An Inexpressible Treasure

To talk about marriage requires wisdom. Wisdom is learning to live in God’s world in God’s way, and God’s way is the gospel. Marriage then is learning about how the relationship of a man and woman works, how families work, how society works … and wisdom draws on every resource needed and available.

I can think of very few pastors more equipped to speak about marriage than Tim Keller. As if to prove this point about wisdom, Keller writes this book with Kathy, his wife; in light of a 37-yr marriage with Kathy; in light of a pastoral ministry in a church (Redeemer Presbyterian in NYC) where about 75% of the congregation is single; and in light of the Bible’s teaching. So, there, Keller’s book, called The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, is a sketch of the major issues facing marriages in our world.

Do you agree with Keller’s “secret” to marriage? Why or why not?

You know they get it when they say “Marriage is glorious but hard. It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet it is also blood, sweat, and tears, humbling defeats and exhausting victories” (21).

The issue is that in our culture marriage is being devalued and fewer and fewer are entering marriage. Keller’s opening chp — “The Secret of Marriage” — excellently sketches the problems, and they are many. [When I use "Keller" I mean both Tim and Kathy.]

Many prefer cohabitation because they see the breakdown of marriages and think they need to be more financially stable and personally settled prior to marriage. The irony is that those who cohabit are more likely to divorce, and Keller observes that the “cure may be worse than the alleged disease” (23). In addition, when it comes to financial stability, the facts show that those who get married and stay married are more financially stable than others. Those who marry are happier, and here’s a big one that reveals a cultural bias and misunderstanding: more than 60% of married people report being very happy and those who struggle and stay married are more likely to join that “very happy” group. All of this leads to an important observation: the benefits of divorce are oversold, he observes.

The history of marriage is revealing: the old theory was that the purpose of marriage was to create a framework for a lifelong devotion and love for a family. The new theory is that marriage is about “emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” (28). It has become a contract for mutual individual growth and fulfillment.
This is “Me-Marriage” instead of “We-Marriage.”

Me-Marriage has oddly enough created both greater expectations for marriage and an increase in fears about marriage. Me-Marriage may be the fundamental problem with marriage today.

People expect a soul mate and this means sexual and physical chemistry as well as an acceptance for who someone is. Traditionally males entered marriage knowing they were going to become more disciplined. Me-Marriage is almost unrealizable — it requires someone who gives but does not expect any getting.

Keller quotes Hauerwas who said that “no two people are compatible”! We always marry the wrong person, because the person we marry does not stay the same; so marriage is about “learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married” (38). Keller calls this the Hauerwas Law. Furthermore, we are both broken by sin and find ourselves seeking for love and a partner who will replace God.

Keller argues we need to resist idealizing marriage in light of sin; we need to raise it to the divine perspective to prevent being cynical.

So what is the secret? He goes to Eph 5 and sees the right thing: as Christ loved the church, so marriage is about self-denial for the good of the other and this reveals the divine mystery of marriage.

“Marriage only works to the degree that approximates the pattern of God’s self-giving love in Christ” (46). This is a gospel-drenched marriage: “do for your spouse what God did for you in Jesus” (47). It is about “mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice” (47). Marriage, in other works, re-makes us into gospeled people.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    Two comments

    This reminds me exactly of one of grandpa’s three axioms for living. It was “marriage is a life of forgiveness”. The other person is going to do things you do like for the rest of your life, forgiveness must be learned.

    Next, I spend time with people in arranged marriages and have come to appreciate them. People go into the marriage with the expectation that they are going to have to work on it. And, I am coming to believe that parents may actaully be better at picking a compatible spouse than the kids….

  • http://www.trinityfellowship.net Bob DeGray

    The we-marriage / me-marriage dichotomy is similar to Terry Hargrave’s concept of ‘usness’ in his book ‘The Essential Humility of Marriage.’ This is the most useful concept I’ve run across in years of marriage, pre-marital counseling and pastoral counseling.

    A summary link: http://www.smartmarriages.com/hargrave.html

  • Diane

    I am the poster child for the blessed marriage. Twenty-five years later my marriage is still going strong. Christ in the marriage is a big help–but we didn’t start out Christians. The secret, I think, is this : Both of us were so sure we got the better end of the deal by a long shot that we live in gratitude: I marvel that someone so great would marry me; he marvels that someone as wonderful (to him) as me would marry him. Do we lack self-esteem? Not really–if we did, we wouldn’t be able feel worthy of and to accept the gift of the other. But the ability to see the intrinsic beauty of the spouse and want them to find their bliss–to see the spouse with eyes of Christ–that is the secret.

  • Jeff Martin

    I love the quote about us always marrying the wrong person, that is a keeper!

    Marriages today definitely feed into our corrupted flesh. Men are self-centered usually and women are very giving. Men will take take take! and Women will give, give, give! We need to teach men to give more, and women to take more. Mark Gungor accomplishes this nicely in his video series, Laugh your Way to a Better Marriage.

    This idea explains partly why co-habitation does not work. Women give men what they want – sex! And men then have no desire to want much more usually but it also is true with women too. Also a contributing factor is previous relationships where trust was broken, so people enter into relationships with no commitments to not get hurt again

  • Joe Canner

    “We always marry the wrong person, because the person we marry does not stay the same…”

    I have seen this at work in my marriage, as I have drifted away from traditional views on creation/evolution, hell, homosexuality, etc. over the years. My wife has been fairly gracious about this but as the pace of change accelerated we reached a crisis point because she feared that I would abandon the marriage as easily as I abandoned other traditional beliefs. Fortunately, I was able to point back to the Jesus Creed and reassure her that despite all of the other changes I was still committed to loving my neighbor and that she was the most significant “neighbor” in my life.

    I also agree with the Kellers’ statement: “Marriage is glorious but hard…” I was just thinking this morning about how stubborn I am. Stubbornness can be a problem in marriage, but it can also be a good thing when it makes you cling to the marriage during the times when it gets hard.

  • Dawne Piotrowski

    “The history of marriage is revealing: the old theory was that the purpose of marriage was to create a framework for a lifelong devotion and love for a family. The new theory is that marriage is about ‘emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization’ (28). It has become a contract for mutual individual growth and fulfillment. This is ‘Me-Marriage’ instead of ‘We-Marriage.’”

    Given the high rate of divorce in the church, we must acknowledge marriage as “we” instead of “me.” And, I would argue, the “we” is bigger than just the man and woman; marriage, done right, is a picture of Christ and the church, and has impact which ripples out from the couple to the wider community, including the watching world.

  • Michael J. Teston

    30 years ago I had that Hauerwas quote and after 30 years of ministry, ie. doing weddings and wedding prep I have used that quote in every setting with couples pre marriage, as well as marriage counseling, “We all wake up one day wondering if we’ve married the wrong person.” I also like the other portion, “we marry the person who knows us better than we know ourselves” and then reflects that back to us, at times painfully as well as joyfully. I too have remembered that being married to my “girlfriend” for almost 33 years and having spent the largest part of my life, 35 years with her. I too marvel that a person of her astounding beauty, grace, and brilliance would spend so much time with someone like me. Amazing what selfless love is. I believe Paul had this in mind with the infamous Corinthian 13 passage. I don’t think Paul was speaking of God necessarily. He was speaking of “love.” When you look into “love” deeply (ie. the eyes of such a one that I and others speak of) you recognize its really worth and you “see” yourself, life, and the other with a clarity that is undeniable.

  • Trav

    Great thoughts, keep the discussion going.

    I read this Keller book months ago when it first came out, and my main thought was that I’d love to hear other people’s perspective on the book. And I mean everyone, but especially those who’ve been through the journey and have been married 30+ years like the Kellers.

  • Dottie

    I’ve been a widow for over 12 years. The 43 years I was married, in retrospect, were golden, though there were many hard times. My husband and I worked hard to make our marriage work. The intimacy I shared with him makes my memories of him even better. Our children prospered because of the stabilitly our marriage. They now work hard on their marriages and enjoy an intimacy with their spouses that makes me happy. My grandchildren are safe. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, at the end of life our choices will determine if we are living in heaven or hell. How delightful your memories will be at the end of life if you chose to obey the two greatest commandments.

  • Cosmo

    My wife and I have been married north of 30 years now. The Meaning of Marriage is probably the finest book on the subject yet, IMO. We have recommended it to many others, both married and single.


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