Five useful books reviewed by Cailey Raffel and Ben Underwood

Married for God: Making your marriage the  best it can be

Christopher Ash IVP 2007 ISBN 9781844741892
167 pages, with discussion questions after each chapter plus a comprehensive list of books for further reading

This is not a book of commonsense wisdom about sex and marriage with a coating of Bible verses to make it Christian. Rather, Ash wants to start with God and have God central to his whole discussion about marriage. Recognising that disappointment is one of the biggest reasons for marriage breakdown, he starts with the question, ‘What are proper hopes and aims for marriage?’

Ash calls us to line up our goals behind God’s rather than expecting God to line up his energies behind my goals. His bottom line is: put God at the centre and strive to want what he wants, and you will have a better marriage. 

The snapshots of relationships which set the scene for each chapter give the book a contemporary feel. It is easy to read, although challenging in many ways as Ash tackles unhelpful ideas that exist within church circles and broader society. I appreciated that over ten Bible passages discussed are quoted in full.

In discussing Genesis 1–3, we see marriage is not designed as a cure for loneliness, or to meet my needs, but as a vehicle for serving God. Ash uses the phrase ‘sex in the service of God’ as shorthand for the framework of using all the resources and opportunities that marriage provides to serve God in his world.

Other chapters explore the purpose of the marriage institution (why not just live together?), of sex and intimacy, and of children. In the chapter on God’s pattern for marriage, Ash helpfuly shows that neither a tyrannical husband nor a domineering wife nor a mousy, doormat wife nor an abdicator husband represent God’s pattern.

Ash’s discussion of singleness skilfully tackles the lie our society peddles that we cannot be fully human without having sex. He highlights the different expressions, yet common purpose, that singles and marrieds share—that of serving God wholeheartedly. The need to exercise self control and to learn contentment is also common—recognising our current state, whether single or married, as a gracious gift to us from our loving heavenly Father.

The final chapter, ‘What is at the heart of Marriage?’, highlights the importance of faithfulness, especially in the light of marriages being joined by God. It finishes with our need to see how great a debt we have had forgiven by God, so that we can go on forgiving our spouse.

This Momentary Marriage

John Piper Crossway 2009 ISBN 9781433531118
180 pages, plus subject, Scripture and person indexes

This book is subtitled A Parable of Permanence because Piper’s big idea is that marriage is primarily about displaying the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. Piper prefaces each chapter with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by Nazis before he was able to marry his fiancée. He does this to remind us that 

High romance and passionate sexual intimacy and precious children may come. But hold them loosely—as though you were not holding them… [These] are temporary gifts of God.  They are not part of the next life. And they are not guaranteed even for this life… Marriage passes through breathtaking heights and through swamps with choking vapors. (pp.16–17)

Piper paints a biblical vision of just how glorious marriage, as God designed it, should be. But he also stops us making it the very highest thing in our thoughts, helping us keep first things first rather than drifting into idolatry. He emphasises forgiveness and forbearance before seeking change by sacrifice—showing that God’s grace gives us power for hard situations but also the motivation and power to change. These chapters will be helpful for people who think that nagging their spouse to change will work or for anyone thinking God is calling them to simply endure a miserable marriage.

Piper spends a few chapters exploring headship and submission, sex, children and disciple making. There are two chapters given to a discussion of singleness and we are spurred on to be more excited by our eternal relationship with God than any human relationship. Happily-single Christians are a tangible illustration of the sufficiency of Jesus and the final state that we are heading towards.

There are also two chapters given to a discussion of divorce, including whether remarriage is ever permissible. Piper recognises he holds a minority view but urges his readers to consider it and whatever view they come to, to see the meaning of marriage as the flesh-and-blood display of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and the Church.

I appreciated the foreword by Noël, his wife, and the honesty with which she and John speak of their 40 years together. Although the book doesn’t have many stories from their marriage, John does say he waited 40 years to write it because he is no longer waiting to have it all together before writing on the subject!

The book is full of exhortations I needed to hear, expressed in a way that led me to want to pray at the end of each chapter.

[a free PDF version is available from Piper’s website: www.desiringgod.org]

The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the complexities of commitment with the wisdom of God

Timothy & Kathy Keller Hodder & Stoughton 2011 ISBN 9781444702514
240 pages, plus an appendix on how the Kellers make decisions

The Kellers’ introduction says there are two groups of people the book is for:

1. Those who have discovered how challenging marriage is and want practical resources to grow through these trials;

2. For unmarried people: many ambivalent or dismissive of marriage, others over-desiring it.

So this book aims to provide a robustly realistic yet glorious vision of marriage and to help people work out what they should be looking for in a prospective mate.

The book is worth buying for the practical counsel it gives to marriage seekers and those who want help with practical chastity. As with Piper’s book, I also felt challenged as to how I could use my marriage to better serve my single brothers and sisters.

Though the book is firmly grounded in the biblical teachings on marriage, the Kellers don’t assume a Christian audience, and they encourage readers who might not share their conviction that the Bible is God’s authoritative word to give it a go anyway—a real strength of the book.

Modern urban society is addressed and critiqued well using the Bible. The book also draws on the Kellers’ 37-year marriage and pastoral experience with helpful personal anecdotes.

Ephesians 5:18–33 is quoted in full before it is put into today’s cultural context. They show that God instituted marriage and that it was designed to be a reflection of the saving love of God for us in Jesus. We are shown our need for the Holy Spirit to make Christ’s work real to our hearts and to give us supernatural help against the main enemy of marriage: self-centredness.

The Kellers maintain the heart of marriage is love, discussing the relationship between feelings of love and acts of love, romantic passion and covenantal commitment. The next chapter defines the purpose of marriage as two spiritual friends helping each other on the journey to become the people God designed them to be, followed by a chapter which lays out the skill-sets with which one can help the other on that journey.

Kathy writes chapter 6, ‘Embracing the Other’, because she has had more experience talking about and struggling with gender roles. Raised gender neutral, her first encounter with headship and submission was intellectually and morally traumatic. Yet she requests that those who are not comfortable with divinely ordained gender roles within marriage suspend judgement for the space of the chapter and consider her reflections. If you are an egalitarian on this issue or feel the complementarian model is discriminatory, you may appreciate Kathy’s approach to explaining why she now considers ‘inhabiting the Jesus role’ a gift.

Love and Respect: The love she most desires; the respect he desperately needs

Emmerson Eggerichs Thomas Nelson 2004 ISBN 9781591452461
317 pages, including five practical appendices

The pop-style of this book may turn some people off, but I found it was worth persevering with it, despite my aversion to some of the Americanisms. As a pastor counselling marriages in trouble, Eggerichs kept pondering Ephesians 5:33 until he worked out why the husband is commanded to love his wife and the wife is commanded to respect her husband.

Eggerichs’s love of real-life examples and illustrations makes it easy to pick up the three main points of the book:

1. Marriages get into a crazy cycle: without feeling love from her husband, a wife reacts in a way that feels like disrespect to her husband…but without feeling respect from his wife, a husband reacts in a way that feels unloving to his wife. And so couples find themselves going around and around in this crazy cycle. The first section of the book unpacks why this is so often the case.

2. We can choose to get off the cycle when we choose to energise each other with love and respect. The second section of the book gives practical and easy-to-remember tools to help wives understand their husbands’ need for respect and how to express it, and for husbands to understand their wives’ need for love and how to express that. An appendix extends Eggerichs’s observations about gender differences and deals with couples who think they don’t fit this pattern.

3. The real reason to love and respect is Jesus. This final and briefest section deals with the fear that our efforts might not be reciprocated by our spouse. I was glad to see these chapters take us to Jesus—that we can’t really do love and respect unless we do it ‘as unto Jesus’and we need his help. A wife’s respect for her husband and a husband’s love for his wife — regardless of the other’s behaviour — reveal their reverence for Christ. If we are not respecting our husband or loving our wife we must ask, ‘Am I really loving Jesus Christ?’

This book doesn’t have the theological depth of the prior three, and some of Eggerichs’s use of Scripture and phrasing may make you squirm. But the simple focus on love and respect and the very specific examples are exactly what some marriages need. Many have already found that his explanation of how to live out Ephesians 5:33 has positively transformed their marriage, as evidenced by the examples peppered as illustrations throughout the book.

Cailey Raffel has been married to Kanishka for 25 years and has lived the last 14 in Shenton Park, Perth, with their two daughters. Two of these books were recommended by friends, another she read with her best friend (and life partner) and the other was picked off the book store shelf and read with a group of women from church.

Teen Sex By The Book

Patricia Weerakoon Fervr 2012 ISBN 9781922000507

This book by sex educator, researcher and therapist Patricia Weerakoon is addressed principally to Christian teenagers negotiating the questions about sex and sexuality that confront them.

Puberty, the awakening of sexual desire, falling in love, dating, how far to go, stages of male and female sexual response, cyber-sex, pornography, gender, sexual orientation and more are all discussed from a Christian point of view, by a writer whose knowledge of the study of human sexuality is longstanding and informed. Although the book is addressed to teens, Weerakoon envisages that the book will be useful for parents, teachers and youth leaders as well.

Part One is a journey through the central heterosexual experience from puberty to marriage. After a page of earthy vox-pop style quotes raising various issues and illustrating various attitudes, chapter 1 lays foundations, defining sexual activity, and asking what people think sex is for, and what God has to do with sex. The basic view that the book commends is that, sexually, God made our bodies in a particular way. They work best when we operate within his design:

God designed sexuality to operate best within a lifelong marriage of one man to one woman within a supporting family of the church. (p.23)

The confusion, disorder and pain of our sexual lives and identities is the result of living in a world ‘messed up’ by our rebellion against God (p.26), but that in Christ, Christians have a new identity, and a new, counter-cultural way of living prioritising godliness expressed in respect, care, discipline and faithfulness in our sexual activity. The book consistently encourages teens to use this map to negotiate the terrain of sexuality they encounter.

But the book is written by a sex educator, not a theologian or pastor, so the feel is more scientific and sociological than theological. There is plenty of talk of hormones and brain development, and reports of the results of sociological research into sexual attitudes and behaviour. By the time we get to the topically organised Part Two, a wide variety of sexual desires and behaviour is frankly discussed, and by setting out something of the complex and mysterious interaction of genes, hormones, family environment, peer pressure, personal convictions and choices that shape our sexual lives and experience, Weerakoon avoids simplistic analyses of the contested and emerging sexual issues of our time. Her research and counselling means she is in close touch with what teens now actually think, feel and do, and what human biology and sexuality in our world may be.

Yet at the same time, she is very far from saying that anything goes, or seeking to reshape what Christian chastity is. The book’s consistent counsel to teens is to slow down and be careful when it comes to what they involve themselves in. She points out that although the teen brain is full of awakened sexual desire and interest, that same brain has not developed adult judgement, and may make risky decisions in the heat of the moment. And, apart from the immediately regrettable consequences of posting a sensational photo online, or risking teen pregnancy, sexual choices and experiences during teen years influence brain development in ways that shape a person’s future ability to enjoy a sexual relationship within the commitment of marriage.

Weerakoon encourages teens to find a peer group who seek to live out a Christian sexual ethic, and not to despise the ways parents, youth pastors and other adults seek to set boundaries and give them guidance. As examples of her specific counsel, she advises dating couples to avoid inflaming one another sexually in any way, and strongly warns boys and girls against the destructive sexual scripts being played out in pornography, scripts which are more and more influencing the mainstream culture. Weerakoon asks her readers ultimately to filter all their response to their sexuality, and that of others, through their identity in Christ, and their love of the other. This love will express itself in consideration and compassion for others, whom we may hurt by the way we treat them. Such consideration and compassion will require that the teen years are not simply an exciting coming-of-age adventure, but are also a process of learning to manage sexual desires responsibly and in countercultural holiness.

The strengths of this book are that it comes from an author who has studied and thought about the issues in an informed way. This leads to some distinctive contributions, such as in the chapters in Part Two, especially perhaps chapter 9, ‘Boy or Girl’, which discusses (briefly) some of the complexities of biological sex (intersex individuals), gender identity (transsexual and transgender individuals) and sexual orientation (homosexual and bisexual desire). In a climate where churches are seen as ignorant and ill-informed about the realities of sexual and gender identity, it is good to read a concise and sympathetic account of these minority experiences from a Christian point
of view.

I do think the book would be improved by being clearer and more challenging in its advocacy of Christian chastity to its teenaged target audience. Weerakoon’s highly counter-cultural calls in, say, chapter 5—essentially to refrain from sexual intimacy with another person outside marriage (even while dating) —seem to me to be slightly lost in the mass of information about sexual arousal, and even hedged at times with statements that may seem to imply another view.1 Perhaps Weerakoon should also be more explicitly critical of teen dating. When Christians
advocate zero sexual intimacy of any kind outside marriage — treating ‘women as sisters’ (and men as brothers) until the wedding night—they often also advocate a pretty radical rejection of the whole culture of ‘going out’ and ‘dating’ in favour of a more directed and disciplined ‘courtship’ for those in a position to marry—not teens whose boyfriend/girlfriend liaisons are entered into years before marriage is possible, let alone probable. Weerakoon does not go this far, but perhaps she should, because it does seem to me that when teens pair off as boyfriend and girlfriend, some kind of sexual intimacy is inevitable. When you are a teen full of raging hormones, just being in the same room as your girlfriend is a sexually charged experience. Being alone with her, looking into her eyes and holding hands are already off the scale. She’s no sister in your eyes and you haven’t even kissed. This kind of experience of sexual intimacy seems to me to be part and parcel of teen dating, and perhaps to make her basic counsel more consistently worked through, Weerakoon should strengthen her recommendation that Christian teen pursue many non-sexual friendships with the opposite sex, relate in groups and avoiding dating relationships until at least the late teenage years and probably until early adulthood, in order to help teens live out this abstinence from sexual intimacy.

Lastly, given the book’s acknowledgement that teens do experience sexual desire, fall in love and have to make decisions for themselves about what they will do with these realities, I also think the book would be improved by beefing up its theological muscle. It seems to me that you need to make a strong case to persuade teens to refrain from doing what their culture, their peers and their hormones are all encouraging then to do, namely begin relationships of some (perhaps high) degree of sexual intimacy with one another. That case must be theological and moral, fundamentally. This case cannot be made empirically (through the findings of research) or culturally (we’ve left that far behind), but can only rest on a revealed vision of a proper human sexuality whose mode of expression is enjoyment of the beloved in the lifelong faithfulness of marriage, which is to be pursued by faith even though it is alien to our culture and even our own flesh. Weerakoon does not leave theology out by any means, and there are plenty of Scriptural quotations but I feel that more of the gospel could be brought to bear on the questions of the purpose of sex and marriage, the nature of our fallenness, the nature of healing and redemption through Christ and especially life in the Spirit. A lot of the advice about living a godly life is on the level of; Stop and think about what you are considering doing and its possible bad consequences. Talk it over with an older Christian you trust, and then choose to live God’s way and join with others who want the same. This is good advice, but if it incorporated more explicitly the gospel resources and disciplines for sanctification (e.g. Romans 6; Gal 5:13–26; Eph 4:17–5:20; Col 3:1–17), including concepts like flesh and Spirit, and the new self, being renewed in God’s image, I think the book would be more theologically grounded and integrated, and more powerful for it. There are books like Chester’s You Can Change, Lane and Tripp’s How People Change that are attempts to cover this territory.

Weerakoon is to be commended for her work in bringing this book together. Her obvious experience and  expertise shine out, as does her concern for teens and their healthy, safe and godly development. She is keen to demonstrate her respect for their growing independence as people and responsibility for their own choices. She encourages teens to choose counter-cultural Christian chastity without glossing over the complexities of the sexual landscape of our culture. She has offered good discussions of specific topics, and her book can profitably be used, perhaps alongside some others, to help teens (and others) think about our God-given sexuality and its proper expression.

Ben Underwood oversees the 5pm congregation at St Matthew’s Shenton Park in Perth

1 So while, in the section headed ‘How far should a couple go when on a date?’, we read, ‘the Bible clearly tells us that sexual activity, whatever it is and wherever it lies on the intimacy spectrum, is to be reserved for marriage’ (p.104), that section opens with the statement that, ‘Physical affection and sexual intimacy need to keep in step with the maturity of the relationship. Are you engaged to be married? Or are you in a just-above-friendship and getting-to-know-you relationship?’ (p.102). This opening statement could be read as implying that engaged couples may appropriately enjoy a deeper level of sexual intimacy and physical affection than couples on a first date, despite both couples being unmarried. But Weerakoon overall seems not to endorse this view.