The Meaning of Marriage – Chapter 3 – The Essence of Marriage

I love Timothy Keller’s book, The Meaning of Marriage. Each chapter is so full of wisdom and truth. In Chapter 3, Keller looks at “The Essence of Marriage.” I encourage you to buy the complete book. You can read my highlights from Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

“When the Bible speaks of love, it measures it primarily not by how much you want to receive, but by how much you are willing to give of yourself for someone. How much are you willing to lose for the sake of this person? How much of your freedom are you willing to forsake? How much of your precious time, emotion, and resources are you willing to invest in this person?” (pg 80)

“Traditional societies made the family the ultimate value in life, and so marriage was a mere transaction that helped your family’s interests. By contrast, contemporary Western societies make the individual’s happiness the ultimate value, and so marriage becomes primarily an experience of romantic fulfillment. But the Bible sees God as the supreme good – not the individual or the family – and that gives us a view of marriage that intimately unites feeling and duty, passion and promise. That is because at the heart of the Biblical idea of marriage is the covenant.” (pg 83-84)

“In a covenant, the good of the relationship takes precedence over the immediate needs of the individual. … Sociologists argue that in contemporary Western society, the marketplace has become so dominant that the consumer model increasingly characterizes most relationships that historically were covenantal, including marriage.” (pg 84)

“Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love, but a mutually binding promise of future love.” (pg 91) Keller explains that entering into a binding covenant enhances and supercharges the love relationship, rather than stifling it. Because the husband and wife have been bound in a “til death do we part” covenant, they can have a true sense of security to open up and be vulnerable. Because of their covenant, a married couple no longer ha to “sell themselves” or keep up facades. “We can lay the last layer of our defenses down and be completely naked, both physically and in every other way.” (pg 89)

“When you first fall in love, you think you love the person, but you don’t really. You can’t know who the person is right away. That takes years. … What you think of as being head over heels in love is in large part a gust of ego gratification, but it’s nothing like the profound satisfaction of being known and loved.” (pg 99-100) “

This reminds me of my immense sense of amazement that God would love me, sinful little ol’ me, so much that He would die for me. God KNOWS the REAL me, and yet, He STILL loves, pursues and sacrifices Himself for ME! Truly, this is amazing love! This is how God designed marriage. A husband and wife are to fully know one another and yet keep on loving one another until death parts them. Like Adam and Eve, we are to be naked and unashamed.

“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known, and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God.” (pg 101)

“Nearly everyone thinks that the Bible’s directive to “love your neighbor” is wise, right, and good. But notice that it is a command, and emotions cannot be commanded. The Bible does not call us to like our neighbor, to have affection and warm feelings toward him or her. No, the call is to love your neighbor, and that must primarily mean displaying a set of behaviors.” (pg 104)

“If your definition of “love” stresses affectionate feelings more than unselfish actions, you will cripple your ability to maintain and grow strong lover relationships. On the other hand, if you stress the action of love over the feeling, you enhance and establish the feeling.” (pg 106)

In a radio talk during World War II, C.S. Lewis explained, “When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him less. … Whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less. … The worldly man treats certain people kindly because he “likes” them: The Christian, trying to treat everyone kindly, finds himself liking more and more people as he goes on – including people he could not even have imagined himself liking at the beginning.” (pg 107)

Keller wisely explains how important it is to continue to deliberately love your spouse, even though your feelings rise and fall with the passing seasons. “In any relationship, there will be frightening spells in which your feelings of love seem to dry up. And when that happens you must remember that the essence of a marriage is that it is a covenant, a commitment, a promise of future love. So what do you do? You do the acts of love, despite the lack of feeling.” (pg 111)

So often, as a parent, you sacrifice again and again for your child, expecting little to nothing in return. Your baby cries and dirties diapers and refuses to sleep, yet you keep on taking care of him. Your teenager rebels and argues and complains, and still you love him. “After eighteen years of this, even if your child is an unattractive person to everyone else, you can’t help but love her dearly. Why? Because you’ve been forced to operate on the Biblical pattern. You have had to do the actions of love regardless of your feelings and therefore now you have deep feelings of love for your child, however loveable she is or not.” (pg 115-116)

Consider applying that model to how you treat your husband or wife. Rather than giving in order to get, rather than turning a cold shoulder in revenge when they don’t do what you want, continue to press in to your marriage, performing the actions of love while you wait for your feelings to return.

Keller concludes the chapter by remembering Jesus’s faithful love on the cross, despite being denied, abandoned and betrayed. Jesus stayed on the cross, the righteous for the unrighteous, demonstrating His great love for us, saying, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

I pray that my marriage can look like that. I pray that I can forgive and love my husband like Jesus forgives and loves me. I pray that others will know Jesus’s faithful love more, because of the faithful love they see in my marriage. I’m so thankful that, even though marriage is hard, it’s a precious gift to me and to a watching world.