Every so often, I find myself reading a great deal on one or two subjects. Most recently, it’s been marriage. Prior to October, I had (I think) one or two books on the subject in my library, total. Since then, that number’s grown dramatically, with each new addition bringing certain strengths and weaknesses to the table. But there’s been one thing that’s been consistent: the books written by couples whose marriages have been tested by trial and time have been a tremendous blessing to me. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Tim and Kathy Keller is definitely among those.
Based on Tim Keller’s sermon series on Ephesians 5:22-33, The Meaning of Marriage provides a thorough and faithful look at the biblical foundations of, and the gospel’s implications on, marriage. And it truly is a breath of fresh air. So many books (even those written by Christians) offer an idealized view of marriage that’s incredibly appealing, but once you’re there, you’re terribly disappointed. Marriage becomes the search for the most compatible person, for “Mr. (or Ms.) Right,” for the mythical soulmate.
To borrow a phrase from one of Keller’s previous books, they’re looking for a counterfeit god. The extreme idealism of the modern view of compatibility, “Me-Marriage” as Keller calls it, ironically, “leads to deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry,” he explains. “This is ironic. Older views of marriage are considered to be traditional and oppressive, while the newer view of ‘Me-Marriage’ seems so liberating. And yet it is the newer view that has led to a steep decline in marriage and to an oppressive sense of hopelessness with regard to it” (p. 34).
The hopelessness comes, of course, from the fact that there’s no one who will ever perfectly be compatible with you. Not a single person. For example, my wife and I love one another dearly, but sometimes we annoy the bejeepers out of one another in part because we both like to be right about pretty much everything. We also have weird idiosyncrasies that drive each other up the wall. I hate when people eat loudly. Emily can’t stand that I complain about it as much as I do. (And yes, the problem is me, I understand this). But the Kellers remind readers that, despite our culture telling us to look for “the one,” the secret to a lasting marriage is not compatibility, but service. “It is the message that what husbands should do for their wives is what Jesus did to bring us into union with himself. . . . This is the secret—that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another. That when God invented marriage, he already had the saving work of Jesus in mind” (pp. 45, 47). This view allows us to be free of the false choice between fulfillment and sacrifice because in the gospel we see that fulfillment comes from sacrifice.
Over the following chapters, the Kellers expand on the implications of this great truth, looking first at the Holy Spirit’s enabling power to help us give ourselves us for one another. “If two spouses each say, ‘I’m going to treat my self-centeredness as the main problem in the marriage,’ you have the prospect of a truly great marriage,” they write (p. 65). When spouses are committed to putting our sinful preferences to death, we are free to put our spouses ahead of ourselves, to think of their wants and needs before our own. But again, this is ultimately impossible unless we have been saved by Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This theme continues as the Kellers examine sacrificial love as the essence of marriage. This, again, is something that our culture doesn’t understand. I remember when my wife and I were first engaged (before we became believers), a then-family member told me that we were foolish for getting married. He’d bought into the notion that you don’t need a piece of paper to show love. But on this point—and for me, this alone may have been the thing that made this book worth reading—the Kellers respond:
[W]hen someone says, “I don’t need a piece of paper to show love,” you might say, “Yes, you do. If you love the way the Bible describes the love of two people who want to share their lives together, you should have no problem making a legal, permanent, exclusive commitment.”
In other words, if you’re not willing to commit, you don’t really love them at all because you’re not willing to sacrifice your “freedom” to be with them. This is a corrective that the “me-marriage” generation desperately needs today. We’ve got everything so backwards that we don’t realize that the way we’re doing life and relationships is destroying us.
While each chapter offered extremely helpful insights and if I commented on each, I’d end up writing a review shorter than the book itself, one thing I greatly appreciated was the authors’ modest treatment of sex within marriage. While many Christians have a warped view of sex (either because of bad teaching or traumatic experiences), others go too far in the opposite direction and fall into a borderline pornographic view (to borrow a different author’s terms, one sees sex as gross, the other as “god”). Even those trying to offer helpful teaching on sex within marriage have this problem. But the way that the Kellers frame the discussion is extremely helpful and satisfying. First, they remind readers that sex is indeed a gift—it’s not dirty, wicked or sinful in and of itself. It is a good thing created by God. Secondly, sex is not simply a private matter in the sense that it’s all about your own pleasure—it is a uniting act, one designed to “help you give your entire self to another human being” (p. 224). The Kellers are careful to not under- or over-sell sex in marriage in framing the discussion in this fashion. If sex is about uniting two people together to the glory of God, then it changes how we view this or that practice. Instead of asking questions about whether or not we can do a particular thing, we ask what would best serve my spouse and bring glory to God. This is a very healthy outlook on sex indeed.
The Meaning of Marriage is a very strong and biblically faithful look at what makes a lasting marriage, and it’s one book that will be among the first that I recommend to any couple or individual looking to better understand God’s purposes in marriage and strengthen their own relationships to the glory of God. I trust the book will be a blessing to you.
Title: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
Authors: Tim Keller (with Kathy Keller)
Publisher: Dutton (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided by the publisher for this review.