By Gary Thomas
Perhaps the absolute seminal work on biblical marriage, Gary Thomas’ classic Sacred Marriage is worth a revisit considering both Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage and Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage have topped the charts. Written before the escalating attacks on marriage today, Gary Thomas’ work is more needed now than he could’ve imagined.
Revisiting this work with my faded highlights and old foodstains, I remember why it had struck such a chord before: because Gary Thomas is a writer. He does not mince words, does not skirt the issue, does not go for the easy answer. Using vivid illustrations with personal stories and sound theology, Thomas writes like a tough mentor but a comforting friend. He’s the coach you can expect to whip you in shape but also have a heart-to-heart with after the game.
Gary Thomas’ grand central thesis is, What if God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy? It’s an incisive, convicting theme that is both biblical and practical. I believe almost all marriage books since (including Tim Keller’s and Mark Driscoll’s) have quoted this in one form or another.
Since marriage is but a shadow of our relationship with God, then marriage itself is our earthly picture of the Gospel for both joy and sanctification. Nothing else like marriage will give us such a clear view of God Himself. And nothing else like knowing God will lead to a fulfilling, lasting, joyful marriage.
And it’s at this one point that marriages will work or fail. Gary Thomas comes right out the gate exclaiming that the broader culture expects too much from marriage, as if it’s supposed to provide us with every single thing that we need. That’s a dangerous expectation, since only God is the true provider. When we believe our spouse is a gift for me, it’s only downhill from there. But a gift from God — not just for happiness but for holiness — is running the right direction.
Thomas goes over disciplines like prayer, repentance, perseverance, serving, and sex. Some of the reviews I’ve read have accused Thomas of legalism, lowering expectations, or a resignation to “put up with my spouse.” I can see why some would conclude this, since Thomas at times can speak about marriage like it’s a battlefield or endurance race: but I believe he is giving the most grounded, realistic picture of marriage in the most loving way he can. He avoids setting anyone up for cheap, over-romantic cliches. He wouldn’t be serving well by pampering and coddling.
Marriage absolutely requires discipline, like anything else worthy of pursuit. And Thomas is not “against happiness” — anyone paying close attention can see that his thesis also points the other way, since holiness will in itself lead to happiness. Those critical reviews only reveal the wicked laziness of impossible-to-satisfy people.
The best chapter is “Falling Forward,” which illustrates not only how marriage conflicts are resolved but depicts our attitude towards God. When conflicts come, we can become more or less engaged — which sounds simple, but momentum builds either direction until there is either closeness or bitterness. It’s the same with God: in hard times, we run to Him or from Him. This chapter also opens up the daily “messiness” we’ll feel about our spouse, how two sinful people will always collide, and that forgiveness is really the only way we’ll survive. Just as God’s forgiveness cost His Son, we find quickly that forgiving others is one of the greatest, most difficult human tasks we partake. That requires nothing less than supernatural reliance on God’s Spirit.
In retrospect, Sacred Marriage is like a hybrid between Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll. While Keller focused on the theological component and Driscoll was nearly all practical, Thomas covers both sides almost right down the middle. In other words, nothing feels missing. He goes over the why, the what, and the how evenly and fairly. If there is only one book you must read on marriage, this one is it.
This is also the only book that I’ve given away at least half a dozen times: it’s pretty much required reading for dating and married couples. A Christian couple is not quite legit until they’ve read Sacred Marriage together (and hey, the Bible). For a book that is twelve years old and counting, it’s still a relevant powerhouse.
I love you, Mr. Thomas, but your chapters are too long. When I’ve heard of other couples reading the book together, they had to split the chapters into manageable chunks. Even though most of Thomas’ words are gold, he could have easily paced the chapters into smaller sections. Despite my glowing praise, I did feel bogged down at times.
Unlike Keller’s or Driscoll’s work, Sacred Marriage is almost exclusively for married couples. Those preparing for marriage will also find it useful, but singles might feel left behind. I’ve actually had at least one church member refuse to read this book because she did not want to prematurely invoke a “lust for marriage” before she was ready. I’d say that’s a fair move, and if anything more of a compliment for Thomas’ exciting portrait of married life.
Since Thomas is trying to go for timelessness, he doesn’t cover the wider landscape of marriage issues (such as homosexuality, chauvinism, work spouses, and premarital sex). That’s a strength since the book goes for simple, but a weakness in that I wanted to know Thomas’ thoughts about all the modern attacks on marriage. Perhaps an updated version will cover that. It may also help to hear from Mrs. Thomas on a few things.
A smaller weakness here is that Gary Thomas sometimes uses Scripture in slightly offbeat ways, and at times relies more on experience than biblical wisdom. While this doesn’t hurt the book overall, you the reader should always read with discernment.
Gary Thomas has written a near-perfect classic. There are very few books that I re-read or give away easily, but this is one of them. Though I’m currently unmarried, Sacred Marriage had me both excited and grounded about my future spouse. And like any good Christian book should, it pointed me to Christ.
— Book Review: The Meaning of Marriage
— Book Review: Real Marriage
— Question: Divorce and Remarriage?
— Question: Premarital Sex Is Bad?
— Question: How Should Christians Approach Homosexuals?
— Christian Books For The Rookies And Veterans