Cracks in the Bridge

From a distance the bridge looks healthy, even attractive. Up close, and under the eyes of a careful observer, the bridge has cracks. If the cracks are attended to in the right way at the right time, the bridge can sustain itself — even get stronger. If not attended to, the cracks can bring the bridge down.

Marriage is the kind of relationship in which the cracks of each of our characters become obvious. [A reader pushed me for saying “one-and-only” in this previous sentence originally, and I was wrong on that. As if singles can’t experience cracked character in their own friendships. Marriage is the kind — because of intimacy over the long haul — where cracks emerge. But close relationships can all make our cracks obvious. I apologize for insensitivity.] You can hide from friends and work associates, but in marriage the cracks will eventually become evident. The issue for marriage is both seeing the fissures of character and learning to do something about it. One of the elements of marriage, so argue Tim and Kathy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage, is to learn to love the stranger.

The person we marry changes, and we change, and that means at times each of us realizes the other person is … well… not the person we married.

What can sustain us in times when our spouse is the stranger, when the cracks of character become obvious and annoying and harmful? What is your advice for helping one another character-wise?

The Kellers propose three powers at work that can sustain the character cracks of marriage:

1. The power of truth. Marriage doesn’t create character cracks; it reveals the cracks that are there. Marriage — marriage itself since it is the long journey of being together — permits and invites the truth to come out about each of us.  Unacknowledged character cracks are the problem; known ones permit growth. The power of truth is a gift, but one difficult to receive well. When some see the problems of the other, they run. The Christian ought to face the gift of truth to become more Christlike.

2. The power of love. Love is a power at work too. Marriage can reprogram our self-evaluations and other-evaluations because one person can love us for who we are. To be esteemed by the one you esteem is a great gift and goes deep. Love is often — always? — expressed in differing ways in marriages, and we are to learn what love language our spouse needs most: we have to take off our expectations filter and realize that our spouse does love us. Love is expressed in affection, friendship, erotic love, and service. [He’s using Lewis.]

3. The power of grace. Truth without love is brutal; love without truth is illusive. Grace takes us beyond both. And it permits repentance and forgiveness. Without the aim of forgiveness truth will seek to condemn; with it the truth’s aim is reconciliation.

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  • JohnM

    Perhaps the Kellers included this in truth – but I would add: The power of humility.

    The acknowlegement that YOU are the one who has cracks and you irritate as much as you are irritated. Addressing the log in your own eye before you worry about the speck in theirs. Knowing that whatever good influence you can be in their life (and certainly you can) ultimately it is God, and not you, who is in the heart changing business. Pray for both of you, but for their good, not just your convinience.

  • Adam

    I disagree that only marriage does this. This is true of community as well. In fact, marriage is a community. We should be teaching these ideas as how to live with each other, our neighbors, and strangers. Not as spouse only.

  • Adam P

    Did Keller cite the Billy Joel song “The Stranger” in this work? It’s definitely a similar idea. Thoughts?

  • scotmcknight

    Adam P, I don’t recall they did, and I’ve never heard it.

  • Keith Irwin

    Good post. Thank you brofessor.

  • Jeff

    I second Adam (7:36), and I would argue that none of the Kellers’ ideas (that Scot has posted here) apply to marriage in particular. They seem to be ideas about friendship, which is a much broader category.

  • Rick


    Would this be a good pre-marital counseling resource for borderline (or non) Christians?

  • It is true that this can happen in community, but most of us can or do avoid the kind of community in which this will take place. Even when we desire this kind of community, it’s difficult because with busy schedules.

    However, I cannot avoid my husband, who lives with me, sleeps in my bed, and interacts with me nearly every day. I must resolve these issues, or the “bridge” will fail.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, it’s a very Christian book. There is wisdom for all here, but I would say not.

  • May our cracks leak God’s light & transcendent power. I was thinking of 2 Cor. 4 as I read this. Thank you!