A Cord of Three Spirits...
Last week, we wrote about discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit in your own life. And while doing so has some obvious benefits to you as an individual, the impact on a couple is perhaps, at first, less clear. So we wanted to expand on the conversation we began last week by spending some time this week talking about three problems that we've observed that can frustrate a couple's desire and efforts to pursue the Holy Spirit together. Our hope is to show you how changing your approaches or thought processes regarding these problems can help you find new solutions.
The Problem of COMPATIBILITY
When people talk about compatibility in relationships, they usually mean one of two things: sex and cohabitation. Many couples solve the question of whether or not they're compatible in these two areas with a single solution: move in together prior to marriage. Before they make the big commitment, many couples like to test the waters of marriage, so to speak. How well do we live together? How comfortable are we with one another sexually? How likely are we to drive one another crazy and how effective is sex at holding that likelihood at bay? But the truth is that there are a lot of areas where couples might consider their compatibility: politics, leisure activities, financial priorities, callings of ministry, family values, parenting philosophies, religious beliefs, etc.
Many couples, including believers, never think to ponder whether they are spiritually compatible. That is, to what degree are the way that you pursue and are pursued by the Holy Spirit as an individual and the way that I do and am harmonious with each other? How easily integrated are our approaches to God? Carly and I discovered after we were married that our approaches were not compatible at all. Carly used to say that she feels God through her feet. I think, as she's gotten older, she's come to appreciate a more full-body God experience. In either case, her relationship with God is highly sensate. When the Spirit speaks to her, he does it less with words and more with physical cues. A pressure in the chest, a warmth or vibration in the hands, a tightening of the lungs. When her breath feels closer than usual, she knows that something in the spiritual world is happening very near to her. God speaks to Carly through her body, and how it reacts to his Word and his presence.
I, on the other hand, have almost the exact opposite relationship with God. I have practically zero physical sensitivity to the movement of the Spirit. But I hear his voice in my head and in my gut, wholly other and definitely in verbal language - complete sentences with subjects, predicates, manners of speech that are not my own. And because of that I relate to the Spirit of God on an intellectual level. We volley back and forth as I wrestle with theological concepts he's teaching me. I read what others have written about him, great men like C. S. Lewis, R. C. Sproul, G. K. Chesterton, A. W. Tozer, and others. (Sidebar: What is it with authors having two initials for a first name?) I take the parts that resonate with me and I pray over them and wait for the Spirit to speak to me. He always does, guiding me in how these truths can be applied to my life.
When Carly and I were first married, I had no idea how to engage with her approach to the Spirit. When she would say that she knew God wanted us to avoid something or to pursue something because of the way her stomach felt, that was gibberish to me. And when I rushed to share something Lewis wrote about the relationship between man's will and God's foreknowledge or outline the pros and cons of Molinism, her eyes would glaze over in a hurry. There was just seemingly no way to put the two approaches together...
The Problem of PERSONALITY
Once we realized that we weren't spiritually compatible, a second problem arose almost immediately. It was very important to Carly that we find a way to worship and study together, as a couple. It was less important to me in the beginning, but still something I felt should probably be done if we could. The issue arose when my very direct, straightforward, some might even say (and they'd probably be right) blunt way of communicating got me in trouble. I would often tell Carly things like, "the way you do this is wrong," or "that author is too touchy-feely and their theology isn't solid," essentially undermining the essence of her relationship with God every time we talked about it. And, because of how it important it was to her, we talked about it a lot.
In my mind, I was being helpful. Obviously, the way that Carly approached God was inferior to my approach, and if I could only help her understand and adopt my approach, our lives would be improved and then we could study together, which is what she wanted anyway. Win-win, right? Not so much. Moreover, Carly has a people-pleasing personality, so she would often try to acquiesce to my approach. She felt as though I was beating her over the head with my approach and the way to make it stop was to abandon her own relationship with God for something completely unnatural to her. But Carly can only acquiesce for so long before she pops, and those efforts would always end in a fight about how I belittled her spirituality and made her feel like a child, when all along I had been thinking she had finally come around to see the wisdom of my approach. When combined, my arrogance and her lack of assertiveness were a dangerous combination.
The Problem of Safety
This led to the third problem in our spiritual relationship: safety. Neither of us felt safe to share our spiritual journey with the other. Carly became terrified of being made to feel stupid or wrong for reading this or that author, or having this or thought perception about God's will. Meanwhile, I was worried that I could never know whether Carly was being honest with me when I shared a passage that I had read or a theology I was wrestling through, whether her engagement was real or she was just trying to get me to stop talking. Our first solution to this problem was just not to share with each other. We lived our spiritual lives completely separately for fear that spiritual vulnerability would only end in emotional pain. But this was not a viable long-term solution.
Spirituality is the bedrock of every marriage, whether it knows it or not. God has designed marriage this way. Even sex and sexuality, when approached correctly, are just as much spiritual experiences as they are physical ones, if not more so. What we believe about God and how we relate to him sit at the core of everything we do and say and in our marriages. Attempting to completely remove that aspect of our individual lives from our corporate married experience was unsustainable.
The first solution: Dispelling the myth of compatibility
Through years of pain, stress, frustration, and observation, we ultimately came to a preliminary, but indispensable, conclusion. Compatibility is a myth - or, at least, its importance is. In our current view, the greatest indicator for compatibility is the willingness to do hard work. Almost every relationship involves some kind of hard work to make it last. If your relationship is easy, I'd argue that you may not be challenging yourself enough - but that's a different blog. The truth is that there's no need for couples to determine whether they are compatible by sleeping together before they get married or living together before they get married. In fact, I'd even go so far as to argue that these are the lazier ways out. The harder and better work is to instead examine what your sexual expectations and your cohabitation expectations are, and talk with someone wise and experienced in both areas about how easily combined those expectations are, and how much work you can expect to do in combining them. Introspection - that's the hard work. Compromise - that's the hard work. Jumping the gun and throwing yourselves together as a test is just asking nothing of yourself and hoping that it all works out anyway, and that's hardly a strong foundation for a relationship.
The same truth applies in our spirituality as married couples. When we dispelled the myth of compatibility, and realized that, if we were willing to commit to it and work for it, that we could make ourselves spiritually compatible through sacrifice and compromise, a whole new world of possibilities opened up in our spiritual relationship. And not just there, but our larger relationship, as well. In fact, I think it's worth noting at this point that these three problems and their subsequent solutions are not exclusive to spirituality. Anywhere that a married person's values or approaches don't line up with their spouse's creates the potential for the myth of compatibility to rear its head. If it does, then the problems of personality and safety might not be far behind. It's not altogether unusual for one person in a relationship to be more extroverted, forward, and assertive, while the other is more introverted, reserved, and deferential. And it's not uncommon for those personality traits to lead to parties not feeling safe to communicate about their philosophical, political, theological, or preferential differences - especially when we're not equipped to anticipate that lack of safety and compensate for it.
The second solution: Dispelling the Act of Evaluation
At first, we had no plan for how exactly we would make ourselves more compatible. We were starting behind the eight ball and had no expertise in how to maneuver out of that position. So our first and best idea was to rid ourselves of the need or desire or impulse to evaluate one another's spirituality. For us, this involved agreeing to not evaluate a combination of both the content of our respective spiritualities and the motivations behind our sharing them. I agreed that I wouldn't double check her for accurate theology or assume that she was being lazy about studying, and she agreed that she wouldn't assume that I was trying to convince her of anything that I shared, nor would she pre-judge the content of my sharings as not useful or important just because they took a more academic approach.
In taking this less judgmental approach, we also solved the problem of safety. Over time, we both acclimated to the idea of sharing our spiritual revelations and experiences, something we still do to this day. And once we felt safe to share, we shared more, and then something else happened - something I don't think either of us really expected. We actually, quite by accident, began to appreciate some things about each other's approaches. I'm not devoid of emotions as a person - quite the opposite. I've been moved to tears many times, felt an aching in my chest when I was sad or a rush of heat and heart thumping when I was excited. I just never knew how to incorporate the emotional, visceral, sensory experience into my approach to the Lord. But observing Carly and hearing her experiences nonjudgmentally helped to see the value in that kind of approach, and become curious enough about it to try to pursue some of that in my life. Likewise, Carly became willing to think more critically about what she read, to examine some of her experiences more objectively. We found ways to incorporate each other's spiritual priorities into our own approaches.
The Third Solution: Dispelling the Requirement of naturality
This was the final step for us in creating a spirituality that we could pursue together. It never stopped being important to us (and, over time, it became equally important to us) that engaging with the Holy Spirit was something we did as a couple. We wanted to hear his voice together. And even with a newfound appreciation for each other's approaches, and even with an ability to incorporate them somewhat, it was still hard to combine our approaches purely. And we did get hung up there for a little while. I think both of us were nervous to stray too far from our natural leanings. On the one hand, we didn't want to alienate either party again, but on the other, we also didn't want to leave what we felt like were our authentic methods of worship behind. We wanted to stay true to ourselves.
We've never done much research in this particular area, but I wonder if this happens for other couples. Do we get so attached to who we are before we get married that, instead of creating for ourselves, we just try to fold our spouses in to who we already are? I mean, our spouses (hopefully) fell in love with us for who we are, so we don't want to completely reinvent ourselves and become strangers to them. But I also think there's something biblical and God-honoring about coming together as one and realizing that we are, together, a new creation as we were once individually new creations. And the ways that we always dreamed our marriages would be or the ways that we saw other people's marriages work out don't necessarily have to be the blueprints for what our marriages become. We can dream and imagine new things for ourselves, leaving behind what feels "natural" to our individual selves and create a new authenticity, one that's born out of our union together.
So that's what we did. And it was really this - it was Not Easily Broken Ministries - that was our new authenticity. We embraced a mission together. That was our new creation. We figured that if we were going to be something new, we were going to have do something new. Something different. Something we'd never done before. We also figured that, in order to be successful in this new endeavor, we were going to have to get identical marching orders. We were a unit, and a unit moves and acts in oneness, in accordance with itself. Don't miss this - we embraced the idea that, while the Holy Spirit would continue to respect our individuality by communicating to us in the ways that he already did, he would communicate to us about the same things, and he would say the same things to us. It was the topic and the message that would unify us in our pursuit of the will of the Holy Spirit, not the mode of speech. And that shift in priority felt very unnatural indeed, but it made all the difference.
With a willingness to work, a willingness to learn, and a willingness to create, we can all find a pursuit of the Holy Spirit that brings us closer to him and closer to the ones we love.