Praying with Spouse
By Dr. Louis McBurney
A sick feeling takes over the pit of my stomach. The pastor's wife I'm counseling has just brought up a topic I'd rather avoid. Nancy is registering her hurt at the hands of her pastor-husband - and nailing me in the process.
"I remember how excited I was when we fell in love, and I realized I was going to be married to a minister," she says. "I had always prayed for a godly husband, a man who would be a spiritual leader for me and our children. I was sure Joe would be God's answer to those prayers. We even prayed together on our dates. It gave me such a secure feeling.
"I just don't know what happened. After we married all of that stopped. Oh, sometimes we still pray together or read the Bible, but only if I insist. That doesn't feel right. I want him to take the leadership for our spiritual life together."
I'm gulping hard and nodding knowingly - too knowingly. I've heard my wife echo similar concerns. One of my frequent failures: not taking initiative for spiritual closeness in marriage.
Why is spiritual intimacy with my wife so easy to avoid?
I've discovered I'm not alone. Most of the ministers we counsel at Marble Retreat also struggle with this problem. Some common explanations have emerged.
The first is the professional exhaustion defense. It goes something like this: "I have to keep up this mask of religiosity almost all the time. From morning till night I'm the minister. I can't just be me. I'm always the one called on to pray everywhere I go. The only other guy who's prayed at Kiwanis in the past four years is Father O'Roarke. Men in the locker room at the health club apologize for cussing in front of me. I'm always expected to have Scriptural answers for every question and deliver them with a loving smile.
"I get sick of it. Home is the only place I can relax and be real. I want to share spiritual things with my wife, but quite frankly, when she says, 'Can't we pray together?' I feel attacked. Then I feel guilty. Then I feel angry. Then I just want to escape."
I can't use this excuse, however; I'm a shrink, not a man of the cloth.
However, the second one, the hypocrisy factor, does fit. My wife, Melissa, sees me offering sound spiritual counsel to others, but she knows I'm no saint. Sometimes I'm reluctant to pray with my wife because of this rationale:
"Melissa knows the real me. It's fine to offer holy solutions and wise biblical advice to others, but I can't get away with that at home. She knows I'm not very disciplined. She's seen my temper. She puts up with my pouts."
"She remembers the ways I've hurt her through the years by my selfishness or lust or thoughtless actions. She knows what I've been like as a father to our children. I'd feel like a total hypocrite expounding some Scripture to her or offering some pious prayer. She'd crucify me."
"No, it's safer to just play the game. She knows me too well. Maybe someday when I get my act together..."
Of course, the problem with that is I'll never get my act together. I need at least one place I can let down and be real. That seems more necessary than devotions.
The third factor is the spiritual dwarf syndrome. Many ministers believe, often accurately, that their spouse is a spiritual giant compared to themselves. They feel dwarfed by her deep faith. She doesn't seem to agonize with the same gut-wrenching doubts and questions as he.
Her quietly committed prayer life shines compared to his hasty, often desperate prayers fired off on the run. The Word seems to speak to her. Ages have passed since he has even read the Scriptures to find God's message for himself, and she wants him to be her "spiritual leader"?
How can he risk the vulnerability that spiritual union would bring? She'd find out how shallow he really is. He feels less dwarfish behind the pulpit. Better stay there. It's definitely safer.
Another obstacle to spiritual intimacy is holy disharmony. Distinctive belief differences or style preferences may create dissonance when you try to pray, worship, or interpret Scripture together. Rather than unifying, it divides. You both agree with Paul that your joy would be complete if you were only of one mind, but that's about all you agree on. Common areas of disagreement include preference for time of day, interpretation of Scripture, devotional style, and issues of trust.
Melissa is a morning person, for example. For her, the most meaningful devotional experiences are flooded by the first rays of the rising sun. I'm pretty convinced, however, that God doesn't wake up till mid afternoon. I'm sure the splendor of starlight was created to bathe our expressions of worship. That difference seems trivial until we try to adjust our biological clocks to find time for devotional togetherness.
If your devotional time together includes reading Scripture, you may find tension in how you interpret what you read. One of you may thoroughly enjoy lively debate, discussing various interpretations. The other may shrink from such encounters, preferring to find a practical application or an inspiring devotional thought. It is easy for a win-lose dynamic to emerge that quickly poisons the wellspring of shared spirituality.
Another difference is style. When praying together, this includes the volume of words, the use of the language of Zion versus the vernacular, who does the praying, what resources are chosen, and what physical posture is preferred. If our mate's style is too divergent from our own, the feeling of genuine contact with God may be destroyed.
A friend of mine told me once that he couldn't pray with his wife. By the time they finished, he felt his prayer had been rated like an Olympic diver. He usually got only about a 6.0. His wife went on to a 9.5 performance.
So what's to be done? Most clergy couples agree they need the sense of spiritual oneness. Wives particularly crave the feeling of closeness nurtured in those moments of bondedness before the Lord. Avoidance or a frustrated acceptance of failure doesn't bring much peace.
You don't have to remain stuck, though, in the ditch of spiritual estrangement. Here are some steps Melissa and I have found helpful for ourselves and others.
1. Identify the problem
Clear an afternoon or evening in your schedule to discuss this area of your relationship. Allow no interruptions, and covenant together to make understanding (not agreement) your goal. Enter the time without your usual agenda of proving who's right and who's wrong. Believe me, you both are - right and wrong.
Trace the history of your spiritual relationship, recalling the times it went well and the times it didn't work for you. Then try to identify how you've felt inside about having a time of spiritual conversation.
Try not to let "time demands" be the rationalization. As difficult as it is, I find most people make time for the things that reward them. Push beyond your busy schedules, and search for deeper problems.
Your goal is to understand each other in a non-judgmental way. You may be uncomfortable with how your mate feels, but accept her perception as the truth from which she acts.
2. Clarify expectations
I used to believe Melissa wanted me to be something I'm not. She would talk about her desire for me to be more of a spiritual leader for her. That sounded pretty overwhelming to me. So rather than risk embarrassment or failure, I'd avoid even trying. I interpreted her expectations as wanting me to lead in deep discussion of the Scriptures or to expound on some dramatic vision the Lord had given me (a fresh one for each day, of course).
When I finally told her what I thought she craved, she was flabbergasted. I'll never forget the relief I felt when she said, "Oh, that's not what I want. I just want a spiritual companion, not a leader."
Often our expectations are totally unrealistic or simply indescribably vague. We may have developed an image of what spiritual sharing is supposed to look like from some conference or a book we read, but never stopped to define it clearly with our mate.
3. Re-negotiate a contract
When I had a clearer idea of Melissa's expectations, I felt more comfortable working toward an agreement. What would "spiritual companionship" look like to her? What were specific things I could do that would invite her into my soul-life?
As it turned out, what she'd been wanting was much easier than what I'd been assuming. We began to spend a short time at breakfast reading Scripture (usually a paragraph or maybe a chapter), then praying together briefly about our individual concerns. It also helps when I talk about how the Lord is working in my heart. At times we get together for a longer period of prayer or discussion, usually when life's pressures seem to be closing in.
4. Avoid criticism
You can be pretty sure that you're going to blow it somewhere along the way. You’ll get busy or be angry with each other, or somebody will have the flu, and then you won't do it the way you intended. When that happens, refuse to place blame and judgment anywhere. That's deadly.
5. Celebrate your steps toward spiritual oneness
Every time Melissa tells me how good she feels when I initiate sharing, I get a renewed commitment to the process. Our unity is reinforced each time we tell others about the importance of having a soul mate as our spouse - for example, when we're with friends and I tell them that Melissa and I were praying together for them the other day, or when she says, "Louis and I were just reading that Scripture recently."
Those comments are ways we let each other know how satisfying our spiritual closeness is.
Ours has been a rocky pilgrimage in this area. But we're finding a new sense of freedom and safety. Our growing spiritual oneness is helping us enjoy more fully the other dimensions of our lives together, whether long walks hand in hand or our sexual intimacy. It's still not easy, but the strength and joy we experience together makes the struggle worthwhile.