In November, I took my first sabbatical since starting Authentic Intimacy in 2012. What a gift! The sabbatical was for rest and refreshment but also for personal reflection. For the past year, Mike and I have tossed around the idea of going through a marriage intensive. Sabbatical seemed the ideal time to do this. So, we headed out to Colorado to meet with a counselor for three hours a day for a week. The counseling lived up to the name – it was intense!
Perhaps like you, I’ve been discouraged and saddened by the many examples of Christian leaders falling away from faith and leading double lives. It’s natural to assume that what happened to them could never happen to me. That’s simply naive. Mike and I have taken the warning seriously.
In this blog, I want to candidly share with you why Mike and I took this step of going for intensive counseling. No, we are not currently in a marriage crisis. But we also recognize that pride (even of a good marriage or sound mental health) often goes before a fall.
Transparency and Accountability
The day our intensive began, I joked with a friend that I was ready to “go under the knife.” Any form of counseling requires that you place trust in the person and the process. Since I knew our counselor, I was ready to trust. I wasn’t there to critique him or to out-therapize my husband (which were both real temptations). Had I done so, we would have wasted time and money. I was there to place myself and our marriage before the kind and searching eyes of God through the Holy Spirit. My spirit needed to be humble, ready to receive whatever the Lord might reveal.
Because I teach about marriage, sexuality, and intimacy, sometimes I believe I shouldn’t have the same struggles as other people. This is one of Satan’s greatest weapons. Paul knew this when he warned Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” and when he wrote to the Corinthians, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed, because he is ready to fall.”
When I personally struggle, the weight can feel enormous because I think I should have it all together. When my kids make mistakes or my husband and I argue, the enemy screams lies about how I’m disappointing God and people. Sometimes, it makes me want to quit. More often, I want to hide behind my computer and the excuse that I’m an introvert.
Mature Christians, including leaders, fall because they are isolated and lonely. They don’t think it’s safe to let anyone in to know their secrets. We went to a marriage intensive partly to demolish this potential barrier.
We need “eyes” on our lives and marriages. There can be no hidden compartments of pain and shame. Through counseling, I was reminded of the pattern I can fall into of being the “therapist” or teacher even in my close friendships. While this can seem altruistic, it actually keeps me from intimate friendship and accountability.
Addressing Unresolvable Conflicts
Over the past decade, Mike and I have learned some great conflict resolution skills that have dramatically changed how we address our disagreements. We are far less likely to yell, stonewall, or blame each other. Even so, there have been some underlying conflicts that come up all the time. Whenever we try to address them, we seem to get nowhere. No matter how much we listen, validate, and strain to understand each other, we end up talking in circles. Have you ever felt that way?
Our hope was that through the marriage intensive, we would be able to navigate these specific issues. We wrote them down and shared them with Pete, our counselor, on the first day. Rather than simply play the referee (“Mike is right about this one” or “You should listen to Juli about that”), Pete helped us see why we both dig in on these issues. This gave us more empathy for each other’s “triggers” and a greater awareness of how what happens between us can tap into fears and pride in our own hearts.
Discovering Fault Lines
Marriage is made up of two people. Marriage is not a thing you can “fix.” It is a dynamic that flows from the hearts of both individuals. In order to “work” on your marriage or any relationship, you have to be willing to look at the fault lines in your own heart.
Although Mike was with me every minute of our marriage intensive, there were chunks of time in which the Lord did surgery individually on each of our hearts. We were both challenged to see how Satan uses early experiences and pain to keep us from true freedom in Christ. Yes, I “knew” how my childhood has formed my personality, strengths, and weaknesses. I even wrote papers on this in my graduate training. But God led me to a deeper “knowing” and a richer healing.
It’s always a challenge to connect my head and my heart. My eyes can be stubborn to let go of tears. The joys and grief my brain acknowledges can show up in a blog without ever being felt deeply in my heart. Through the intensive, I was reminded that God wants me to love Him first and foremost with my heart. Understanding God’s love and walking in it are two different things.
I have no illusion that taking a sabbatical or going to a marriage retreat will inoculate me from failure and future spiritual struggles. The Christian life is not a one-and-done decision to love God. Even though my soul is sealed with the Lord, I still need to “work out” that salvation every day.
What the Lord showed me during my sabbatical can quickly be forgotten in the busyness of jumping back into ministry and routine. I don’t want that to happen! I want my heart to be tender, my relationships to be authentic, and my love for God to be a fire that can’t be extinguished. That can only happen through a daily decision to engage in regular “mini sabbaticals” and intensives. Search my heart, O Lord.
Regardless of whether you are in some form of spiritual leadership, remember that your faith will consistently be under attack. Sometimes, the enemy strikes through crisis, but more often through complacency.
I’m not sure what it looks like for you in 2021 to “work out your faith with fear and trembling.” Maybe you will choose to see a counselor or be able to take a sabbatical. These are wonderful tools, but they only “work” in as much as they bring us back to the feet of Jesus. Regardless of the tools, practices, or rhythms you may choose, your most important choice is to spend time at His feet, worshipping, loving, confessing, and receiving.