There are a dizzying number of marriage books available on the market—well over 150,000, in fact. And a few of them are even good.
Clearly, we have a lot to talk about. With so many titles available, one has to wonder: what else is there to say? Can an author write a book on marriage that genuinely adds something of value? Thankfully, the answer is yes. And Matt Chandler’s latest, The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption, is a great example. In its eight chapters, Chandler (assisted by Jared C. Wilson) offer readers biblical and helpful principles for love, marriage, and life together from the Song of Solomon.
Though it is not as thorough in developing a theology of marriage as Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage, and is more typical in its approach than Chan’s You and Me Forever, I was surprised by The Mingling of Souls for four reasons:
1. Chandler always—always—speaks well of his wife. You can tell a great deal about a man’s character by the way he speaks of his spouse. I’ve read so many books and articles on marriage where the (male) author paints himself as the victim, the faithful husband dealing with an unpleasant wife undeserving of his love. When he confesses sin in the marriage, it’s usually her sin he confesses.
Friends, that’s probably not the person we want to go to for marriage advice.
This is emphatically not Chandler’s approach. As I read the book, I was consistently impressed at how Chandler avoids putting himself in the position of the victim. He lays the problems in his marriage at his own feet, rather than at his wife’s. And even where he does bring up an example of something she did that was wrong, he doesn’t focus on her action, but on his own ungodly response.
“The first seven years of our marriage were very difficult,” he writes. “I remember one occasion in particular because it marked a real turn in our marriage. I had said some very cruel things to Lauren that day. I was frustrated; I was angry. I thought she was selfish and self-absorbed, and I told her so. I admit with shame that I wanted to wound her” (202)
I’ll never forget this: Lauren came around the corner… and grabbed me. Then she pulled me really close to her, and she began sobbing. She cried and cried as she held me. She said, “I don’t know what happened to you, but I’m not going anywhere.” … It broke me. It wounded me in the good way, in the right way. It startled me and helped me in a way I could never foresee or imagine.… and that’s when I said, “I’m going to get help.” (203)
It’s easy for so many of us to point outside ourselves and treat our spouses as the problem in our marriages. It’s easy to play the victim. But to show the ugly side of yourself, to say, I was wrong or the problem is me, takes a great deal of courage and a tremendous amount of humility.
2. Chandler spends more time on teaching us to fight fairly than on sex. The chapter on sex clocks in at 24 pages, where the next one on fighting fair is 33. So why spend so much time on the subject? Because we’re going to spend a lot more of our waking time disagreeing with one another in our marriages than we are going to in our bedrooms. Sorry for shattering the glass, there, newlyweds. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t know how to fight fairly. Most of us have never even seen a married couple fight well.
And this is why we need to pay careful attention to the principles of fighting fairly presented.1 We need to be sure we’re fighting fair—we’re not speaking rashly or shaming our spouses, bringing up baggage or using children as leverage. And most importantly, we should strive for reconciliation—genuine, heartfelt reconciliation—as quickly as possible. “I’m not naive about the nature of some conflict… But as much as you are able as soon as you are able, make an effort to take at least part of the responsibility for the conflict, no matter how small that part may be” (167-168).
3. Chandler writes as if the marriage bed is to be kept holy. Because, y’know, it is. Rather than following the now all-too-common approach to the Song of Solomon and treating it as a ham-fisted sex manual (there are no edicts issued about what you “should” do, you’ll be pleased to know, ladies), Chandler emphasizes the fact that sex is holy and should be treated as such. This, again, is extremely helpful because it redirects our attention.
Rather than asking what we can or cannot do, Chandler encourages us to consider what does or does not bring God the most glory. And when God’s glory is our focus, a lot of our “can we” questions, are left behind.
[Sex] is meant to remind us of the God who gave it to us, who takes joy in unison with his people. We don’t need to overspiritualize sex to see it this way; we just need to approach it the way the Bible ordained and be grateful for it. Seeing sex as holy will also help us love our spouses more greatly. (133-134)
4. Chandler doesn’t write as one who’s got it all figured out. This is probably the most important thing about the book: Chandler’s tone is not like that of many books written by his contemporaries. He’s not the expert saying, “my marriage is great,” or even “my marriage used to be terrible, but now it’s awesome so go and do likewise.” Instead, he writes as one just like the rest of us—a man whose marriage has ups and downs, who is guilty of sinning against his wife, who frequently needs to ask her forgiveness, and who leans on the grace of God to be a good husband. And this, perhaps even more than its good teaching, is what makes the book worth reading.
It’s tempting to take the easy path when writing about marriage, to only confess the “safe” sins. But to reveal serious sin, to continually point to yourself as the problem in conflict… This is fairly uncommon, even among Christian authors. Yet, it’s only when we do this that we really get to give thanks to God as we see how the gospel has been at work in the author’s life. For him to be able to say, “All the time, I find so much new sin in me of which I need to repent.… But I know that Go dis faithful and that he will get the glory” (197), and know that the author actually believes this to be true. That is what we need more of in our marriage books—and more importantly, in our marriages. And if there’s anything that makes The Mingling of Souls a valuable read, it’s this.
Title: The Mingling of Souls: God’s Design for Love, Marriage, Sex, and Redemption
Author: Matt Chandler (with Jared C. Wilson)
Publisher: David C. Cook (2015)
Buy it at: Amazon