The Meaning of Marriage

Marriage has lost its luster for many. It no longer carries the weight as being “soceity's ideal.” But as Tim amd Kathy Keller write in their new book, The Meaning of Marriage, our society's break from a traditional understanding of marriage comes from hopes and desires that will never be met outside of God's design. The remedy, though, does not come from making a happy or successful marriage our ultimate hope. We need something more subversive. 

I corresponded with Tim Keller about their new book and asked about a number of issues, including how the Enlightenment has affected the Western view of marriage and how sex and fun relate to companionship and a duty to spur our spouses toward holiness.


You observed that during the Enlightenment, social attitudes began to shift: “The meaning of life came to be seen as the fruit of the freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfills him or her personally.” How has this affected the Western view of marriage?

The older Western view was grounded in both Catholic and Protestant views that marriage was instituted by God for the common good. It was therefore a public trust. How you conducted your marriage affected everyone. Marriage was seen as the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment of each other. It was in the public interest that marriages would last, that divorce would be rare, that adultery would be punished. But the Enlightenment view—that marriage was for the fulfillment and happiness of individuals—essentially “privatized” marriage. It gave rise to the belief that married couples should be able to define and conduct marriage in any way that they found satisfying, and that if they found their marriage unsatisfying it should be easy for them to dissolve it.  

In order to put your spouse’s happiness in front of your own, you argue that we need to have good “love economics.” What do you mean? 

It’s a metaphor. Philanthropy means investing money in a charity that does not pay you any dividends—you get no profit out of it. You give money and get no money back. So economically, you can’t be philanthropic—you can’t give away a lot of money—unless you have a good income from somewhere else.  

In the same way, I argue that you can’t do a good job of loving your spouse unconditionally unless you have a strong love relationship with God through Christ. Loving your spouse unconditionally means that, for a season that may be short or long, you love your spouse when you aren’t getting much or any love in response. Your spouse may be deeply discouraged or have become ill or troubled in some way. At a time like that you must serve and love your spouse without expecting much affection, service, or love in return. That is love “philanthropy.” In any long-term marriage there will be times that require this. You will be giving a lot more love than you are getting. But if your spouse is the main or only source of love in your life, it will hurt too much to love without getting any love back. You won’t be able to do it. You will just blow up and attack your spouse or look elsewhere for love. God and his love must be a spiritual reality in your life if you are going to be able to love your spouse steadily over the long haul.

What’s wrong with merely looking for compatibility in a wife or husband?  

It’s not wrong if you define compatibility first as a common commitment to Christ and similar ideas of how to live out the Christian faith and minister in the world. Second, it is right to look for many common areas of delight—including books and art, landscapes, avocations, and so on. In the book, however, I resist the idea that dominates the contemporary notion of “compatibility”—namely that if you find a compatible partner, neither of you will ask the other to change at all, that each will completely accept the other as is. If there are conflicts and fights, or if there are calls to change, many people today just walk away complaining of incompatibility. The Christian view is that both spouses are sinners and, as such, have the deep incompatibility that any two self-centered human beings must share. The Christian understanding takes this fundamental incompatibility as a given, and even holds that, if addressed with the gospel, it becomes the occasion for revolutionary Christian growth in humility, self-knowledge, love, and grace in the marital partners over the years.

It’s popular today in books, blogs, or sermons on marriage to focus on a strong sex life for the endurance of a marriage. On the contrary, your book emphasizes companionship, duty, and laboring for the other's holiness, while sex and fun (dating your wife) are all by-products. How did you arrive at these conclusions?

Experience! And study of the Bible. 

You summarized it well. We discovered that in the long run good sex and fun are the result of companionship, duty, and laboring for the other’s holiness, not the other way around. Sexual joy, romance, and plain fun happen when you are with someone who you admire enormously. When someone you admire tremendously loves you, it’s just thrilling. “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.” In the beginning of a relationship it’s not hard to think that another person is very cool and great. A person is seen as cool and great because of brains, looks, resume, talent, connections, personality, and so on. And when this cool-and-great person shows interest in me it’s very heady. 

But when you actually begin to live with someone, the person’s flaws become evident to you, and yours become obvious to your partner. No matter how brilliant, gorgeous, and talented he or she is, you will see the “feet of clay”—and find it very disillusioning. The only way to maintain respect is if you see the other person admit the flaws, work on them, and see your spouse love and serve you even when you’ve blown it. In the long run, the more superficial things that made a person sexually attractive will move to the background, and matters of character, humility, grace, courage, faithfulness, and love will come to the foreground. So companionship, duty, and mutual sacrifice are, in the end, the sexiest things of all. 

The cover story of the November 2011 edition of The Atlantic says this:

Recent years have seen an explosion of male joblessness and a steep decline in men’s life prospects that have disrupted the “romantic market” in ways that narrow a marriage-minded woman’s options: increasingly, her choice is between deadbeats (whose numbers are rising) and playboys (whose power is growing). But this strange state of affairs also presents an opportunity: as the economy evolves, it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family—and to acknowledge the end of “traditional” marriage as society’s highest ideal. 

What would you want readers of this article to consider?

It sounds like the author is assuming that “traditional marriage” meant, mainly, a husband who worked and a wife who stayed at home to raise children. But that is not the essence of traditional marriage. For centuries, husbands and wives labored together on the family farm, or in the family craft. Before the industrial revolution neither the husband nor the wife had to leave the home to make a living. Since then, they have, but it is wrong to identify the essence of marriage with one particular form of human economy. The essence of traditional marriage is one man and one woman uniting the entirety of their lives in a covenant relationship that is permanent and exclusive. Of course, this view of marriage is found in the Bible, and for Christians that is what matters, not cultural trends. But empirical studies (some of which I point out in our book) continue to amass evidence that traditional marriage is enormously beneficial to everyone—men, women, children, society—in multiple ways—economically, psychologically, sociologically.


Return here on Tuesday, November 1, at 7 p.m. EST to watch a livestream of the sold-out book launch event featuring Tim and Kathy Keller at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.