The Meaning of Marriage – Chapter 5 – Loving the Stranger

Keller begins this chapter with a quote from Stanley Hauerwas, “We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary problem is … learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.” (pg 147)

This opening paragraph jumped out at me because I’ve often thought that Bill and I should’ve dated longer before entering the covenant of marriage. In many ways, I still think that, but frankly, people change. We certainly did. Marriage changed us. Becoming parents changed us. Trials changed us.

The person you marry after dating for ten years, won’t be the same person after ten years of marriage. Certainly, we ought to do our “due diligence” to get to know someone before getting married, but we also ought to be prepared for that person to grow and mature in unexpected ways.

Keller continues, “Marriage brings two human beings into closer contact than any other relationship can bring them. The parent-child relationship is of course very close – they live together and see one another’s character – but there is a major power differential there. The child and the parents are on such different planes that it is easy for either the parent to dismiss the child’s criticism or the child to dismiss the parent’s. Besides, it is expected that children grow up and leave.” (pg 151) “While your character flaws [fearfulness, pride, perfectionism, impatience, miserliness, lack of discipline, etc.] may have created mild problems for other people, they will create major problems for your spouse and your marriage.” (pg 153)

As a child, I’m sure that my controlling, know-it-all personality was really hard for my parents.

Then, as a parent, I’m sure that my controlling, know-it-all personality has been really hard for my kids.

But I’m sure that my controlling, know-it-all personality has been the most difficult for my husband. My struggle to humble myself and submit my will to his, has been the hardest for him to handle.  Indeed, as Keller puts it,

“Marriage brings out the worst in you. It doesn’t create your weaknesses … it reveals them.” (pg 153)

I’ve often been inclined to blame all of our marriage struggles on my husband or to think that I must have married the wrong person. In reality, my own sinful pride and selfishness have often been the true culprit.

As Keller writes, “Marriage by its very nature has the “power of truth” – the power to show you the truth about who you are. People are appalled when they get sharp, far-reaching criticisms from their spouses. They immediately begin to think they married the wrong person. But you must realize that it isn’t ultimately your spouse who is exposing the sinfulness of you heart – it’s marriage itself. Marriage does not so much bring you into confrontation with your spouse as confront you with yourself. Marriage shows you a realistic, unflattering picture of who you are and then takes you by the scruff of the neck and forces you to pay attention to it.” (pg 154) Ouch.

So often we balk when our spouse tries to share ways in which we need to grow. Keller urges the reader to “give your spouse the right to talk to you about what is wrong with you.” (pg 155) Often the very person who rubs you wrong, is the exact person that the Lord is going to use to conform you into His likeness. If your spouse reveals how impatient, prideful and selfish you are, it isn’t your spouse’s fault. This is a hard pill to swallow, especially if we still think that marriage is all about our happiness, rather than a vehicle to bring God glory.

Keller goes on to explain, though, that marriage has not only this great power of exposing the true flaws of your heart, but also to heal your deepest wounds. The powerful, unconditional, faithful love of a spouse can bind up the wounds of the past like nothing else. “We must learn to send love in forms that the other person can comprehend.” (pg 169) We each hear, feel and receive love in different ways. Sometimes we particularly need to receive a certain communication of love because a significant person in our past was inept at it. Sometimes we need a certain form of love because of our current life circumstances. “We tend to give love through the channels in which we like to receive it.” (pg 172)

“In the incarnation, God came to us in a manner that we could grasp. So we, too, must clothe our love in the forms to which our spouse can relate.” (pg 171)

Loving your spouse should be seen as a conscious action, rather than an involuntary feeling. We must transition from “falling in love” to demonstrating love. Keller then shares his description of several ways to demonstrate love, including affection, friendship and service.

But, as is Keller’s way, the author once again returns to the importance of practicing gospel-love with your spouse. In marriage, we see the immense power of truth and love intertwined, because our spouse knows our sin all too well, not like a physician or counselor looking in from the outside. Rather, they know our sins intimately and personally because they have been the recipient of our selfish, careless, insensitive actions.

This pain can push us one of two ways. We can either lash out in anger, telling our spouse how foolish, messy and selfish they are, destroying them with our truth-telling. Or we can fall prey to the opposite error: avoidance. We can stuff and hide how we really feel, affirming them with charming lies.

“The gospel transforms us so our self-understanding is no longer based on our performance in life. We are so evil and sinful and flawed that Jesus had to die for us. We were so lost that nothing less than the death of the divine Son of God could save us. But we are so loved and valued that he was willing to die for us. The Lord of the universe loved us enough to do that! So the gospel humbles us into the dust and at the very same time exalts us to the heavens. We are sinners but completely loved and accepted in Christ at the same time.” (pg 185)

Friends, Jesus knows us to the bottom of our heart. He knows our secret deeds and thoughts. And yet He loved us enough to die for us. This is true love.

Jesus was perfectly full of truth and perfectly full of grace. Can we do that, too?

This is the beauty of marriage.

The final sentence of Chapter 5 has new meaning for me today as my oldest daughter begins looking forward to her wedding day next spring. Keller ends this chapter with, “What we should say to each other on our wedding day is, ‘As great as you look today, someday you will stand with me before God in such beauty that it will make these clothes look like rags.'”

Let’s pray together for our children and their future spouses. Let’s pray together for the newlyweds in our midst who are thinking, “I must have married the wrong person.” And let’s pray for our own hearts and for our spouses as we walk this difficult road of marriage hand-in-hand.

TWIG