A Review of The Meaning of Marriage
by Timothy Keller with Kathy Keller
Sometimes perspective is everything. Against a cultural backdrop in which feminists declare marriage outdated and no longer necessary (Newsweek Magazine, “I Don’t,” June 11, 2010) even as LGBT couples clamor for it be redefined to confer on them its benefits, New York City pastor Timothy Keller, along with Kathy, his wife of thirty-seven years, offer another perspective on marriage.
Historically, marriage has been viewed as a duty to family and society. In post-Enlightenment times, as individual freedom gained currency as an objective good in itself, marriage came to be viewed as a way to achieve personal life goals such as emotional, romantic, and sexual gratification. This ‘marriage as a means of self-actualization’ view fairly well captures the contemporary construction of marriage.
But the biblical picture, while it encompasses both sets of desirable ends, reveals it to be much more. This is what the Kellers present, starting with Genesis, where God himself conducted the first marriage ceremony. Here are two salient points:
Marriage was established by God to reflect his nature in the world. The essence of God’s nature is his agape love, which means ‘a sacrificial commitment to live for the good of another.’ “Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love,” writes Timothy. In a wedding, “you stand up before God, your family, and all the main institutions of society, and you promise to be loving, faithful, and true to the other person in the future, regardless of undulating internal feelings or external circumstances.” It is an act of embarking on becoming a larger, more mature person. Agape is the caliber of love God himself has bestowed on humanity, but when fallen and frail people undertake to do likewise, a measure of difficulty follows. This leads to another biblical principle about marriage.
Marriage is one of God’s primary means of making us better people – people who increasingly manifest the self-giving nature of God. Nothing has the power to reveal unflattering character traits like marriage. “Marriage by its very nature has the ‘power of truth’ – the power to show you the truth about who you are,” Keller writes. It “takes you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to pay attention to it.” And yet, the greater beauty of the marriage relationship, as God designed it, is that it also possesses the powers of love and grace. It is the place where we discover the radical truth about how flawed we are, and the radical truth of how loved we are, reflecting the persevering, active love of God, revealed in the sacrificial life and death of Jesus Christ.
These biblical principles regarding the purpose, essence, and mission of marriage are all but lost on the secularists of our day, and this explains why the contemporary state of marriage lies in such disrepair. The enemy of marriage is sinful self-absorption, and the self-actualization model for marriage not only speaks its language, it feeds its furies.
Marriage, as God designed it, is a far more profound concept than a legal arrangement affording personal benefits. “Submission to God’s pattern in marriage gets you more in touch with some deep things in yourself, your primary maleness and femaleness, yet marriage balances you and broadens you, too,” writes Kathy. Its blessings and fulfillments are found on the far side of that submission. That perspective, with the help of God, can transform a struggling marriage into a striving and then ultimately a thriving marriage. It can change everything.
This article first appeared in Salvo 20, Spring 2012