I recently finished Tim and Kathy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage. While I was reading it I highlighted and took plenty of notes. As an overview I have organized those notes below as “8 Insights from the Meaning of Marriage”.
Keller begins the book by stating that many of us come into marriage with unrealistic expectations, philosophical objections, conflicted personal emotions, and negative experiences pertaining to marriage and family life. On top of that, there seems to be a pessimism from an unrealistic idealism about marriage, born of a significant shift in our cultures understanding of the purpose of marriage. Keller makes the case that “we come into our marriages driven by all kinds of fears, desires, and needs. If I look to my marriage to fill the God-sized spiritual vacuum in my heart, I will not be in a position to serve my spouse.” (72)
Ironically, this post enlightenment (marked by gratification, satisfaction, and fulfillment of our desires) view of marriage “actually puts a crushing burden of expectation on the spouses in a way that more traditional understandings never did. And it leaves us desperately trapped between both unrealistic longings for and terrible fears about marriage.” (29) The situation seems dire. But there is hope, hope for those who learn to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to/in their marriages. It seems that Keller writes with an aim to assist couples move from a fragile into a tested and durable marriage. It is important to note how Keller defines marriage.
“a lifelong, monogamous relationship between and man and a woman. According to the bible, God devised marriage to reflect the 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.” (16)
I will certainly not rehearse every argument in the book. I encourage you to read it for yourself. But I would like to highlight some important insights from my own book notes.
1. Marriage is Glorious but Hard
Marriage is anything but sentimental. Marriage is glorious but it is hard. Coming to know your spouse is difficult and painful yet rewarding and wondrous. Keller argues that in marriage we are forced to “changes our natural instincts, rein in our passions, learn denial of one’s own desires, and to serve others.” (32) What makes this hard is that we have “two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation – a haven in a heartless world.” (35) The Christian view of marriage does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice.
2. Marriage Unites Neighbor/Strangers
Keller writes that “when you first fall in love, you think you love the person, but you don’t really. You can’t know the person right away. That takes years. You actually love the idea of the person – and that is always, at first, one-dimensional and somewhat mistaken.” (94) But one quickly learns that marriage brings you into more intense proximity to another human being than any other relationship can, Beyond that, “over the years you will go through seasons in which you have to learn to love a person 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.” (39) Stanley Hauerwas argues that “the primary problem [in many marriages] is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” (134) Marriage brings out and reveals traits in you that were there all along but were hidden from everyone including you, but now they are all seen by your spouse. In marriage you are exposed. You finally have your mask and finery stripped away, as it were. “Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself.” (140)
3. Marriage Requires Mutual Grace
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. 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.” (95) This is true, but it is hard. It requires us to face the truth about ourselves and one another. But alone with truth, we need love. “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.” (48) See, truth without love ruins oneness, and love without truth gives the illusion/ of unity but actually stops the journey, this is why marriage needs grace. Without grace truth and love cannot be combined. Spouses either stay away from the truth or attack one another. “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, unself-righteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority.” (165)
4. Marriage Revolves Around Service
It takes a loss of pride and self-will for a person to humbly serve others. Keller argues that only if you have learned to serve others by the power of the Holy Spirit will you be able to face the challenges of marriage. “There are three possibilities: you can offer to serve the other with joy, you can make the offer with coldness or resentment, or you can selfishly insist on your own way.” (54) When facing any problem in marriage, the first thing you look for at the base of it is, in some measure, self-centeredness and an unwillingness to serve or minister to the other. (59) The Christian principle that needs to work is Spirit-generated selflessness – “not thinking less of yourself or more of yourself but thinking of yourself less.” (66)
5. Marriage is a Covenant of Action
When one studies a covenant it becomes clear that love is fundamentally action rather than primarily emotion. To be united to someone through a covenant is to be bound by promise, or oath. A covenant has horizontal aspects as well as vertical. “The covenant made between a husband and a wife is done ‘before God’ and therefore with God as well as the spouse.” (83) “Love needs a framework of binding obligation to make it fully what it should be. A covenant relationship is not just intimate despite being legal. It is a relationship that is more intimate because it is legal.” (85) It gives us the assurance of commitment (it fortifies you) so wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love. (87) “This enables one to grow in breadth and depth, because a covenant gives the security necessary to open ones heart and speak vulnerably and truthfully without being afraid that the partner will walk away.” (89) Our emotions are not under our control, but our actions are. This is why Keller pleads with the reader not to waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor, but act as if you did.
6. Marriage has a Sanctifying Mission
Being created in God’s image means that we were designed for relationships. Our intense relational capacity, created and given to us by God, is purposely not fulfilled completely by our “vertical” relationship with him. God designed us to need “horizontal” relationships with other human beings. (111) Keller argues that marriage is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creation that God will eventually make us.” (120) One must be able to say “I see your flaws, imperfections, weaknesses, dependencies. But underneath them all I see growing the person God wants you to be.” (122) This is the essence of true spiritual friendship, eagerly helping one another know, serve, love, and resemble God in deeper and deeper ways. Sanctification is a group project, and most intense between two spouses. “On the one hand, the experience of marriage will unveil the beauty and depths of the gospel to you. It will drive you further into reliance on it. On the other hand, a greater understanding of the gospel will help you experience deeper union with each other as the years go on.” (48) This is The reason that marriage is so painful and yet so wonderful is because it is a reflection of the gospel, which is painful and wonderful at once.” (48)
7. Marriage Necessitates Understanding
Everyone comes into marriage with an idea of gender roles and expectations. God originally intended men and women together, in full participation, carrying out God’s mandate to build civilization and culture. Neither sex has all the characteristics necessary to fulfill this alone, only in complementary union can mankind achieve God’s purposes. But often these differences are turned into opportunities for rebellion and oppression. The gospel calls both women and men to “play the Jesus role” in marriage, men modeling sacrificial authority and women modeling sacrificial submission. This requires a full embrace of the other. We accept and struggle with the otherness of the spouse, and in the process, we grow and flourish in ways otherwise impossible.
8. Marriage is not the “End All Be All”
We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so – because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us. The Christian hope makes it possible for singles to live fulfilled lives without a spouse or children, but it also was an impetus for people to marry and have children and not be afraid to bring them into this dark world. See, “without a deeply fulfilling love relationship with Christ now, and hope in a perfect love relationship with him in the future, people will put too much pressure on marriage to fulfill them.” (198) We need to guard from idolizing marriage but also idolizing the independence or personal fulfillment that keeps one from marrying.