Beyond the Clouds

I joke with my friends from Seattle that I have heard there are mountains in the area but yet to see them, but truth be told: I have seen the mountains and Mt Ranier. Tim and Kathy Keller, in their book The Meaning of Marriage, use this image of clouds sometimes lifting so we can see the mountain, and this image is used to describe the mission of the marriage. (More below.)

Their question is a good one: Why marriage? What is marriage’s purpose? What do you think the purpose of marriage is?

I’m not sure we often ask this question, and I have a sense that our gut instinct is both close to right but not accurate enough. The Kellers contend the purpose of marriage is friendship. I suspect many would say “someone to love, to be loved” or “companionship” or “build a family” and I suspect many would be boggled and wonder if they had ever considered such a question.

As Genesis 1–2 make clear, Adam was lonely and God gave to Adam a woman named Eve to be his ezer, or helper-companion. God, by the way, is an ezer to Israel. As God is a Trinity of social relationality, so humans — we are Eikons of God as male and female and not just as male or female — are social beings in need of relationships of love and trust.

Keller explores what friendship is [I would like to have seen him dip into the great literature on friendship more, beginning with Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Cicero's de Amicitia.] and sees four characteristics:

1. Constancy
2. Transparency
3. Sympathy in common interests
4. Common vision and passion [the "eschatology" of friendship, as it were]

But it is on #4 that the Kellers camp. Christians have a common gospel life and they long for the same future, the new creation. This means in Christians friendship there is a spiritual constancy, transparency and sympathy that glues all of the friendship toward the new creation of being made Christlike.

Marriage is friendship and Christian marriage is Christian friendship at the highest level. Christians are to make their spouse their best friend. They see two major “pseudo-spouses”: parents who entangle themselves too much in a marriage and children who occupy the whole of the family life.

The mission of marriage is to help the other become all that God made them to be. This isn’t hierarchical (so far as I see in this chp), this isn’t mentoring, this isn’t scolding … this is companioned discipleship as both walk toward the kingdom of God. Marriage, they say, “is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us” (120). I haven’t read anyone who quotes CS Lewis any more than Keller, and this “glory-selves” evokes Lewis’ famous statement in The Weight of Glory.

Now the mountain: right now we are in the clouds. That is, we see a cloudy self in the other and we are cloudy ourselves, but every now and then the clouds lift and we see in the one we love what that person will become, full of glory and grace and truth. We see the mountain she or he will become and then the clouds return and we live in light of what our spouse will become.

One caution: this whole idea of seeing what that person will become can lead some people to think it is their marital duty to chip away at the person, or it can lead some to marry someone for who they can make that person into instead of who that person is right now. The Kellers don’t address this issue but it is something we need to be cautious about: knowing the mission and what will become can drive us forward, as long as we are in this together, hand in hand, loving the person as they are right now (knowing God is at work to make them who they will be).

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.

  • RJS

    Good stuff.

  • John A.

    How might we understand this when one marriage partner is a committed unbeliever …but both love each other? Would this be a kind of “laboratory” for understanding and living out how believers are to be with unbelievers in all kinds of relationships?

  • scotmcknight

    John A.,

    It’s complex at almost every level, and yet the fundamental orientation — love as serving your spouse will be the driving force of marriage. Yet, the “purpose” of marriage as the Kellers describe it would not work well if one member has no eschatology of redemption in Christ. What Peter says in 1 Peter 3 would be the place to begin…

    Yes, of course, a marriage like this would be a laboratory for how to live together well.

  • Dana

    Yes, I agree that believing that a spouse helps us become our future glory-selves can lead to spouses determine to fix each other instead of love each other. The best answer to the question “Why marry?” I ever read was this: so we can have a witness. A spouse is someone who is present enough for long enough to witness the other spouse’s life and be able to testify to it. Of course change happens and people mature – but seeing each other as witnesses to both lives relieves spouses from any responsibility for maturing the other.

  • Dan Reid

    Be careful what you say about our mountain!

  • http://www.kevinscottwrites.com Kevin Scott

    Thanks Scot. I love the idea of “helping each other become our future glory-selves.” After all, that’s what the church is about, and marriage is to be a microcosm of the relationship between Christ and the church.

  • TimHeebner

    The question’s – “Why marriage? What is marriage’s purpose? What do you think the purpose of marriage is?”

    I’ve been pondering these questions a lot over the last several years. I recently was at a business meeting at a casino, and I was telling a co-worker that I don’t gamble because when you’re faced with a choice and the odds are stacked against you from the start, that’s something I choose to stay away from, and then immediately after saying that, I thought, “marriage is the same way, so why did I do that?”

    In my opinion, marriage is THE HARDEST THING TO DO ON EARTH. And this is coming from someone who’s marriage is the easiest thing I personally have ever done, (and I thank God every day for that) but just from looking around and seeing so many marriages failed or in trouble or ones that are unhappy, this is why I ask these questions. And I don’t personally see Christian marriages any better than non-Christian ones. In fact I’ve seen many non-Christian marriages that are more healthy and purposeful than many Christian ones.

    To think a kid, 18 – 25, can make an completely informed lifelong decision/commitment and know exactly what they’re getting into, is crazy. And that’s just one side of the formula, the other person also has to make that decision and be on the same page for a lifetime.

    Some would say its a generational thing. Well, from what I’ve seen, previous generation’s marriages, although they lasted longer, are not something to write home about. Many were two people under the same roof, living separate lives, although committed for life.

    I can’t complain personally because my marriage is the best thing that has ever happened to me, but I can’t help but ask these questions when I look around and see so many unhappy marriages out there. What does God really expect, practically, from two broken, sinful, selfish humans with this whole marriage thing?

    p.s. I’m thinking about arranging my own children’s marriages. Seems like that would raise the odds in their favor. :-)

  • Tim Sargent

    I think marriage has a number of purposes, not the least of which is as a platform for what Keller calls “gospel re-enactment” (I have not yet read their book, but have heard them speak on marriage) — that is, confession, repentance, forgiveness, grace given.
    In addition, however, I think the purpose of marriage is to picture something about God and mankind. As Kevin Scott mentions above, marriage is a microcosm of Christ’s relationship with the church. Thus, I think one purpose of marriage is to point beyond itself, to that union of Christ and the church. Marriage is a covenant (Mal. 2:14, Gen 2), and Christ’s union with the church is bound by a covenant. I think marriage is meant to portray the faithfulness and mutual self-giving love that Christ and the church are to have toward one another. Jesus teaches that marriage does not obtain in the resurrection (Matt. 22:30); I think there will be no marriage in the resurrection because there we will have the reality of the union of Christ and the church. Once we have the reality, there is no need for the picture.

  • John A.

    Hopefully I’m not belaboring this subject, but I’m thinking perhaps I should have been more specific in my earlier response about the marriage between an unbeliever and a believer as a “laboratory” for how believers should live in the broader world. When many unbelieving marriage partners are especially sensitive to being proselytized (the pejorative side of evangelism) by their believing partners, how can this situation speak to the way we ought to conduction evangelism in the broader world?

  • John A.

    How can we still respect and love each other in this religiously pluralistic world?

  • John A.

    It would seem that a religiously mixed marriage is the “laboratory” for this to occur….

  • Jeff

    If Christian marriage is Christian friendship at the highest level, and Christian friendship has the characteristics of constancy, transparency, sympathy in common interests, and common vision and
    passion, then why — from the Kellers’ perspective — must marriage be between just two people, let alone a man and woman?

    As a married man, I can say that I also have “Christian friendship at the highest level” (including constancy, transparency, sympathy in common interests, and common vision and passion) with people outside my marriage… yet my wife isn’t worried about me running away with my small group. It seems to me that something rather fundamental is missing from the Kellers’ definition of Christian marriage.

  • Matt Edwards

    They’re out today. Gorgeous day in Seattle :)

  • JohnM

    I have to wonder if we’re not way overthinking things here and maybe, once again, sowing some seeds of unnecessary dissatisfaction in the process.

  • http://www.lightofchristseattle.com Jennifer

    In Seattle, when the clouds cover the view, we say “the mountain is not out”. I’ve never figured out where it goes when its not out, but that’s how we talk about it.

    As to the Kellers view on friendship and marriage….I dont really buy it. Seems to me that 100,000′s of couples have been married throughout time through arranged marriage. Surely, some of them never came to be “best friends”…did that make them any less married?

  • http://www.redeemer.com Tim Keller

    My grandmother was actually betrothed to my grandfather when she was about 11 or 12 years old. It was an arranged marriage. (Her family was recent, poor Italian immigrants.) I spoke to her about how that worked and from what I can tell, their marriage was actually more like a friendship than what we would call ‘romance.’ There was constancy, partnership, and yes common vision (which was mainly family survival). By today’s standards there wasn’t strong ‘transparency’ but our culture goes over-board on that anyway. So I don’t think it would be fair to say that arranged marriages are impersonal affairs. In the one I knew about, there was more of the elements of friendship in it than elements of romance.


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