Focus on the Family

Focus on the Family with Jim Daly

God’s Blueprint for a Healthy Marriage (Part 2 of 3)

God’s Blueprint for a Healthy Marriage (Part 2 of 3)

Dr. Timothy Keller and his wife, Kathy, describe their personal marriage journey and how a biblically-rooted understanding of God's design for marriage transcends that of both ancient and modern cultures. (Part 2 of 3)
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Original Air Date: February 14, 2012


John Fuller: If you’ve been searching for the perfect person to marry, that’s gonna be a very long search, I think. Pastor and author, Dr. Tim Keller explains the backwards thinking that many of us have bought into.


Pastor Tim Keller: But you’re such a perfectionist, you’re afraid of marrying somebody who’s not perfect, because if you find the right person, according to Hollywood, everything will fall into place. So, ironically, they’re so idealistic that they’re pessimistic. They’re so idealistic about what marriage oughta be, how it’ll solve everything, that they find fault in everybody, ’cause everybody does have a fault and there is no perfect person out there. So, it’s a paradox. Their fear actually is driven by almost an idolatry of romantic love, saying this’ll fix everything.

Kathy Keller: And they lived happily ever after.

Tim: They lived happily ever after.

End of Recap

John: Welcome to “Focus on the Family” with Focus president and author, Jim Daly. Now Tim and Kathy Keller were our guests last time, talking about some of the confusion that we have about marriage. It’s just prevalent in our culture. And they’re the authors of the book called The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God. And our host, Jim Daly and I had the opportunity to talk with the Kellers in New York City and Jim, it was a phenomenal conversation.

Jim Daly: It was, John. You know, the Kellers are just deep thinkers. And it’s always really fun to sit with people that have thought a lot about the topic they’re talking about. And in fact, we talked about misunderstandings regarding marriage and how this consumer mentality has settled into the landscape. And people seem to be shopping for a potential spouse, based on what they can gain from the relationship. So, it’s very “me focused,” as opposed to looking at that potential spouse in a way that says, “Can I give myself? Can I offer myself to that person for the rest of my life?”

Which is truly the Christian way and it’s right there in Scripture. Men, we are to lay down our lives for our wives. And women are to be that helpmate, to be that person who stands alongside in support of the man’s spiritual and emotional leadership. So, when we look at it in a biblical context, John, marriage is a beautiful thing. And when we follow God’s plan in our marriages, blessings are there. Contentment is there. Peace is there. And it’s a wonderful thing, so I’m lookin’ forward to today’s program.

John: Yeah, this is the continuation of what we began last time and the second in a three-part series with Dr. Tim Keller, who is the senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and his wife, Kathy. And they’ve been married for over 40 years. They have three married children and we’re going to pick up the conversation as Jim expresses concern about how the culture has affected the thinking of the church when it comes to marriage and divorce.


Jim: The thing I’m mostly concerned about when I look at the state of marriage for the Christian community is that, with the 35, 38 percent divorce rate, which is what researchers like Brad–

Tim: Uh-hm.

Jim: –Wilcox and others have identified, those are people who are committed Christians, going to church three or four times a month.

Tim: Uh-hm.

Jim: And those are the people, they’re still divorcing at that high rate.

Tim: Yeah, not as high.

Jim: Not as high as the world, but still too high.

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: And are we disconnecting the witness that, that is to the world? Because I’ll tell ya, I’ve been sitting with people who don’t think the way we think. They oppose what we believe. They’re more open to same-sex marriage and other things. And one of the comments they’ll often make to me is, you Christians haven’t done such a–

Tim: Right.

Jim: –good job with this.

Tim: Right.

Jim: Why don’t you let us have a try? It would be so nice if our divorce rate were 3 or 5 percent, to say, “Actually we’re doing well.”

Tim: True.

Jim: But we’re not.

Tim: Maybe Kathy can be the bad cop. Let me be the good cop.

Kathy: Okay.

Tim: I guess we got this from John Newton. If you go out in the rain, even if you have an umbrella [over] the raincoat, you’re still gonna get pretty wet, fairly wet, somewhat. And I don’t know how you can go out into the culture like this and not find [that], for example, if two Christians get married, both of them have to swim against the tide of the culture.

If one of them does and one of them doesn’t, it still may end up in divorce. And it’s not all that surprising then that we are getting wet. I mean, I’m just tryin’ to say, we’re doing better than the culture, but at the same time, we’re living in a very acidic corrosive place. It’s really tough.

There’s pornography thrown at you. There’s the popular culture; you get it through TV and movies. It undercuts what you’re really reading in the Bible and something that’s more vivid. You’re reading the Bible says this, this, this, but the popular culture comes with all these songs and gripping movies that work on a worldview that undermines the biblical one. It’s not that surprising to me. So, I’m trying to be nice about it here.

Jim: Okay, let’s hear from the bad cop.

Kathy: Well, I think the bad cop wants to say that it’s not just a symptom of Christians not really understanding how marriage works. It’s Christians not understanding how Christianity works. People who call themselves “committed Christians” may be assenting to certain truths without ever having taken the Gospel in as the center that energizes their whole life.

And unless you do that, meaning my life is laid down for you in the imitation of what Christ did, then you’re still operating out of a very self-serving template when you get into a relationship, unless you’re prepared to be sacrificial in your relationship in marriage, following Christ then, taking Him as your model.

One of the most interesting things to me is I’ve studied gender roles, which is part of the book, is that both the husband and the wife get to play the “Jesus role” in the marriage. The husband gets to play the Ephesians 5 Jesus Role, where he dies to sanctify his wife and present her perfect before the throne. The wife gets to play the Jesus Role in Philippians 2, where recognizing she’s equal, you know, where Jesus recognizes He was equal with God, but yet He didn’t cling to that and He took the role of a servant, etc., etc. We both get to be Jesus in the marriage and to demonstrate that to the world.

But many people don’t even go there in their marriage. They go to church and they have a nice Christian life. But I think there’s a creeping nominalism, even in people who would call themselves “converted, born-again Christians”–

Jim: Hm.

Kathy: -where the Gospel’s not really at the center of how they conduct their relationship or indeed, their own interior life.

Jim: And it’s important for us to recognize that, you know, we don’t know all of your situation. So, you know, divorce does happen, as you mentioned Tim. It’s part of the culture. We don’t want to certainly send condemnation out, because we don’t know–

Kathy: No, no.

Jim:your particular situation–abuse and adultery and the things that do happen. So, I don’t want to communicate that message.

Tim: No and I was trying to be the good cop. But Kathy’s right in saying, it could be that American Christianity’s getting awfully thin spiritually and theologically. And so, we’re really sending people out into the rain with really no umbrella at all. They really don’t understand the Gospel or biblical doctrine. They’re professing Christians. They were raised in Christianity and they subscribe to all the teaching and I think she’s saying, but it really hasn’t sunk in very much. So, it’s really no guard against the rains at all.

Jim: When you look at marriage at its core and I think those of us that have been married 20, 25, 37 years–

Tim: Yes.

Jim: –it really is a journey in selflessness for it to be successful. As you were saying, Kathy, a person has to learn the biblical approach of laying your life down. Uh … you can’t be “me focused.” Talk a bit about that “meism,” because that’s so prevalent in all of us as human beings and even the church.

Kathy: Well, that’s the default of the human heart. I mean, that first cry that a baby gives and as soon as it’s born, that “Waah!” If you had an interpreter it would say, “Me!” (Laughter) “It’s all about me; I’m cold; I’m hungry, me!” I mean, the “me” is from the beginning.

Tim: Enough about you.

Kathy: Yeah, enough about you, me! Take care of me! And we learn various ways of saying that more in socially acceptable ways of saying that, but it really continues to be the thing that drives us. And other people exist to satisfy my needs, rather than me existing to satisfy the needs of other people.

Jim: But how do you get control of that, because it’s so pervasive in our nature. What do we do?

Kathy: You can’t. You can only kill it. And treat each other like you want.

Tim: What you do is you, over the years, you identify in each other the particular forms in which you are trying to be self-centered and manipulate the other person instead of serving ’em.

Jim: How do you do that? Give us an example.

Tim: Well, okay, I mean, the trouble is, even after 37 years, you identify certain patterns. And when you see the other person doing it, because you’ve worked through it, maybe in the past …

Kathy: So, I confess yours and you can confess mine. (Laughter)

Tim: Well, no, I’m gonna give you one. (Laughter) So, this happened two days ago. One of my sins and it’s a real denial of the Gospel of Grace, is I try to inoculate myself or make myself impervious to anybody’s criticism by working so hard.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: So, I work, work, work; I overwork. I work myself into the ground.

Kathy: You make pointless sacrifices.

Tim: Right. They’re not pointless. (Laughter) They are and they aren’t, because that means if anybody says anything to me, I can say, “You don’t understand how hard I work.”

Jim: There’s value in the work.

Tim: It’s my way of manipulating people, because in other words, “How dare you criticize me?” Even if the criticism’s really valid. But you …

Jim: ‘Cause I’m working so hard.

Tim: Yeah, I work so hard. And we’ve identified this as one of my main [failings]. It’s very subtle, because it looks like servanthood, but it’s actually selfish servanthood. Kathy identifies it as a needless sacrifice, which still rankles me, but she’s right.

Now this takes years to come up with these. You know, you have to do it enough that you finally can name it and then you discuss it and you both agree it’s a problem. And then, when you do it, the one person blows the whistle and say[s], “Wait. We’ve worked on this. We’ve talked about this. Isn’t this an example of that?” And you go (drawing in breath), “Yeah. It is I guess.”

So, for example, just Tuesday after 37 years, we’re tryin’ to clean out closets and make room, because our son just moved out. He got married and we’re having maybe somebody else in the family move in. So, I worked very hard. She was very delighted, very delighted. I felt good about it. And then in the evening, at one point she expressed some unhappiness and I immediately was very grumpy with her and she called me on it, because what I was really saying to her was, “I’ve been so good to you today and I’ve worked so hard, you have no right to be unhappy with me for anything at all, you know, ’cause I’ve worked so hard.” I was inordinately unhappy with her and she was not being that unhappy with me. But my mode is, “works righteousness.”

Kathy: That’s the mode of every human heart.

Tim: Yeah, I know, but I mean–

Kathy: We just find different ways–

Tim: –I know, this is Tim–

Kathy: –to express it.

Tim: –Keller, the preacher of Grace–

Jim: Right.

Tim: –who basically–

Kathy: Yeah.

Tim: –feels like, if I work hard enough, then nobody will criticize me. And it’s a way of basically, I would say, clothing myself in righteousness, so that nobody can condemn me.

Jim: So, you’re protecting yourself.

Tim: Yeah, but then listen; it takes years for me to admit something like that. It’s very subtle, for her to even know how to name it and we could go through about 20 of them.

Kathy: Well, there’s a dynamic that we learned early on that was very helpful and that is, I’m not a sports fan, so using sports metaphors is a little dangerous. But there’s something called “Player-Coach,” right? Isn’t there–

Tim: Yeah.

Kathy: –in sports?

Tim: Yeah, hardly anymore.

Kathy: So if–

Jim: This is good.

Kathy: –if you’re both on the field and you’re both players and you’re having a disagreement or you’re having some sort of friction, if you’re meant to be sanctifying one another and helping one another, you have to blow the whistle; step off the field and go into coach mode. “Now Honey, when I say that, what you should do is, you should call me on it and you should say, ‘Look, I love you, but you have to be vulnerable enough to say, “I’m not doing a very good job at this right now, so it’s your job to call me on what I’m saying now. All right, you do it now.”

Tim: Yeah, it takes years though, because–

Kathy: Hm.

Tim: –very often you go around and around with arguments that never get anywhere for five, six, seven years until one time you finally have a breakthrough. Because one person names, like the other person “always does,” because it takes years of experience to say that.

Kathy: Oh, I can tell one on myself.

Tim: Okay.

Kathy: Shall I?

Tim: Please, it’s only fair (Laughter). You’re just waiting actually.

Kathy: Yeah, okay. (Laughter) Well, I’m an editor by profession and I’m an editor by personality, which means I feel like I add value to anybody’s life by telling them where the potential potholes are in front of them with any plan, any idea, any suggestion they make. So, we were here and we’d been married for whatever, 15, 16, 17 years. And Tim was coming up with some kind of plan for what he was gonna do with the church and how he was gonna train people.

And I jump in, in my editorial mode. Well, you know, we have to be careful because that could … dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah. And Tim sighed and said, “Could you just never say, ‘Gosh, Honey, that’s a great idea,’ before you jump into the negative stuff?” (Laughter) And I felt like, “Well, that’s understood, you know. I think you walk on water. I think every idea’s a great idea. I’m just trying to be helpful.” But I wasn’t because I never was being verbally appreciative or encouraging. I was always thinking of it in, my “negativity” and my critical thinking was valuable and it was just understood, of course, that I love you to death.

Tim: She would say affirmation is understood.

Kathy: Yeah, the affirmation was understood.

Tim: We shouldn’t have to go over that ground. But–

Kathy: That’s not true–

Tim: –I add value by–

Kathy: –that affirmation’s–

Tim: –telling you where–

Kathy: –never understood.

Tim: –I think things are wrong. It just took a long time for us to finally name that and say how wrong that is. I mean, you can’t raise children that way, so you can’t raise your husband that way either.

Jim: But what you’re saying is, you really need to have an ear for one another. And again, that’s a selfless act. You’ve gotta listen.

Tim: I think we need to stress that it does take a long time, because you have one of these breakthroughs, two or three maybe a year at the most. There are constant discussions and why can’t we seem to–

Kathy: You have to be–

Tim: –agree on this?

Kathy: –prepared and looking for them, because–

Tim: And then you use them.

Kathy: –if the idea is and you said this is counterintuitive, that marriage is about presenting one another faultless before the Throne, that we’re supposed to be the vehicles of sanctification in one another’s lives, then you shouldn’t be looking for someone to marry that you think is perfectly completed. We use this illustration in the book. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but Michelangelo was asked how he came to carve his famous statue of David. And he said, he looked around for a really great block of marble and then he just took away the bits that weren’t David.

And so many people are looking for finished statues already complete and maybe they need a little buffing here or a little polishing there, rather than looking for a great piece of marble that you can just sort of dimly see the outlines of that perfect person. And if you both go into marriage, not with the idea I’m gonna change him to suit me, he’s not gonna throw his socks on the floor if he gets married to me. But God is gonna change us both and He’s gonna be using us in that process.

Jim: Would you–

Kathy: It’s a whole different thing.

Jim: –encourage young couples to relax more about their relationship? Just relax a bit and get to know each other, love each other, experience each other and these things will become self-evident?

Tim: Yes, by relax meaning be patient–

Jim: Right.

Tim: –be very, very patient, that the breakthroughs where you get a way of understanding the other person’s heart, that my spouse and only my spouse would ever see. She names it. I agree to it. She convinces me. Those breakthroughs don’t happen, like I said (Click of fingers), real fast. And so, you do need to be patient with each other. Enjoy yourselves.

Kathy: When you’re newlyweds, you think that every fight is going to be the death of the marriage. And it’s a number of years in before you realize, we’ve survived everything. We’re gonna keep surviving everything.

Tim: Remember the night?

Kathy: Oh, I remember very clear the very night

Tim: We can’t remember how many years in, six, seven–

Kathy: We were living in Philadelphia.

Tim: –or something like that?

Kathy: No. we were living in Philadelphia.

Tim: Was it that long?

Kathy: We were way into the teens.

Tim: Well, we remember–

Jim: What happened?

Tim: –we remember a night in which we were having a fight basically.

Kathy: Every Saturday night when you had to preach the next day on Sunday, I would pick to be really unhappy about something. (Laughter) Now I don’t whether that was conscious or unconscious or what it was, but it was something that had to be talked about right now. We had to settle [it]. You had to stop what you were doing, because this was make or break. We had to decide it. Oh, no! We’re also hoping it was over. And I realized–

Tim: One night–

Kathy: –wait a minute.

Tim: –we both realized–

Kathy: Wait a minute.

Tim: –we might as well go to bed.

Kathy: We can wait until Monday.

Tim: Yes.

Kathy: This doesn’t have to be done tonight.

Tim: Right, we will solve it next week, but we don’t have any time–

Kathy: We’ll live.

Tim: –to work on it for–

Kathy: We’ll survive.

Tim: –the next 24 hours. And I think in the past, the feeling was and if we don’t solve it, we really weren’t sure about not so much that the marriage wouldn’t survive, but whether a happy marriage would survive.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: And at a certain point we realized, we will be able to work this out. We have in the past. But it took several years in.

Kathy: Probably we were slow learners. And I don’t think everybody has to be as slow a learner as we were.

John: Our guest on “Focus on the Family” today is Dr. Timothy Keller and his wife, Kathy. Our host is Jim Daly. I’m John Fuller and I think it takes a lot of courage, Jim, for couples to be willing to go to those points of conflict. A lot of couples see conflict as you said, Kathy, as the sign that it’s over, when in fact, conflict is the course God uses to kinda sand off the rough edges.

Tim: Uh-hm.

John: It takes some real courage to go there though.

Jim: Hm. That’s so true.

John: It’s so not easy to say, “Well, Jim, Honey, did you know that …?” But Jean has to do that because she loves you.

Jim: Well, sure and I think that in that regard, I think we need to have thicker skin to be able to get through those rough times. You know, some of the research that we see now is that uh … when you look at couples that are on the brink of divorce that actually stay together, fight through the pain, after five years, they’re much happier. Those that have given up and divorced, five years from that point, they’re much unhappier. And you know, I think there is evidence there that it’s important to fight. Fight for your marriage. Fight for–

Kathy: Well–

Jim: –your relationship.

Kathy: –with two sinners married to each other (Laughter), what else is going to happen?

Jim: Yeah.

Kathy: And and one thing I always tell young couples is, think about your relationship to Christ. How easy is that? Is it really easy to keep your devotional life strong? Is it really easy to keep your prayer life–

John: Hm.

Kathy: –really alive and warm? Is it really easy to be obedient in areas? Well, no, it’s not that easy. And then I say, “And one of you in that relationship is perfect.” (Laughter)

Jim: And it’s me.

Kathy: And (Laughter) no, it’s God. So, then you go to a relationship with an imperfect other human being. If your relationship to God is difficult to keep alive and warm and He’s perfect and you marry an imperfect simple human being, of course, it’s going to be hard. What do you expect?

Tim: That’s the idealism again by the way, I do think plenty of newly married people when they have their first fight say, “If I was married to the right person, this wouldn’t be happening.”

Jim: Because they think fighting is–

Tim: Yeah.

Jim: –evidence of the wrong marriage.

Tim: Yeah. Even if they don’t say it out loud, I think that’s the subtext. They’re saying, “If this was the one, we wouldn’t be doing this, because this person would accept me–

Kathy: Or have no problem with whatever–

Tim: –or wouldn’t have any problem–

Kathy: –the issue is–

Tim: –with me.

Kathy: –that you’re fighting about.

Tim: Right or this person’s more flawed than I thought, so this is not the one. I married the wrong person.

Jim: In reality–

Tim: That happens really fast now.

Jim: –in reality, what is true in that situation?

Tim: I mean, the reality of course is, that if you have two self-centered people, there has to be clashes. There has to be. And I do think in the past, people expected marriage to be more difficult and it wasn’t a big surprise. The whole idea of how marriage was a stable relationship so you could make a living, so you could build a family. We put the same burden of finding somebody who accepted me perfectly and never fought with me and accepted me for who I am. I actually really think that we put more pressure on marriage with our expectations than anybody ever has in the past.

Jim: Well, let’s touch on that, because in the book you talk specifically about how marriage does not fit the male nature. That line jumped out at me.

Tim: Right.

Jim: What do you mean by that and what does marriage do for men?

Tim: There’s one place in the book where I quote an op-ed piece from TheNew York Times, I think. It was not a Christian point of view or article.

Jim: Right.

Tim: What she tried to say was, that it’s now becoming common sense to say, “Look at all these alpha males. Marriages just don’t fit their nature.” And then she said, “Right and that’s why in the past, masculinity meant self-mastery, that you got ahold of yourself, that you governed those passions which are very hard. And a real man was a man who knew how to control himself and therefore, marriage actually basically is good for men, because yeah, they chafe against it and yet, it’s really what they need more than anything else, is they need to learn self-mastery and there’s no better way to do that than get married.

Jim: When you look at the cultural landscape today though, is that one of our core problems, that men are not mastering that and we’re out of control?

Tim: Yes, the writer of the article, I can’t remember what her background was, but she was really looking not so much at Christianity, though Christians would say that, too. But even the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that real manliness was self-mastery. ‘Cause men want to have sex with anybody they want to have sex with. Men can be very angry.

Kathy: Sinful men.

Tim: They can get very angry, that–

Jim: Control, power.

Tim: –they want to control. They want to be in charge. I mean, that’s sort of, you might say, sort of naked hormonal masculinity pushes us in that direction. But a real man gets in charge of those things; he gets on top of those things and controls their sexual drives and controls their lust for power and become civilized.

Jim: Well, and that’s what Jesus was teaching us.

Tim: Yeah and marriage, by the way, does civilize us. For Christians, it’s a way for Jesus to change us.

Jim: Hm.

Tim: But she was actually pointing out that just marriage in general, you know, the kind of common grace level, civilizes men. And I’m sorry. As a man, I’d be very happy to embrace that and say, yes, that’s one of the things we need.

Jim: And you look at the political landscape, that narrative today for men is, you know, our personal lives really don’t matter. We can lead out of our own convictions. That’s good enough. If we’ve had affairs and other things, that’s really not for the public–

Tim: Well, you know–

Jim: –to know about.|

Tim: –the irony, if you read any good commentary on David and Bathsheba, Robert Alter, who’s a Jewish expert on Hebrew literature, writes about the David narrative, where David has an affair and blows up his life. And he says, “Powerful men tell themselves, ‘I work so hard; I’ve made so many sacrifices; I deserve this.’”

And then ironically they say, “Because I’ve got power and because I’m doing so much; I’m serving the public, I should be able to have this little, you know, bit of–

John: Indulgence.

Tim: –indulgence. Except that when they do that and even today, when supposedly your sex life is private and who’s gonna judge and yet, actually nobody respects these public figures, that find out they’re cheating on their wives and lying about it. They blow up their lives.

Jim: Yes.

Tim: They do anyway, even today, it’s amazing.

Jim: There’s something in the heart that understands.

Tim: Yeah, I can go to the Bible, but I can also go to frankly all sorts of other examples to say to young men, “Get control.”


John: Well, that’s some great insight and biblical wisdom from Dr. Tim and Kathy Keller. And it is a shame the damage that infidelity causes to a family and friends. We’re so appreciative of the Kellers and their perspectives that they’ve been sharing with us, Jim, because that really does swim against the culture and the destructive forces that are in place against our marriages. And I’ll note that the book that we’ve been talking about is written by the Kellers and it’s called The Meaning of Marriage.

Jim: John, Focus on the Family is right on the front lines of this discussion on marriage in our culture and I’m proud to be there. I think it’s important. I think when you look at the criticality of the family, I think marriage is right at the epicenter. It may be why our back is up against the wall in this regard. But we have got to, in the wisdom of Christ and in His love and grace, talk about the importance of marriage and what it does in the culture to literally underpin everything else in the culture–stable families, healthy children, all the benefits that a healthy marriage provides.

And you know, that’s why we’re here at Focus on the Family, to help strengthen families, so that they not only thrive in their own homes, but that they can be that witness to the world. The world’s watc

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The Meaning of Marriage

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