My cousin got married for the first time when she was in her 40s. She refused the usual pastoral marriage counseling because she was convinced that after looking for so many years, she’d finally found the right one and they didn’t need it. I remembered her position later in my life when I, too, became convinced I already knew all about marriage from hearing sermons and watching the solid marriages of my parents and four older siblings. Besides that, I’d found the one who truly loved me and understood me. There was no need for counsel. Neither my cousin’s marriage nor mine lasted.
I’ve learned that premarital counseling is something all Christian couples should seek. As Proverbs 15:22 says, “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” Before and during marriage, receiving counsel from Christian sources is wise. Such good sources like pastors who are often trained to counsel, are not only found within our congregations, but in many other places as well. Even in books. The resource I draw from for this blog is one example—Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God.
One should never assume that their love is enough to withstand all situations or that they, on their own, are able to work through any problems that arise. Often, we marry without much deep consideration, feeling at the moment that we communicate well and agree with one another at multiple levels. In our culture, we may even live with our future spouses for short or long periods before marriage. So we think we know everything we need to know.
I like Keller’s opening statement regarding this sort of thinking. “While marriage is many things, it is anything but sentimental. Marriage is glorious but hard. It’s a burning joy and strength, and yet it is also blood, sweat, and tears, humbling defeats and exhausting victories. No marriage I know more than a few weeks old could be described as a fairy tale come true.” That assessment agrees with the statistics I shared in my last blog. (https://www.livingletters.life/blog/post/john-and-mary-ellen-bingman-a-love-story)
Keller suggests that many of us have totally unrealistic expectations as we look for a marriage partner. There are no perfect spouses but yet we often think we’ve found perfection. More often we may think we are the perfect partner. We have been encouraged to look for physical characteristics before we get to know the person. Each of us has preconceived ideas of what we want from the other person and spend little time thinking what we will give to them. We search for compatibility and someone who we think will complete us—even make us whole. By these standards it is unlikely that anyone ever finds a true soulmate. Keller points out that such views are not biblical and leads readers into a discussion about the word marriage in the Bible. “The problem is not with marriage itself. According to Genesis 1 and 2, we were made for marriage, and marriage was made for us. Genesis 3 tells us that marriage, along with every other aspect of human life, has been broken because of sin.”
We need to remember that God Himself designed marriage, saying of it as well as everything else he created, that it was good (Genesis 2:18). “A man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh (Genesis 1:24). Paul quotes this verse in his letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, v. 32, and then draws a parallel from this to Christ and the church. In other words, the gospel. God created marriage to show us His love for His people, naming Jesus as the groom and the church as the bride. Marriage reflects the gospel.
Keller defines the gospel this way, “We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope. This is the only kind of relationship that will really transform us. Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God’s saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God’s mercy and grace.”
Therein lies the pattern for marriage. All that God has been to us—that’s how we need to live toward our spouse. All the while abiding more and more deeply in our relationship with Christ. Keller has titled the second chapter “The Power for Marriage,” citing Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Keller points out that just prior to this verse, Paul has been addressing what characteristics mark a Christian, in verse 18 writing: “Be filled with the Spirit.”
Keller elaborates on all that being filled with the Spirit entails, “a loss of pride and self-will that leads a person to humbly serve others. From this Spirit-empowered submission of verse 21, Paul moves to the duties of wives and husbands.” The empowerment in marriage or in any facet of our lives comes as we adhere to the Holy Spirit, emptying our hearts of self and filling the vacant space with His Spirit.
Later Keller writes, “So only if you have the ministry of the Spirit in your life will you be fully furnished to face the challenges of marriage in general. And only if you are filled with the Spirit will you have all you need to perform the duty of serving your spouse in particular.”
Self-centeredness is probably the thing that trips a marriage up most often. It is hard to not want our own way, to not think we are right and the other person wrong, to not find fault and to not criticize, judging the other by our standards alone. Yet, 1 Corinthians 13:4-5, which is so often read at weddings, speaks directly against this way of thinking. “Love is patient and kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”
Another aspect of marriage is learning to live with the baggage we carry into our relationships. Whether we want to believe it or not, we all have it. As we submit to the Holy Spirit, He works within us to point these out and leads us to repentance and spiritual growth. In marriage, we must work together, encouraging one another to stay the course by centering ourselves on God first and foremost and leading one another to a healing place, safe from past wounds and their effects.
Sometimes bad memories from the past continue to haunt us and instead of seeking help, we become self-absorbed, closing ourselves off and finding ways to defend ourselves in doing so. Keller points out that in these situations, we often blame our spouse for not understanding us. “The woundedness makes us minimize our own selfishness. And that’s the point at which many married couples arrive after a relatively brief period of time.”
Keller believes that a marriage can begin to heal if only one partner takes positive action to rid themselves of self-centeredness. Of course, the prospects are great if both spouses take that action, but even just one partner deciding to work on their selfishness starts a sort of redemption in the relationship. “Usually there is not much immediate response from the other side. But often, over time, your attitude and behavior will begin to soften your partner. He or she can see the pains you are taking. And it will be easier for your spouse to admit his or her faults because you are no longer always talking about them yourself.”
Marriage is a covenant and the essence of marriage is in keeping that covenant. Keller says a covenant “creates a particular kind of bond that is disappearing in our society. It is a relationship far more intimate and personal than a merely legal, business relationship. Yet at the same time, it is far more durable, binding and unconditional than one based on mere feeling and affection. A covenant relationship is a stunning blend of law and love.” We see this in scripture in every covenant God makes with His people, the most recent being the New Covenant according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The covenant of marriage, if acted on in love, will produce feelings of love. Not the other way around. “Actions of love lead to feelings of love,” Keller writes. Spouses will be called on to keep that covenant again and again rather than forsaking it. In a Christian, covenant-keeping marriage, we are cultivating a growing bond of friendship. Friendship in marriage will mean the two partners are “helping each other on their journey toward the new creation, as well as doing ministry together in the world.” This is done through “spiritual transparency,” confessing their sins to one another and lovingly pointing out the other’s sin if they are not aware of it. “Spiritual constancy” is another way of keeping the marriage covenant, always bearing one another’s burdens, sharing the good and bad times, building each other up in the faith, serving one another.
Keller then speaks about the importance of grace in a relationship, grace that invites reconciliation. “Truth without love ruins the oneness, and love without truth gives the illusion of unity but actually stops the journey and the growth. The solution is grace. The experience of recognizing and receiving Jesus’s grace makes it possible for us to practice the two most important skills in marriage: forgiveness and repentance. Only if we are very good at forgiving and very good at repenting can truth and love be kept together.”
Finally, Keller explains what he describes as “the ultimate power. Marriage has unique power to show us the truth of who we really are. Marriage has unique power to redeem our past and heal our self-image through love. And marriage has unique power to show us the grace of what God did for us in Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 5, Paul tells us that Jesus laid down his life for us, forgiving us at great cost to make us something beautiful. And because he has done it for us, we can do the same for others.”
Although I have presented only a brief outline of what Keller discusses in his book, Keller shares many stories to illustrate the points he makes, as well as going into much better explanations than what I can share with you. I feel confident in saying, here is a book that should be read by anyone considering marriage and anyone in a marriage. There is much to be gained by practically applying the truth it teaches.