Archive for February, 2014

“Meaning of Marriage” reflection questions, Week 2

February 28, 2014


The following questions are to be completed before the March 2 meeting of HUMC’s “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study. They cover Chapter 2. (Click here to download these questions as a separate .pdf file.)

Chapter 2

Before Paul addresses the subject of marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, he tells his readers in v. 18 to “be filled with the Spirit.” In order to have a satisfying marriage, Paul implies, married couples must find their deepest, most important needs met in God alone.  Thus Keller writes, “If we look to our spouses to fill up our tanks in a way that only God can do, we are demanding an impossibility.”

How easy is it for you to look to your spouse, rather than God, to fill up your tank? Can you cite specific ways in which you’ve done that? True or false: Your spouse should make you happy.

“Submitting to one another” (v. 21) is a controversial idea today, especially as relates to v. 22 (“Wives, submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.”) Yet Keller says that husbands, who are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (v. 25), is a “stronger appeal to abandon self-interest than was given to the woman.” Do you agree?

What does Keller call the “hardest yet single most important function of being a husband or wife in marriage”? Can you think of any teachings of Jesus in the Gospels that relate to this idea?

If marriage is about “living for the other”—putting my spouse’s interests ahead of my own—then what’s in it for me? Should my willingness to live for my spouse depend in part on his or her willingness to live for me? What happens if the degree of “living for the other” is lopsided or even one-sided?

Can you relate to the incident that Keller describes in the paragraph beginning, “Kathy and I remember a pivotal incident in our marriage…” (p. 54 in the hardback version) Why didn’t Keller want his wife to serve him? How does this relate to the gospel (which Keller summarizes neatly in one sentence—can you find it)?

What does it mean for spouses to relate to one another on the basis of grace?

How do Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:25 relate to marriage and happiness? What does Keller say is the secret to happiness?

Keller says that self-centeredness is the root problem not only within marriage but within human beings. Newlyweds soon discover the selfishness in their spouse and conclude that their spouse’s selfishness is a bigger problem in the marriage than their own. Describe the two paths that a marriage can take at that point.

Why does Keller believe that a marriage can improve if even one spouse decides to live according to v. 21?

Marriage Link

Read this recent article in Christianity Today about Christians, marriage, and statistics. How does this research affirm what Keller writes in Chapter 2?

Here’s the video clip from Jerry Maguire that we watched last week… Enjoy!


Sermon 02-23-14: “Hearers and Doers, Part 2”

February 28, 2014


Perhaps the most important way in which the church fails to be “doers of the word and not hearers only” is when it comes to the work of evangelism. If we Christians believe that eternity is at stake in the question of a person’s decision to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation, wouldn’t we approach this task with greater urgency? Instead, we are often reluctant to witness to our faith. Why? What can help us become more faithful in this mission?

Sermon Text: James 1:19-27

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

So, Satan made news in Hollywood this week. I’m sure that was a mistake on Satan’s part. Usually, he goes about his work in Hollywood under the radar, without anyone noticing!

Be that as it may, Satan was in the news. You may recall that last year, Roma Downey, former star of Touched by an Angel, and her husband, Mark Burnett, creator and producer of the show Survivor, produced a hit miniseries called The Bible. They announced last week that they are recycling part of that miniseries to create a theatrically released movie about Jesus called Son of God.

If you saw the original miniseries, however, you may notice one small difference: Satan didn’t make the cut this time.

Literally, they’re cutting out the scene in which Satan tempts Jesus in the wilderness. When the original miniseries aired, that scene caused controversy after Glenn Beck tweeted that he saw a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. And that’s all anyone was talking about the next day. Roma Downey said she didn’t want a repeat of that experience. She said, “I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus. I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.” Read the rest of this entry »

Do we act like “making disciples” is our priority?

February 28, 2014

In my sermon last Sunday, I complained about the general lack of evangelistic fervor in United Methodist Church. I did so in response to one theologian’s saying that evangelism would be easier if you remove sin, Satan, and hell.

After all—generally speaking—Methodists have spent 50 years or so mostly preaching a “feel-good Christianity” of love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation, with little talk of Satan, sin, and hell.

And where has it gotten us? Has evangelism been easier for us during that time?

Probably not, since we mostly haven’t done evangelism during that time. Our denomination’s declining numbers tell the story of a church that is failing to reach people with the gospel—at least in the U.S. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Once you remove the main reason that God became flesh in the first place—to save us from sin, and final judgment, and hell—why bother with evangelism? What sense of urgency should we have to share such a “feel-good” kind of gospel? People can stay home and watch Oprah, or whomever, instead.

Was I coming on too strong? Was I exaggerating? A professor at the UMC-affiliated United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, wouldn’t think so. He wrote a great blog post about the same problem:

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make disciplines of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Ok. So far, so good.

One would expect, then, the public website of the UMC to serve this end of making disciples. As I look at the website, though, I see the following:

A headline called, “What can a horse teach a pastor?”

There is a picture of Bishop Carcano being arrested.

There is a story on firewood ministry…

There is a story on Black History Month…

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

I’m certainly no marketing expert, but it does seem to me that if we wish our public internet presence to be consistent with our mission, these types of changes would be in order.

Indeed. But one shouldn’t hold one’s breath.

Who believes in the God-of-the-gaps anyway?

February 27, 2014

Bill Moyers interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.”

Or so said Carl Sagan billions and billions of years… well, back in 1980, when PBS’s Cosmos became the most widely watched PBS series ever.

The series is being revived with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson as its host on various Fox-owned channels. I’m sure that, like the original, the new version will be a hit. For a science nerd, Tyson is very comfortable in front of the cameras. (You may have seen him, for instance, matching wits with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.)

In this recent Reasonable Faith podcast, Christian philosopher/apologist William Lane Craig and his cohost Kevin Harris wondered aloud if Tyson’s version would “continue this sort of cultural prejudice that science and an appreciation of the wonder of the cosmos lends support to naturalism or to atheism.”

The quote above, for example, which kicked off the original series was a metaphysical, rather than scientific, proposition. It was fine for Dr. Sagan to express his metaphysical beliefs, so long as his viewers understood that he was speaking metaphysically, rather than scientifically. No one was paying Sagan to be a metaphysician.

So it’s another example of a scientist overstepping his boundaries. (And, yes, I’m aware that religious people like me often do the same in the opposite direction.)

What about Tyson? Will he make the same kinds of mistakes?

Based on a recent interview Tyson gave to Bill Moyers, which Craig and Harris discussed in the podcast, they aren’t holding their breath. In fact, I’ve rarely heard the normally mild-mannered Dr. Craig sound so passionately indignant.

When Moyers asks Tyson his opinion about the relationship between science and religious faith, Tyson says that “if you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation, God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread.” In other words, you can’t base your faith on the so-called “God of the gaps”—the God who explains what science is currently unable to explain.

If you do, Tyson says, what room will be left for God once science fills in all the gaps in our knowledge of the universe?

While I don’t share Tyson’s confidence that science is making such great strides, I agree that God-of-the-gaps is an insufficient reason to believe in God.

But who doesn’t?

Here in the real world, do many practicing Christians—or, for all I know, any practicing theists—really believe in God simply because he “explains” what science is unable to explain? I don’t deny that some people who believe in God have this kind of “faith,” but it certainly isn’t worth getting out of bed on Sunday morning. And so they don’t.

Yet celebrity scientists like Tyson often talk as if most religious believers are like that!

Be that as it may, Craig takes Tyson to task mostly over his assertion that reason is at odds with faith.

At one point, Tyson says that since scientists can measure the “neurosynaptic firings when you have a religious experience,” God is strictly a product of the mind—which itself is contained within the cosmos. So Sagan was right: The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. There’s no sense talking about a God who transcends time, space, and matter.

I like Craig’s response:

Now, Tyson is quite happy to say, well, God is just in your mind, and he thinks therefore you can give a neurosynaptic analysis of religious experience. Now, I would point out, Kevin, that my idea of Neil deGrasse Tyson is in my mind and you can give a neurosynaptic analysis of my experience of seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson. Does that mean that therefore he is illusory? That he is just an object in my consciousness – as you say, there is no external referent for that experience? Obviously not! This is a terrible argument! To think that because you can analyze neurologically my experiences of an object that therefore the object isn’t real or objective, that is a ridiculous argument and would ultimately lead to solipsism, right? The external world and everyone around me are all unreal and everything is an idea in my mind. I don’t know if Tyson is a solipsist but I would hope not. Then, having described this absurd position, he then starts talking about how he supports constitutional free exercise of religion. That’s wonderful, I’m glad he does. But don’t let it into the classroom of science. Well, where did that come from? How does defending the objectivity of God’s existence and that it is not just an idea in your mind lead to the claim that we are trying to introduce this into science classes. It is just guilt by association. He is blurring issues here. This is not representing clear thought, I think.

To be clear, Craig mostly agrees with Tyson on “God of the gaps.” It’s that extra step Tyson takes—to assert that reason and faith are irreconcilable—that’s got his goat.

Dr. Tyson: What he did was invoke – he didn’t invoke Zeus to account for the rock that he is standing on or the air he is breathing – it was this point of mystery. And in gets invoked God. This over time has been described by philosophers as the God of the gaps. If that is where you are going to put your God in this world then God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance. If that is how you are going to invoke God. If God is the mystery of the universe, we are tackling these mysteries one by one. If you are going to stay religious at the end of the conversation God has to mean more to you than just where science has yet to tread. So to the person who says, maybe dark matter is God, if the only reason why you are saying it is because it is a mystery, then get ready to have that undone.

Kevin Harris: Bill, I can agree with a lot of that. I think you probably can, too.

Dr. Craig: Absolutely. He says that if that is where you put God, the undiscovered, then he is ever receding. God has to be more to you than where science has yet to tread. Absolutely. So what I want to know, though, from Tyson is for the person whose God is more than just where science has yet to tread, is that irrational? Is faith and reason irreconcilable, as he claimed? I do not understand that opening salvo against the rationality of religious faith. For the person who doesn’t believe in a God of the gaps, whose God is more than the God of the gaps, how is that person’s faith and reason not reconcilable? How is that person irrational? Nothing he said supports that opening bold claim. Instead, he has attacked a caricature.

God is perfectly just, but he isn’t “fair”

February 25, 2014
I was blessed to finally replace this piece of junk. But even this piece of junk had a been a great blessing from God!

I was blessed to finally replace this piece of junk. But even this piece of junk had a been a great blessing from God!

In several recent posts, including this one and that one, I’ve defended the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence against attempts by many United Methodists (if not mainline Protestants in general) to water them down. As a Wesleyan Christian, I naturally disagree with Calvinistic determinism, which says that even one’s decision to accept or reject God’s gift of salvation is determined by God.

Nevertheless, we can still believe that God is in control and that human beings have free will, as I’ve argued.

This morning, at least a couple of fellow clergy linked approvingly to this blog post from a former missionary named Scott Dannemiller. He writes:

For those of you who don’t know, I make money by teaching leadership skills and helping people learn to get along in corporate America. My wife says it’s all a clever disguise so I can get up in front of large groups and tell stories.

I plead the fifth.

I answered my buddy’s question with,

“Definitely feeling blessed. Last year was the best year yet for my business. And it looks like this year will be just as busy.”

The words rolled off my tongue without a second thought. Like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or placing my usual lunch order at McDonald’s.

But it was a lie.

He goes on to say that while he has enjoyed recent financial success, he’s mistaken to call this success a blessing from God.

First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers…

Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong. For starters, it is offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day. You read that right.  Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day…

The problem?  Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture.

I agree that the Bible doesn’t promise a financial return on the investment of our faith (there is a reward in heaven), but it does teach us that God blesses us materially. I wrote the following in response to a clergy friend who posted the link:

I disagree with this blogger. Blessings certainly include material things like revenue from one’s business, or automobiles, or houses. And it’s perfectly OK to thank God for them. The whole system of tithing in the OT was a way of acknowledging that God had blessed the recipient with this harvest. Our Lord teaches us to ask God for material blessings in the model prayer he gave us. Our daily bread comes from God. Granted, most of us don’t act like it comes from God, but that’s our problem.

What’s at stake, theologically, in the question is God’s sovereignty and providence—concepts to which many Methodists are strangely allergic (given that Wesley himself certainly wasn’t!). What kind of God do we believe in? A deistic one? A very distant god who mostly lets events in our world run their course?

When I was driving my 18 year old Honda, for instance, which was being held together with duct tape and chewing gum, I prayed that we could have the money to replace it. Did God answer my prayer when he enabled me, finally, to buy a much newer used Honda? Am I allowed to call my much newer Honda a blessing. Because it certainly feels like one to me! And I do thank God for it!

I could say, “It’s not fair that I can afford this car while so many poor people in the world can’t.” Well, God isn’t “fair,” if by fair you mean that God offers an equal distribution of material blessings in the world. But we ought to trust that God knows what he’s doing.

If the blogger were merely saying that we’re not responsible stewards with the blessings God gives us, I would certainly agree! But that’s a separate question.

Besides, you haven’t escaped the question of fairness once you remove financial blessings from the equation. Are children a blessing from God? Of course they are. But there are married couples who are unable to have children. Is that fair? Is it fair that we’re more “blessed” (in this regard) than the couples who can’t have children? Does this disparity of blessings mean that we should scrap the whole idea that God has given us our children as gifts (and enormous responsibilities to go with them)? 

Or are we back to believing that God has nothing to do with these blessings as well—that it’s just a roll of the dice whether or not we have kids. God set up the system of human reproduction before backing away and letting events run their course.

The blogger’s postscript—that he’s learned to say “I’m grateful” instead of “I’m blessed”—only begs the question. To whom is he grateful if not to God? Is he grateful to Lady Luck instead?

“To live is Christ, and to die is gain”

February 25, 2014

I ran a 5K with Bart last fall. He’s on the far right. His son Daniel is beside him.

I’ve often preached this text from Philippians 1, in which the apostle Paul, facing possible execution in prison, tells his beloved church at Philippi that he’s torn between staying on earth to continue his ministry and leaving this world to be with the Lord. “For to me,” he writes, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

My friend and brother in Christ Bart Chandler, who died of a heart attack yesterday during his morning run, certainly believed Paul’s words, as do I.

But right now I feel like saying, “Yes, it’s his gain, but it’s our great loss!” I’m sure everyone at our church feels the same way right now.

Nevertheless, I am grateful to God for blessing me with the gift of Bart’s life, even for the all-too-brief time that I knew him.

If you would like, please pray that the Holy Spirit would comfort and strengthen Bart’s family, especially his wife, Cecilia and his sons Daniel and Adam.

It’s getting crowded over here on the “wrong side of history”

February 22, 2014

Bishops from the Church of England offer clear and compassionate guidance on this hot-button issue, even as Great Britain legalizes same-sex marriage. Imagine that? (This excerpt comes from Scot McKnight’s blog.)

As members of the Body of Christ we are aware that there will be a range of responses across the Church of England to the introduction of same sex marriage.  As bishops we have reflected and prayed together about these developments.  As our statement of 27th January indicated, we are not all in agreement about every aspect of the Church’s response.  However we are all in agreement that the Christian understanding and doctrine of marriage as a lifelong union between one man and one woman remains unchanged.

The Church of England’s teaching on marriage

1. The Church of England’s long standing teaching and rule are set out in Canon B30: ‘The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better for worse, till death them do part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.”…

4. The Lambeth Conference of 1998 said ‘in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage’ (resolution1.10) This remains the declared position of the Anglican Communion….

12. When the Act comes into force in March it will continue not to be legally possible for two persons of the same sex to marry according to the rites of the Church of England. In addition the Act makes clear that any rights and duties which currently exist in relation to being married in Church of England churches do not extend to same sex couples….

27. The House is not, therefore, willing for those who are in a same sex marriage to be ordained to any of the three orders of ministry. In addition it considers that it would not be appropriate conduct for someone in holy orders to enter into a same sex marriage, given the need for clergy to model the Church’s teaching in their lives.

Can you tell Jesus’ story without Satan?

February 22, 2014


Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, who produced last year’s smash-hit miniseries The Bible, are recycling the portions of that miniseries to create a theatrically released film about Jesus called Son of God.

As Downey explained in a press interview, however, they’re leaving out one important scene: Satan’s tempting Jesus in the wilderness.

When The Bible originally aired, this scene caused a stir after Glenn Beck said on Twitter that he noticed a resemblance between Satan and President Obama. For Downey and Burnett, this controversy distracted viewers from the message they were trying to communicate. “For our movie, Son of God, I wanted all of the focus to be on Jesus,” Downey said. “I want His name to be on the lips of everyone who sees this movie, so we cast Satan out.”

I don’t doubt Downey’s good intentions for a moment. She and her husband are committed Christians who believe in Satan. They even blame him for the original controversy in the first place. But, as one writer at the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s blog rightly complains, you can’t tell the full story of Jesus without the devil.

In reality, Satan and the temptation in the wilderness is pivotal to both the narrative of the Gospels and our theological understandings of Christ Himself. Theologically, Jesus’ facing temptation was necessary in order for Him to be fully human. As Hebrews tells us, Jesus was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” It isn’t simply happenstance that Jesus faced temptation. If Jesus hadn’t faced temptation of any sort, His sacrifice on the cross, His unselfish ministry to the poor and sick, and His sinless nature all would have been unremarkable. Jesus essentially becomes an Asimov robot, only doing good works because He is programmed to do so. How could mankind relate to a Savior like that?

He continues:

Evangelism is much easier when the only discussions are about love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation. Love your neighbor, God loves you no matter what; those parts of Jesus’ message poll pretty well among general audiences. Satan, sin, and an eternal Hell? Not so much. What results far too often is a kind of “feel-good Christianity,” with lots of loving the sinner, not too much hating the sin, and certainly no discussion of that guy with horns and a pitchfork you see in cartoons. In actuality, the Jesus of the Gospels spends a lot of time talking about why you should love your neighbors and give up earthly possessions: because the wage of sin is eternal damnation.

I almost completely agree… except for the first sentence of the preceding paragraph: Is evangelism much easier once you remove Satan, sin, and eternal hell? Surely our experience as United Methodists—or some other brand of mainline Protestant—tells us otherwise.

After all, Methodists have spent 50 years or so mostly preaching a “feel-good Christianity” of love, forgiveness, and self-affirmation, with little talk of Satan, sin, and hell. Has evangelism been easier for us during that time?

Who knows? We mostly haven’t done evangelism. And our declining numbers tell the story of a church that is failing to reach people with the gospel—at least in the U.S.

How can this surprise us? Once you remove the main reason that God became flesh in the first place—to save us from sin, death, and hell—why bother with evangelism? What sense of urgency should we have to share such a “gospel”? United Methodist theologian Jerry Walls puts it this way:

[I]f hell is not perceived to be a serious threat, it is hard to see how salvation can have the same meaning it used to. Not surprisingly, salvation is less and less conceived as a matter of eternal life, and more and more as a matter of of personal fulfillment in this life. Thus, salvation comes to sound increasingly like a means of dealing with psychological problems, gaining in positive self-image, developing a better outlook on life, liberation from oppression, and so on.

If Christianity is indeed primarily about salvation, and if salvation comes to mean something very different when hell drops out of sight, then the doctrine of hell is an important part of Christianity. Indeed, it may be essential, at least in some form, if Christianity is to avoid trivialization.[†]

The world outside our church doors is telling us that it isn’t worth getting out of bed for a trivialized Christianity.

Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame, IN: The University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 7.

Is it possible to enjoy evangelism?

February 20, 2014


Twice during our Disney trip this week, a skywriter wrote messages about Jesus. The first was “JESUS 4GIVES JUST ASK,” and the second was the one pictured above, “JESUS LOI.” I know that doesn’t make sense. I’m sure he was going to turn that I into a V and spell out “JESUS LOVES YOU.” We drove away before we saw the finished product.

When I was younger and more foolish than I am today, I would have dismissed this sort of evangelistic effort as shallow and ineffective. But why? We could do worse than to remind people that Jesus loves them and will forgive them when they ask. And at least this person is doing something to spread the good news of God’s love in Christ. I assume when the pilot is on the ground he does other things, too. People obviously need more than just this message. But it’s a start.

One problem, however—which you can begin to see even from this photo—is that smoke letters quickly disperse, like wet ink smudging on paper. Since skywriting is a slow and painstaking process, it’s likely that the words on left will be unreadable before he finishes writing his message.

As we the church go about our task of fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples, we probably want to make a more lasting impact on people’s lives. In fact, we want to make an eternal impact. How do we do that?

Answer: We don’t. We can’t!  It isn’t within our power to make an eternal impact on people’s lives.

Fortunately, we have the Holy Spirit who does have that kind of power.

In his book Conspiracy of Kindness, pastor Steve Sjogren makes this point often: it isn’t about what we do so much as what the Holy Spirit does through us. We easily forget this fact. That’s why Sjogren says most of the evangelism we do either puts pressure on ourselves (“How many people have made faith decisions through our efforts?”), the person being evangelized (“Are you ready to pray right now to accept Christ as Savior and Lord?”), the evangelism program itself (“We’ll have guaranteed success if we follow these seven steps!”), or some combination of the three.

Where we should put the pressure, Sjogren argues, is on God.

In short, the Holy Spirit is the only true evangelist who has ever existed. His is the only power in the universe that can turn a convert into a disciple who looks like Jesus Christ. If the Holy Spirit truly is the only evangelist who has even been, then we are free to remove pressure from the wrong places. We can begin  seeing ourselves as coworkers with the Holy Spirit, letting Him do what only He can do anyway. Our role is to enjoy the flow of God’s life through us as we share our joy with others. When we abide in God, we don’t just speak or even demonstrate the message of His love; we embody that message in a way that makes people stand up and take notice.[†]

Enjoy the flow of God’s life through us?

I’m reminded of Br’er Rabbit: “Please don’t throw me into that briar patch!”

want to enjoy the flow of God’s life through me. Don’t you?

I’ll say more about this in my sermon on Sunday, as my sermon “Hearers and Doers” continues with Part 2.

Steve Sjogren, Conspiracy of Kindness, rev. (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2003), 55.

Psychologists confirm: married couples need to lower expectations

February 18, 2014
Keller's book mostly agrees with this psychologist's diagnosis.

Keller’s book mostly agrees with this psychologist’s diagnosis.

This op-ed in the New York Times was a wet blanket for Valentine’s Day: A psychologist from Northwestern University, Eli Finkel, and his team of researchers, argue that, in general, we married couples in America need to lower our expectations in order to have a happier marriage.

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.

A couple of hundred years ago, before industrialization and the growth of cities, married couples’ expectations for one another were low: they “revolved around things like food production, shelter and protection from violence. To be sure, Americans were pleased if they experienced an emotional connection with their spouse, but such affinities were perquisites of a well-functioning marriage rather than its central purpose.”

From about 1850 to 1965, as people migrated from farms to factory jobs in cities, “American marriage increasingly centered around intimate needs such as to love, to be loved and to experience a fulfilling sex life.”

Since around 1965, “Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth.” As Finkel says, our attitude toward marriage is reflected in that famous line that Jack Nicholson uttered to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets: “You make me want to be a better man.”

If you’ve read Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, none of this should surprise you. He calls this emphasis on marriage as a means of personal growth a “Me-Marriage.” He says that few potential marriage partners can possibly live up to our high ideals:

To conduct a Me-Marriage requires two completely well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work. The problem is—there is almost no one like that out there to marry! The new conception of marriage-as-self-realization has put us in a position of wanting too much out of marriage and yet not nearly enough—at the same time…

[Some people] do not see marriage as two flawed people coming together to create a space of stability, love, and consolation—a “haven in a heartless world,” as Christopher Lasch describes it. This will indeed require a woman who is a “novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling” or the equivalent in a man. A marriage based not on self-denial but on self-fulfillment will require a low- or no-maintenance partner who meets your needs while making almost no claims on you. Simply put—today people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.[†]

Both Finkel and Keller agree that if a Me-Marriage is going to succeed, it will require a lot more work than most couples are willing to put into it. Keller would likely say that those couples who will put in the necessary work are those fortunate few who are at least relatively “well-adjusted, happy individuals, with very little in the way of emotional neediness of their own or character flaws that need a lot of work.” The problem is there just aren’t very many of those people around! And since Keller is a theologian and not a psychologist, he gets to explain this deficit in terms of sin.

Regardless, both Finkel and Keller agree that since many if not most of us aren’t willing or able to make a Me-Marriage work, we need to change our expectations about what marriage can do for us.

Keller, however, unlike Finkel, wouldn’t say it’s a matter of “lowering” expectations: instead, it’s properly centering our expectations on the cross of Jesus Christ. If we understand what Paul is saying about marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, then we understand that marriage isn’t about me in the first place. As with the rest of life, marriage is about denying myself and loving my neighbor: the one who lives under my roof, raises a family with me, and shares a bed with me.

Does that sound disappointing? It shouldn’t. God knows it’s the only path to true happiness and fulfillment anyway. The least effective way to achieve happiness is to aim for it directly, as the Me-Marriage does.

For those of you who are taking my “Meaning of Marriage” Bible study, I’m sure I’ll say more about Finkel’s article this Sunday!

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 34-5.