The Meaning of Marriage
In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller pops the bubble on the happily ever after notion. By breaking down the initial thought process that modern society has about finding their “soul mate” in a world full of idealists. Once that has been established he provides the actual biblical intention for marriage using biblical scripture. Keller’s primary focus comes from Paul the author of Ephesians, chapter 5 verses 18 to 33. In this review, I will concentrate on verses 5:22 and 25, which I believe are the core of the book.
Initially, Keller chronicles the meanings of marriage throughout the centuries and its various purposes including wealth, social stature, control, and servitude. All the while pointing out that the definition of marriage over the course of time is wrong. Driving the point that, no one ever truly knew or knows the actual function of marriage unless they know Christ.
Keller moves on to what he says is the major downfall of a marriage. He states that “Marriage used to be about us, but now it’s about me” (22), rightfully calling it the “Me-Marriage” (28). The “Me-Marriage” as described by Keller is “two well-adjusted, happy, individuals with very little emotional neediness (28). When he speaks about the “Me-Marriage,” he is speaking of our pre-marriage life and post-marriage expectations for ourselves. The ultimate goal in our culture is living our lives as owners, sole proprietors, and controllers of our destiny.
Not so Pretty
As a culture, we have redefined the “meaning” and “purpose” of life making it about our individual pursuit of happiness. Keller characterizes it as “life came to be seen as the fruit of the freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfill him or her personally” (21). Driving the point that we have become hyper-focused on being individuals at all time. Including in our families, friendships, and employment. Then we transplant that same principle to our marriages expecting the so-called “Happily Ever After” effect. Doing this we unwittingly directly endanger the marriage and followed by divorce. Thus, when marriage was once an absolute in life, it has now become a constraint on individualism.
We see examples of this individuality directed at us all the time, on television, movies, magazines and social media. For example, in Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward, as a prostitute wanted to be an individual shouting with conviction at Richard “You don’t own me, I chose who, I chose when I chose who!” (see clip here). After the obvious is pointed out to her that she indeed came at a price, was bought, and owned by men consequently unable to choose her destiny. ( I love this movie)
We allow these portrayals to become our truths and identity. Continuing to seek it after we have become a husband and wife. Even when it is clear that our freedom and happiness was not free, it came at a price that humanity did not pay.
So, what is the Keller’s solution? Good Question!
In one word SUBMISSION!
WHAT did you say?! I know, and it is not uncommon to develop a bad taste when we read the word submit. Historically many bible scriptures similar to Ephesians was used to belittle women by treating them as servants to the men. On the other hand, men might be thinking that submission is not a strong masculine quality. As such, Keller acknowledges that when people read the word submissive, the reader will think “this is a radical, even distasteful” idea of marriage (51). If you are like me when you first read the word and think of being submissive, you think of Mad Men. (love by the way)
Thankfully he explains that the Mad Men mentality was also an incorrect portrayal of marriage. When he speaks of marriage before the feminist movement, he is clear that though there was less divorce amongst the population. It was not because marriage was, in fact, happy but because it was not the norm to divorce your spouse. Interestingly he hypothesizes that because divorce was not an attractive option, couples had time to foster and eventually adopt the “US” marriage principle. Ultimately having a fruitful, happy marriage that lasted until death Do them part!
Even though Paul states in Ephesians “…wives should, submit to their husbands in everything” (5:24). Keller explains that submission is an extension of love. Telling us to stop thinking “I will be happy with my husband if he would just ________.” When we are giving of ourselves(submitting) with our time, it is an act of Love towards our husband. That honors both our marriage and God. Keller advises we must be Giving(submitting) ourselves first to God. As He is essential to the life of our marriage. Subsequently, the unity we share with the Holy Trinity will give us the strength to then give(submit) ourselves to our husbands.
This act of love will enrich our marriage and believe it or not empower us as women. Keller makes it clear that it is not objectifying nor is it to be used as manipulation by your spouse. Additionally, he provides examples in his marriage to Kathy to show a more attainable view of a wife’s submission. Making me feel like I wanted my husband home so I could apply them to him and our marriage.
But wait what about the Husband (Men)?
Well, ladies it also says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). That is also a very bold and powerful statement. (Think about it!) Biblically Christ died voluntarily for humanity(church) to free us from sin, he also served His people(church) all for a relationship of unity with humanity. Keller uses the biblical demonstration of Jesus on his knees washing the disciple’s feet in John 13:1-7. Painting in our minds a convincing portrait of submission by someone who is presumed to be a KING. A man of honor and dignity giving(submitting) himself out of love. I don’t know about you but when I read that I saw my husband in a new light.
Instantly, I no longer saw gender roles or husband and wife; I saw marriage as a single living breathing unit. The minute Keller illustrated how both the man and the woman must submit to each other. I no longer saw the ugliness in the word submissive it transformed something ugly into something amazingly beautiful.
In addition to individuality, Keller makes other arguments toward the demise of a marriage. One is the need for our spouse to be our saviors! Not seeing marriage as ” two flawed people” that are supposed to come “together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation” (30). Rather believing that the other person will resolve all there problems and fill the void in their heart that their past left. Then realizing rather quickly that their other half is just as broken and screwed up, rendering the marriage a failure.
Other arguments are brought up by Keller. He does go on to speak about sex in a marriage and the consequences of sex before marriage he also dedicates a chapter to people who are single. His wife Kathy Keller make an appearance when she discusses the “gender roles” which is all in one chapter. But in the end, the book just continually emphasize the destructive nature of individuality in a marriage.
My personal takeaway is clear and simple. That we must love and serve our spouses so passionately that it glorifies not only your spouses but God. That we all should re-examine the way we seek freedom and independence in our lives and specifically in our marriage. Above all make God the foundation of our marriage, so it may grow the roots and become fruitful. (You can read my thoughts about that here) But before God can grow and bless your marriage you MUST accept Jesus as your Lord and savior. Submitting yourself to God’s will upon your life. In turn, He will build you up and strengthen you so then you may submit to your spouse.
In the end, I found that The Meaning of Marriage is a book well suited for an engaged couple or a single still dating. As for a marriage on the rocks, it could be more of a starting point than a lifeline. What if you’re already started working on your marriage? Then it can be a reinforcer or an extra tool in your arsenal. Overall, the book could help you, and anyone really, be a better person overall. After all, God commands us to LOVE all people.