There appears to be a marriage book renaissance going on within the Reformed-ish circles of evangelicalism and this is a very good thing indeed. One only has to look at the divorce rates both inside and outside the church to see that marriage is in crisis. But why? Why are we so unhappy in our marriages? In Friends and Lovers: Cultivating Companionship and Intimacy in Marriage, Joel Beeke argues it’s a gospel issue—and the true hope for a God-glorifying marriage is found in Jesus:
By nature we are ignorant of what true love and marriage should be, but Christ our prophet offers us guidance in the Bible. We are guilty of dishonoring marriage through our disobedience towards the God who designed it, but Christ our priest shed his blood for the forgiveness of our sins and now intercedes for us. We are rebels without the strength to overcome the evil that distorts and disrupts our human relationships, but Christ our king conquers sin and rules us by his mighty Spirit, making all things new—including our marriages.
In looking at Christ as the foundation of our marriages, Beeke divides his argument into two parts—the need for spouses to be friends and friendship’s impact on marital intimacy. This pattern is familiar, but worth repeating. On cultivating friendship within marriage, he writes:
Many people in our culture think that love is something you fall into and therefore can easily fall out of. That might be true of passing emotions, but true friendship relies on cultivation: uprooting bad attitudes, planting daily seeds of love towards one another, pulling out weeds and eliminating pests that threaten to choke the relationship, watering the tender plants with daily prayer, and then taking time to reap a harvest of love and enjoyment in each other’s company. . . . Friendship does not persist, deepen, and grow automatically. . . . [It] cannot be warmed up by thirty seconds in the microwave. So much today is instant, but friendship is not. It costs something. It costs you yourself, your commitment, and your vulnerability. There are no rush orders in friendship. It must be baked slowly, gently, and continually if we want the flavor we are looking for.
Beeke’s picture of patience and persistence—listening to each other, spending time with one another, praying together, studying and serving one another—is powerfully convicting to me as a husband. While by God’s grace, Emily and I have a very good marriage, Beeke’s exhortation to pray together brought forth a key area where I’ve not led well. While I know that we both pray for one another, praying together for one another has not exactly been a consistent habit. His wise counsel, combined with that of Richard Baxter (“It is a mercy to have so near a friend to be a helper to your soul,” he wrote), caused me to go to my wife asking for her forgiveness for not doing this well (we now face the challenge of developing this new pattern and not persisting in the old one).
Equally challenging are Beeke’s exhortations regarding sexual intimacy. While there’s been much consternation among Christians about another recent release’s portrayal of sex in marriage, Beeke’s book treads some of the same ground with far greater care and wisdom:
Human sexuality is the coming together of two people—male and female—who were made to serve God and love one another. The best sex springs from a relationship in which we honor each other throughout life. . . . Sex should always communicate honor to a person in a way that is appropriate to God’s image-bearer. . . . we must not fall prey to the notion that a woman must do whatever her husband wants her to do in bed. Moreover, even when there may be mutual consent, we should not engage in every form of sexual practice promoted in our sex-intoxicated culture. We should reject our culture’s obsessions with increasingly bizarre and extremely weird forms of sex that seem to make sex an end in itself.
For those frustrated by the simplistic approach offered by many today, Beeke’s words are a breath of fresh air. He shows us that when it comes to sex, it’s never simply a question of “can we [blank],” but always one of “how do I best communicate love, honor and respect to my spouse?” This is the advice that a sexually confused generation of Christians desperately needs. I can only pray that we will listen and heed it.
One section that I believe will be particularly difficult for many readers is that which deals with child-bearing. On this issue, Beeke paints a much harder line than I’ve seen of late. While he doesn’t elevate having children to the primary purpose of sexual intimacy, he does stress its importance. His most provocative statement on the issue comes when he explains that while sex is God’s gift for our companionship and pleasure, “to engage in willful rebellion against God’s call to be fruitful and multiply is wrong and harmful to your own sexuality.”
For many couples, this will be hard to take, particularly since we’ve been given the well-meaning (and generally helpful) advice get to know one another first before having children. This is certainly not a bad idea, but when the desire to hold off and “be ready” to have children goes too far (as if one could ever truly be ready to have kids), perhaps it is wise for us to consider what’s going on in our hearts and minds that is driving us to wait. His words are challenging—enough to likely cause some readers to put the book down, I’d bet—but I hope readers will give them proper consideration.
Perhaps the only serious frustration I had with this book is that it’s too short. While it doesn’t pretend to be an exhaustive theology of marriage, I’d love to see Beeke tackle such a work. He paints a provocative and pastoral picture of marriage and I’d love to see him expand on this content in greater detail. Regardless, Friends and Lovers is a worthy addition to any library and counselor’s shelf. Whether single or married, I trust it will be a blessing to you.
Title: Friends and Lovers: Cultivating Companionship and Intimacy in Marriage
Author: Joel R. Beeke
Publisher: Cruciform Press (2012)