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.)

 

Frieda People’s Love Yourself Challenge

Literally dying right now.

Remember back in 2016 when people were posting adorable couples’ photos on facebook every day for 7 days for the “Love Your Spouse Challenge”? And when silly vacation selfies were suddenly supposed to represent the sacredness of the institution of marriage?

Don’t get me wrong, I think those posts are as darling as you do.

But Frieda over at @frieda.people has reworked the challenge into the singles-friendly version.

Calls it the “Love Yourself Challenge.”

You’re supposed to share 7 days’ worth of photos and memories of the best moments of being single, using the hashtag #LoveYourselfChallenge. Because, as she says, “Singleness is extra special, so let’s celebrate it!” (But I think she may be taking her cues from some of our married friends.)

I’m howling.

(Be sure to read the hashtags.)

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FP1

FP2

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and then these hashtags…

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FP5

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Frieda, let’s be frieeeeends!
Please teach me thy Instagrammy ways.

#sarcasm
#irony
#laughter
#relatable

Happy Valentines Day, everyone!
#lol
#iseeyou

The Idol of Marriage

Guys, staaaaaap.
Why is everyone so curious what I, the outspoken blogger, thinks about marriage?

“Stats are booming!”

You wackos.

(But thanks. I feel the love!)

In my last post, I gave my exact thoughts about the topic of dating and marriage. In that post I shared mostly what was on my heart. I have, however, decided to throw caution into the wind (due to reader disappointment) and share a few thoughts. (This post has been percolating.)

Here are a few thoughts I have on the subject of marriage, some of which I may or may not have shared in my Practical Christian Living class.

In my opinion, marriage is an idol. Marriage, its place, and its importance have grown far too large in our minds due to our misunderstanding of what marriage actually means. And further, idolizing marriage leads to ineffective Christian witness both inside and outside the church.

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  1. First, a lot of people are confused about what marriage means.

Marriage is a metaphor created by God to represent the future union of God Himself to His pure, beautiful church.

The first “thing” is God and His church, not the other way around. Human marriage is not the “thing.” God one day receiving His pure, beautiful church—THAT is the thing. Marriage is temporary. The church is eternal.

Jesus Himself said, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry, nor be given in marriage, they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). (You know you won’t be married in heaven, right?)

Paul reminds us that marriage is not the ultimate goal by a strange inversion at the end of his comments on marriage in his letter to the Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (5:25-32).

Just when we think Paul won’t end his moral rampage about husbands, he flips the argument on its side, indicating he’s actually been talking about God and the church the whole time.  (This is not to say that husbands ought to be rude to their wives. Paul’s instructions regarding Christian love still stand.)

Paul’s inversion reminds us that we do not look at marriage and say, “Oh, this is kind of like God and the church.” No, we look at God and His church and say, “This mystery, so amazing, is reflected to me by the human institution of marriage.”

Let us not have such an earthly perspective that we do not see marriage as temporary or that we do not see the church as eternal.

  1. Second, the idolatry of marriage is evident within the church.

It seems like we in the church place great importance on marriage, sometimes at the expense of Kingdom work!

Why is it that many Christian young people find themselves secretly praying, “Jesus, don’t come back until I get married”? (Which is really the subliminal “Jesus, don’t come back until I have sex.”) (And honestly, this is a very common prayer, according to youth!)

Strange isn’t it, that we prefer getting our jollies over the return of our great Lord?

What is it about this marriage relationship or this intimacy that is of utter importance that we cannot imagine getting to the end of our lives without it?

(And married people can’t imagine it. Grown men who are happily married get very uncomfortable by the idea of being celibate for the rest of their lives.) (Though I can’t imagine why. We single people have been doing it for years.)

So where do we get this idea that ultimate satisfaction comes from a romantic relationship (or a marriage relationship)? Is it coming from the church? If so, why?

Or, perhaps, have we bought into the secular message that sexual expression = worth?

Strangely, we in the church forget that our ultimate goal is contributing to God’s kingdom on earth and living in relationship with His people. Building God’s kingdom through the church is the Gospel message, after all.

When people don’t recognize that marriage is a metaphor for something greater, and that marriage itself is not eternal, it can become an idol after which many people seek. People desperately browse the marriage market, follow and like their next new crush, safely marry, and then obsess over all their unmarried friends, attempting to lead them into “Christian bliss,” or marriage, the obvious path to spiritual maturity.

There are people (married or not) who cannot imagine a person living on one’s own (especially a woman living on her own). They cannot imagine “not being known,” as it were, emotionally and physically. They cannot imagine laying down their idol of marriage and instead fully devoting themselves to Kingdom work.

(We know after all, that that’s the whole point of singleness. Paul says in I Corinthians 7:28, 32-35: “But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this… I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Paul so clearly outlines the purpose of single living. (Did you hear that singles? We are just SO MUCH MORE SPIRITUAL than everyone. The Bible says so.)

And a side note, perhaps this is what I am saying to you, O gentle reader, who does not wish to be mimic Immoral Married Monica. Help us change the conversation about single people. Instead of the inevitable, “Are you dating?” “Why are you single?” “So have you found anyone yet?” I beg you to instead ask, “Tell me about your Kingdom work.” I know so many single people who have so much to say about how they are influencing the Kingdom of God… either immediate work, or dreams and goals. Can we not talk about these eternal things? Do we have to talk about your second cousin in Goshen who still single and what you would describe as “decent”?

There is a lot to be said about how the idol of marriage appears in church when it comes to preferring marriage to just about ANY other identity, but I’m running out of time, so let’s move on.

  1. This idolatry also creates problems for the church’s witness regarding relevant social issues.

Bellering about marriage convinces young people that they CAN get their jollies in the church, just find a right nice young fella and settle down. However, this does not take care of the problem of people idolizing marriage and refusing to find their identity in Christ alone and refusing to find meaning in Kingdom work. I do not need to explain to you how this could be problematic.

Christians, then, finding their worth in their marriage relationship, or in their partner, haven’t got much to say regarding the sexual revolution in which we find ourselves. You know we’re in a new sexual revolution, right?

How can Christians who find their identity in their partner have anything valuable to say to lonely divorcees? How can Christians who find their identity in being married have anything important to say to single adults, young or old? How can Christians who find their identity in something other than Christ alone have anything to say to homosexuals? How can Christians who find their identity in their partner, and not Christ, have anything to say at all about the fornicating teen who wants to get an abortion due to the consequences of her behavior? (We Christians love to condemn the sin of abortion without ever (or, okay, rarely) thinking about what sin, and what belief about identity, that sin proceeds from.)

It is my personal opinion that sexual the climate in which we find ourselves is in part due to the Church’s improper view of marriage. Perhaps marriage became too important. (In the 50s, maybe?) Then the Church failed to get something across in the 60s, and in the 70s, leading to even more sexual freedom, which led to boredom, which led to sexual experimentation, which led to still more boredom.

That boredom is today’s sexual climate. After all, virginity is on the rise.

Relevant magazine recently pointed this out in an article called “Why Aren’t Millennials Having Sex Anymore?” The article states, “Nearly 40 percent of college students claim they’ve never had sex. Only five years ago, as the Esquire editorial notes, a 25-year, ‘exhaustive’ study called ‘Sex Lives of College Students: A Quarter Century of Attitudes and Behaviors,’ found that college students who say they’re virgins made up only 13 percent. If both numbers hold up, that’s a startling, 27 percent jump in a really short time span. As counterintuitive as this may seem, it’s not totally new information. Earlier this year, data from Match.com—yes, Match.com publishes studies—indicated that one in three of all twentysomethings, not only those in college, are still virgins.”

And we ask, so why HAVE kids stopped having sex? What have they stopped believing, and how does it relate to the church? If sex is not the thing, then WHAT IS? Millennials are asking this question, and we better have an answer.

Back to the issue at hand: if we look to marriage or to sexual expression for our ultimate satisfaction, we will miss our ultimate meaning.

Allow me to quote from Christopher Yuan from his book Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope. In this book, Yuan hints at those ultimate identity markers which those of us in Christianity are offered:

“God says, ‘Be holy, for I am holy… God never said, ‘Be heterosexual, for I am heterosexual’…

Holy sexuality means one of two scenarios. The first scenario is marriage. If a man is married, he must devote himself to complete faithfulness to his wife. And if a woman is married, she must devote herself to complete faithfulness to her husband. The idea that I might marry a woman seemed like an impossibility—though God could do the impossible. But the truth was, I did not need to be attracted to women in general to get married; I needed to be attracted to only one woman. Heterosexuality is a broad term that focuses on sexual feelings and behaviors toward the opposite gender. It includes lust, adultery, and sex before marriage—all sins according to the Bible. God calls married people to something much more specific—holy sexuality. Holy sexuality means focusing all our sexual feelings and behaviors exclusively toward one person, our spouse.

The second scenario of holy sexuality is singleness. Single people must devote themselves to complete faithfulness to the Lord through celibacy. This is clearly taught throughout Scripture, and abstinence is not something unfair or unreasonable for God to ask of his people. Singleness is not a curse. Singleness is not a burden. As heirs of the new covenant, we know that the emphasis is not on procreation but regeneration. But singleness need not be permanent. It merely means being content in our present situation while being open to marriage—and yet not consumed by the pursuit of marriage.

Holy sexuality doesn’t mean that I no longer have any sexual feelings or attractions… So the question is, if I continue to have these feelings I neither asked for nor chose, will I still be willing to follow Christ no matter what? Is my obedience to Christ dependent on whether he answered my prayers my way? God’s faithfulness is proved not by the elimination of hardships but by carrying us through them. Change is not the absence of struggles; change is the freedom to choose holiness in the midst of our struggles. I realized that the ultimate issue has to be that I yearn after God in total surrender and complete obedience.”

When we do not find our identity first before our Lord, and when we do not find our ultimate satisfaction in Kingdom work, then perhaps we have some sort of idol.

I believe this idol keeps us from regenerative work both inside the church (in our ministry to singles, homosexuals, single parents, the divorced, the elderly) and outside the church as we seek to bring meaning and true identity to all who ask.