Book Review – The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy & Kathy Keller

I’ve read a handful of marriage books over the last two years. I’ve shared here that I’ve lately been listening to Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage series. It isn’t so much that I feel like my marriage needs a lot of help but more that I’m new to this and it’s a big endeavour and I want to start off right. I want to be sure that my thinking about marriage and my expectations line up with what the Bible says. Hence why all of my sources have been Christian authors and speakers. Frankly, I don’t know that it would help me to read a non-Christian perspective on marriage.

One of the marriage books I’ve been most excited to read is The Meaning of Marriage by Timothy & Kathy Keller. I’ve been very impressed by Timothy Keller in the last two books I’ve read of his. He’s easy to read and full of Biblical wisdom. His advice on marriage is equally solid.

The book is based on a sermon series on marriage that Keller preached in the early 90s. And before you say, oh, I’m single and this doesn’t apply to me or oh, I’ve been married for years and years and have everything figured out, it does apply to you! Yes, it’s a marriage book and so, yes, it’s geared toward married folks but it is also a book for the Church. For everyone in the Church. Keller speaks wisely about male and female roles, primarily in marriage but also in society. Chapter Six, which is written in Kathy’s voice, was particularly helpful for me, as a woman who still sometimes struggles with gender roles and my places as a Christian woman and wife. I loved what the Kellers had to say about Genesis 2:18 (Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”) Unfortunately, this verse has often been used to subject women, to put them in a position where men dominate without question. Here’s what the Kellers have to say:

 “The English word ‘helper’ is not the best translation for the Hebrew word ‘ezer. ‘Helper’ connotes merely assisting someone who could do the task almost as well without help. But ‘ezer is almost always used in the Bible to describe God Himself. Other times it is used to describe military help, such as reinforcements without which a battle would be lost. To ‘help’ someone, then, is to make up what is lacking in him with your strength. Woman was made to be a ‘strong helper’”.

Isn’t that great? I find that so encouraging! In the book’s appendix the authors say that sometimes the most loving and helpful thing a wife can do is to stand up to him and, in doing so, redirect him to the Lord. Women, we play tremendous roles in the lives of the men around us, none more than our husbands’!

The Kellers also write of the attitude of the church toward marriage and singleness (I wrote more about that here) and I think it’s a timely and extremely important message. As our society seems to divide more and more into religious and secular extremes when it comes to marriage, we need to be reminded of our true calling as children of God, not simply as wives or husbands. Some of the statistics that the Kellers offer, particularly in the first chapter, are surprising and eye-opening. Marriage as an institution seems to be failing so often in our Western culture. Timothy and Kathy Keller offer some very solid reasons as to why that may be but also why it needn’t be so for a Christ-following couple.

“The gospel humbles us into the 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.”

This is a theme that the book comes back to frequently. The Bible often uses marriage as a comparison to the relationship between Christ and His people – a relationship where two people know each other better than any other, know all the attributes and flaws of the other person and still choose to love and respect and to be with that person. It’s humbling but very freeing. If we remember that in our marriages, we are called to love and submit to each other as Jesus loves us and submitted to His Father, then we will have better and stronger and more rewarding marriages.

“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…means we are not the same person after have entered it. The primary problem is…learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” (Stanley Hauerwas, Sex and Politics, as quoted in The Meaning of Marriage)

One of the reasons people often seem to give for divorce, or even for not getting married in the first place, is that people change. Of course people change! No one can deny that but Keller suggests that two people in a marriage have agreed to not only change together but to keep learning about and loving the person their spouse has changed in to. I can’t say I’ve really experienced that yet, having been married less than two years, so I don’t know what that’s like and can only imagine how difficult that may be at times. But if we stop expecting our spouse to be perfect or to stay exactly the way they were on our wedding day, if instead we understand that we married someone with flaws, someone who is a complete person and as such will change and grow and develop and we look instead to our Lord for our fulfillment and identity, how much better and more lovely will our lives be? I think, quite a lot.

Two more favourite quotes:

“When the Bible speaks of love, it measures it primarily not by how much you want to receive but by how much you are willing to give of yourself to someone.”

“The Christian teaching does not offer a choice between fulfillment and sacrifice but rather mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice.”

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