What Makes Marriage Optimal?

Let’s begin with a question: What is the element or dimension or ingredient that makes marriage work? Some marriages sustain themselves a long while, some of them through the whole of a couple’s life, but barely make it. They are a kind of maintenance marriage. But other marriages flourish, and the question for today — before you read any further give this one some thought and jot down mentally the one or two words that turn marriage from maintenance into flourishing. What is it that makes marriages optimal? What are the elements of your marriage that have made it better?

When I saw the title of the second chp in Tim and Kathy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage, that was the sort of question that came to my mind. His chp is called “The power of marriage,” and I wondered what that “power” might be for him. What is that power in your mind?

Some may think the Kellers’ “power” is too predictable or trite or not concrete enough, so I will give it now and then we can discuss it as the post unrolls: the power of marriage is “begin filled with the Spirit.” They root this observation in Ephesians 5 and the flow of Paul’s thought: before getting to that famous bugbear word, “submit,” Paul speaks of the necessity of being filled with the Spirit: and no “submission” happens aright if it is not Spirit-induced and Spirit-shaped.

The Spirit’s “job description” is to “unfold the meaning of Jesus’s person and work to believers in such a way that the glory of it — its infinite importance and beauty — is brought home to the mind and heart” (51). Spirit-shaped marriages then become gospel/Jesus shaped marriages. This means we learn to live for the other; too many see marriage as one person (the wife) living for the other (the husband); some see it the other way, too; but the Spirit-shaped marriage leads to mutual sacrifice for the good of the other.

Keller (and when I say “Keller” it means both of them) says there are three options:
1. You can offer to serve the other with joy
2. You can make the offer with coldness or resentment
3. You can selfishly insist on your own way.

The dangler in this one though is when one person serves and the other person is served; if this gets lopsided we have a major issue because hierarchical themes dominate instead of sacrificial themes.

One problem faces all marriages: pride or self-centeredness. It is the “ever-present enemy of every marriage” (56).

The Spirit enters to increase the supply side of “love economics”: the Spirit empowers us to love when we are struggling to love because the Spirit transforms us into Christlikeness. “The deep happiness that marriage can bring, then, lies on the far side of sacrificial service in the power of the Spirit” (58). And this mimics God the Trinity, in whom there is eternal and ongoing other-orientation of love and embrace.

Another problem in marriages: woundedness. Keller knows the wounds and he is sensitive to the wounds, but he urges us to not let the wounds exacerbate our self-centered pride so that the wound becomes the opportunity to increase self-pity.

This means that the power of marriage, the Spirit’s presence in us, challenges two sorts of marriage theories:

First, it challenges the conservative approach to marriage (their words) “that puts a great deal of stress on traditional gender roles” (66). The big idea is each person submitting to divine roles and it leads to differentiation discussions — what makes a woman a woman, what makes a man a man — and this is an “overemphasis” and it can “encourage selfishness, especially on the part of the husband” (66).

Second, it challenges the “more secular approach,” that “you have to get your spouse to recognize your potential and help you to develop it” (66). That is, self-realization is your and your spouse’s goal. This approach develops selfishness.

So the Christian approach, Keller contends, is “Spirit-generated selflessness — not thinking less of yourself or more of yourself but thinking of yourself less” (66).

Spirit-induced relationships dwell in light of the fear of Christ: that awe and wonder of who Christ is and what Christ has done.

About Scot McKnight

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

  • mike h

    As one who has done his best to destroy a marriage, (unsuccessfully, and glad of that!), I get real suspicious of anyone who thinks that they have the ultimate ‘key’ to a successful one. There are way too many things involved to delineate any of them, including the presence of the Holy Spirit, as being the best or the most important. I applaud the attempts that are made. I may even throw my 2 cents into the mix. But, that may simply be a way for me to try to sort our my own issues and concerns, not necessarily some universal observation.

  • Diane

    Thanks Mike. Even before I read your comment–and as the poster child for the happy marriage- I had a similar reaction: One can over-think all of this. Does a good marriage arise from a minute intellectual parsing of what a good marriage is? Probably not. A good marriage contains an everyday non-thinking enjoyment of the spouse. That said, I appreciate the Kellers for taking a long look at marriage. However, really and truly, I think trying to make explicit, one-on-one ties to Scripture threatens becoming kitschy–and hence, not helpful. In the end, even a wonderful marriage is hard–because people are complicated and imperfect.

  • Richard

    How does “being filled with the Spirit” fit with the real world experience of non-believers having flourishing marriages? Does this push us to recognize that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh – regardless of faith commitment? It seems to me that it is very possible for any human to be selfless, not just Christians.

  • Joe Canner

    “Some marriages sustain themselves a long while, some of them through the whole of a couple’s life, but barely make it. They are a kind of maintenance marriage. But other marriages flourish…”

    Perhaps we all know intuitively the difference between a flourishing marriage and a maintenance marriage, but it might be helpful to be more explicit here. From a practical standpoint, what is it about a flourishing marriage that makes it better than a maintenance marriage? What are the outward signs or practical outworkings (or lack thereof) in each?

    This is a serious question, because sometimes it seems that just staying married in today’s society is a major accomplishment. Moreover, it is often possible to raise wonderful kids and have successful careers and/or ministries while still struggling to keep the marriage together.

  • Gloria

    Joe,
    I would list qualities such as spouses being best friends, quality and quanity of time and conversation spent together, enyoying shared activities, taking time daily to connect and talk – sharing the days with one another, desiring the best for each other, etc.

  • Holly

    Friendship. (Someone who makes you laugh and who really likes you as a person is a wonderful person to spend a life with…)

    Children. (That’s not going to be popular – but kids, whether by bio birth, adoption, or fostering, force us to focus on more than ourselves. They don’t allow us to be self absorbed. And further out on my limb – not just one or two kids – but several. Many.)

    Willingness to sacrifice – everyone for each other. Dad for mom, mom for dad, mom and dad for kids, kids for mom and dad….)

    I (lovingly and kindly) disagree with Diane above – a wonderful marriage is NOT hard. I’ve been married 23 years and it’s been the best thing, a true saving grace in my life.

  • http://shanescottonline.com Shane Scott

    Scot do the Kellers discuss the idea of the “mystery” in Ephesians referring to God’s plan to unite all things in Christ. I like the suggest of several that in 5:32 Paul’s point is that marriage is a microcosm of God’s power to unite (humanity with God, Jews with Gentiles, etc). Seeing marriage as a display of God’s power to unite places great emphasis on the kingdom dimension of marriage, as opposed to the self-actualization you mentioned.

  • Joe Canner

    Gloria & Holly: Thanks, those are good lists. Let me push back a bit… How (if at all) are these things manifest to the outside world (including children)? Or are the benefits of a flourishing marriage entirely for the couple themselves?

    BTW, I have some ideas myself; I’m just trying to push the discussion a little to see what it is we’re actually trying accomplish with a flourishing marriage.

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    I have too many thoughts … and just my tablet, which is cumbersome…

    That said, life is difficult. Some people get lucky — like Scot and Kris and others we all know. Others are not so lucky — and marriage becomes a place where the Spirit can transform individual perceptions into truth as God perceives it. This is a very painful process — one that tests faith and commitment like no other. But, baring abuse, it is capable of bearing rich fruit.

    Scot, this work the Spirit does is powered by cHesed — the doing what is in the best interest of the other. Discerning the best interest requires the wisdom of the Spirit. It is a work that fosters growing maturity and not stunted dependence. It requires the ability to stand your ground with love that submits, grace that serves, and mercy that takes initiative. This, friends, is the hard work of discipleship — of being transformed into the image of Jesus. It is especially challenging when there are differences in perceptions about the nature of God and how they show up in behavior — child-rearing, justice, hospitality, community service, charitable contributions…the list is endless.

    But the power of God is revealed in the midst of our weakness — and we glorify God when we persevere long enough to see what the Spirit is making out of the broken pieces we offer humbly to the Potter. I am just now, after three dark years, beginning to see fruit-promising blossoms on my severely pruned marriage of almost 19 years. I pray that no blight comes to ruin that longed for fruit.

    Blessings to each marriage — the seemingly effortless and the gruelingly difficult ones. May God’s faithful cHesed be the firm foundation that brings Shalom.

  • CGC

    Wow Peggy,
    Beautiful, powerful, and thought-provoking. Thanks!


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