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To have and to hold – how to negotiate different spiritual needs in a marriage

How can we keep in step spiritually?

Do you long to pray with your husband, but find he’s not that keen or is it that you feel you need quietness and contemplation, but your husband wants to worship in a large and lively gathering? Care for the Family’s Katharine Hill offers advice on how to navigate different spiritual needs in a marriage

Are you out of season?

Amy ordered a latte and found a table in the corner. She needed space, some time to think. She knew she had been unreasonable last night and, if she was honest, realised she owed her husband an apology. They had ‘words’ as her mother used to say – and she knew that last night her words hadn’t been well chosen. The trouble was she had wanted to say something for months, but hadn’t known how to bring up the subject – and so when the opportunity came the hurts and disappointment of the last few years all came tumbling out.

They had a great marriage in so many ways, but in this one area she felt disappointment and frustration. She was desperate for change. As she stirred her coffee, she thought of her parents’ marriage – both of them fully engaged with church, leading a home group together, praying together – that was the kind of marriage she wanted.

Amy and Phil had met at college. She noticed him the very first day as he walked into the lecture, with his curly blond hair and piercing blue eyes. She remembered her excitement the following week when he asked her out for a drink, and her delight when they met and discovered they had a shared faith.

They married shortly after leaving college, and joined their local church. She couldn’t pinpoint when it happened exactly, but somewhere in those first two years they seemed to have got out of step spiritually. She was as passionate about her faith as ever, but felt Phil seemed to have put faith on the backburner. He just didn’t seem as interested in spiritual things as he once was.

She longed for him to suggest praying together, to read his Bible, to be more involved at church and to join her in discerning God’s will for their future. She knew she was putting pressure on him and becoming demanding, even legalistic; but the marriage she had dreamt of seemed to be slipping away. She was desperate and she couldn’t help herself.

Phil drove into the car park at work and reflected on last night’s argument. He knew she didn’t mean it, but his wife’s words had hurt him deeply. Deep down he knew he was a disappointment to her and he felt guilty that he was letting her down. He wanted to ‘step up to the mark’ as she put it, but in all honesty he didn’t know where to begin. Her nagging was driving him into a corner.

He hadn’t ditched his faith. Just because he wasn’t waking at 6am to read his Bible any more didn’t mean he didn’t believe in it. It was a season he told himself. But one thing he was sure of – he was a man of integrity. He couldn’t conjure up a vibrant faith that wasn’t there and pretend – even just to keep his wife happy.

Amy and Phil’s situation is not unusual. There comes a time in most marriages when we can feel out of step in all kinds of areas – and for Christian couples it can be when we feel out of step in our walk with God, causing frustration and disappointment on the one hand, and feelings of inadequacy and guilt on the other.

It is for good reason that the Bible so often describes our spiritual life as a journey. And the truth is that there are times on that journey when the travelling is very easy – we are kids again with our feet on the handlebars of our bike and sailing downhill. We feel God’s presence near, we love worshipping, our ministry is going well.

But then sometimes the going gets harder, the road suddenly steeper and the sun that a moment ago was covering everything with glow has gone behind a cloud – in fact, the sky is very dark now. We feel that God is distant, prayer is hard, to worship joyfully almost seems hypocritical and our work for God is, well …. hard slog. Those varying seasons of pilgrimage are hard enough to deal with on our own behalf, but can be even more difficult to navigate in the context of marriage.

If we feel we are in different seasons and out of step spiritually, we won’t be alone. Many couples go through such times. If this is your situation, now or in the future, here’s my advice:

Firstly, a word to the one driving the agenda. It won’t be intentional, but putting pressure on your husband or wife to engage more spiritually and ‘step up to the mark’ may well have the opposite effect, making them feel guilty and judged.

When we run parenting courses, we urge parents to “Catch your children doing something right – and commend them for it.” It’s not a bad principle in marriage. The book of Proverbs says: “Our words have the power of life and death”. We can choose to speak words of life to our spouse, replacing nagging or critical words with positive words of encouragement and affirmation. It can be painful watching somebody we love go through a desert season, and although there are no guarantees, often the best thing we can do is to share our unconditional love and support, let them know we are for them as they struggle just now, and do what God so often does with us – wait patiently until they come through.

And for the other spouse – the wilderness experience can come to us all. Simply being honest and acknowledging that you are feeling far from God can be a good place to start. It may take courage, but consider talking to your spouse or another trusted friend and explore if there are deeper reasons for feeling the way you do.

Whether we are feeling like a spiritual giant or a grasshopper, simply beginning to talk to each other about how we feel and being real about how we can support each other can be the beginning of readjusting our step together.

Do you simply experience God differently?

The scenario may however be a little different. We may be in a good place in our walk with God individually, but in our marriage still feel out of step. The reason for this may be one that is easier to address and involves our expectations.

From the day we first met, my husband Richard and I knew we were different. I am an introvert, he is an extrovert; he doesn’t need a sat nav, I can’t even find my way out of the supermarket; he is an internal processor – his first word is his last on decisions – I process everything out loud and change my mind a hundred times on the way; he enjoys a vindaloo, whereas a mild korma sets my mouth on fire … we could go on. But although we began marriage knowing we had different personalities and different temperaments, what we failed to recognise was that these differences would also impact how we expressed our faith.

All this changed when we came across a book called Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas, which explores the many different ways there are to walk the journey of faith. It is not ‘one size fits all’ – there are an infinite variety of ways we naturally express our love for God.

It is a book written for individuals but, as we read it, we realised how it applied to our marriage. If we felt out of step spiritually, it wasn’t because at that moment one of us was a spiritual giant and the other in the shallows. Rather, it was because we naturally expressed our faith differently and we were failing to recognise and value each other’s faith journey.

For example, perhaps one of you feels closest to God through creation – a raging sea may speak powerfully of God’s power or a beautiful sunset of his faithful love, whereas the other may feel closest to God through ritual and tradition. One of you enjoys spontaneous worship, whereas the other is never happier than when actively fighting injustice. One may feel closest to God in times of solitude and contemplation, but the other needs to be with others in large gatherings of fellow believers.

God has created us as unique beings, with different temperaments, passions and ways of expressing our love for him. And the chances are in marriage we will be polar opposites! We can think our way to connect is the ‘right’ way, and we don’t value the way our spouse chooses to relate to God. Without meaning to we can communicate the message to our husband or wife “you don’t know God like I do”. And we feel out of step spiritually.

Like every area of marriage, keeping in step spiritually takes effort and understanding. Study your spouse and talk together about the ways you both feel closest to God. Encourage your spouse to express their love for God in the unique way God has created them, even if it is not the way that best connects for us.

And as we seek to embrace those differences, allowing them to work for us rather than against us, we will find they bring a richness not only to our marriage, but also to our faith journey as well. We will grow deeper in our love not just for each other, but also for our Father who made us, who brought us together – and who promises to journey with us each step of the way.

+ Katharine Hill is the UK director of Care for the Family and the author and co-author of a number of books on marriage and parenting.

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