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Reading 2012: The Meaning of Marriage

April 30, 2012

The front flyleaf of The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God makes a rather bold statement: “There has never been a book on marriage like The Meaning of Marriage.” That seems a rather audacious assertion; but by the time I finished the book, I think I’d concede to read that claim on the back flyleaf, as well.


Many marriage books leave me scratching my head, banging my head, or really, really thankful I’m married to the man I am. This book did leave me doing the latter, but also left me thinking this would have been a very profitable  book to have read if it had been available as premarital reading (not to mention less head-banging).

Timothy and Kathy Keller pack a lot of experience and exegesis into this book, packaged into eight chapters:

  • One: The Secret of Marriage
  • Two: The Power of Marriage
  • Three: The Essence of Marriage
  • Four: The Mission of Marriage
  • Five: Loving the Stranger
  • Six: Embracing the Other
  • Seven: Singleness and Marriage
  • Eight: Sex and Marriage

(The book also contains an Introduction, Epilogue, Appendix: Decision Making and Gender Roles, Notes)

Although I’ve yet to meet a Tim Keller book I didn’t like, this book pleasantly surprised me in what it had to offer. The style is certainly Kelleresque, yet unique to his other published works. (It is co-authored with his wife Kathy, with Kathy writing the entirety of Chapter Six.) Unlike many marriage books, this book is not written with only married couples or soon-to-be-married singles in mind; it is written to a broad audience, but with particular portions of it specifically addressing singles.

The Essence of Marriage

One aspect of the book that I greatly appreciated was the Kellers’s emphasis on the marriage covenant as the foundation of marriage. And really, this is the essence of marriage and the essence of the book. (Maybe that’s why Chapter Three is entitled, “The Essence of Marriage.” :))

While I think most contemporary Christians teaching on marriage would acknowledge the covenantal importance of marriage, there is often a subtle shift to teachings that seem to indicate that “keeping the passion alive” is the  way to have a healthy marriage. (This is what Keller includes in his assessment that we most prize “romantic fulfillment” [see quote below] as the key to a happy marriage in our culture.) This is spiritualized and then marketed in numerous ways, coming across in emphases including:”If you practice abstinence before marriage, you’ll immediately have amazing sex on your wedding night and beyond,” “If you have a weekly date night, you’re sure to have a healthy marriage,” “If your marriage has stopped sizzling, your marriage has failed and is doomed,” and can this misplaced emphasis in parenting and marriage books can often make young parents perceive a dichotomy of the family into the couple vs. the children. And even while many of these books/teachings, if Christian in name, will attest that “love is a choice,” it is often portrayed that choosing to love is best displayed by acts of romance. While Keller doesn’t address all of these teachings individually, he clearly notes that this type of misplaced preeminence of romance detracts and confuses the essence of marriage.

Keller speaks of some of the way marriage has come to be perceived in our culture (as well as comparing and contrasting with traditional societies):

“Traditional societies made family the ultimate value in life, and so marriage was a mere transaction that helped your family’s interests. By contrast, contemporary Western societies make the individual’s happiness the ultimate value, and so marriage becomes primarily an experience of romantic fulfillment. But the Bible sees God as the supreme good–not the individual or the family–and that gives usa view of marriage that intimately unites feeling and duty, passion and promise. This is because at the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant.” (80-81)

(Keller also quotes C.S. Lewis stating, “People get from books the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on “being in love” for ever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one…” (104))

“Sociologists argue that in contemporary Western society the marketplace has become so dominant that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships that historically were covenantal, including marriage. Today we stay connected to people only as long as they are meeting our particular needs at an acceptable cost to us. When we cease to make a profit–that is, when the relationship appears to require more love and affirmation from us than we are getting back–then we “cut our losses” and drop the relationship…Covenant is therefore a concept that is increasingly foreign to us, and yet the Bible says it is the essence of marriage, so we musst take some time to understand it.” (81-82)

Personal Helpfulness

For me personally, I think I had enough of a foundational understanding of marriage to hold the covenantal model of marriage above the consumerist model. Yet, hearing and reading in my pre-marriage preparation, I was often led astray by the syncretization of a covenantal view of marriage and the primacy of romance in marriage.

One harmful message that came out during my pre-marriage reading/counseling classes was, “if you remain abstinent, then sexual relationships in marriage will come naturally, immediately, and amazingly.” This, of course, was very confusing as a newlywed, specifically for someone whose conscience was bound to the point that when I felt we’d “gone too far” by holding hands before we were married, I felt that in order to avoid further “temptation” that my husband [then fiance] and I should no longer drive places in the same vehicle until we were married. Added to that dynamic, my husband and I also grew up in homes were “The Talk” did not take place, and when the discussion of physical intimacy was scheduled in our pre-marital counseling, we were told that we’d figure things out on our own. Although we weren’t completely in the dark, I carried a lot of baggage from some puritanical ultra-purity teachings into our marriage, and carried a lot of guilt into the early years of our marriage when I couldn’t flip the switch mentally to go instantaneously from to “purity/”shame to passion. Of course, neither could Tim and Kathy Keller, and neither can many who enter marriage similarly.

Reading this book helped me in dealing with a lot of the self-imposed guilt and confusion I’ve felt over this area, in particular. Somewhat related, I was reminded in yet another and great way in which my husband’s patience and gentleness has been manifested toward me over the years as I’ve wrestled with some of this baggage. And I more clearly see his faithful commitment to continue to love me in the way that Christ selflessly loves the Church.

It was, as mentioned earlier, also a reminder to me of God’s mercy in giving me the husband I have in Daniel. Though only a few days shy of six years into marriage, there are many aspects of our marriage vows that we lived out much sooner than we had anticipated. My husband has faithfully, selflessly loved and served me through those times, both tragic and triumphant, and this book gave me a deeper depth in the appreciation of his commitment and love.

I remember at a time when we had just come through a painful, difficult season of life (from external sources), I saw an article in Time Magazine called “Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution.” I remember specifically thinking, “I do. I needed my vows and I need that covenant.” Though the storm we weathered didn’t originate from our marriage, there were definitely some very deep and low times—times where we were both hurting so deeply we didn’t even know how to help one another, and times when it may have been tempting to say “maybe you [and the world] would be better off without me.” God’s grace brought us through, and our marriage grew and flourished in ways we couldn’t have even anticipated. (And yes, I know, our marriage is still quite young and has many, many more seasons of life to grow through, permitting death do not us part.) And while Time’s article prompted me to think of how deeply we needed our commitment to one another,* I would have loved to have read this book at that time, as well.

There were many additional areas in which the book was helpful, refreshing, encouraging, and challenging. I was glad to be able to read this at the same time as my husband, and it is one we think we will return to through the years.

Final Thoughts

Of course, the emphasis is not merely on physical relationships in marriage, and to draw that out as the bulk of the book really does disservice to what this book is all about. *Due to my personal emphases above (on covenantal commitment and the false importance of romantic fulfillment), I also want to clarify that Keller does not teach that the Bible claims divorce is never an option, nor does he teach that covenant commitment equals passionless, emotionless duty. Contrarily, he takes time to explain both in a way that brings clarity to some of the harmful and hurtful misapplications in both areas.

Like many books by Keller, readers will be challenged to think about more than just the specific theme of the book, and to yearn for a deeper knowledge and walk with God. Some themes I grew from in this book were 1) growing in the Fear of the Lord (and an explanation of the Fear of the Lord), 2) a healthy (but not overzealous) explanation of how “love languages” and family upbringing can affect and/or create and avoid misconceptions and misunderstandings in marriage 3) the depth of the book without depicting opinion as law, 4) the emphases that neither the models of conservative approach nor the secular approach to marriage will lead to a satisfying marriage—only the Christian principle of Spirit-generated selfishness. I really view my first read as an overview/survey, and as I read through again, I know new and different parts of the book will stand out to me.

Beyond a careful handling of Scripture, Keller also draws on the wisdom of theologians, philosophers, and numerous books, past and present. And, of course, not only does this book reflect the imprimatur of C.S. Lewis on Keller’s teaching and writing, but he also shares how C.S. Lewis was a common thread in influencing the early relationship between Tim and Kathy.

Certainly, there are aspects of the book with which I don’t agree, Scriptural connections that I don’t necessarily see, and analogies which I think break down. But, none of these are issues that I believe would detract from the overall message of the book, even in areas in which there are notoriously dichotomized perspectives among Evangelicals.

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  • Johanna April 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

    So glad to see your review here, Keren. This is on my “to read” list as I have heard from multiple sources that it is an exceptional book on marriage.

    In describing your view (and struggles) about physical intimacy, I felt like I could have written the exact same thing. I fear many others might still be in that boat and are afraid to say it. …okay there are several more things I could say on this topic, (coming our way anytime soon? 😉 )Bottom line, I too am so thankful for my husband’s patience, certain things we have experienced and read that have helped, and our former church whose leadership was so open about even these things that it helped break down some of my mental blocks and baggage, and ironically an unsaved medical doctor.

    I was wondering what your thoughts on his chapter on gender roles was? I have been struggling a lot with this issue: misuse of terms that then confuse the whole idea, stereotyping that is just plain not biblical, etc. One person told me that they thought their view in this book was particularly helpful. Would you agree?

    On another note, my husband and I used the words “husband/wife by covenant” in our marriage vows. 🙂

    • Keren May 7, 2012 at 11:59 pm

      Hmm…I would love to come your way just so we could talk. But, I do need to have a baby sometime soon. 😉

      I this book’s perspective on gender roles is mostly helpful. (I’m guessing we have somewhat similar perspectives.) I’ll share this quote from Chapter 2 (page 66), which I almost embedded in the review, and I think shares the essence of the Keller perspective:

      “There is the conservative approach to marriage that puts a great deal of stress on traditional gender roles. It says that the basic problem in marriage is that both husband and wife need to submit to their God-given functions, which are that husbands need to be the head of the family, and wives need to submit to their husbands. There is a lot of emphasis on the differences between men and women. The problem is that an overemphasis could encourage selfishness, especially on the part of the husband.

      There is a more secular approach to marriage that says that the real problem in marriage is that you have to get your spouse to recognize your potential and help you to develop it. You must not let your spouse trample all over you. Self-realization is the goal. You’ve got to develop yourself in your marriage, and if your spouse won’t help you do it, you’ve got to negotiate. And if your spouse won’t negotiate, you’ve got to get out to save yourself. That, of course, also can just pour gas on the fire of selfishness instead of putting it out.

      The Christian principle that needs to be at work is Spirit-generated selflessness – not thinking less of yourself or more of yourself but thinking of yourself less. It means taking your mind off yourself and realizing that in Christ your needs are going to be met and are, in fact, being met so that you don’t look at your spouse as your saviour. People with a deep grasp of the gospel can turn around and admit that their selfishness is the problem and that they’re going to work on it And when they do that, they will often discover an immediate sense of liberation, of waking up from a troubling dream. They see how small-minded they were being, how small the issue is in light of the grand scheme of things. Those who stop concentrating on how unhappy they are find that their happiness is growing. You must lose yourself to find yourself.”

      While there is much debate among conservative Evangelical complementarians as to whether or not the Bible teaches mutual submission, I think it comes across in this book that it does (which is what we see, as well), also seen in Chapter 2 (“The Power of Marriage”). I know several people, both proponents and opponents of “mutual submission” who greatly favored the book, but didn’t see this as a problem. It’s probably already known that the Kellers are quite clearly complementarian in this book, though I am sure some would describe what they present here as egalitarian in how things work out practically.

      The appendix includes the section called “Decision Making and Gender Roles.” Kathy Keller wrote this particular section, and as her main analogy she uses the classic “only two votes in marriage” and “how can the stalemate be broken?” illustration. I am personally a little uncomfortable with that analogy and think it is overused and perhaps misused, but that’s my opinion. 🙂

      Hope that answered your question–those were some of the main, varying aspects of gender roles the book addressed.

      • Johanna Hanson May 8, 2012 at 9:35 pm

        Thanks, Keren. Yes, please do have your baby soon. 🙂 Then feel free to come visit us. We believe in the mutual submission as well. (I feel like I am in the bed of the complementarian world here 😉 )

  • Daniel Pech June 29, 2012 at 7:59 pm

    I had no idea that anyone thought that ‘purety prior to marriage guarantees great sex-and-romance in marriage.’ I see how such thinking can arise, though: through so much preoccupation by parents and others on discouraging their children from doing certain things that all the most central facts of marriage and fallen life are all-but-excluded.

    In the beginning, God made them male and female. That was not an afterthought on God’s part. It was the central thing, in all its ideal natural outcomes.

    The fact that we are born fallen is only the second thing.

    The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Even Hollywood knows this (though Hollywood tends to remain effectively ignorant of the fact that that main thing is not the only thing that deeply exists in this world).

  • Links to Think: 07.16.12 | Keren Threlfall July 16, 2012 at 5:00 am

    […] Her post also discusses some of the misguided messages about marriage an sex that I wrote about here, in my review of Tim and Kathy Keller’s The Meaning of […]

  • Erik Klaustermeyer August 14, 2012 at 4:10 pm

    Boy you sure know how to make a guy feel like some kind of heathen barbarian with your personal takes on these books.
    I didn’t have quite the same upbringing as you…. in fact I may be pretty close to the polar opposite! My parents were very loving and constructive but didn’t give me the spiritual guidance that I so lacked. I actually didn’t get to my christian calling til after I was married. I would like to think that I should be an expert at this world as I have lived both sides of this society but more and more I’m realizing that I might be the most confused one out there !

    • Daniel August 14, 2012 at 5:00 pm

      With no experience of the other sex, with no other potential mates in effective existence, and with no prior commands or expectations, a mutually very attracted man and woman sense simply that they belong together, forever. And, they do belong together. This is marriage. They are rightly free to act on that belonging. They are original to each other.

      Only in the presence of conflicts that work to dissolve that original belonging is there a need for mechanisms that work to keep the two persons thinking and acting as belonging together, or else to prevent them acting on that sense of belonging together until they are assured capable of maintaining their hoped-for mutual belonging in a world of conflicts (both conflicts between genuine needs and conflicts which arise as unloving kinds of reactions to the fact of those first conflicts).

      So, while one kind of conflicts is that between the two persons, such conflict does not produce durable separation (i.e., divorce) if there are no alternates to which either original may seek refuge from the conflicts with the other original. In other words, without any alternate to each other, the two originals cannot remain simply separated if they are ever still in mind of their rightful mutual belonging: they have a deeply felt need for each other in every basic way, which is how their natural mutual belonging has a sensible reality to them.

      There is no divine ‘command’ ontologically prior what the Divine has created, there is only what the Divine has created, namely all that which naturally produces in the two persons a deep sense of need for each other. All commands are contingencies in face of conflicts.

      So, marriage is not a creature of any artifice or external imperative, but consists simply in the fact that there exists a mutually compatible male and female who are right to act on their compatibility. This means that that right does not consist in their compatibility, but in factors impinging on the endurance of their expression of that compatibility. To find no enduring difference between one potential mate and another is to be precluded from an enduring marriage.

      • Daniel August 14, 2012 at 5:14 pm

        Marriage consists simply in the right of two to act on their mutual compatibility. Their right to act on that compatibility does not consist in their compatibility, but in their competence in face of already-existing factors impinging on the endurance of their expression of that compatibility. The extreme case of a lack of such competence is to find no immediate difference between one potential mate and another, and so to be precluded from an enduring marriage. The less extreme cases are what make for all the confusion. (Or, if I’ve bungled my expression of these ideas somewhat, I hope you at least begin to get the ideas themselves.)

  • Erik Klaustermeyer August 14, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    Well that clears it all up …… I think….. let me get my dictionary 😉

    • Keren August 14, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Haven’t had time to respond to any of these, but just to clarify to anyone else reading, the commenters, “Daniel” are not my Daniel. 😉

    • Daniel Threlfall August 14, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      Lol, Erik. 🙂

      He got me at “already-existing factors impinging on the endurance of their expression of that compatibility.”

      Very thoughtful stuff, albeit a bit deep.

    • Daniel August 15, 2012 at 11:21 am

      I just struggle to make certain distinctions for myself. Always have. These are distinctions which some people’s ways far too much obscure for me, especially when those people are the sort that seem pleased mainly to breath down my neck. But, the more I figure out how to make those distinctions actually stay with me (by writing them down and recalling seeing what I wrote), the more ways I tend to see how what I wrote is about as foolproof as a ‘swiss cheese army knife’. LOL.

      When I patch one hole in the formula, I soon notice a hole that results from the patch, and the new hole seems only to be the more prone to a worse kind of foolishness. So, that’s how it ends up being written like some bad joke of legalese. 🙂

      I already noticed a huge hole in my current version, and have yet to patch it.

      • Daniel (Saphirecrackerjacksunnydelightsoutsideways) August 15, 2012 at 9:45 pm

        (What really explains my ‘legalese’ is that I’ve had to defend my own health and sanity against far too many stern fools for all my life, who could not and would not think apart from merely rehearsing what they think they already know.)

  • Naomi August 27, 2012 at 9:51 am

    Wow. Makes me very grateful for the Lord’s gracious choice of my upbringing, church, family, classes and marriage counseling that really aided my preparation for marriage rather than leaving me with such baggage and confusion. The Lord must have known I’d need all the help I could get 🙂 Does sound like a good read! I’ll have to check it out!