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The Meaning of Marriage

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The Meaning of Marriage PDF

Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God

Are you single or having marriage problems? Are you, in addition to that, a Christian?

Then you should allow Timothy Keller to explain to you:

The Meaning of Marriage.

Who Should Read “The Meaning of Marriage”? And Why?

The Meaning of Marriage, as Timothy Keller reveals in the “Introduction,” is a book for married and unmarried people, but also a book about the Bible. 

Since, as he says further on, “the foundation of it all is the Bible,” the book is primarily aimed at Christians, be they single, married, or divorced. In fact, it explicitly excludes members of the LGBT+ community by the very definition of marriage it proposes in the “Introduction.” So, read it if you think that marriage is (also) about God; don’t—if you think otherwise. 

The Meaning of Marriage should also appeal to more religious fans of John Gottman and his two most famous books: The Seven Principle for Making Marriages Work and Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.

About Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller is an American Christian pastor, apologist, and theologian.

The founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, Keller is most famous as the author of several best-selling books, most notably The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism and The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith.

Quite Appropriately, Keller has written The Meaning of Marriage with the help of his wife, Kathy Keller.

Find out more at https://timothykeller.com/ 

Book Summary

Based “on a straightforward reading of Biblical texts,” The Meaning of Marriage examines “the Christian understanding of marriage.” 

The misconceptions in how modern-day culture perceives love will have you think that the most important part of your life is to find a soulmate and have you believe that romance is at the very center of that pursuit.

In truth, marriage is not a Disney fairy tale, and being happily married doesn’t essentially mean not experiencing hardships and strains in the relationship, but being able to overcome them together.

Meaning—whenever we mention the word “marriage” below, we’ll be talking about, in the words of the author, “a lifelong, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman.” 

Keller explains his definition further, thus:

According to the Bible, God devised marriage to reflect his saving love for us in Christ, to refine our character, to create stable human community for the birth and nurture of children, and to accomplish all this by bringing the complementary sexes into an enduring whole-life union. It needs to be said, therefore, that this Christian vision for marriage is not something that can be realized by two people of the same sex. That is the unanimous view of the Biblical authors, and therefore that is the view that we assume throughout the rest of this book, even though we don’t directly address the subject of homosexuality.

The substance of The Meaning of Marriage draws on St. Paul’s thoughts on marriage expressed in Ephesians 5:18-33, and, in fact, each (but one) of its eight chapters begin with a quote taken from this passage, quoted in full as an epigraph to the book.

Everything else, as you’ll see in our summary, is basically a commentary on St. Paul.

One: The Secret of Marriage

The epigraph to Chapter 1, “The Secret of Marriage” is Ephesians 5:31-32: “A man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery…”

Keller tries to explain away this mystery as the miracle of “two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation—a haven in a heartless world.” It is a difficult task, and, unfortunately, it has been made even more difficult by modern understandings of marriage.

The evidence abounds: today, there are twice as many divorces as in 1960; only two-thirds of all births today are to married parents, and only 1 in 10 children were born to unmarried parents just half a century ago. Finally, and most tellingly, over 72% of American adults were married in 1960, but only 50% were in 2008.

The reason?

Well, the unfortunate movement from “we” to “me.” “Marriage used to be a public institution for the common good,” writes Keller, “and now it is a private arrangement for the satisfaction of the individuals. Marriage used to be about us, but now it is about me.”

Ironically, it is this newfound freedom in marriage (David Brooks would say “radical individualization”) that has made spouses a little less free than before and much unhappier. 

Nowadays, you can marry everyone you want, and because of Disney and Hollywood, you expect to find “the perfectly compatible person.” It’s either that or nothing. The problem is that “perfect” doesn’t exist, so many are left with nothing, “desperately trapped between both unrealistic longings for and terrible fears about marriage.”

Don’t believe Keller?

Here’s a curious stat: two-thirds of unhappy marriages should become happy within half a decade if people opt to stay married over getting divorced!

Two: The Power of Marriage

Chapter 2 is preceded by Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Here Keller presents Paul’s thesis that “all married partners need the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.” 


It is only through the work of the Spirit that we can fight against the main enemy of marriage: self-centeredness!

This is where Keller’s attack on the new notion of marriage—a union where two people can be as free as when single—really comes to the surface.

That, he says, is simply impossible!

When you decide on a career—be it a career in medicine, law, or the arts—the thing everybody asks you to do so that you can succeed is surrender. You don’t become a writer without making a few sacrifices and dedicating your free time to writing, do you? And you don’t become a successful lawyer by simultaneously studying for a doctor’s degree, right? Well, why should marriage be any different?

“Whether we are husband or wife,” writes Keller, “we are not to live for ourselves but for the other.  And that is the hardest, yet single most important function of being a husband or a wife in marriage.”

Keller says that in a union—any kind of union—you have three possibilities (and three possibilities only): you can serve with joy, you can make an offer to serve with resentment or coldness, or you can selfishly insist on your own way.

Only one of these choices leads to happiness and fulfillment in marriage, and we don’t need to tell you which one.

Three: The Essence of Marriage

In the third chapter of The Meaning of Marriage (which opens with Ephesians 5:31), Keller gets the reader “into the heart of what marriage is all about—namely, love.”

Of course, the question he tries to give an answer to here is one of the oldest ones in the book: what, in God’s name, is love actually? 

Contrary to what you think, love is not just another name for the butterflies in your stomach when you meet the one you think is the one.

“When you first fall in love,” reminds us Keller, “you think you love the person, but you don’t really. You can’t know who the person is right away. That takes years. You actually love your idea of the person—and that is always, at first, one-dimensional and somewhat mistaken.”

The real love comes after this when you actually get to meet the person you’ve fallen in love with. In fact, argues Keller, love is almost never what happens in the present: it is what gives validity to the promises for the future.

He writes:

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw us.

True love is not just horizontal—it is vertical as well. When a covenant is made before God, God is also a part of the marriage. And when He is there, every broken promise is paid doubly.

Four: The Mission of Marriage

Now, you might ask, why would one need a “horizontal” relationship with somebody from the opposite sex if he can connect on a “vertical” level, and bask joyfully in the eternal love of God?

First of all, think of it (of course, only metaphorically if you’re religious) as a sort of design flaw: Adam lived in the Garden of Eden and had the privilege of conversing with God Himself, and yet, he felt alone and needed an Eve to be complete.

Ever since every one of us feels pretty much the same. To paraphrase Black, “We need a friend, oh, we need a friend—to make us happy, not stand here on our own…” Our spouse should, in (Christian) theory, be our best friend.

And that means much more than you think. Namely, it doesn’t merely mean having someone around you to understand you, but also having someone able to “see your flaws, imperfections, weaknesses, dependencies” and yet see beneath them the person you can become, “the person God wants you to be.”

Once again, love is not about the present you: it is about the future of us. And that’s the mission of marriage: transforming you into someone you can be, someone you would have never become in the absence of the Other.

Five: Loving the Stranger

Chapter five carries on with this discussion, exploring further the relationship between the present and the future in marriage, between knowledge and love.

And it starts with a telling quote from American theologian Stanley Hauerwas who argued in “Sex and Politics: Bertrand Russell and ‘Human Sexuality’” that the primary problem in marriage is “learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.”

No matter how long you’ve dated somebody before, marrying him/her means marrying a stranger—because marriage brings out many traits in both you and your partner that, up to that moment, were hidden from everybody.

And now the real fight begins!

And, interestingly enough, it is a twofold fight: you’re not only confronted with the real person that is your spouse but also with the real person that you yourself are.

But, that’s why you have each other: to see in one another the “better person” that each of you can become and to help each other on the way.

That’s why, writes Keller, “one of the most basic skills in marriage is the ability to tell the straight, unvarnished truth about what your spouse has done—and then, completely, unself-righteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority, without making the other person feel small.”

Six: Embracing the Other

Chapter 6 is written entirely by Timothy’s wife, Kathy Keller; understandably, since it addresses one of the most controversial issues in Christian marriage, formulated by St. Paul in Ephesians 5:22-3, thus: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

Kathy combines these verses with Ephesians 5:25 (“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”) to speak about a pretty controversial topic nowadays: gender differences.

Unsurprisingly, she says that there are quite a few and that these naturally result in two different functions: that of the husband, and that of the wife. It was always God’s plan to make males and females different. And it was always a part of our duties to live in tune with our designs.

As far as women are concerned, this means voluntary submission, i.e., “a gift offered… not a duty coerced.” Marriage is all about embracing Otherness, which is why homosexual marriages inhibit growth, as opposed to heterosexual ones.

“A person of one’s own sex is not as likely to have as much Otherness to embrace,” writes Kathy, “But God’s plan for married couples involves embracing the otherness to make us unified, and that can only happen between a man and a woman.”

Seven: Singleness and Marriage

OK, if the above is true as far as homosexuals are concerned, what does that say about single people? They have even less Otherness to embrace. And if the mission of marriage is to make one more than he/she already is, does that mean that single people are, by default, not as fulfilled as married people?

To tell you the truth, we don’t think the Kellers address this question properly. 

They say that, nowadays, when so many people put so much burden on marriage and have so many expectations from it, singleness results in depression and despair. They actually feel unfulfilled and unsatisfied, and even envious of other people’s happiness.

If you are a Christian, however, that doesn’t happen, since you already have “a deeply fulfilling love relationship with Christ now, and hope in a perfect love relationship with him in the future.” This may inspire you to find a spouse, but it can also help you live a fairly fulfilled life without one.

Of course, if that is so, then marriage has little meaning; and if it is not, then you cannot live on Christ’s love alone (see the summary of chapter 4 for more).

Eight: Sex and Marriage

“For this reason,” says St. Paul in Ephesians 5:31, “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 

This act of “becoming one flesh,” however, has rarely been considered as something holy. In fact, quite the contrary: sex was a “dirty deed” in the eyes of many Christian theologians and thinkers, which is why it was also seen as unholy by many governments throughout history.

Keller says that this is not supported by the Bible and that “Biblical Christianity may be the most body-positive religion in the world.”

Even more, he says, that “sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being.  Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, ‘I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.’

“You must not use sex to say anything less,” concludes Keller and makes his case for sex in marriage is the only acceptable form of sex:

The Bible says don’t unite with someone physically unless you are also willing to unite with the person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally. Don’t become physically naked and vulnerable to the other person without becoming vulnerable in every other way, because you have given up your freedom and bound yourself in marriage. Then, once you have given yourself in marriage, sex is a way of maintaining and deepening that union as the years go by.

Sex, for Keller, is both a uniting act and a covenant renewal service; and it is just as important as love. In fact, it should be understood in much the same manner: it is not something you get, but something you give.

To one and one person only.

Key Lessons from “The Meaning of Marriage”

1.      You Will Never Find a Perfect Partner
2.      Knowledge Without Love Is Dreadful; Love Without Knowledge Is Superficial
3.      Marriage Is About Serving the Other (and Serving God)

You Will Never Find a Perfect Partner

No matter how much you try, you’ll never find such a thing as a “soul mate,” i.e., “a perfectly compatible match.” 

Forget Disney and Hollywood: “happily married ever after” is a thing of fancy.

Marriage is much harder than you think; but, also, much more rewarding.

Knowledge Without Love Is Dreadful; Love Without Knowledge Is Superficial

So, finding someone perfectly compatible was never the point of marriage. 

Because, in that case, growth is inhibited. And marriage is all about growth, all about finding someone who’ll love you not for the way you are at the moment, but for what you can become in the future.

In fact, marriage is, almost always, a union between two strangers. We fall in love with the idea of a person, and that is not love—it’s just a superficial, physiologically explainable feeling. Only after really understanding someone do you know your true feelings for him/her.

That’s why, when you love somebody even after finding out most of his/her traits, you can be absolutely sure that you actually love him/her.

Marriage Is About Serving the Other 

Marriage writes Keller, “is a way for two spiritual friends to help each other on their journey to become the persons God designed them to be.”

In other words, marriage means becoming more than you are with the help of someone else. To allow this process, you need to surrender yourself to someone else.

And by surrendering, we do mean “surrendering”: marriage is not the place to look for freedom. Quite the opposite, it is the place where you find the right boundaries.

Just like religion.

This is why a Christian marriage (if we believe the Kellers) beats non-Christian marriages: once you learn to be submissive to Christ, it’s easier to learn to surrender to a fellow human being.

After all, those are the two Great commandments, aren’t they?

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“The Meaning of Marriage Quotes”

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. Click To Tweet The gospel is this: 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. Click To Tweet Friendship is a deep oneness that develops when two people, speaking the truth in love to one another, journey together to the same horizon. Click To Tweet 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. Click To Tweet Real love, the Bible says, instinctively desires permanence. Click To Tweet

Our Critical Review

Unlike many too one-sided Christian books on the subject, The Meaning of Marriage has a lot to offer and is quite rich with both insights and wisdom that should certainly help its readers, be they single or married.

However, we found it difficult to take much of it seriously since it’s often self-contradicting, and it almost never takes into consideration what should marriage mean for those who are not Christians.

So, if you are a Christian, this book justifies the title and will teach you a lot, not only about the meaning of marriage but also about the meaning of life. However, if you are not, you’ll probably find almost nothing of value on most of its pages.

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