Birth, marriage, and death. These three life events, according to Tim Keller, “temporarily free [us] from absorption in the whirl of daily life and [force us to] ask the big questions of the ages”—about life, meaning, and God.
As part of a “How to Find God” trilogy, Keller’s latest books—On Birth, On Marriage, and On Death (view all three in a boxed set)—crisply address each of these events in classic Keller fashion, showing how modern life insufficiently deals with these transitions and how the Bible provides true and satisfying answers. Whether in joy or sorrow, exhilaration or heartbreak, God is present to us in each of these events in our pilgrim journey. Whether or not you’re a Christian, these brief and accessible books are edifying reads and helpful evangelistic books to give away.
I corresponded with Keller—who also serves as TGC’s vice president—about our role in forming children, what’s wrong with the modern understanding of consensual sex (and why superconsensual is better), why some Christians are still afraid of death and dying, and more.
How can we use the occasions of birth, marriage, and death to turn our attention away from the mundane and routine toward the timeless?
I think those occasions automatically turn your attention away from the day to day and make you think “big picture”—about what you’re living for and what all of your life really means. But those moments will pass quickly. The key is to make some decisions during these moments that change your habit patterns and practices.
Many new parents become more involved in church, seeking to recapture a faith they had earlier in their lives. Many newlyweds begin practices of praying together, or getting into small groups with other married couples to discuss how to bring the gospel to bear on their relationship. And of course the death of a loved one may be a life event that most forces you to ask questions about the state of your own soul. Are you right with God? Do you have assurance of your salvation? Are you ready to die? If the answer to any of these questions is “no” or doubtful, you will have to rethink all your practices—Bible reading, prayer, meditation, church, and sacraments.
The point is to use the life-transition times to change our “habits of grace.”
If the “new birth” isn’t something we can effect—God must open spiritual eyes and ears—then why are we called to repent and believe in Jesus?
Reformed Christians believe in something often called “concurrence,” namely that God is sovereign such that everything happens according to his plan, and yet we are responsible for our choices and those decisions matter.
The classic example of this is Acts 27, in the storm-tossed ship, where Paul tells those inside that God has ordained that they will all survive—and yet that if the sailors abandon ship they will all die. God works his will out through our choices, and yet our decisions are absolutely necessary and we are fully responsible for them.
We must repent and believe and, after we do, we will see how God had been drawing us all along.
Of course that sounds like a paradox. (J. I. Packer calls it an “antinomy.”) But the alternatives are debilitating. If God is in charge so that my choices don’t matter, it leads to cynicism and fatalism. On the other hand, if my choices really could violate God’s plan for history and change everything, I’d be paralyzed by anxiety and fear.
The biblical teaching on the new birth keeps this same remarkable balance. We must repent and believe and, after we do, we will see how God had been drawing us all along.
What’s our role as parents in teaching and forming our children in a culture that often says we shouldn’t force our “values” on children or cram beliefs down their throats?
It’s impossible not to recommend our values to our children—and it’s an illusion to think you can avoid doing that. Even to say to your children, “I want you to choose and arrive at your own values” is to promote a relativistic view of truth to your children. On the other hand, it is possible to “cram” our beliefs down their throats. I know of students in super-secular private schools here in New York City who are badgered with liberal values in the most strident way and, as a result, are turning to conservative websites. If children feel their parents or teachers are too heavy-handed, there is a natural human tendency to turn away.
It’s impossible not to recommend our values to our children—and it’s an illusion to think you can avoid doing that.
Some years ago I was an advisor to a doctor of ministry project in which the researcher was studying young persons who didn’t reject but rather adopted the faith of their parents. Most of them said this: “My parents always taught me what to believe, and yet they made it clear that I could talk to them about anything and express any doubt—and they wouldn’t cram it down my throat.”
You write, “Many people have abandoned marriage idolatry only to land in the arms of deep disillusionment.” How do we avoid expecting too much or too little from marriage?
The answer to this question is classic Augustine—reorder your loves. Our problem is never that we love our spouse or children or work or any good thing too much. The problem is that we love God too little in relation to those things. If we love anything more than God we will first idolize it until it breaks our hearts—not giving us the ultimate fulfillment we seek in it—and then we may swing back and begin to demonize it.
Our problem is never that we love our spouse or children or work or any good thing too much. The problem is that we love God too little in relation to those things.
What’s right and wrong about the modern view of consent in sex? How is the Christian understanding of consent—what you label “superconsensual”—better?
Kyle Harper’s great book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard, 2016) shows that the very idea of consent in sex was introduced to the world by Christianity. In the ancient world married women could only have sex with their husbands, but married men were expected to have sex with all sorts of others. And men of high social status could simply demand sex of nearly anyone below them. When Christianity insisted that sex was only for marriage between a man and a woman, it leveled the playing field. The double standard was abolished. Sex had to be mutual even within marriage, as 1 Corinthians 7:1–4 designated, and no woman would have to have sex with anyone other than a man she’d selected to marry, a man who’d pledged his life to serve her (Eph. 5:25–27).
The modern view of sexual-consent-for-the-moment is certainly an improvement over the brutal Roman world. And yet it falls so short of the superconsensual Christian view, in which two people in marriage give their whole lives to each other along with their bodies. Arguably, women in the current sexual culture are still feeling used and exploited as they were in ancient times. The Christian sexual revolution is as relevant as ever before.
Why isn’t it okay to marry a non-Christian if he or she is a good person?
If you’re a Christian, Christ should (and will to some degree) be central to the way you make decisions, central to how your identity operates and how you see yourself and the world, and central to how your heart functions with its loves.
So if you marry a non-Christian, that means he or she will not understand the single most important thing about you. Or, put another way, he or she will not understand who you are. There will be no true intimacy. That creates an immediate crisis, and there will be only two ways for you to go.
One is you will have to try to convert your spouse, who may not at all be open to being converted. That will create tension in the marriage, because your spouse will feel that you do not understand him or her. The other, more likely scenario, is that you will have to make Christ less central and more peripheral to your daily thinking, feeling, and acting.
Both outcomes are tragic.
The old Latin phrase “memento mori” (“remember you will die”) permeated ancient culture, in large part owing to Christianity (e.g., portraits of Christians having skulls nearby to remind them of death). In our death-averse society today, how can we remind ourselves and others of the reality of death without becoming unduly morbid?
Well, the death rate today is still the same as it was in ancient times—it’s still one death per person.
Christians shouldn’t be so busy (or afraid) that they don’t sit with and attend to the needs of families with dying loved ones. We should not “delegate” dying people to medical professionals. We should surround the dying and especially their families with support. We should keep community with the dying and keep the dying in Christian community.
I would add that Christians who are immersed in God’s Word through formative practices of reading, study, and meditation will also be constantly confronted with the reality of death.
If we’re told that Christ, through his victory on the cross, delivers “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14–15), then why are some Christians still afraid of death and dying?
Charles Taylor said that secular society lives in an “immanent frame”—a world-picture that focuses exclusively on the physical, the here-and-now, the pleasures and comforts of this world and life. The transcendent realm simply isn’t real to our society. Now, the fact is that we Christians live in this culture, and so to a certain degree we inhabit that same immanent frame. The afterlife and the other, spiritual world doesn’t seem as real to us as it did to the average Christian. Death is frightening, because this life feels real, and the doctrines of heaven and the resurrection don’t.
Chronic illness, disappointment, loss of a loved one, career failure, other kinds of suffering—all of these provide opportunities to become wise.
To change that, see what I said above about formative practices and keeping community with the dying.
Psalm 90 says, “So teach us to number our days / that we may get a heart of wisdom.” How do we, by focusing on the brevity of life and our mortality, actually receive wisdom to live well?
Chronic illness, disappointment, loss of a loved one, career failure, other kinds of suffering—all of these provide opportunities to become wise. Why? The most foolish thing possible is to build your nest in a tree that’s coming down, to give your heart fully to something that will pass away.
Remembering that we’re mortal—that everything will pass away but the Lord himself—gives us the opportunity to rest our hearts less in anything here and more in him.
These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest find thine all in me. (John Newton, 1779)