The Meaning of Marriage: Book Reflection

All of my favorite book reviewers have already lauded this book, so I came to it with high expectations–all of which were met and exceeded. I was really excited to read it as I’ve only been married a couple years and so feel like I’ve seen some of the joys and difficulties of marriage, but certainly could use more wisdom. I felt like I generally knew what the book would say–I had read so many quotes and heard so many talks about it, but there’s nothing like reading it for yourself.

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller is a beautiful exposition of Ephesians 5:18-33. The introduction explains that the book pulls from 3 sources: 37 years of marriage, Tim Keller’s pastoral ministry and specifically a marriage series he preached in 1991, and the Bible itself. Throughout the exposition he breaks down all the crucial aspects of marriage including covenant, friendship, commitment, faithfulness, love, gender roles, and sex. He says all the things you would expect Christians to say about marriage, but has a particularly striking way of saying them. The thing I loved most about the book was the centrality of the Gospel message and its many facets of application to marriage. I commented to my husband while reading the book that every time my pastor preaches a “Gospel message” now (which is every week), I can hear a “marriage message.” In Chapter 1 he reveals “The Secret of Marriage” right off the bat: “This is the secret—that the gospel of Jesus and marriage explain one another” (p. 47). He does a phenomenal job of fleshing this out for the rest of the book.

In that first chapter, Keller spends a good deal of time explaining many of the problems with societies’ view of marriage. He hits the nail on the head with this assertion:

The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time. (p. 34)

When we make our spouse our functional savior, we ask too much out of marriage. When we look to marriage to make us “happy” and never change us, we ask too little. Later in the book he says that single people tend to be either over-eager for marriage to the point of idolizing it, or they are overly averse to marriage for either fear of commitment or fear of not finding that perfect “soul mate.” This resonated with me because I realize now that my thinking as a single person both over-glorified marriage as the beginning of “real life,” and also under-glorified it for its potential for sanctification and the beautiful Gospel picture it proclaims.

A huge paradigm shift in my thinking occurred with this quote:

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. For marriage, being [the enormous thing that it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is…learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. (p. 38, quote from Stanley Haurwas)

Of course this was bluntly written for shock value, but the message is clear. You and your spouse are both sinners, and not only that; marriage is so huge that you better realize (and hope actually) that it changes both of you over time. Enter it with the goal of mutual sanctification. You never marry “The Right Person.” As Kathy says in chapter 4: “Most people, when they are looking for a spouse, are looking for a finished statue when they should be looking for a wonderful block of marble” (p.122). Iron will sharpen iron and marble will polish marble as you knock against one another in conflict and life–your statues are underway! But we are never done, not until Christ returns.

Chapter 3, “The Essence of Marriage,” probably had the most impact on me. Here is where he dives into the meaning of covenantal relationship and answers the protestations of those who would say they “don’t need a piece of paper to say they love each other.” I’ve always known it was important to be legally married, but I’ve found it very hard to articulate. Tim Keller does a beautiful job. Here is his definition of covenant:

It is a relationship far more intimate and personal than a merely legal, business relationship. Yet at the same time, it is far more durable, binding, and unconditional than one based on mere feeling and affection. A covenant relationship is a stunning blend of law and love (p. 84).

A stunning blending of law and love–isn’t that exactly how God is? I’ve been chewing on that for weeks. This chapter also contains my favorite quote, which I won’t copy in full (it’s on page 87); but even before I owned the book I was looking it up on Goodreads to copy into several wedding cards for newlywed couples. He uses the analogy of Homer’s Odyssey when Ulysses has his men tie him to the mast of the ship so as not to give in to the temptation of the singing Sirens. Making your public oath of marriage and signing a legal marriage license is like “tying yourself to mast” so that when storms come and you’re tempted to leave, you have an anchor.

Kathy’s chapter on “Embracing the Other” was eye-opening and enriching. Traditionally Christians understand that the husband plays “the Jesus role” in marriage as being the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:22-23). But Kathy explains: “Both women and men get to ‘play the Jesus role’ in marriage—Jesus in his sacrificial authority, Jesus in his sacrificial submission” (p. 179). Jesus was in humble submission to the will of the Father during his time on earth as the incarnate God-Man, and He was exalted because of it. We, wives, get to take this as our example.

A couple of general notes: this is the first Tim Keller book I’ve ever read (I know, shame on me) but I had no idea he and Kathy love C.S. Lewis as much as I do! I was overjoyed by his use of Lewis quotes throughout the book. And adding to that awesomeness, Keller said that he and Kathy’s mutual love of Lewis is one of the “secret threads” that has bonded them together! This makes my heart smile. Also, I loved his thoroughness in the footnotes to cite all their statistical sources and address foggy or controversial issues outside the scope of the book. I was impressed by Keller’s “intellectual integrity,” I would call it—this characteristic gives the book credibility even to those who would not profess Christianity. I would not be nervous about giving this book to an unbeliever.

Buy this book, read it. And then buy several and give it to folks you think would benefit–which is pretty much everyone. Probably one of the best books I’ll read this year (she said along with everyone else who has read and reviewed this book). Enjoy!

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8 thoughts on “The Meaning of Marriage: Book Reflection

  1. Sounds like a great book! I pray blessings over you and Richard and your marriage. As you know, Dad and I shared 29 years of marriage and I feel that we both grew and changed during that time. I’m glad that you desire to grow in
    your relationship with each other and with Jesus! Love, Mom

  2. Wow! Gotta read this! My husband and I are celebrating 25 years of marriage this summer. Recently I blogged about City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell (blog post entitled “Unfailing Love”) which is a beautiful novel of enduring marital love (among other themes).

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