Review of The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not About Who You Marry, but Why?, by Gary Thomas
By ALEXIS NEAL
I’ve read a lot of marriage books. Not all of them, mind you, or even most of them. But as someone who tends to believe that there is no obstacle you can’t study your way over and no problem you can’t think your way out of, I have devoured marriage books like a chubby kid eats cookies the day before fat camp. The results of this literary quest have been middlin’ at best. There have been some winners, to be sure, but I’ve been disappointed far more often than I’ve been impressed. I’ve managed to avoid many of the less- sound books (theologically speaking), but even the ‘good’ ones tend to be poorly written, overly chummy in tone, or downright unsettling. (Also, it turns out that reading books on marriage, even good books on marriage, doesn’t necessarily make you awesome at being married. Apparently there’s more to it than just reading.)
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Gary Thomas is not only a decent writer (would that more Christian authors could make such a claim!), but also that his theology of marriage and the resulting avice were quite solid.
Thomas, like so many authors, is writing to address a specific problem. In this case, the problem is Christians marrying ‘for love’—which, from Thomas’s perspective, is a really crummy reason for getting married (he points out that infatuation, as a biological phenomenon, has a shelf life of about 18 months). Faced with a sea of young people guided by their ‘hearts’ alone, Thomas encourages these young people to engage their minds and make informed, wise choices about their relational futures.
For Thomas, this kind of good decision-making is much more likely to result if we have a proper understanding of the purpose of marriage—that is, for the glory of God. Pastor and Boundless contributor Michael Lawrence has made similar points (‘Can you serve God better together than apart?), and I think it’s good advice. (To clarify, Thomas is not advocating for a loveless marriage for ministry purposes a la Jane Eyre and St. John Rivers, but is rather reminding us that there is more to a healthy, happy marriage than initial attraction and compatibility. More, not less—meaning that some measure of attraction and compatibility should be present, but that this kind of connection is not by itself enough to warrant the lifelong commitment of marriage.)
The bulk of Thomas’s advice is fairly uncontroversial, at least in Christian circles: Christians should only marry other Christians (and not just someone who goes to church because you do), and sex should be preserved for marriage—both of which are oft-disregarded but nonetheless basic truths. Similarly, while Thomas is himself a complementarian, he does not take this opportunity to attack egalitarianism but merely notes that whatever your view of gender roles, it behooves you to marry someone who shares that perspective. Sound advice, that.
But the big, overall point is: Think! Thomas encourages singles to observe their significant others, take note of strengths, weaknesses, inconsistencies, family background, character, areas of incompatibility, etc. Critical thinking isn’t just for the classroom, so use that brain of yours! This is pretty basic stuff, but I’ve no doubt that it needs to be said.
Thomas is not suggesting (though a lazy reader might so conclude) that you should only marry someone who agrees with you about everything and/or has no emotional baggage or character flaws. Instead, he is pointing out that some issues will pose significant future challenges, and it’s a good idea to think well about those challenges ahead of time. When you are dating, you are free to decide that you don’t want to take on those particular challenges; once you tie the knot, you are in it for keeps and will have to deal with the reality for, well, the rest of one of your lives. So, Thomas says, talk about it. Think about it. Count the cost, and make a choice.
I noticed only two serious weaknesses in this book, and Thomas himself is aware of both of them. First, some readers may be tempted to believe that if they only make the right choice, the wise choice, then they will be guaranteed a happy, healthy marriage. This is, quite simply, not so—and Thomas himself acknowledges in Chapter 17. Wise, informed decision making can help you avoid some of the more common obstacles of marriage, but at the end of the day, God is sovereign, and there are no guarantees. People change, life is hard, and nobody promised us a rose garden. So make good decisions—absolutely make good decisions—but don’t put your hope in information or human thinking. You can cross every ‘i’ and dot every ‘t’ and still wind up in a really tough place. Your hope—our hope—should be in God alone. He has not promised to protect us from hardship, but He has promised to sustain us through it. (As I said, Thomas himself makes this point, but as it is in a single chapter surrounded by ten or more other chapters extolling the importance of wisdom as a means of avoiding unnecessary hardship, his caveat could easily get lost in the shuffle.)
The second issue I had with the book is the rather consumerist mentality it encourages. Thomas encourages his readers to be savvy shoppers, weighing the pros and cons of each relationship and trying to get the best deal possible (232). This ‘evaluation’ phase (translation: savvy shopper) is supposed to end once you say ‘I do’ (133), but Thomas’s fixation on marrying the best possible person lays a rickety foundation for future sacrificial service (made possible only through the power of the Gospel). And anyway, even at the evaluation phase, it’s important to remember that these ‘potential spouses’ aren’t just toasters or laptops or mid-sized sedans—they’re still people. So yes, you might consider whether you want to marry into a difficult family situation, and if you choose to do so, you should absolutely be aware that you will face certain challenges. But at the end of the day, you should see the other person as more than just a mathematical equation. Besides, who said YOU were such a catch anyway?
Thomas is rather bizarrely confident regarding future relationships. He repeatedly asks whether someone better will come along, and whether, by marrying the current significant other, the reader is, in fact, depriving someone else of the opportunity of marrying the reader. I think this is an unhelpful attitude (particularly for those who’ve unnecessarily ended many otherwise healthy relationships with wonderful people). For one thing, it’s a practical fact that sometimes no one else does come along. God hasn’t promised us an unending stream of suitors from which to choose a mate. And there’s such a thing as being too picky. So the better question is not ‘Is this the best spouse I can find?’—a question that can never be answered, since it requires comparison to as-yet-unencountered individuals who may be quite mythical—but rather ‘Do I think this person will be a good spouse?’, or, better yet, ‘Is it wise for me to marry this person?’ I suspect, given the overall point of the book, that this is question he means to ask, so it is unfortunate that he gets sidetracked into overstating the importance of evaluation.
However, to be fair, Thomas knows he’s going ‘a tad too far in one direction’—a choice he makes because of his audience. According to Thomas, godly evaluation and wisdom aren’t even on the radar; this is the shortcoming he addresses. My experience with Christian singles has tended to the opposite extreme—that is, evaluation that is so rigorous and prolonged that many godly candidates for marriage are unnecessarily rejected. For such individuals, this book may be less helpful.
Even with these weaknesses, The Sacred Search is among the best Christian marriage books I’ve read. I recommend supplementing it with Michael Lawrence’s excellent article ‘Stop Test Driving Your Girlfriend’, which provides an excellent counterbalance for Thomas’s emphasis on evaluation.
Alexis Neal is an attorney in the Washington, D.C., area. She regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.