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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
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Presented as a book for married and unmarried people – but also a book about the Bible – “The Meaning of Marriage” by American Christian pastor Timothy Keller (co-authored with his wife, Kathy) is primarily aimed at Christian believers, whatever their relationship status might be. In fact, it explicitly excludes members of the LGBT+ community by the very definition of marriage it proposes in the book’s introduction.
If you are a Christian and think that marriage is best defined in the Bible and is about the presence of God among people, then you’ll find this book to your taste. So, get ready to reinvent the relationship with your spouse and prepare to transform it, so it is in line with some ostensibly divine precepts and teachings.
Allow us a disclaimer from the outset: based “on a straightforward reading of biblical texts,” Timothy Keller’s “The Meaning of Marriage” examines “the Christian understanding of marriage.” In other words, whenever we mention the word “marriage” below, we’ll be talking about, in the words of the author, “a lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman” – which is “the unanimous view” of marriage among all biblical authors.
“According to the Bible,” Keller clarifies his position further, “God devised marriage to reflect his saving love for us in Christ, to refine our character, to create stable human community for the birth and nurture of children, and to accomplish all this by bringing the complementary sexes into an enduring whole-life union.
The substance of Keller’s book are St. Paul’s thoughts on marriage expressed in Ephesians 5:18-33, and each but one of its eight chapters begins with a quote taken from this passage. Everything else is a commentary on St. Paul’s words.
In Ephesians 5:31-32, St. Paul writes that the act of a man leaving his father and mother to be united to his wife and become one flesh with her is “a profound mystery.” And, indeed, it is: a powerful union, marriage is what helps “two flawed people” to come together and create “a space of stability, love, and consolation – a haven in a heartless world.” Certainly a daunting task – and one made even more difficult in our modern world.
The evidence abounds: today, there are twice as many divorces as there were in 1960. While only 1 in 10 children were born to unmarried parents just half a century ago, two-thirds of all births today are to married parents. Finally, and most tellingly, over 72% of American adults were married in 1960; only 50% were in 2008.
The reason? In essence, the unfortunate movement from “we” to “me.” “Marriage used to be a public institution for the common good,” writes Keller, “and now it is a private arrangement for the satisfaction of the individuals. Marriage used to be about us, but now it is about me.” Ironically, it is this newfound freedom in present marriages that has made spouses a little less free than before – and much unhappier.
Nowadays, you can theoretically marry anyone you want, and because of Disney and Hollywood, you expect to find “the perfectly compatible person.” It’s either that or nothing. The problem is that “perfect” doesn’t exist, so many are left with nothing, “desperately trapped between both unrealistic longings for and terrible fears about marriage.”
Don’t believe Keller? Here’s a curious stat: according to numerous surveys, two-thirds of unhappy marriages should become happy within half a decade if people opt to stay married over getting divorced after the second year.
When you decide on a career – be it a career in medicine, law, or arts – the thing everybody asks you to do so that you can succeed is surrender. You don’t become a writer without making a few sacrifices and dedicating your free time to writing, do you? And you don’t become a successful lawyer by simultaneously studying for a doctor’s degree, right? Well, why should marriage be any different?
In any kind of union, you have three possibilities and three possibilities only: you can serve with joy, you can make an offer to serve with resentment or coldness, or you can selfishly insist on your own way. Only one of these choices leads to happiness and fulfillment in marriage – and we don’t need to tell you which one.
Marriage is wrongly understood nowadays primarily as a union where two people can be as free as when they were single. This is impossible. “Whether we are husband or wife,” writes Keller, “we are not to live for ourselves but for the other. And that is the hardest, yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in a marriage.”
Contrary to what you think, love is not just another name for the butterflies in your stomach when you meet the one you think is the one.
Keller reminds us that “when you first fall in love, you think you love the person, but you don’t really. You can’t know who the person is right away. That takes years. You actually love your idea of the person – and that is always, at first, one-dimensional and somewhat mistaken.”
The real love comes after this when you get to meet the person you’ve fallen in love with. Keller argues that love is almost never what happens in the present: it is what gives validity to the promises for the future.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial,” writes Keller. “To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw us.”
So, true love is not just horizontal – it is vertical as well. When a covenant is made before God, God is also a part of the marriage. And when God is there, every broken promise is paid doubly – and every kept promise is rewarded tenfold.
Now, you might ask – why would one need a “horizontal” relationship to somebody from the opposite sex, if this person can connect on a “vertical” level with God, and bask joyfully and eternally in God’s selfless love?
Think of it as a sort of a design flaw: Adam lived in the Garden of Eden and had the privilege of conversing with God, and yet, he felt alone and needed Eve to be complete. Ever since then, every one of us feels pretty much the same. Our spouse should, in (Christian) theory, be a second self, another part of us – our very best friend.
And that means much more than you think. Namely, it doesn’t merely mean having someone around to understand you, but also having someone able to “see your flaws, imperfections, weaknesses, dependencies” and yet see beneath them the person you can become, “the person God wants you to be.”
Once again, love is not about “the present you:” it is about “the future us.” And that’s the most important mission of marriage: transforming you into someone you can be, someone you would have never become in the absence of the other.
As most people know, no matter how long you’ve dated somebody before, marrying them always means marrying a stranger – because marriage brings out many traits in both you and your partner that, up to that moment, might have been hidden from everyone’s sight.
And that’s when the real fight begins. Interestingly enough, it is a twofold fight: you’re not only confronted with the real person that is your spouse but also with the real person that you – yourself – are. But, that’s precisely why you have each other: to see in one another the “better person” that each of you can become and to help each other along the way.
That’s why, writes Keller, “one of the most basic skills in marriage is the ability to tell the straight, unvarnished truth about what your spouse has done – and then, completely, unselfrighteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority, without making the other person feel small.”
If marriage and love are about not feeling superior to the other, then why does the Bible explicitly validate this dynamic – and on a biological level, mind you? “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord,” writes St. Paul in Ephesians 5:22-3. “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”
Well, in short, it is because men and women are different, and because their differences naturally give rise to two different functions: that of the husband, and that of the wife. It was always God’s plan to make males and females different. And it was always a part of our obligations to live in tune with our designs.
As far as women are concerned, this means voluntary submission, i.e., “a gift offered… not a duty coerced.” Simply put, marriage is all about embracing otherness. “A person of one’s own sex is not as likely to have as much Otherness to embrace,” writes Timothy’s wife, Kathy. “But God’s plan for married couples involves embracing the otherness to make us unified, and that can only happen between a man and a woman.”
But what does this say about single or divorced people? After all, they have even less otherness in their lives. And if the mission of marriage is to make one more than they already are, doesn’t this mean that single people are, by default, not as fulfilled as married people?
In a way, it does. After all – especially nowadays when so many people put so much burden on marriage (and have so many expectations from it) – singleness often results in depression and despair. Not only single people feel unfulfilled and unsatisfied, but they are also even envious of other people’s happiness.
If they are Christians, however, they might be capable of satisfying a substantial part of this innate need for the other through a “deeply fulfilling love relationship with Christ” and “a hope in a perfect love relationship with him in the future.” This hope might inspire them to find a spouse in the future – but it can also help them live a fairly fulfilled life without one as well.
Though St. Paul speaks of the profoundness of the act of spouses “becoming one flesh,” sex has rarely been considered something holy. Quite the contrary: seen as a “dirty deed” by numerous Christian theologians and thinkers throughout history, it is frowned upon by ministers and priests to this very day.
This view, however, is not supported by the Bible: “biblical Christianity may be the most body-positive religion in the world,” writes Keller. Even more, he adds, “sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’ You must not use sex to say anything less.”
Sex, for Keller, is both a uniting act and a covenant renewal service; and it is just as important as love. It should be understood in much the same manner: it is not something you get, but something you give – to one and one person only. So, don’t unite with someone physically unless you are also willing to unite with the person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally. “Once you have given yourself in marriage,” Keller concludes, “sex is a way of maintaining and deepening that union as the years go by.”
Unlike many too one-sided Christian books on the subject, “The Meaning of Marriage” has a lot to offer and is quite rich with both insights and wisdom that should certainly help its readers, be they single or married.
So, if you are a Christian, we can assure you that Keller’s book justifies its title, as it should be able to teach you a lot – not only about the meaning of marriage but about the meaning of life as well.
However, if you are not, you’ll probably find little of value in this book – and not too many applicable bits of advice.
Try to see, in your loved one’s eyes, the person they might become in the future. Remember: love is never about the present you, but the future us.
Timothy Keller is an American Christian pastor, apologist, and theologian. The founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, he is most renowned as the author of several The New York Times bestselling books, most notably “T... (Read more)
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