If it is a priority, it needs to make the calendar and be given adequate, distraction-free attention.
  • Let the Word speak.  Avoid the temptation to pull out everything you have previously heard or learned about the text you are reading together, and try to hear it fresh.
  • Listen.  What is God asking from you?  Don’t just read for information or check off a box.  Engage the text and listen to let God into your marriage.  Ask yourself, how is the Spirit prompting you?  How can you use this particular reading to bless your spouse, honor your marriage covenant, and show the world Christ through how you treat your mate?
  • Practice your faith at home first.  If you and your wife have just read, “Don’t let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouth but only what’s helpful for building others up according to their needs” (Eph. 4:29), two days later are you speaking demeaningly to your wife?  If you and your husband read, “Love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4), do you berate him for an honest mistake later in the week?  Our light for Christ shines brightest when it shines with our mates.
  • Look for concrete steps toward change.  If a particular passage convicts you, talk with your mate about definitive steps you can take toward change.  It might be changes you are making together or changes you are making individually to better honor your covenant lover, but either way articulating definitive steps makes it more real, more achievable, and provides accountability.
  • Finally, give yourselves regular reminders.  Whether it is a particular verse of scripture or a whole chapter, have shared visual reminders—a card with scripture written out on it taped to the bathroom mirror, a shared text message with a verse of the day, an image on the lock screen on your phone that calls a particular scripture to memory—whatever the method, reminders help us to keep letting God’s Word work within our marriages.

     Remember, if this is something new, it might seem awkward and forced at first, but the more you and your mate engage scripture together, the more power God has to make your marriage something “beyond all you could ask or imagine” for the sake of His Kingdom.

(To read part 1 in this series of posts, click here.)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Spiritual disciplines for couples (pt. 1)

     One of the places that many couples struggle is in growing together spiritually.  While they may attend worship or church related activities together, and both might be quick to acknowledge the place of God in their lives, their practice indicates a disconnect on spirituality being a shared endeavor.  In many ways, this is a byproduct of the American culture which often promotes and embodies an independent spirit.  For decades, that independent spirit was co-opted by churches which emphasized a “personal faith journey.”  Yes, we are all on a personal faith journey, and yes, there are some positive aspects to that independent spirit.  But if we’re not careful, adopting that attitude wholesale can be crippling to couples seeking a shared spiritual intimacy.
     In 25+ years of pastoral and clinical counseling, it has been my experience that most couples do a good job of praying for each other, but most do a poor job of praying with each other, and there is a profound difference in the two.  Why do couples struggle to pray together?  Because the independent spirit tells us that intimate prayer can only be a deeply personal thing, not to be shared with anyone else.  That same logic permeates scripture reading when we think, “I must find the meaning for me in the text”, worship when we tell ourselves, “I will go to church and sit with my spouse, but worship is meant to be a private experience”, and communion when we say, “Please don’t interrupt my time with God.” Independence-seeking thought processes are applied to so many other spiritual disciplines as well.
     In the next few posts, I want to offer some suggestions on how couples can engage in some more common spiritual disciplines but view them in a new light that will stimulate a healthier, more Christ-centered spiritual intimacy for you as a couple.  Before launching into that though, I think it is important to lay some ground work on what does and does not promote spiritual intimacy.  First, it is important to remember that we are all on an individual spiritual journey.  While that sounds contradictory to the purpose of these posts, it is not.  You and your spouse have different life experiences which have shaped your spiritual perspectives.  What was your church experience growing up?  What do you continue to hold on to from that time and what have you let go of?  How strongly is your spiritual identity linked to a family identity?  Hopefully, you have continually grown and matured in your spirituality throughout your life, but you are still a product of what has come before.  So, it is important that in sharing spiritual disciplines as a couple that you don’t try to force your mate to be where you are.  He/she may not yet have arrived (or they may have long since left that place).  To force your views with shame, guilt, or references to damnation is spiritual abuse and bullying.
     Second, practicing a couple-centered spirituality isn’t a replacement for individual spiritual practices (again, not a contradiction to the purpose of these posts).  Instead, it should be an enhancement.  Your individual faith is best lived out in the context of your relationship with your spouse.  Because of the close intimate nature of marriage, it can be difficult to open up to your mate in such a vulnerable way, but that level of transparency brings a connection that moves you and your mate closer and closer to the ideal of “naked and not ashamed.”  If there are still some things you need to keep just between you and God right now, that’s okay—  just don't settle for shutting your mate out forever.  Like all spiritual disciplines and practices, couple-centered spiritual disciplines is a process that will take time to be more fully realized.
     Third, allow your mate to ask the hard questions.  Spiritual growth is not about painting a naïve or unrealistic picture of who God is or how this world operates, or shutting down things that challenge your current paradigm.  It is about living in the tension between trusting God and struggling with what appears to be unfair or even unanswerable questions.  Why do I feel this way?  Why did that have to happen?  Where do I go from here?  Why me?  God, are you really even there?  We all wrestle with these questions from time to time, and as you and your mate practice spiritual disciplines together, allowing the rawness of what you are experiencing in life to come out with your mate will ultimately bring you closer to each other and closer to God.
     As you think about engaging in spiritual disciplines with your spouse, you might want to click here to read a previous post from several years ago that looked at ways we can destroy spiritual intimacy in marriage.
     To engage in spiritual disciplines with your spouse can be one of the most difficult things you commit to, but can also be one of the most rewarding, both for you as an individual and for you and your covenant love as a couple.  In the next post, we’ll begin looking at specific disciplines.