How to Cultivate Spiritual Unity in Marriage
Marriage can either be a taste of Heaven on earth or a taste of hell on earth, depending on where you place the cross.
When Eric and I were first married, we received piles of Christian books on marriage. Well-meaning couples advised us to attend marriage retreats and conferences regularly. During our first year of marriage, we made a purposeful effort to read many of these books, and we attended at least two Christian marriage retreats. While we did glean some helpful tools from these resources, we realized we needed something more. It didn’t take long for us to see how quickly the cares of life could pull us apart and disrupt intimacy in our relationship. No matter how many books we read or communication techniques we put into practice, it seemed like there was a level of spiritual and emotional unity that we could never quite reach.
Then we entered into full-time ministry. We weren’t at all prepared for the battle we were stepping into. Spiritual attacks, financial pressures, criticism from others, and health issues began to hit us left and right. While our commitment to each other remained strong, our communication began to be strained and our spiritual unity faltered. There were no books or radio programs on how to strengthen marriage while dealing with the relentless pressures of full-time Christian ministry. None of the couples we knew had ever been in the kind of battles we were experiencing. When we went to marriage conferences, they fell short of giving us any advice that actually fit the struggles we were facing on a daily basis.
We knew there had to be another secret to having a thriving marriage even during difficult times. And one night, we found it — in a most unexpected way.
I was laying in bed sick — for what seemed like the umpteenth time that season. For months, I had been unable to speak onstage or fulfill my ministry roles. And now this, another flare up, making it so that I could hardly function. Up until that time, Eric and I had often prayed together — before meals, before a ministry trip, when we needed to make an important decision, etc. But our prayers had been mediocre, even dutiful. They hadn’t been filled with spiritual fire or unwavering faith. As a couple, we’d never really gained a clear vision of the importance of prayer or the purpose of it. We just knew it was something God wanted us to do, sort of like spiritual “exercises” to keep our soul in good shape.
We could relate to the words of Charles Spurgeon when he wrote, “There is a general kind of praying which fails for lack of precision. It’s as if a regiment of soldiers were to all fire off their weapons anywhere. Possibly somebody would be killed, but the majority of the enemy would be missed.”2 That is the way we had been used to praying — general, unfocused, and ineffective.
But recently we had been digging into the Word of God, and our perspective on prayer had begun to change. Instead of just praying broad, general, “wimpy” prayers, God was asking us to pray bold, specific, importunate prayers — prayers that would move mountains and wage war on the kingdom of darkness; prayers that would give the enemy a real run for his money.
As I lay sick in bed, unable to function, Eric began to resist the spiritual attack that was coming against us, and passionately pray for God’s purposes to be accomplished in our lives — in our health, our marriage, our finances, our ministry, and our family.
That night was a turning point in our Christian lives and in our marriage. No longer were we going to passively sit by and let the enemy have his way. We were going to rise up in God’s strength and stand together in unified, importunate prayer.
It wasn’t easy at first. The old habits of mediocrity were hard to break. At times it felt awkward to pray for longer periods of time and to pray with passion and boldness out loud in front of each other. Yet the more we studied God’s Word, the more we knew that this was how He intended us to pray. We began to sense the power of having two or more gathered in Christ’s name and felt His presence in our midst. (See Matthew 18:20.)
The impact upon our marriage was amazing. That year, we hadn’t been attending marriage conferences or reading marriage books, but suddenly we realized that our communication had never been better, our unity never stronger. We were touching the heart of God as a couple; we were wrestling for His purposes as a team. The natural byproduct was a clearer sense of purpose, better communication between us, and an amazing like-mindedness that lasted through the entire day.
We were amazed to realize that it wasn’t merely human advice or practical communication techniques that could keep our marriage strong — it was growing together spiritually. The closer we grew to Jesus Christ as a couple, the closer we grew to each other. What a simple, yet life-altering revelation!
If you are eager to strengthen the spiritual unity in your marriage or simply want to gain a vision for building a Christ-centered marriage in the future, I’d like to share some of the most important principles that Eric and I have learned about growing together as a couple.
Principle #1: Grow together
When my love story with Eric was unfolding, we had an unusual way of spending time together — studying Scripture and reading Christian biographies. Instead of spending time together watching movies, gushing about our feelings, or chatting about trivial things, we focused on growing together spiritually. We knew that we were headed toward marriage, and we knew the importance of cultivating like-mindedness and spiritual unity between us.
Eric and I found that exploring God’s Word together was truly exhilarating. We would get excited about the same spiritual truths and talk for hours about how those truths should impact our daily lives and our future decisions. We read biographies of men and women from Christian history who gave their lives radically to Jesus Christ and discussed the things that inspired us about their stories.
Once we got married and entered into full-time ministry however, staying spiritually connected proved to be a much bigger challenge. Ministry pressures and the responsibilities of having our own home made it harder to spend time growing together spiritually, reading God’s Word, and studying Christian history. We were often too tired at the end of the day to spend hours examining Scripture or reading biographies, as we’d done during the early days of our love story. We slowly replaced times of prayer and spiritual growth with times of “vegging” in front of movies or doing other relaxing activities that had very little spiritual benefit. While we knew it was healthy to do fun activities together, we also realized that we had replaced most of our times our spiritual growth with entertainment. Our relationship with Christ and each other was suffering as a result.
As we began to learn how to wrestle in prayer together, we also made a purposeful decision to replace mindless pastimes and temporal distractions with eternally-focused activities. Instead of vegging in front of movies or mindless channel surfing, we used our “down time” for prayer and studying Scripture. Instead of using our free time to surf the internet or read suspense novels, we began to read powerful biographies and challenging Christian books. It wasn’t easy to make these changes — especially at the end of a long week when we were tired. Yet we soon found that making time for spiritual growth gave us far more refreshment and energy than vegging in front of a Hollywood blockbuster ever could. We began to have a true passion for Jesus Christ once more. No longer were we just going through the motions of Christianity. Our lives and hearts were focused on eternity, not on the passing pleasures of this life.
There is something extremely powerful about a husband and wife seeking God with passion and fervency, and doing it together. Nothing can infuse a marriage and family with strength like a husband and wife who share a common desire to make Jesus Christ the highest priority of their daily lives.
It says in James 4:8, “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.” We can’t expect spiritual growth to “just happen.” Rather, we must proactively seek after God and take purposeful steps to draw near to Him. And the exciting thing is — He has promised to draw near to us as we draw near to Him!
If you and your spouse are ready to grow together in Christ and infuse your home and marriage with spiritual strength, I encourage you to be purposeful about choosing eternally-focused activities to do together.
In the hustle and bustle of family life, planning time to grow spiritually with your spouse can feel next to impossible. But much like cultivating a thriving prayer life, growing spiritually won’t happen unless we set aside purposeful time for it. Even if you and your spouse can only plan an hour once a week to go through a Bible study, read a Christian biography, or study Scripture together, you will see tremendous spiritual benefits in your home and marriage if you make these times a priority. Eric and I often listen to Christian audiobooks — especially biographies — at night before bed or while we are getting other things done. Hearing or reading the same powerful stories about God’s work in other believers’ lives spark amazing conversations between us and helps our prayers become sharper and more focused. We also like listening to messages by Leonard Ravenhill, Paris Reidhead, Corrie ten Boom, Elisabeth Elliot, and other passionate speakers. When Eric and I are working on a household project or driving long distances in our car, we will often listen to the Word of Promise audio Bible together. Even if we don’t have time to sit down and read something together, just listening to the edifying, life-giving words of Scripture and powerful truths from devoted Christians can make a tremendous impact upon our spiritual lives. When we go out on our date nights, we often talk about the stories and truths that have impacted or challenged us. The fact that we have both been hearing the same stories, sermons, and Scriptures makes it that much easier to share in each other’s spiritual journeys.
Prayerfully consider what simple steps you and your spouse can take to plan time for spiritual growth. Is there a time daily or weekly when you could both listen to an audio book, sermon, or audio Bible? Can you set aside an hour on the weekend to explore Scripture together? Is there someone you can serve together as a couple? Ask God to show you some simple steps to take, and soon you will be amazed at the spiritual like-mindedness that begins to flow into your marriage.
Principle #2: Go together
A local pastor in our community was at a low point in his life and needed a spiritual getaway — a time to recharge his batteries and get perspective on his life. Instead of taking a retreat with his wife and family, he chose to go alone. He flew to another state, checked into a hotel, and attempted to get spiritually refueled on his own, without the “distraction” of his family being there with him. But the trip ended in disaster. Floundering in his spiritual life and feeling disconnected from his wife and children, he ended up getting involved with another woman. What had started out as a much needed spiritual retreat ended up destroying this man’s marriage, family, and ministry.
There were likely many factors that led to this heartbreaking series of events. But the fact that this man chose to disconnect and “escape” from his wife and family was a big part of the issue.
The enemy loves to see families disconnect from each other. If he can convince us that we deserve a “break” from the demands of family life and the responsibilities of marriage, he sets us up for heartache and even moral failure. Women’s retreats, mommies’ nights out, guys’ camping trips, and men’s conferences all certainly have their place. But be sure that you and your spouse are purposeful about going to events, conferences, retreats, and getaways together as well. If you and your spouse are constantly having separate experiences and learning things apart from each other, you won’t be able to share life, make memories, and grow together the way that God intended you to.
For every night or weekend you spend away from each other, be sure that you and your spouse have far more nights and weekends spent together. Whenever possible, let time apart be the exception, not the rule. Beware of thoughts such as: I just need a break from my family. I want time away from my husband for a while. I just need to focus on ME. These are dangerous notions to cultivate. Our society encourages us to protect our individuality and remain a separate entity from our husband and children. But this is the opposite of God’s pattern. You and your husband are one flesh — he is part of you, and you are part of him. God didn’t intend us to try to “get away” from our own flesh! In fact, when speaking about marriage Christ warned, “… what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6).
This doesn’t mean you can never take time away by yourself. But if your attitude is one of “escaping” from your husband and children, rather than becoming refreshed and strengthened so that you can serve them even better, the enemy will win a victory, and your marriage and family will suffer.
If attending a conference or going on a spiritual retreat with your spouse doesn’t work for you practically, I encourage you to look for things that you can do as a couple that will cause you to grow closer together in your relationship and closer to Jesus Christ. Can you meet with other godly couples for an evening of prayer and Bible study? Can you watch a powerful Christian film together and have a discussion about it afterwards? Remember, when you do significant things together instead of always sharing those experiences with your girlfriends, you will discover a tremendous sense of unity, purpose, and spiritual like-mindedness in your marriage — and your family will reap the benefits.
Principle #3: Pray Strategically
During the season when God was teaching us how to replace wimpy praying with wrestling prayer, Eric and I started the habit of creating a “sacred list” — otherwise known as a purposeful prayer strategy. We would write down a list of every area that was a struggle in our family — whether a child-training challenge, a physical issue for one of our kids, or wisdom needed for important family decisions. We called it our “sacred list” — and it included all of the areas we were committing to pray consistently about until a clear answer came.
For the past twelve years, we have continued this pattern of having a “sacred list” or prayer strategy for our family. Each night, Eric and I set aside time to lift up these requests to God, and we continue praying about them until we sense a breakthrough has come. It’s truly been amazing to see the way God has worked in our home and family life as a result of this purposeful prayer. Rather than simply praying general prayers, such as “help our kids to behave well,” we are purposeful about taking every specific request — no matter how big or small — to our God in prayer. We have prayed about potty training, pacifier-weaning, and nursing issues. We have prayed about sibling rivalries, health struggles, and for our children to find special, godly friends.
Answers may not come right away. But God asks us to continue bringing our prayers before Him with faith and importunity. When I’m wrestling in prayer over certain issues and the answers aren’t coming immediately, I often think of the woman from Canaan who asked Jesus to heal her daughter who was severely demon possessed. At first, Jesus seems not to hear her, but she continues to cry out after Him. Then, He seems to be unwilling to grant her request, but she continues to plead with Him. Finally, He says to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire.” (See Matthew 15:22-28.) What incredible perseverance in the face of seeming discouragement and disappointment! As Martin Luther once said, “God may delay, but He always comes.”3
It is not easy to continue praying diligently and consistently when you don’t see immediate answers. But I have found that some of the greatest victories in prayer have come when I refuse to give up and — even in the face of seeming defeat — continue to cry out to God for victory. Often, what at first appears to be a defeat or a “closed door” can turn into an incredible testimony of God’s faithfulness if we simply continue to knock until the answer comes!
Having a specific prayer strategy as a couple is an amazing way to build your spiritual connectivity. You will be able to watch God’s faithfulness unfold in your family and marriage. Standing in agreement for God’s purposes to be accomplished and wrestling in prayer for victory in the difficult areas of your life is an amazing way to build unity with your spouse.
Principle #4: Be battle ready
Remember, the enemy does not like it when we pray with our spouse. He will do whatever he can to distract us and convince us that we don’t need to pray, we are too tired to pray, we are too busy to pray, or that we can always “pray later.” Be on guard against these lies, and be careful not to take his bait. Keep in mind that when you least feel like praying is usually when you need prayer the most! Like Nehemiah ignored the verbal threats and attacks of his enemies while he was building the wall around Jerusalem, we must also choose to ignore the threats and distractions of the enemy as we build a spiritual wall around our marriage and family through prayer.
Also be on guard against irritations, frustrations, and arguments that arise with your spouse the moment you decide to pray together. The enemy knows that if he can get you sidetracked with an argument or frustration, he can thwart your prayer session. Don’t let him succeed. Call upon the grace of God to put aside your frustrations, ignore the temptation to bicker with your spouse, and quickly forgive any offenses that have arisen — then get back to the business at hand … praying and growing spiritually together!
If your spouse isn’t on-board with cultivating spiritual unity, don’t despair. Start by making prayer and spiritual growth the highest priority in your own life. Make your own personal “sacred list” and at the very top of it, ask God to change your husband’s heart toward prayer! Don’t nag, complain, or criticize to see him change in this area — instead pray! You’ll be amazed at what God can do in your marriage when you place it entirely in His hands.