by David Powlison
In this article, David Powlison takes a close look at those things that destroy intimacy in marriage and using the parable of the sower shows how the same things that create distance in our relationship with God, also create distance in our marriages. Then he explains how your marriage can be renewed through a renewed relationship with God.
You started out telling each other everything. Time flew by when you were together. You listened intently when 1 Corinthians 13 was read at your wedding. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy…” you nodded your head. It all seemed so easy then.
But now you have nothing to say to each other. The intimacy and trust you once enjoyed are gone—replaced by bickering, long silences, and hurried conversations about your schedules.
WHY DO MARRIAGES BECOME DISTANT?
Marriage is the most intimate of relationships. When a man and woman marry, they are meant to be one in heart and mind. God calls this being “one flesh.” Why do two people who have pledged to be faithful, kind, and loving to one another become separate?
Long ago in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect intimacy with God and with each other. But when they disobeyed God, their intimate relationship with him and with each other was destroyed. When you think about it, you’ll notice that the way you treat your spouse reflects the way you treat God. The same things that cause distance in your relationship with God cause distance in your relationship with your spouse.
Jesus told a parable that gives a graphic picture of what creates distance in our relationship with God and one another. According to Jesus, it’s what’s in your heart that makes intimacy with God and your spouse difficult. In the parable of the sower, he compares our hearts to four different kinds of soil. Each of these soils is a picture of what is in our hearts that creates distance in marriage:
"Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times." (Mark 4:3–8)
THE HARD HEART DOESN’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE
The first type of soil is a hard path. If a farmer drops grains of wheat on a highway it won’t grow. The person whose heart is like the hard path is completely self-centered, so he can’t respond to love from God, and doesn’t know how to love others. When you have a hard heart, your relationship with God and your spouse is all about getting your own needs met.
The self-centered person feels affection for others, but not real love. You feel affection when your spouse is nice to you—if she makes you a good meal or if he brings you flowers—but real love is more than a feeling. Love means bearing in mind the interests of another person. Love is a lifelong commitment to your spouse’s well-being and to building harmony and unity. If you and your spouse don’t love each other like this—if you are both only committed to your own well-being—then there is a huge, distance-creating hindrance in your marriage. Your marriage won’t flourish any better than a seed sown on the hard road.
THE DISAPPOINTED HEART GIVES UP ON LOVE
The second kind of soil is rocky. When the seed lands, it grows quickly, but it doesn’t develop deep roots, and soon the sun burns it up. This describes the heart that accepts the message of God’s love in Jesus with an initial burst of enthusiasm. But when troubles come and life stops being easy and fun, the enthusiasm wanes. Your love for God was strong during the good times, but you didn’t sign up for trouble. When troubles appear, you are filled with disappointment and your love for God disappears.
The same thing can happen in a marriage. When trouble comes to your marriage—your spouse isn’t perfect and your life together isn’t perfect either—your love wilts away. Romance is replaced by disappointment with life and each other. You may think, I just don’t love my spouse anymore. Our culture accepts that at face value, but God doesn’t. He has a different way of looking at your disappointment. God says, “You’re discovering for the first time that you don’t know how to love. You enjoyed affection and romance, but love is hard and hard-won. Romance is a wonderful gift, but love endures through the hard times; it endures when the heat comes.”
THE DISTRACTED HEART IS TOO BUSY TO LOVE
The seed planted in the third soil grows into a plant, but then it’s choked by thorns. Faith in Christ can also be choked, not by actual thorns, but by “the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things” (Mark 4:19). These are the same things that can distract you from your spouse. When worries grab all of your attention, they choke the vitality out of your relationship with God. A preoccupation with material things will also choke your marriage—your life together can become all about managing what you own or getting new stuff. Or your desires (your career, exercise, food, hobbies, etc.) can so preoccupy you that you have no time or energy for your spouse. You are too busy to love your spouse.
THE FRUITFUL HEART PERSEVERES IN LOVE
The fourth soil produces good fruit. This soil stands for the good heart that understands God’s Word, applies it, and perseveres in loving God and others. The person with the fruitful heart has an intimate relationship with God, and she relies on that relationship for the power and perseverance she needs to love for the long haul.
WHAT’S THE CONDITION OF YOUR HEART?
Take a moment and assess your own heart. Do you and your spouse have hard hearts? Disappointed hearts? Distracted hearts? Perhaps all these things are creating distance in your marriage. Don’t be discouraged. These are everyday human failings. You and your spouse’s self-centeredness, disappointments, and distractions point to your need for redemption. You need a Redeemer to change your heart, so you can love God and your spouse.
THE FIRST-THINGS-FIRST PRINCIPLE
Don’t make your goal in life to have a good marriage. Instead make knowing your Redeemer your goal. Only he can teach you to love. Only he can change your heart towards your spouse. Jesus said, “For the pagans run after all these things [things like intimacy and closeness in their marriage], and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:32–33). People all around the world eagerly seek to feel close to other human beings. They want intimacy. But when you seek God these “other things” will be added to you. Seek intimacy with God and intimacy with others will be added to you.
How do you seek intimacy with God? Meditate on the way he treats you. Love for others will come as you experience the love of your Father in heaven. God’s love for us is the most wonderful thing in this world—it’s at the core of what makes life bright and hopeful. Read these Bible verses and make them your own.
- You are never out of sight or out of mind to God (Psalm 139:7–10).
- He creates intimacy with you by the way he treats you (Isaiah 42:3).
- He notices and cares about everything that happens to you (Luke 12:6–7).
- He speaks openly about himself (John 15:15).
- He listens to you (Psalm 6:8–9).
- He is a refuge in the midst of your sufferings (Psalm 46).
- He hangs in there over the long haul (Isaiah 49:14–16).
- He laid down his life for you (John 3:16; Romans 5:6–8).
- He forgives all of your sins (Psalm 103:1–5).
- His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:21–24).
God wants you to respond to his love by trusting him with your whole life. He has bridged the distance between you and him through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. Now he is making you like him and walking with you every step of the way. He’s helping you step-by-step to love others the way he loves you.
Examine your own heart to see if you are making intimacy in your marriage the most important thing in your life. There is joy and delight when there’s affection, closeness, sparkle, romance, and sexual intimacy. But if you are living for intimacy, if you must have it or else, then you are not living for God. If you are living for intimacy and you aren’t getting that from your husband, you will be tempted to bitterness, despair, and even fantasizing about other men. This is where you need God’s forgiveness and power to change. Center your life on intimacy with God and he will give you the freedom to love your spouse without demanding intimacy from him.
If you seek intimacy with your spouse, you’ll always be disappointed. If you seek to love your spouse the way God loves you, you’ll never be disappointed. You will fail. You’ll still be hurt by your spouse’s sins. You’ll still get preoccupied by other desires. But in the long run there will be change. Intimacy will come your way—not always the way you’d like it or at the exact time you’d like it—but learning to love God will change your relationship with your spouse.
SHARE GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE AND FAITHFULNESS
In the Old Testament two Hebrew words are often used to describe God: chesed and emet. Chesed is translated in the Old Testament as “lovingkindness,” or “steadfast love.” It means committed kindness, a chosen generosity, a resolution to do good to another person no matter what. Emet is translated as “faithfulness” or “truth.” When we say of someone, “She was a true friend,” we’re using the word “true” in the sense that the Bible uses the word emet. It’s someone who’s looking out for your well-being, who is genuinely concerned for your welfare (see Philippians 2:20). God is full of chesed and emet—steadfast love and faithfulness—toward you.
Chesed and emet are also used in the Bible to describe human relationships. Most people seek their own interests, and instinctively do things that create distance and destroy intimacy in their marriage. But when you are committed to treat someone with kindness, when you are genuinely concerned for someone else’s welfare, you will start to be and do the kinds of things that actually build trust, intimacy, and companionship. Chesed and emet are what God is fundamentally like towards us. He is a God who keeps his promises, a God of kindness, a God who forgives. And chesed and emet are also the attributes you need to make your marriage deeply joyous and intimate.*
David Powlison, M.Div., Ph.D., is a faculty member and counselor at CCEF with over thirty years of experience. He has written numerous articles on counseling, many booklets, including Facing Death with Hope, Healing after Abortion, Recovering from Child Abuse, and Renewing Marital Intimacy, and several books, including Seeing with New Eyes, Speaking Truth in Love, and the forthcoming book The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context.
* This article is adapted from the first half of the booklet, Renewing Marital Intimacy: Closing the Gap Between You and Your Spouse copyright © 2008 by Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. Used by permission of New Growth Press and may not be downloaded and/or reproduced without prior written permission of New Growth Press.
The complete booklet, Renewing Marital Intimacy: Closing the Gap Between You and Your Spouse, including the section “Practical Strategies for Change” may be purchased from New Growth Press at www.newgrowthpress.com