Identity and Marriage: Making Promises, Keeping Promises

MarriageIn 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)

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2 comments

  1. Generación Latina

    I like it! But what about single people? They haven’t made a life long promise. What of their identities?

    • Javier

      Great question. I think the notion of anchoring oneself to something or someone by a promise, a commitment, can still apply to singles. For example, committing to a friend, or even a family member, and thereby identifying yourself in relation to them. This also can apply to long-term vocational callings – for example, from their youth Churchill and Lincoln had a strong sense that they were going to accomplish great things and be used in a unique way in history, and they rose to that challenges. Others, however, try to silence that sense of calling which will determine their identities.

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