Recognizing Spiritual Leadership in the Little Things

A family walking through a meadow.

Spiritual intimacy in marriage can be a confusing and painful issue for many couples. As a matter of fact, I recently asked the couples in my small-group gathering to describe their shared spiritual relationship. Sadly, even though these couples represented veteran marriages, the couples either said they weren't as close as they wanted to be, or they simply weren't spiritually close at all.

This was true for my wife, Erin, and me early in our marriage. When we first got married, I'm sure Erin thought she was marrying a pastor-like man and we'd have an amazing shared spiritual relationship together. After all, I was in seminary. Unfortunately, Erin became extremely disillusioned with this part of our relationship. And because I didn't lead spiritually, she picked up the leadership reins. This left her confused and resentful. And I felt like a failure as the spiritual leader.

Apparently Erin is not the only woman to live with disappointments regarding dreams of a spiritually intimate marriage. I love how author Judy Bodmer describes her fantasy about a spiritual marriage in her blog: "I had visions of him leading Bible studies in our home, taking a leadership role at church, praying with me over our problems, and talking about godly things with our children. Instead he stumbled over grace at mealtime and hardly ever brought up the subject of God or faith or church." Ouch.

My problem turned out to be that I had some misperceptions of what it meant to be a spiritual leader. I thought I had to be like my father, Gary Smalley.

As a young boy, I remember many mornings when I'd find my dad reading his Bible or on his knees praying. I just wanted to watch cartoons! Instead, I felt like I ran into Billy Graham camped out in the way of the TV. I often marveled at my dad's spiritual wisdom and his deep, vibrant relationship with the Lord. I felt like I could never measure up to this spiritual giant and, as a result, I became spiritually passive in my marriage.

My pain revealed

One day when I was with my dad, he asked me how things were going with Erin. I'm sure his question was innocent, but I reacted defensively to him.

"Did she tell you to ask me?" I snapped.

My dad did a pretty good job of navigating the minefield that he'd just wandered into. "What's going on?" was all he asked.

I went on to explain that Erin and I recently had a fight over something petty, but the argument led to Erin expressing her frustration about my lack of spiritual leadership.

"One second we're arguing about dirty dishes in the sink," I lamented, "and the next moment my wife is telling me that I'm not leading her spiritually!"

I shared with my dad that had I told Erin I was not him. I wasn't Gary Smalley, and she needed to accept me for who I was.

"What do you mean that you're not me?" my dad gently nudged.

"I'm not a spiritual giant like you," I defended. "There are many days that I don't want to get up early and read my Bible in the morning like you do. When I pray with Erin, I often sound shallow and boring. I'll never lead my wife spiritually like you did for Mom."

Instantly, and without saying a word, my dad leaned across the table where we were eating and cupped his hands around my face. I felt like a kid about to get the lecture of his life. Instead, my dad shared something profound.

He told me that spiritual intimacy was more than just reading the Bible together, memorizing verses together, praying together or attending church together. He explained that we are human "beings" — not human "doings." He challenged me to realize that I was almost exclusively focused on the activities related to a shared spiritual relationship with Erin. I was focused on the doing, and I was missing the most important part of spiritual relationship: being.

The truth revealed

My dad went on to challenge my perception of spiritual leadership. He questioned why I thought I wasn't being a spiritual leader simply because I wasn't leading an early morning devotional or praying a certain way.

"Greg," my dad explained, "I see an amazing spiritual leader in you."

"Yeah right," I thought as I snorted and shook my head. I had no idea what he was talking about.

"A husband can give spiritual leadership in all kinds of ways — not just by reading the Bible and memorizing Scripture." My dad looked deep into my eyes and spoke life into me. This is what he said:

I see a husband who loves his wife wholeheartedly.
I see a husband who serves his wife sacrificially.
I see a husband who provides for his family financially.
I see a husband who protects his family.
I see a dad who is fully involved in the parenting of his daughter.
I see a man who takes responsibility and seeks forgiveness when he makes a mistake.
I see a man who respects authority.
I see a man who prays with his wife and for his daughter.
I see a man who takes his family to church.

Listening to my dad call out the things I was already doing for my wife, and putting them in the context of leading her spiritually, brought enormous freedom to me. I had always thought that spiritual leadership meant doing it like my dad. And I thought I was failing. But God used my dad to give me a renewed vision for what spiritual leadership really means — living out my faith as a whole person: heart, soul, mind and body. Being instead of simply doing.

Please don't hear me saying that spiritual disciplines are not important. Twenty years later, the spiritual relationship in my marriage has matured so that together Erin and I pray, go to church, read the Bible, attend a small group, tithe and go on mission trips together. But what we do is an overflow of who we are. As a young husband, my problem was that I just couldn't see past what I wasn't doing to see the bigger vision of spiritual intimacy in my marriage.

Husbands, let go of your preconceived notions of what it means to be a spiritual leader. True spiritual leadership is so much more than just practicing spiritual disciplines. Embrace all that you do to live out your faith, and see it as spiritual leadership. Wives, I urge you to do everything you can to encourage your husband, affirming him for all that he does. Be sure to notice the "whole" picture of how your husband loves you and your family. Wherever your marriage may be today, consider refocusing to find freedom as you pursue spiritual intimacy together.

© 2015 Focus on the Family.

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