Review: The Meaning of Marriage

A few weeks back I ordered Timothy Keller’s (coauthored with his wife Kathy Keller) newest book entitled The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. I have enjoyed Keller’s other books that I have read and so I decided to pick it up. Because of other reading demands I have only just begun to really read the book now and will probably finish it in the next day or two but so far it has not failed to disappoint. This is one of those few books that I think should probably be read by every couple coming to be married. It is also the type of book that I wish I could leave discreetly lying around for some married couples to pick up.

One of the things that makes this book so different from the many other marriage books that litter our shelves and bookstores is that in it Tim speaks with verve and wisdom to some of the modern ideas and complaints against marriage that so many couples seem to grapple with (some more secretively than others). This makes sense since the author is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan and has been dealing with these questions and ideas for years (ideas such as “soul mate”, marriage merely as a piece of paper, marriage destroys passion, marriage as self-fulfillment, and many others). The reason I think this is so important, even for longtime Christians, is because I have found that more and more Christian couples are having their minds shaped by popular culture in this area rather than the word of God.  But Keller isn’t content merely to respond to popular ideas like an answer man. He does answer but only so that he can communicate the richness and vividness of the biblical portrait of what marriage should be. And it is a beautiful, soul-rejoicing, truly freeing picture.

But don’t mistake Keller’s book for mere sentimentality. He would not like that one bit. Listen to how he starts his book in chapter one.

I’m tired of of listening to sentimental talks on marriage. At weddings, in church, and in Sundays school, much of what I’ve heard on the subject has as much depth as a Hallmark card. While marriage is many things, it is anything but sentimental. Marriage is glorious but hard. It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet it is also blood, sweat, and tears, humbling defeats and exhausting victories. No marriage I know more than a few weeks old could be described as a fairy tale come true. Therefore, it is not surprising that the only phrase in Paul’s famous discourse on marriage in Ephesians 5 that many couples can relate to is verse 32….Sometimes you fall into bed, after a long, hard day of trying to understand each other, and you can only sigh: “this is a profound mystery!” At times, your marriage seems to be an unsolvable puzzle, a maze in which you feel lost.

Those are the words of someone who is a realist. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say

I believe all this, and yet there’s no relationship between human beings that is greater or more important that marriage. In the Bible’s account, God himself officiates at the first wedding (Genesis 2:22-25). And when the man sees the woman, he breaks into poetry and exclaims, “At last!” Everything in the text proclaims that marriage, next to our relationship with God, is the most profound relationship there is. And that is why, like knowing God himself, coming to know and love your spouse is difficult and painful yet rewarding and wondrous.

As Keller continues he examines the conflicting ideas about marriage in our culture with wisdom and understanding. He explains that the fragility of marriages in our culture is not because of the weakness of the marriage institution itself but actually because of the expectations that are being brought into the marriage. While some cultures and traditions value the relationship of marriage above all things and sacrifice everything for the sake of the marriage, our culture values the individuals within the marriage to an inordinate degree and thus sees marriage as the means for self-realization and fulfillment. Keller comments

Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are all looking for a marriage partner who will “fulfill their emotional, sexual, and spiritual desires.” And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to a deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry. This is the reason many put off marriage and look right past great prospective spouses that simply are “not good enough.”

This is ironic. Older views of marriage are considered to be traditional and oppressive, while the newer view of the “Me-Marriage” seems so liberating. And yet it is this newer view that has led to a steep decline in marriage and to an oppressive sense of hopelessness with regard to it. To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is – there is almost no one like that out there to marry! The new conception of marriage as self-realization has put us in the position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough – at the same time.

So modern marriages are suffering under the weight of their own expectations. The reason for this is that we often believe “the illusion that if we find our one true soul mate, everything wrong with us will be healed; but that makes the lover into God, and no human being can live up to that.” The answer, surprisingly for us maybe, is that we should not only turn away from our own concept of marriage as self-realization and fulfillment but also turn away from the traditional conception of marriage where the relationship rules supreme and everything must be sacrificed for it. But what does that leave us with then? The answer is that while we are turning away from these views of marriage we must turn to the gospel, the good news that while we are sinners God sent his Son Jesus to die for us so that when we turn and submit ourselves to him in faith he delivers us from the penalty of our sin and gives us the joy of himself.

The reason that marriage is so painful and yet wonderful is because it is a reflection of the gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once. The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without our love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.

The hard times of marriage drive us to experience more of this transforming love of God. But a good marriage will also be a place where we experience more of this kind of transforming love at a human level. The gospel can fill our hearts with God’s love so that you can handle it when your spouse fails to love you as he or she should. That frees us to see our spouse’s sins and flaws to the bottom – and speak of them – and yet still love and accept our spouse fully. And when, by the power of the gospel, our spouse experiences that same kind of truthful yet committed love, it enables our spouses to show us that same kind of transforming love when the time comes for it.

I have tried to give a small taste of this wonderful book. There is so much more to write and enjoy about it but this is a good starting point. My hope is that many of us will profit from this book and if you read it then I think I can safely say that you will. You can find the book at a great price here.

The incredible Andy Naselli has also posted something about this book that you may find helpful. Click here and here to see his thoughts.

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