Monday, March 4, 2013

what's the point of marriage? (3) marriage looks inward: Timothy Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage

Marriage is a friendship… Friendship is a deep oneness that develops as two people, speaking the truth in love to each other, journey together to the same horizon. Spiritual friendship is the greatest journey of all, because the horizon is so high and far, yet sure—it is nothing less than “the day of Jesus Christ” and what we will be like when we finally see him face-to-face… What, then, is marriage for? It is for helping each other to become our future glory-selves, the new creations that God will eventually make us.1
“What is marriage for?” asks Timothy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage. He devotes chapter four to the answer: marriage is “a way for two spiritual friends to help each other on their journey to become the persons God designed them to be”.2 Marriage was God’s solution to loneliness: he made the woman to be Adam’s ’ezer, his ‘helper-companion’ (Gen 2:18) or ‘best friend’ (Prov 2:17), a theme Keller traces through the Bible (Song 5:16; Mal 2:14). Yet this is not friendship as an end in itself. Just as Christ sacrificed himself for his bride, the church, to make her holy (Eph 5:26), so husband and wife help each other become the people God made them to be.

The focus on marriage as friendship is this book’s strength, but also, at times, its weakness. There’s excellent advice on choosing a spouse—close friendship trumps romantic attraction—but the emphasis on the ‘secret thread’ or ‘mythos’ shared by true friends risks creating a new kind of ‘compatibility’ and discontentment in marriage.9 Yet this is more than balanced out by Keller’s realistic, biblical portrait of marriage as a covenant between two sinners, characterized by self-giving, truth-speaking, grace-fuelled love, even when you feel like you are loving a stranger.

Reading Keller is like reading the best of novels: you get caught up in the words while receiving rich food for the soul. Chapter after chapter covers useful ground: the first engages with our culture’s self-defeating romantic idealism; the second reminds us that only the gospel empowers love; and the third focuses on marriage’s heart, the faithful love that acts when it doesn’t feel yet grows through holiness into happiness. Kathy Keller’s chapter on headship and submission is a joy to read, and I appreciated her careful analysis of the difficult topics of gender and work. I was intrigued by the idea that marriage reflects the “dance of the Trinity” with its mutual self-giving love, and inspired by the way both husbands and wives are encouraged to take on the ‘Jesus role’ in marriage (Eph 5:21-33 cf. 1 Cor 11:3; Phil 2:1-11; 1 Pet 2:21-3:7).

I can see myself recommending this book again and again. It’s a gift to pastors and counselors, and single people will value its practical advice on dating and choosing a spouse. It will help engaged couples to lay a firm foundation for marriage, and married couples to build a strong relationship of mutual love. But to keep marriage from becoming insular, I’d suggest another book to be read in tandem with Keller’s.

I'll tell you about Christopher Ash's book next week, or you can read about it in my full article at The Briefing.

1. Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2011, pp. 110, 116-117, 120.
2. ibid., pp. 15-16.
3. bid., pp.124-126 cf. 112-114.

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