Tim Savage, No Ordinary Marriage: Together for God's Glory. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 192 pp. $14.99.
A great many popular Christian books about marriage and family have a strong whiff of what we might call Nike Christianity. These works are full of advice but nearly devoid of grace. They speak often of what we should do for God but little of what God has done for us. They often invoke the example of Jesus but rarely discuss the prior love of Jesus that draws us to love him and our spouses. They lay out their counsel and exhort us, "Just Do It."
One day I was reading such a book as my wife sat nearby. The author listed the ways of women who make their husbands love them and long for their very presence. They never nag, never greet their beleaguered heroes at the door with a litany of the day's problems. They are always welcoming, always gentle, always thankful, always complimentary. They never criticize, never complain. If we live this way, the author concluded, our husbands will surely love us.
As the litany ran on, I decided to let my favorite lay theologian, near at hand, appraise the work. I selected the lead sentences in 15 or 20 sections, then paused to ask, "What do you think?" "It's good advice," she said thoughtfully, "but I felt overwhelmed and defeated after the first five ideas—and there were a dozen more." Exactly. What else can we say of books that teach, in the final analysis, that "your spouse will love you if you never make a mistake"? Whether intended or not, these books motivate readers with heaping servings of duty—and guilt on the side and despair for dessert.
Even Christian marriage books come in many forms. Some cover specific aspects of marriage: communication, sex, parenting, money, recovery. Some synthesize theology and psychology, history or anthropology, aiming to enlighten readers by presenting an array of perspectives or models for marriage. A few construct concepts of marriage and family, text by text from Scripture or duty by duty from ethical theory.
Crushed by Life
Tim Savage's contribution, No Ordinary Marriage: Together for God's Glory is a God-centered, gospel-driven approach to marriage that's as far removed from legalistic and therapeutic guides as east is from the west. Savage, senior pastor of Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona, begins with a painfully accurate observation: Far too often, the wedding is the high point of a marriage. Savage suggests the problem is a selfish quest for happiness—a quest that will be crushed by the vicissitudes of life, swinging hormones, the fading of youthful beauty, and the shocking discovery that no two people are compatible. He contends that couples need a common cause if they hope to overcome their obstacles, and he proposes that only one cause is worthy—the glory of God (15-26).
Married couples should therefore aim to glorify God as they praise him, obey him, and conform themselves to his image. This occurs above all in self-giving, cruciform love. Self-giving love is essential to God and man. Self-giving also reverses the prime cause of marital strife and divorce. Instead of marrying for the benefits, "we should marry for the good of our partner." This provides the antidote to the age-old problem of spouses fleeing to work, children, and avocations when a marriage proves disappointing (31-41, 44-52).
According to Savage, marriages founder on self-centeredness but find hope and restoration if they seek "something beyond" themselves with their attraction, hopes, children, and plans. That "something," of course, is the glory of God, manifest above all in the gospel of the sacrificial love and grace of Jesus. It binds couples together when beauty fades, hopes are dashed, and sin creates seemingly irreconcilable rifts.
Savage advances this thesis in chapters 1-4. If we live for the glory of God and according to the pattern of love supremely displayed in the work of Christ, much will simply fall in place. Subsequent chapters treat standard topics (the roles of husband and wife, sex, reconciliation after sin, and so on), but Savage carefully subordinates his counsel to his master concept. Therefore, while he summons wives to submit to their husbands, he stresses that her concern must be his interest. She will pray for him regularly, accept him unconditionally, and encourage him regardless of his performance. She aims to please him even if he is difficult (63-71). Likewise, husbands will love faithfully, attentively, sympathetically, and sacrificially, convinced that if his wife ought to change, love will transform her more effectively than criticism (77-88).
Recommended to Anyone
This then is a book I could recommend to anyone, and one pastors could confidently recommend to their people. Its essence lies in the first four chapters; Savage then effectively develops his thesis in the following two, addressed respectively to wives and husbands. Subsequent chapters offer helpful counsel on a variety of topics. Most notably, the chapter on sex is a helpful mediation on Paul's declaration that our bodies are not our own, and gently reclaims Song of Solomon as a Christ-centered book (112-19). The chapter on the church reconnects human families and God's family, declaring that God designed "the local church . . . to be the home base for the marriages of God's people" (126).
While the author's name stands alone on the cover of a monograph, a published book represents the work of a small task force. An honest review requires me to note that Savage's editors should have served him better in the task of removing the occasional lapses that taint a draft. It is unfortunate that the work asserts that in marriage "two people actually become one person… a new organism… a single being" (92-94), given that the rest of the chapter shows more nuance. The chapters on sex contain historical and linguistic slips, most notably the assertion, "In the Bible, the word flesh [italics his] is used to describe what a person is at the core of his or her being" (92).
But these matters cannot dull our enthusiasm for the work as a whole—the way it praises God and his grace on every page and the way it faces sober reality while summoning believers to the noblest of causes, namely, the glory of God.
I haven't met Tim Savage, but having read this book I hope to, and perhaps go hiking with him on one of the trail where he finds God's truth illustrated. And if he practices even half of what he preaches—and I suspect he does—his wife is a blessed woman.
Daniel Doriani is senior pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri, and an adjunct professor at Covenant Seminary, where he was also dean of faculty. He has published works on manhood, family, and gender.