The Meaning of Marriage
By Timothy Keller
We know marriage is in trouble. Pastors and Christian authors are stepping forward to save the day. Tim Keller, author of the renown The Reason For God, Counterfeit Gods, and Generous Justice, writes an ambitious and straightforward work on biblical marriage. With a gospel-driven, Christ-centered approach, Dr. Keller’s crisp, clear voice is easily accessible and insightful. Along with Dr. Keller’s wife Kathy, they have written a practical, powerful work on the great gift of marriage.
This could have been a cakewalk for Dr. Keller. He could have roundly quoted C.S. Lewis and some well known poems, conjure sound commentary on Ephesians 5, and say some profound things about the duties of a husband and wife. It really would have been that easy for him. Many readers are familiar enough with Dr. Keller to instantly recognize his writing voice and his penchant for classic quoting. It could also have been a call to Christian idealism, a list of you ought to and you should do tacked onto the gospel.
While Dr. Keller does some of these things, I felt his gritty real life experience bleed through the pages. Dr. Keller’s passion is alive in this work; not since Counterfeit Gods have I seen him this personally invested into his subject. This isn’t only from his own thirty-six year marriage but from having been in the trenches with hurting singles, broken marriages, and dying families. He has seen how secular culture and the Hollywood mentality has overwhelmed the thinking of our gullible world. The first chapter alone is a visceral tour of the corruption of marriage and families, with hard statistics and full-on truths. He never waters it down. “I’m tired of listening to sentimental talks on marriage,” he begins. So are we.
The focal point of the book, much like Gary Thomas’ seminal work Sacred Marriage, is that marriage is designed to bring us closer to God than any relationship possibly could. As both a reflection and a gift of God’s gospel, no other relationship on earth brings us into closer proximity with another human being. Our flaws that others have passed over are exposed, painfully. Our strengths that others could not see are more realized. And our capacity to forgive, forebear, lead, and learn is pushed to the max.
Marriage is much like the dual power of truth and grace that Jesus embodies: we are faced with the truth of who we really are, and it hurts, but we come to a grace that loves us in spite of ourselves, which heals. Dr. Keller argues that marriage is not primarily for our happiness, which is fleeting, but for our earth-shattering journey to God, who is our eternal glory.
This is an incredible image that Dr. Keller pursues with great care; he does not rush to this conclusion nor does he sugarcoat it with popular psychology. He also shows how marriage is nearly identical to our relationship with Christ, that it points to the Good News of the Gospel in every way. I found parts of it a fascinating meditation on the “mystery” in Ephesians 5, while there was also enough practical wisdom for the daily grind of married life.
Thankfully there are no bizarre excursions of Bible passages. Having read so many Christians books on specific topics, there are often wildly eccentric readings of Scripture that focus too much on one part of the text or will completely diverge from the Bible writer’s intention. Dr. Keller is a minimalist expositor, never drawing things from a passage that are not there but also extracting impactful truths that cause great “aha!” epiphanies for the reader. That’s why Dr. Keller has been such an enduring evangelical force in both the Christian and secular worlds.
In answer to a doubt I first had before starting the book, there is no capitulation to the mainstream. Biblical marriage is a tough subject for a book since it can be so divisive compared to the worldly view. Some small circles have criticized Dr. Keller for being a bit “catering” to the secular crowd, and while I see their reasoning, I believe Dr. Keller has a unique gift in reaching apathetic people who would otherwise never pick up a Bible. He is also clear-cut about men leading the home, men taking charge, and male authority in a marriage. While many pastors have explained this away with ambiguity, Dr. Keller dives right in with level-headed exposition.
Because of Dr. Keller’s writing style, this is a highly readable work for non-Christians or Christian rookies who have no footing about the greater purpose of marriage or the gospel itself. There is a chapter written for women by Kathy Keller that covers the scary word submission, which clarifies Apostle Paul’s intentions. And in the latter half, a chapter written for singles and a section on sex covers all the bases. Neither may say new things, but does help to organize our biblical worldview on those critical matters. Even when Dr. Keller is not breaking new ground, his voice is endlessly captivating and quotable.
At times I wish certain points or chapters had been expanded. As with any well-written work, it could have been much longer. While nothing feels rushed, certainly Dr. Keller has room to write a sequel if he chose.
There may be some parts that very conservative readers will find too “psychological.” Dr. Keller does talk about Love Languages, which is a debatable methodology for communication that is not an absolute. As always, even with the most legit Christian author, read with discernment.
At the risk of sounding sexist, I also felt the weakest chapter was Kathy Keller’s section on the Christian wife. Not because Mrs. Keller didn’t have great content, but because I felt conviction was lacking in her writing. At one point she suggests, “Just try it,” which is the feel of the whole chapter and softens her points to self-help suggestions. I wish she would have spoke more prophetically to women who do need both the grace and discipline of the Bible.
The book also ends a bit abruptly with a somewhat weak, unclear epilogue that does not fit well with the preceding chapters. This doesn’t hurt the overall work but neither does it help. Mrs. Keller finishes the book with an appendix that was a stronger way to close.
I always look forward to Tim Keller’s writing because he really is one of our most brilliant Christian minds today. Since we are now so misguided by pop culture and love songs on the purpose of marriage, this is a must-buy work for anyone even remotely considering a relationship. It’s a work that, like the Bible, will certainly be read many times for wisdom and truth.
” ‘[We] always marry the wrong person. We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change.’ … So you don’t know, you can’t know, who your spouse will actually be in the future until you get there. … Over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person who you didn’t marry, who is something of a stranger. You will have to make changes that you don’t want to make, and so will your spouse. The journey may eventually take you into a strong, tender, joyful marriage. But it is not because you married the perfectly compatible person. That person doesn’t exist.” (38-39)
“If God had the gospel of Jesus’s salvation in mind when he established marriage, then marriage only ‘works’ to the degree that approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ.” (46)
“When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves. We can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don’t have to keep selling ourselves.” (85)
“Your self-view has been stitched together often without a unifying theme. If it were made visible, it might look something like the Frankenstein monster, with many disparate parts.
“However, perhaps the most damaging statements that have ever been said about us are those things we have said about ourselves to ourselves. Many people have a never-ending loop of self-talk that berates them for being foolish, stupid, a failure, a loser. But now into your life comes someone who has the power to overturn all the accumulated verdicts that have ever been passed upon you by others or by you yourself. Marriage puts into your spouse’s hand a massive power to reprogram your own self-appreciation.
“… The power of healing love in marriage is a miniature version of the same power that Jesus has within us. In Christ, God sees us as righteous, holy, and beautiful (2 Corinthians 5:21). The world tells us about our faults, and we know they are there, but God’s love for us covers our sins and continues despite them.” (147-149)
“But the gospel transforms us so our self-understanding is no longer based on our performance in life. We are so evil and sinful and flawed that Jesus had to die for us. We were so lost that nothing less than the death of the divine Son of God could save us. But we are so loved and valued that he was willing to die for us. The Lord of the universe loved us enough to do that! So the gospel humbles us into dust and at the very same time exalts us to the heavens. We are sinners but completely loved and accepted in Christ at the same time. … He saw your heart to the bottom and loved you to the skies.” (166)