The meaning of marriage: a lecture at Google by Tim Keller

Painting: "Courtship", by Edmund Blair Leighton (1888)
Painting: “Courtship”, by Edmund Blair Leighton (1888)

Disclaimer: I have reservations about Tim Keller. I consider him to be too liberal for my tastes, especially on scientific (intelligent design) and political/economic issues. However, I think he did a good job explaining marriage in the lecture below.

Here’s the the video:


Timothy Keller visits Google’s New York, NY office to discuss his book “The Meaning of Marriage.” This event took place on November 14, 2011, as part of the Authors@Google series.

Timothy J. Keller is an American author, speaker, preacher, and the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is the author of several books, including “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.”

“The Meaning of Marriage” touches on topics that all readers can relate to, starting with the role of marriage in our culture, its history and the pessimism that is often associated with it. The Kellers also discuss the feelings of and acts of love, romantic relationships, gender roles, singleness, and the role of sex in a marriage.

I saw a lot of things in his lecture that echo my own views. One point where we agree is on not just looking for traits and virtues in the other person, but in seeing how they handle conflict and solve problems with you.  You have to give the other person things to do and see if they make progress and work cooperatively with you. The most important thing to look for is someone who sees potential in you and is committed to helping you realize it. You want someone who won’t give up on you, no matter how hard things get. There are fun and happy times in a marriage, but those come naturally – the real question is how well two people stick together to get things done when it’s hard. I definitely recommend Keller’s book on marriage, it’s such a good vision of what marriage could be.

Here’s an article entitled “You Never Marry the Right Person“, that discusses one of the points in the lecture.


In generations past, there was far less talk about “compatibility” and finding the ideal soul-mate. Today we are looking for someone who accepts us as we are and fulfills our desires, and this creates an unrealistic set of expectations that frustrates both the searchers and the searched for.

[…]The Bible explains why the quest for compatibility seems to be so impossible. As a pastor I have spoken to thousands of couples, some working on marriage-seeking, some working on marriage-sustaining and some working on marriage-saving. I’ve heard them say over and over, “Love shouldn’t be this hard, it should come naturally.” In response I always say something like: “Why believe that? Would someone who wants to play professional baseball say, ‘It shouldn’t be so hard to hit a fastball’? Would someone who wants to write the greatest American novel of her generation say, ‘It shouldn’t be hard to create believable characters and compelling narrative’?” The understandable retort is: “But this is not baseball or literature. This is love. Love should just come naturally if two people are compatible, if they are truly soul-mates. “

The Christian answer to this is that no two people are compatible. Duke University Ethics professor Stanley Hauerwas has famously made this point:

Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.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 challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.

Hauerwas gives us the first reason that no two people are compatible for marriage, namely, that marriage profoundly changes us. But there is another reason. Any two people who enter into marriage are spiritually broken by sin, which among other things means to be self-centered—living lifeincurvatus in se. As author Denis de Rougemont said, “Why should neurotic, selfish, immature people suddenly become angels when they fall in love … ?” That is why a good marriage is more painfully hard to achieve than athletic or artistic prowess. Raw, natural talent does not enable you to play baseball as a pro or write great literature without enduring discipline and enormous work. Why would it be easy to live lovingly and well with another human being in light of what is profoundly wrong within our human nature? Indeed, many people who have mastered athletics and art have failed miserably at marriage. So the biblical doctrine of sin explains why marriage—more than anything else that is good and important in this fallen world—is so painful and hard.

When you are courting, don’t worry about appearances and feelings and passion so much, because that is all subject to change over time, and those things won’t help you with the real challenges you’ll face in a marriage. Worry about whether they are the kind of person who can make commitments and love other people self-sacrificially – even if they are unlovable. In the long run, their ability to read and understand issues, to care for others and serve them, to keep promises, to be respectful and supportive, to argue respectfully and reasonably, and to solve problems constructively, will all be far more important than appearances and feelings and passion.

During the courtship, give the other person things to do that challenge them and see how they handle being given responsibilities – giving a person hard things to do is a much better way to test a person than recreational nights out with recreational drinking, recreational dancing and recreational sex. Marriage means commitment and hard work, not recreation. And that’s what you should test for – the ability to work hard at the relationship and to keep promises and commitments and to communicate reasonably and to work through difficulties fairly. The most dangerous thing you want to avoid is self-centeredness. You don’t want someone who is primarily interested in minimizing your feelings, and then getting her friends to agree with her that this is legitimate for whatever reasons. You want a person who has had a hard enough life that responsibilities and obligations are natural to her, and who doesn’t try to wiggle out of self-sacrificial acts of love when she doesn’t feel like doing it. Each person needs to invest in the other, so that both can have fuel to do their job in the relationship.

6 thoughts on “The meaning of marriage: a lecture at Google by Tim Keller”

  1. can’t believe you approve of a man who thinks Gender role reversal is fine…
    or believes in mutual submission
    no wonder Google invited him to speak…


    1. Gotta agree with Jonathan, here. And if he’s a compolimentarian, he seems to have the roles reversed (at best) if this quote from FamilyLife describing an incident from the Kellers’ book titled the same as this lecture is any indication:

      “‘What will it take to get your attention?’ In the book The Meaning of Marriage, authors Tim and Kathy Keller relate how Kathy got Tim’s attention by lining up some of her good china, and as soon as Tim walked in the door, breaking it with a hammer. She got his attention!”

      I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know what exactly they want us to glean from this, but this article seems to indicate that she is not at all remorseful for that action

      1 Peter 3:1-2 : Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.


      1. Oh he broke promise to her. He promised he would stop working and then broke it. So she had to get his attention. He was neglecting her, and yet she was performing anyway. It had to stop.


        1. Not gonna lie: it’s really shocking and sad to see you say that. I’ve been reading your blog for well over a year, and I respect you from most of what I’ve read of yours. I can’t keep up with every post, but it seems like you suddenly went from The Wintry Knight to The White Knight here. Maybe you can enlighten me to some scripture that supports the Kellers, but from the second article I linked, I only read ONE thing that seemed to be Biblical. The rest of it reeked of modern hemming and hawing about how the Bible doesn’t mean what it says.

          This part was true, and actually runs counter to the rest of their (and your) narrative.that women have to take charge when their husbands don’t or when they fail to do it right:

          “But both Kellers agreed that even if the other person ultimately refuses to change, you can always change yourself.

          “If the husband is being selfish, the Redeemer pastor noted, the wife can respond in one of two ways: she can match that selfishness or she can say “I’m going to be the wife I’m supposed to be.” He said the same would go for a husband whose wife was being selfish as well.”

          Her having a self-described “godly-tantrum” is her choosing the selfish route.


  2. WK, Keller is about the most apologetics minded pastor I have run across so I’m a bit surprised by your disclaimer. Can you name one or two actual pastors leading a church (ie not academics, philosophers, writers etc) who you could name as I would like to check them out.

    If you have never heard him preach (I watched the video you posted and I thought it was poor compared to his sermons) then check out his podcasts here:

    The first 5 or 6 he posted at the end of January 2010 take secular criticisms of the church and meets them head on with Christian reason and logic….truth versus relativism, how can a loving God really send people to hell, the exclusive claims of Jesus, the atheists claim that Christianity has been used to oppress and several other topics ‘the world’ tends to criticize Christianity for.

    The sermon posted Oct 9, 2013 names “A Covenant Relationship” is one of the better sermons I have ever heard.


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