Those things may be important, and even defining, aspects about who you are. But as Dave Harvey writes in the book When Sinners Say I Do (Shepherd Press, 2007), the most important thing about you is what you believe about God. He explains this in the context of the marriage relationship, arguing that our theology is the most important part of the marriage equation (a clear example of this relationship is having a greater capacity to forgive because one believes that God has forgiven one’s sins, even the ugliest ones), but this applies to all of our lives, not only marriage. Here’s how he puts it:
“The most profound thing that shapes anybody’s worldview is their understanding of God. What a person believes about God determines what he or she thinks about how we got here, what our ultimate meaning is, and what happens after we die. So essentially our worldview, our perspective on life, is determined by our perspective on God.
“… Whether we realize it or not, our ideas about life, needs, marriage, romance, conflict, and everything else reveal themselves all the time in our words and deeds, inevitably reflecting our view of God. If you listen closely, theology spills from our lips every day” (20-21).
This is why in this book about marriage, Dave Harvey can make the fundamental claim, “What we believe about God determines the quality of our marriage.” But as we’ve seen above, this same claim can be applied to every major area of our lives. So, what do you believe about God? And how does it show in your everyday life, at work and at home?
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), pastor and author Tim Keller says that at the heart of marriage is friendship. So if we’re ultimately pursuing marriage, he says, we shouldn’t put such a high value on things like sex, chemistry, and attraction, which will change over time, but rather we should look for a companion – the kind of person we can walk alongside for decades in a mutually satisfying and meaningful relationship.
So how do we find this kind of companion? I like how Keller puts it:
“It often happens that you have a good friend of the opposite sex with whom you share common commitments. You trust this person’s wisdom and you find you can open up and share many intimate things without fear. He or she understands you well and listens to you and gives you great advice. But the person doesn’t attract you romantically. Maybe he or she doesn’t have the body type that you find appealing. You feel no sexual chemistry at all. Then imagine that you meet someone else to whom you feel very attracted. This person has the physical and social attributes you have been looking for and is interested in you, too. So you start seeing each other and you have a lot of fun together and things are moving along into more and more romantic intimacy. But if you are honest with yourself, this person you say you are falling in love with does not make nearly as good a friend as the one you already have, nor is that likely to change.
“You are in trouble. Your spouse has got to be your best friend, or be on the way to becoming your best friend, or you won’t have a strong, rich marriage that endures and that makes you both vastly better persons for having been it” (125).
“Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage” (126).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Keller explains how rather than limiting your freedom, promising can expand and deepen it. Promising, he writes, is the “means to freedom” because “in promising, you limit options now, in order to have wonderful, fuller options later. You curb your freedom now, so that you can be free to be there in the future for people who trust you” (93).
Keller quotes Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes:
“When I make a promise, I bear witness that my future with you is not locked into a bionic beam by which I was stuck with the fateful combinations of X’s and Y’s in the hand I was dealt out of my parent’s genetic deck. When I make a promise, I testify that I was not routed along some unalterable itinerary by the psychic conditioning visited on me by my slightly wacky parents. When I make a promise, I declare that my future with people who depend on me is not predetermined by the mixed-up culture of my tender years.
“I am not fated, I am not determined, I am not a lump of human dough whipped into shape by the contingent reinforcement and aversive conditioning of my past…when I make a promise to anyone, I rise above all the conditioning that limits me. No German Shepherd ever promised to be there with me. No hom computer ever promised to be a loyal help…Only a person can make a promise. And when he does, he is most free” (94).
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Keller argues that at the core of marriage is the covenant – a binding promise of lifelong faithfulness. He then explains that the very act of making this promise helps the couple keep that promise. He shows this by quoting Christian theologian and ethicist Lewis Smedes, who offers these words on how our identity is shaped by the promises we make:
“Some people ask who they are and expect their feelings to tell them. But feelings are flickering flames that fade after every fitful stimulus. Some people ask who they are and expect their achievements to tell them. But the things we accomplish always leave a core of character unrevealed. Some people ask who they are and expect visions of their ideal self to tell them. But our visions can only tell us what we want to be, not what we are” (90).
Keller then connects identity to marital love, and even quotes the great political theorist Hannah Arendt (confirming that he is an intellectual’s intellectual):
“It is our promises that give us a stable identity, and without a stable identity, it is impossible to have stable relationships. Hannah Arendt wrote, ‘Without being bound to the fulfillment of our promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wanter helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each person’s lonely heart, caught in its contradictions and equivocalities.'” (91)
In The Meaning of Marriage (Dutton, 2011), Tim Kellers cites an excellent New York Times article by Sara Lipton (above), professor of history at SUNY Stony Brook. In it, she compares today’s sexually rogue men – men like Schwarzenegger, Spitzer, and Weiner – to the “manly men of yore,” for whom the ability to rule oneself, both for the good of their families and their societies, was one of the key measures of a man.
Writing of the Schwarzeneggers and Weiners of our day, Lipton claims: “In every case, they had resisted the traditional purposes of marriage: to change their natural instincts, to reign in passions, to learn denial of one’s own desires, and to serve others.”
Keller then writes: “The conventional explanation for this is that marriage simply doesn’t fit the male nature…that ‘a need for sexual conquest, female adulation, and illicit and risky liaisons seems to go along with drive, ambition, and confidence in the “alpha male.”‘ But Lipton argues that marriage was traditionally a place where males became truly masculine: ‘For most of Western history, the primary and most valued characteristic of manhood was self-mastery…. A man who indulged in excessive eating, drinking, sleeping or sex – who failed to “rule himself” – was considered unfit to rule his household, much less a polity…'” (32)
On a personal note, I’ve already seen these insights come to life in our six months of marriage. For example, I’m more motivated (and often reminded) to do things around the house, such as washing dishes, or taking out the trash, or vacuuming and tidying up before guests. I know I wouldn’t do the same things were I living on my own, and certainly I wouldn’t be cooking delicious meals for myself like my wonderful wife does for us. In large part because of doing life with her, I’m more disciplined and on a daily basis aware that my “personal” time isn’t necessarily “Javi” time. It also helps, however, to have an awesome wife who encourages me and lovingly challenges me to be a better man every day. I pray that by grace and with much love this continues for many years, trusting that though difficult seasons will come, they won’t prevail. Thank you, mi amor – you know who you are!
In The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (Dutton, 2011), Timothy Keller, author and pastor of a large church in Manhattan, enumerates some of the documented benefits of marriage. In our modern society where many, especially young adults, are often jaded and cynical about the institution of marriage, it’s good to bring attention to some of the conclusions of much research about marriage and its effects. Read on – you may be surprised:
“Married people experience greater physical and mental health…Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline than friends or other family members can” (24).
“All surveys tells us that the number of married people who say they are ‘very happy’ in their marriages is high – about 61-62 percent – and there has been little decrease in this figure during the last decade” (26).
“During the last two decades, the great preponderance of research evidence shows that people who are married consistently show much higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives than those who are single, divorced, or living with a partner. It also reveals that most people are happy in their marriages, and most of those who are not and who don’t get divorced eventually become happy. Also, children who grow up in married, two-parent families have two to three times more positive life outcomes than those who do not” (26).
President Garfield (1831-1881) was of a very different temperament from his wife, Lucretia. He was “big-hearted and cheerful…nearly impossible to resist,” and she was “soft-spoken and very private,” at times even fearing that others viewed her as “cold” and “heartless.”
In the endlessly fascinating Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President (Anchor, 2012), Candice Millard tells their love story: one of emotional frustration, great heartbreak, and enduring love, passion, and devotion.
They had a bumpy start, with a courtship that was “long, awkward, and far more analytical than passionate.” Though Lucretia loved Garfield, she hardly showed it, struggling to give physical affection and frustrating him emotionally. He was not in love with her when they married – he didn’t feel toward her as most of us expect someone to feel when they marry – and she knew it. This pained her terribly, and combined with long periods of distance because of his participation in the Civil War and his work in Congress, it made made their first years of marriage “nearly unbearable.”
Then James had an affair with a young reporter from New York with whom he fell in love with “the kind of love he had for so long yearned to feel for Lucretia” (118). He soon confessed his sin to Lucretia, and though she was indignant and heartbroken, she quickly “forgave him, demanding only that he end the relationship immediately.”
This he did, but he now feared losing completely Lucretia’s heart.
It was here that “his own feelings began to change. As he watched her bravely endure the pain and heartbreak that he had caused, Garfield suddenly saw Lucretia in a new light. She was not cold and unreachable but strong, steady, and resilient. Slowly, he began to fall in love with his wife.”
“As the years passed, Garfield’s love for Lucretia grew until it eclipsed any doubts he ever had. His letters…were now filled with passionate declarations of love. Lucretia was finally the object of James’s ‘gushing affection.’ (118)”
These brief excerpts from Garfield’s letters give us a glimpse of this passionate love:
“I here record the most deliberate conviction of my soul. Were every tie that binds me to the men and women of the world severed, and I free to choose out of all the world the sharer of my heart and home and life, I would fly to you and ask you to be mine as you are” (119).
“You can never know how much I need you during these days of storm. Every hour I want to go and state some case to your quick intuition. But I feel the presence of your spirit” (119).
“It is almost painful for me to feel that so much of my life and happiness have come to depend upon another than myself. I want to hear from you so often, and I shall wait and watch with a hungry heart until your dear words reach me” (119).
When she became sick, Garfield bordered on desperation. To him she was “the continent, the solid land on which I build all my happiness. When you are sick, I am like the inhabitants of countries visited by earthquakes. They lose all faith in the eternal order and fixedness of things” (119).
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.