“Life is always changing. The space between you is always changing. Marriage is this art form where you never stop exploring, discovering, and you never stop figuring it out.”
— Rob Bell, bestselling author and international teacher and speaker
It has been a very busy couple of years for Rob Bell. The former Mars Hill mega-pastor and bestselling author who broke from the traditional evangelical ranks several years ago with his book Love Wins has spent the past few years in southern California, writing, speaking, surfing, and working on a top-secret and much-anticipated new venture with none other than Oprah Winfrey. And as the news of his December 21 television premiere on the OWN network broke just last week, dusting up yet another round of mud-slinging as to Bell’s Christian cred, Bell released his ninth book, co-authored by his wife Kristen, on the subject of … marriage.
That the book, The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage, has been slightly overshadowed by the internet’s discussion on whether Bell has jumped the shark by sharing coffee and God-talk with Oprah is a shame, because the book is really, really good. In a time when nearly half of marriages end in divorce, and the very definition of marriage has become a hot potato for Christians, you might not have much hope, or need, for a book on marriage by a Christian couple. But The Zimzum of Love is refreshing, and fresh, and fun (this is Rob Bell after all), filled with wonderful anecdotes – both funny and deeply poignant – from the Bell’s life together. The book, rather than giving you a five-point prescription for how to make your marriage work, instead manages to fill you with hope, possibility, and even excitement, for your own relationship.
Rob and Kristen said their goal with Zimzum was to write a book that was accessible to people, but most importantly, helpful.
“We talk in the book about spaces in the Universe that are not broken and fragmented and fractured and splintered, but actually whole and united and integrated,” says Rob. “When a marriage is humming and the love is overflowing and spilling out into the world around them, it becomes this point in the universe that you can point to and say, look, there — love, unity, wholeness, fidelity. And we need those places more than ever.”
I spoke with the Bells by phone several weeks ago, while Rob was still touring with Oprah’s “The Life You Want Tour,” an extravaganza of an event that brought thousands of people together in five cities across the coutnry to be inspired by the likes of Oprah, Bell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Deepak Chopra, Iyanla Vanzant and Mark Nepo.
In this exclusive interview, Rob and Kristen talked about why the world needs more marriages, the problem with writing love notes on Facebook, whether they ever wanted to throw in the towel in their own marriage, and the one of piece of advice they’d give married couples today. And of course, Oprah.
First of all — Oprah! What it’s been like sharing the stage with Oprah?
ROB: I’m having the time of my life on this tour. I’m getting a master class in compelling communication. She is exactly as you think she is. It’s really been an extraordinary experience. I’ve given my life to communicating and creating fresh, compelling messages, and I’ve never experienced anything like the spiritual presence and energy and hope, and just sheer, pure, unadulterated goodness at these events.
KRISTEN: Oprah is so present throughout the whole thing. Like a real guru-type teacher. It was really impressive. You can tell that she cares so much about the people in that room. She really, really wants them to be set free and live the best life they can live. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a place that has such positive energy.
Does Oprah “name” this spirit, this Presence, at the events?
Yes! Oprah calls it God. Or Being, or Ultimate Reality, whatever language you have for it. She talks about how there’s no life without spiritual life. At one point, she starts singing “I Surrender All” in her Friday night talk. It’s an incredibly inclusive place but with profound depth. Which is one of the interesting things in our public discourse — you rarely find places that are inclusive and embracing of different perspectives, but that also have profound conviction and depth. You usually get one or the other. That’s one of the extraordinary things about it; everybody’s free to be themselves but yet there’s a strong, firm center, which is: You’re here for a reason; you’re the recipient of this gift of life. How you respond to this gift matters. Surrender is one of the most most extraordinary experiences you can have in which you allow God-being, Ultimate Reality, to move through you and your powerlessness to act in great power.
In the midst of touring with Oprah and launching a new show on her network, you also released a new book on marriage, co-authored with your wife, Kristen. I’m not sure why, but I was surprised that your next book was on marriage. Why did you want to write this book, at this time?
ROB: I stumbled across the word zimzum while studying something years ago and found the concept and the word so compelling. I’m always sharing weird words with Kristen — I love words, the stranger the better. And we both said, wow, this sounds like what happens in marriage. Over time, we’d talk about it here and there, and one day we decided to go to lunch and write down all of our insights about marriage based on this new concept. And as we laid it out, I thought, we could do a book here on a new way to understand marriage. Do you remember it like that, Kristen? (laughter)
KRISTEN: I do, and I’ve also watched you for a while, and you tend to write about the thing that has the most energy and momentum behind it, and this idea just started gaining momentum. And then we started thinking, what would it be like to create something together? One of the things we talk about in the book is that when you see marriage as an adventure, it adds this whole new dimension of life and energy to your relationship. So this was one of our adventures we decided to go for.
ROB: And that meant literally, sitting down side by side every day for 18 months.
KRISTEN: There were times in the process when we said, “What have we gotten ourselves into? I don’t know if this is going to work.” We kept editing and re-editing. We really wanted the book to be accessible to people, but also, we really wanted it to be helpful. I remember when Rob wrote on a card that we stuck on the computer that said: “This can be done.” It wasn’t an adventure without risk!
Is your book in any way a response to another popular mega-pastor and his wife’s book on marriage that came out a couple of years ago? Did you want to say something different about marriage in your book, from a Christian perspective?
ROB: No, the book came about from a decade of discussion and wrestling with this idea of zimzum, and a growing sense that we’d never heard anyone talk about marriage like this.
That said, we do occasionally meet people who were taught things about marriage that are completely ridiculous and we are aware that there are a number of insane ways people have come to view how people should relate to each other. So if this book helps to let people know they’re not insane if they think some of that stuff is crazy, we’re OK with that. Would you agree, Kristen?
KRISTEN: Yeah. We haven’t read any marriage books by other pastor couples so we weren’t motivated by that. We just felt like we had something to say and to add to the conversation about marriage that has been going on a long time. It’s one of those complicated things in life and the more wisdom we can get on it, the better.
Well, a lot of folks on the interwebs seemed happy to hear the news of a Christian marriage book that might be more “egalitarian” in its approach.
KRISTEN: Well, definitely, that’s the foundation we are coming from in the book. The whole model of “zimzum” centers on two people coming to this relationship as equals, on equal footing.
Ok, so tell me about zimzum. What is it?
ROB: So, let me start with the idea… At first it’s just you, and your interests, and your family and your friends, but then you meet this person and they have their own center of gravity, and their own interests and hobbies, and as you grow closer together, you realize you’re caring more about that human being and you’re organizing your life around being with them and you find yourself making all these sacrifices because you want them to thrive, you want them to be happy. So you create space in your life for this person, while at the same time, they’re creating space for you, and what this does is create this space between you and it’s got this energy to it. It creates this circular energetic flow between you.
So I came across this word “zimzum,” which is a Hebrew idea that before there was anything there was God — the Divine was all there was — so for God to allow something to come into being that wasn’t God, God had to create space in the Universe for there to be space that wasn’t God. Which is very esoteric, obviously. The Hebrew word for contraction or withdrawal is tzimtzum. And when I stumbled across it, I thought, that’s what happens when you fall in love and get married! You voluntarily create space in your life for another person to thrive, while they’re creating space for you to thrive and it creates this extraordinary energy between you.
So what we do in the book is take people through how this space and energy flow works. Certain things block this energy flow, and certain things help it to flow all the more freely. And this space is unique, it exists only between the two of you, it’s nowhere else in the Universe, and it can be an extraordinary source of life and vitality, but if you don’t protect it, and let others into it, you can dilute the power.
And it has to be about two equals. In the book, we talk about what happens when one person gives themselves to the thriving of the other, and loses themselves in the process.
Right. When you talk about “the space between you” in a marriage, how do you prevent or avoid one person “contracting” – or making space — for the other the majority of the time?
KRISTEN: Well, it starts with seeing marriage in this way. We talk about how every marriage is unique. There are all of these things that come into your life when you’re married. Your marriage is never static; you’re always talking about it and figuring it out. We hope that by giving people language and a new way to look at their marriage, it will give them a new way to talk about what’s going on. You can get unbalanced, and sometimes you just need to stop and remind each other that you are “for” them and that you want what’s best for them, and they want what’s best for you.
ROB: Yes, that’s right. We’ve done events on marriage and we talk about how you never stop figuring it out. And we’re always struck with how that is a new idea for people! Marriage is the endless process of figuring it out. Lots of couples think that everybody else has it figured out. But when we’ve asked people whose marriages we admire the most, they always say “Yeah, we’re just figuring it out.”
One of the things we want people to get loud and clear from the book is that marriage is an endless conversation in which you never stop figuring it out together. Life is a dynamic reality. Most images of marriage are static metaphors: three things you can do, four steps, five techniques. Zimzum is a dynamic metaphor. Life is always changing. The space between you is always changing. Marriage is this art form where you never stop exploring, discovering, and you never stop figuring it out.
KRISTEN: As human beings, we’re also, hopefully, growing, becoming more healthy, dealing with issues. And when this happens in a marriage, it can be a really powerful time of growth between the two of you. We have this section in the book about what you bring to the marriage – “what’s yours is now ours.” And it just takes time to work through that stuff. At times, it might mean seeing a therapist or a spiritual director. Hopefully we’re all in this process of growing, and becoming more free, and alive, and more whole.
ROB: That’s good. That’s good, Kristen Bell!
So what increases the flow of zimzum and what blocks it?
KRISTEN: We talk about how the flow between you has this generative effect. So that’s why the smallest unkind word can become huge and block that flow of energy and love between you. But also the smallest gesture of kindness can become magnified, and increase that flow of love between you. There are other things that block the flow — forgiveness, hanging on to grievances (that’s a big block), not being honest, hiding things. We’re really trying to get people to see this energy, and then once you start to see it, you notice how you can affect it, and what things block it.
ROB: Yeah, and the sub-theme that comes up again and again, is that you’re always putting energy into the space between you. The question is whether it’s good or bad energy, positive or negative. How you think about yourself, how you think about the other person … you bring the entirety of your being to this space between you. Unresolved issues with family of origin, anger you haven’t dealt with towards a friend from years ago, stress at work — it’s all there. We talk about how “what’s mine is yours.” The reality is, what’s mine is ours. My stuff is our stuff.
What we want the book to do is wake people up and sharpen their awareness of how everything within their being is in the space between them and their partner, and it all affects the space.
I was particularly intrigued by the chapter titled “Exclusive.” You talk about how important it is to keep the “zimzum” between the two of you exclusive. You say it needs to be protected and strengthened, which includes things like not talking about your problems and fights outside of your marriage, etc. That seems very timely and wise advice in this day of Facebook transparency! Say more about the importance of “exclusive.”
ROB: Well first of all, we love that you love that chapter. Kristen has this great line in that chapter about people writing love notes to each other on Facebook. Which is a relatively new phenomenom. Normally you would write a love note to somebody, and the idea is that it would be between you and them, not between you and them and 500 possible billion other people. In our current culture of sharing, it’s easy to dilute the extraordinary power of the thing between the two of you. Part of the power of a relationship is that you have a shared collective memory that only exists between the two of you, so this person becomes like a home, a place of safety and embrace and security. Obviously, there are times when you need to bring in someone, like a therapist or a counselor, or a good friend, to help you with a problem. But a lot of people are bringing people into all of these intimate spaces and then wondering why they don’t have anything left that’s just theirs.
KRISTEN: We like to talk about secrets in a good sense. A secret or an inside joke has a lot of power to bond you together. There’s this power when you have something that’s just yours. You watch the phenomenon of reality TV and by bringing people into those sacred places, it really dilutes the power of what those two people have together.
ROB: Yeah. Well said.
KRISTEN: And it doesn’t mean you can’t share things to help people; but I think we just need to think through that more and be really intentional — and in agreement with your partner — about what we share.
You also say in the book that marriage is “good for the world.” You say, even, that the world needs more marriages! Given that the definition of marriage has become such a contested topic these days in Christian circles, I have to ask, are you including same-sex marriage in this definition?
ROB: Absolutely, absolutely. We say at the beginning of the book, we are for marriage, gay or straight, because marriage is good for the world. Even in the Jewish-Christian tradition, depending on how you read the Garden of Eden story, there’s something wrong in the story. And what’s wrong in the story is that man is alone. Loneliness is the oldest ache in the human bone. And to say some of you get to go through life with someone, but some of you have to be alone, is an injustice of the highest order.
So why is marriage good for the world?
ROB: Because it becomes a grounded center from which love can flow beyond. We talk in the book about spaces in the universe that are not broken and fragmented and fractured and splintered, but are actually whole and united and integrated. When a marriage is humming and love is overflowing and spilling out into the world around a couple, it becomes this point in the universe that you can point to and say, look, there — love, unity, wholeness, fidelity. And we need those places more than ever.
KRISTEN: Right, when two people are saying yes to marriage, they’re saying no to themselves. It’s a sense of self-sacrifice as well as an overwhelming love. That’s the motivation of the contracting and creating space. It’s motivated from a place of very deep, profound love. So if two people are making this commitment, whether they’re gay or straight, that makes the world a better place, because the world is better with more love in it.
KRISTEN: And not that fluffy kind of love … but that love that comes from a deep place of sacrifice and commitment and fidelity and hope. When you say yes to marriage, you’re saying yes to possibility and hope. You don’t have a view of the world that is dark and full of despair. No, it’s a very hopeful decision … it’s like, I believe in love and beauty and goodness, and I think that we can do this.
ROB: Oh my word, that’s good!
We talk about how when you zimzum and give yourself to the thriving of another, the zimzum is the creation energy of the Universe. When you give to another, you’re unleashing the same creative forces that brought the Universe into being. So there’s a reason why this particular relationship has such extraordinary capacity. You are aligning yourself with the deepest most powerful creative forces in the universe.
Was there ever a point in your own marriage where you wanted to throw in the towel?
KRISTEN: I think that it’s very normal in a marriage to have periods of time when you wonder, “Is this it? Is it going to be like this forever? Is this going to work? Are we going to get out of this place that we’re in?” I don’t know that I’d say “throw in the towel,” but definitely times of doubt and questioning.
We tell a story in the book about a time when Rob was emotionally and physically burned out from the work he was doing, and I interpreted it as well, maybe he just doesn’t love me anymore, and maybe this is just how it is when you’ve been married a while. And I was really, really down. But what’s interesting is all it took — along with some courage, because I was afraid, what if it’s true? — was bringing the subject up. And as we talked through it, we realized it wasn’t about me. It was about him and where he was. All marriages have those “sign ways.” There are times when things are easier, and there are times when things are harder. That’s just the nature of life, and when you choose to live your life together, you’re going to encounter some of those times.
What about you, Rob?
ROB: Well, the thing is, when I married Kristen I married way out of my league…
KRISTEN: That’s very kind….
ROB: She made life, and made me, such a better person and totally raised the bar on what’s possible in life. So there were periods of exhaustion and being burned out and being frustrated with each other — why can’t she see this, and why can’t she see that — but at the core of our relationship was this mission. From the age of 21 or 22, we had this sense together that our job was to help a whole new world of people connect with God. There was this mission driving us.
So I wouldn’t use language like “throwing in the towel,” because no matter how frustrated we were with each other, there was this thing we were trying to do that was way beyond the two of us. When the two of you have something you’re doing that’s bigger than you, it’s like glue when you have those seasons when there aren’t the sparks like there are at other times. But there’s this thing we’re doing, and the world needs it, and we gotta rally here. So throwing in the towel – no way!
Ok, one last question for each of you. What one piece of advice would you give married couples today?
ROB: Besides getting this book?
KRISTEN: I think I would say, and we’ve said it before, you never stop figuring it out. When you get married, you start a conversation that never ends. You just have to bring it all out. All that stuff that’s below the surface that you don’t want to talk about … if you could just trust that if you can bring it up and deal with it, it’s going to make your relationship so much better. And that just takes time and intention. I don’t like when people use the word “work” for marriage; I think it’s helpful to see it in a more positive light. This is an adventure we’re going on together. We’re working on all this stuff because we get to create this thing together.
ROB: Wow, that’s good … that’s like seven pieces of advice and they’re all good.
The advice I would give is to make decisions about who you want to be together. Because it all starts with a glimpse of what’s possible. We want to be fit, we want to be healthy, we want to travel, we want to figure out how to do X, we dream of doing Y together, we want to be more honest, we want to have more fun together. Make decisions about what you’re going to become together. Because it all starts with your intentions. A lot of people are wondering what’s wrong with their marriage, but they have never sat down together and said “I want to be the best wife or husband ever.” Just the power of stating your intentions does wonders. So I would start with: Make really big decisions about the kind of marriage you want to have and you’ll be shocked at how that affects how you act.