The Marriage Book Every Single Person Should Read

Today I’m posting quotes from a marriage book I read and giving opinions about them.

Try not to be shocked that we at Shasta’s Fog have been looking for the perfect book on marriage for a long time. As a Christian who happens to be single, I think it’s important for me to get my theology straight regarding marriage. (Conversely, it would be good for married people in the church to thoughtfully produce a theology on singleness.) However, I find that so much of the literature that’s on the Christian book market related to sexuality, gender roles, and marriage seems to have been written for (and by) people who’ve been married for at least 10 years. These books are full of prescriptive stereotypes (that writers claim to be Scriptural, yet are weak exegetically) and unhelpful advice (regarding gender roles) that is really only applicable in marriage.

So when I found a marriage book written by a New York City pastor whose congregation happens to be 80% single, I giggled with glee, expecting relevancy. (Finally!) Tim Keller, in his introduction, calls it first, “A Book for Married People,” second, “A Book for Unmarried People,” and third, “A Book about the Bible,” writing that the book’s primary goal is “to give both married and unmarried people a vision for what marriage is according to the Bible.” That is the book I was looking for.

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(I’ll comment here to say that at different times in my life I would have been more or less ready to read a book about marriage. In other words, I have several single friends who are refusing to read this book along with me, and I totally get why.) For the rest of you who are only a little bit curious, you might pick up a copy.

Benefits of Marriage

You can expect that a pastor whose congregation is 80% single has two tasks in this type of book: (1) talk about the goodness of marriage, and (2) be honest about the hard work it entails. For example, a striking benefit of marriage that singles must wrestle with is the accountability it offers: “Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline that friends or family members can. Just to give one example, single people can spend money unwisely and self-indulgently without anyone to hold them accountable” (17). Finances aside, Keller and his wife Kathy spend much of the rest of the book describing how spiritual accountability is the great benefit, or one of the purposes, of marriage. Singles, then, must decide how to actively seek accountability if it is not “built in” to their homes.

The Cultural Climate of Marriage

In the first chapter, the Kellers describe how society’s view of marriage has changed historically, and they hit the nail on the cultural head, in regards to the current vision of marriage being a self-focused (or self-helpful) means of “finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization” in contrast to the historical notion of “finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family” (21). (Because how fun does that sound?)

The studies they cite for self-defined compatibility are laugh-out-loud accurate in their unrealistic idealism, for both genders. Sexual attractiveness aside, men reported that compatibility meant “someone who showed a ‘willingness to take them as they are and not change them’” (24). Women, too, seem to want the best of both worlds: “Both men and women want a marriage in which they can receive emotional and sexual satisfaction from someone who will simply let them ‘be themselves.’ They want a spouse who is fun, intellectually stimulating, sexually attractive, with many common interests, and who, on top of it all, is supportive of their personal goals and of the way they are living now” (26). A little idealistic, don’t you think? But single and married readers alike, recognize that irony. If not, the Kellers drive it home: “You are looking for someone who will not require or demand significant change. You are searching, therefore, for an ideal person—happy, healthy, interesting, content with life. Never before in history has there been a society filled with people so idealistic in what they are seeking in a spouse” (27).

The Kellers recognize that not all millennials are selfish hogs, though—there are some who recognize very much the *cost* of marriage and are terrified of intimacy. To these afraid of losing their freedom, C.S. Lewis is quoted: “If you want to make sure of keeping [your heart] intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” (Are you getting the picture? This book is thought-provoking!)

The Purpose of Marriage

True to his word that the book is a book about the Bible, Keller takes very great pains to be sure that readers know what marriage is: a bumbling metaphor for Christ, and us. The same outworking of the gospel message is what’s expected for the marriage relationship. The gospel gives us this knowledge: “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” (44). Keller then explains in detail how this type of self-knowledge is reflected in marriage, and he does so in very practical and helpful ways. (Okay, I did skip a chapter in there, but not the one where he waxes philosophical about reconciling romance with the drudgery of marriage by quoting Kierkegaard.)

Marriage is Friendship

Speaking of practical, one clear emphasis of the book is that a person’s marriage partner should be their best friend. A lot of people marry someone because they are attractive, or because they are financially stable. The Kellers emphasize that those two qualities are extremely unstable, but finding a partner with whom you can enjoy life is a wiser choice. There’s actually a whole chapter devoted to Biblical friendship! (So helpful. I mean, who’s good at making [and keeping] friends these days?) A clear message about Biblical friendship is that, in part, it should sanctify you. Good friends ought to sharpen each other, pointing out the flaws, if necessary. (Oops, sorry, I guess we do have to change.) So while some see the point of marriage as happiness, God sees the point of marriage (and friendship) as holiness. Again, our society reacts to this because “holiness” does not sound fun or sexy. So the Kellers leave us with a solemn reminder from C.S. Lewis for good measure: “He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. (1) To be God, (2) to be like God and to share his goodness in creaturely response, (3) to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe can grow—then we must starve eternally.” Either have superficial friendships and miss out on the real joy of life, or go deep and find the good earth.

Gender Roles

Probably the book’s greatest success is that the definition of gender roles is reduced to a single paragraph.

MIC DROP.

Notice: in this book, it is argued that the gospel is the starting point which helps us know how to be male and female. The book does not start with grandiose definitions of gender, spend pages and pages citing anecdotal evidence for these flimsy definitions, wallow in Timothy for a while, encourage women to sell Plexus, and then plop Jesus at the end. Instead, marriage is defined through the whole of Scripture, and the Trinity is used to explain a bit how gender roles might work. (In marriage alone, though).

Here are quotes for you to argue with your friends about:

“The family model in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed home with the children is really a rather recent development. For centuries, husband and wife (and often children) worked together on the farm or in the shop” (208).

“Christians cannot make a scriptural case for masculine and feminine stereotypes” (210).

“While the principle is clear—that the husband is to be the servant-leader and have ultimate responsibility and authority in the family—the Bible gives almost no details about how that is expressed in concrete behavior” (209).

(It’s almost as if Kathy Keller has heard of Midwestern evangelicalism and winks, “I see you.”)

Singleness and Marriage

I skipped ahead to the chapter on singleness. What’s noticeable is the Kellers’ recognition of Apostle Paul’s ambivalence regarding marital status. In other words, “both being married and not being married are good conditions to be in.” Literally nobody believes that. But here’s a message for the church, married and singles alike: “We should be neither overly elated by getting married nor overly disappointed by not being so—because Christ is the only spouse that can truly fulfill us and God’s family and the only family that will truly embrace and satisfy us” (222). We are reminded how it is possible to have this perspective through the gospel. Also, it is the gospel that creates communities of believers, the church, which become family for all Christians. (Again, I’m certain that many churches have a very long way to go, to develop this culture that is nevertheless Scriptural.)

Last summer I blogged about gender roles, and I wrote about a quote that I had never before seen in print. This summer I found another one, in the singleness chapter, borrowed from Paige Benton Brown’s article “Singled Out by God for Good.”

Here goes.

“I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me.”

I’ve been thinking about this for days.

At first when I read the quote I got excited because I think it silences a pity party that’s easy to have. Then, the silenced pity party made me extremely zealous for singles to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and become busybodies for the sake of the kingdom. In fact, I found myself scribbling this in a notebook:

“Can we stop idolizing marriage, and can we start privileging singleness? Singles, this is on us. Do we take ourselves seriously? When is the last time we asked how our singleness can help us better serve the Lord? I contend that few singles view their relationship status as an out-flowing of the goodness of God for the sake of effective kingdom work, even though Scripture would allow us to make that claim. I wish singles could know that they are loved, highly valuable individuals in the kingdom of God, pregnant with kinetic potential. I wish singles didn’t view their status as a prison sentence.”

But then I read Brown’s full article, and I paused when I realized she disagreed with my hasty leaps:

“Warped theology is at the heart of attempts to ‘explain’ singleness… ‘As a single you can commit yourself wholeheartedly to the Lord’s work’–as though God requires emotional martyrs to do his work, of which marriage must be no part… Accepting singleness, whether temporary or permanent, does not hinge on speculation about answers God has not given to our list of whys, but rather on celebration of the life he has given. I am not single because I am too spiritually unstable to possibly deserve a husband, nor because I am too spiritually mature to possibly need one. I am single because God is so abundantly good to me, because this is his best for me. It is a cosmic impossibility that anything could be better for me right now than being single. The psalmists confirm that I should not want, I shall not want, because no good thing will God withhold from me.”

I invite your reflections in the comments. Meanwhile, I’m welcoming the exchange of self-important busyness for calm rest in the goodness of God.

Now, go read The Meaning of Marriage.

(Also, here is the link to Brown’s full article. If you are single, I caution you—her top-notch sarcasm may leave some of you bleeding. Otherwise, a delightfully refreshing read.)