Q&A with Dr. Ryan Messmore Author of “In Love: The Larger Story of Sex and Marriage”
Q: What inspired you to write "In Love"? A: Like most young people, when I was in college I longed for a compelling script that could guide my relationship decisions. My girlfriend and I wanted a better story than the one underlying the “hook-up” culture at our university. We wanted a story that offered meaning and purpose and invited us into something bigger than ourselves. We found it in a most unexpected place: the Jewish betrothal process prevalent during biblical times. This process helped us not only in approaching our own relationship, but also in understanding the biblical story. As I’ve shared this larger love story over the past 20 years, people of all ages continue to tell me that it’s helped them to understand God’s love in a fresh way. As Os Guinness generously said of the book, it’s the kind of “love story that opens up a brighter prospect for our generation.”
Q: You incorporated certain aspects of the traditional Jewish betrothal process into your own dating, engagement and subsequent marriage to your wife. Why do you believe this Jewish story is still relevant to couples today? A: C. S. Lewis said that studying previous cultures can help us see certain truths about our own age that we might otherwise miss. I think the way couples approached betrothal and marriage in biblical times can teach us some much-needed lessons today. For example, couples in that context may have only seen each other or met for the first time at their betrothal! I’m not recommending that, but it does suggest that marriage was seen to be based on something deeper than romantic attraction or felt intimacy. In fact, it was based on covenant faithfulness, which is something that can help couples today who are thinking about marriage. Furthermore, in the ancient Jewish process, sex was understood to consummate and renew a marriage covenant, which is often quite different from how people think of sex today.
Q: The book also makes significant connections between the traditional Jewish marriage and how Jesus fulfills the role of a Bridegroom. Share some of those insights. A: Jesus performed his first public miracle at a wedding in Cana, where he turned water into wine; in doing so, he fulfilled the role of a Jewish groom, whose responsibility it was to provide wine for his guests (John 2:1-11). Furthermore, as Abraham’s servant had asked Rebekah for water at a well many years earlier, Jesus engaged in a similar conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. If we see this as a betrothal-initiating encounter, we can understand Jesus to be indicating that God desired to wed himself not only to Israel, but to non-Jewish believers in Yahweh as well. Finally, in biblical times, when a typical Jewish man who was betrothed was asked, “When is your wedding date?” he would respond, “Only my father knows” (for the father had to approve the son’s completion of a room built onto the father’s homestead prior to the wedding). When Jesus’ disciples asked when he would come at the end of the age, Jesus responded, “But about that day or hour no one knows… but only the Father.” Scripture’s imagery of Jesus betrothing himself to Israel and the church reveals important truths, not only about marriage, but also about the nature of God’s covenant love. The church speaks of unconditional, sacrificial faithfulness to one another. She asserts that the Creator of all things has committed to love her, no matter what. He will remain faithful and will not abandon His people, come what may. That’s an amazing claim! How would the world ever begin to believe it? How would our culture even know that this kind of persevering, covenant love is possible, let alone become attracted to it? The answer: by observing faithful marriages. Thus, we need to see that marriage has a purpose beyond the spouses’ own happiness. Marriage is a calling that serves a larger social function, including showing the world the kind of covenant that God has entered with His people (Ephesians 5:32).
Q: You are honest about your struggles to abstain from physical relations with your wife while you were dating. Why do you believe that is important, and is it even possible in today's society? A: It is possible, but it takes more than a mental conviction regarding sexual limits. Young people need more than a commitment to not crossing a magic line when they find themselves in the back seat of a car. They need to have developed concrete habits of self-control way ahead of that moment. Contrary to popular belief, there is a way to do that, but it takes practice—practice saying “no” to things we want and find pleasurable. In the book I share how my girlfriend and I benefited from spiritual disciplines like fasting and observing the Sabbath. The ironic thing is that these disciplines are actually liberating. They can free us from being slaves to our hormones, so that we don’t have to completely repress our natural urges but instead can act on them in healthy and faithful ways. That’s important because God created us to have bodily urges for a good purpose—the trick is to be able to control those urges so that they can assist, rather than hinder, love’s flourishing.
Q: What are some of the factors in our culture that you believe hinder people’s chances of a healthy marriage? A: Our culture poses lots of challenges to entering and maintaining a healthy marriage. One has to do with some dominant assumptions about what love and marriage actually are. Today we tend to view love merely as a feeling of intimacy. Thus, we use phrases like, “fall in love” or “love at first sight,” which presume that love is an uncontrollable, erotic passion in our gut. Such emotions are natural and good, but it becomes very problematic when we think that marriage is based on that kind of love. As the unfortunate saying goes, “First comes love, then comes marriage.” But what happens when that feeling subsides, or when a couple falls “out of love”? At that point, we need to understand that love is more than a feeling—it’s a commitment of the will to serve another’s good, even when we don’t feel like it. Rather than an emotion that must be present before marriage, what if love is actually the result of living through the ups and downs of a typical marriage? Also, our society doesn’t encourage people to prepare intentionally for marriage. One result is that too many enter marriage with unreasonable expectations. In the ancient Jewish process, a couple and their families would discuss the meaning and terms of marriage before the betrothal (today’s equivalent of engagement). Today, however, the average couple gets engaged and married without any formal counseling or preparation. Only 27% of married couples today seek pre-marital counseling, which typically consists of a total of two to three hours. For something as important as marriage, we need to do much better at training and equipping young people to succeed in it.
Q: What three things would you advise a young dating couple to do to ensure their relationship is meant for marriage? A: One of the things I discuss in the book is how my girlfriend and I went through pre-engagement counseling. Basically, we discussed with our pastor everything that couples discuss in pre-marital counseling, but we did so before we set a wedding date and sent out invitations…and before she saw herself in the dress! I would encourage young couples to consider engaging in this sort of intentional preparation before popping the question. The book also discusses how we gave up using phrases like “fall in love” and “love at first sight,” which presume love is merely a feeling. I’d encourage young couples to think about love differently, and to try to speak of love more as a verb—as an action rather than just an attraction. Related to this, I would encourage couples to write down specific acts of love to commit to as they near engagement. This exercise helped my girlfriend and me during a long-distance phase of our relationship. We knew we couldn’t commit to feeling a certain way, but we could commit to take certain actions for each other’s good. I still carry that piece of paper in my wallet to this day, and I provide a photo of it in the book.
Q: What can the church as a whole do to help marriages thrive? A: Many people assume that the only thing the church has to say about sex and marriage is “No”—“don’t do this,” “don’t allow that,” and so forth. I think the church needs to do a better job in presenting the beauty of sex and marriage as it was designed by God. In particular, church leaders need to do a better job of communicating the purpose of sex and explaining the covenant nature of marriage. The church has the most beautiful story around, and it needs to lead with that positive love story and compel people at the level of not only their intellect, but also their imagination. If the story is told well, Christians will be better disposed to understand the ethical implications and the true nature of this relationship. Furthermore, pastors shouldn’t shy away from exercising authority when it comes to marrying people. For example, I’d love to see all church leaders in a particular town agree to not conduct weddings unless the couple agrees to go through robust counseling. Where this has already happened, divorce rates have decreased. Churches could also take steps to encourage spiritual disciplines among its members. Perhaps most importantly, churches can help connect the dots for people about how earthly marriages can participate in something much bigger than themselves.
Official Press Release:
New book details how modern marriages can benefit from an ancient tradition
For Immediate Release (Nashville, TN) -- According to a new study from Pew Research Group, when asked the most important reason to get married, the top response (88%) was love, while 76% also cited companionship as a very important reason to tie the knot. In his first book, Dr. Ryan Messmore adamantly disagrees with this majority. In fact, his book, “In Love: The Larger Story of Love and Marriage,” describes how marriage relationships in the 21st century might be better off taking some cues from the traditional Jewish betrothal process, in which couples had perhaps not even met before they were essentially engaged.
“I’m not recommending that this sort of betrothal become a trend again,” says Messmore, “but it does suggest that marriage was seen to be based on something deeper than romantic attraction or felt intimacy. In fact, it was based on covenant faithfulness, which is something that can help couples today who are thinking about marriage.”
And Messmore is not just spouting theories in his book. He takes the reader through his own personal courtship with his college girlfriend (now his wife of 19 years) as they both committed to rejecting the “hook-up” culture and to incorporating aspects of the Jewish betrothal process into their own relationship. He details their interactions during dating, pre-engagement counseling, and subsequent marriage, carefully offering today’s couples an alternate way of thinking about what becoming a husband and wife is all about.
“Today we tend to view love as a feeling of intimacy,” explains Messmore. “Thus, we use phrases like, ‘fall in love’ or ‘love at first sight,’ which presume that love is an uncontrollable, erotic passion in our gut. Such emotions are natural and good, but it becomes very problematic when we think that marriage is based on that kind of love. What happens when that feeling subsides, or when a couple falls ‘out of love’? At that point, we need to understand that love is more than a feeling—it’s a commitment of the will to serve another’s good, even when we don’t feel like it. Rather than an emotion that must be present before marriage, what if love is actually the result of living through the ups and downs of a typical marriage?”
Messmore also tackles the biblical reasons behind why sex—within the boundaries of marriage—plays such a vital role in a lifelong commitment. “One thing this Jewish Betrothal Story reveals is the covenant nature of marriage. That is, it understands marriage as a solemn, family-expanding commitment between two parties who join their identities to each other for life. And sex accomplishes something extremely significant: it consummates and renews a marriage covenant. God created us to have bodily urges for a good purpose—the trick is to be able to control those urges so that they can assist, rather than hinder, love’s flourishing.”
About Dr. Ryan Messmore: Dr. Ryan Messmore is the founding Executive Director of the Millis Institute, a liberal arts program housed within Christian Heritage College in Brisbane, Australia. Originally from the U.S., Messmore received a Bachelor of Arts from Duke University, master's degrees from Duke Divinity School and Cambridge University, and a doctorate in political theology from Oxford University. He served as President of Campion College in Sydney, and has also served as a research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. Prior to that, Messmore founded and directed the Trinity Forum Academy in Royal Oak, MD. Visit www.RyanMessmore.com. ###
“Our culture has become increasingly confused about marriage and its meaning, but Ryan Messmore has helped clarify the importance of this vital institution. By recounting his own courtship and engagement and illuminating the full, rich picture of marriage throughout the Old and New Testaments, we begin to gain a glimpse of marriage as God intended it. What’s more, Ryan has given us greater insight into Christ’s passionate pursuit of His bride.” –Jim Daly, President, Focus on the Family
“If love is not forever, what’s forever for? Ryan and Karin’s story shows how our deepest human longing can be made beautiful, fresh, compelling and highly realistic—even in the age of the hook-up culture. In Love is a love story that opens up a brighter prospect for our generation.”-Os Guinness, author of “The Call”
“To anyone thoroughly catechized in the sexual revolution, this book and the story it tells will seem bizarre. But anyone willing to listen to the story and the carefully crafted Big Picture of love and sexuality Ryan describes here will find a beauty and truth not available in Western culture today.” -John Stonestreet, President, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview
“There is so much more to marriage than meets the eye; our relationships on earth have the potential to help us understand a much larger reality. Ryan Messmore points to this bigger story, and in so doing, he helps us develop a deeper understanding of the gifts of sex and marriage. For college students who are wrestling with questions about human sexuality and relationships, for couples preparing for marriage, or for any of us wanting to see how our real-life relationships can point to a much deeper spiritual reality, this book is a treasure trove of insight and inspiration.” -D. Michael Lindsay, President, Gordon College
“Every love story is really an epic waiting to be told. Ryan Messmore shows us how he discovered that epic dimension in the divine. He discovered God’s action in the small details of his relationship with his wife Karin, and their love began to flourish in unexpected ways. This is more than another intellectual conversion story. It’s a romance. It’s theology. It’s the kind of story that changes all kinds of lives for the better.”–Scott Hahn, professor of theology, Franciscan University of Steubenville
“Ryan Messmore has a gift for sharing wisdom in a winsome and accessible way. This book is profound, well written and short—a trifecta! Messmore points out the false stories we tell ourselves today about love, sex and marriage, and proposes a more excellent way. In Love will help readers place their own lives and loves in the right story. I’ll be sharing it with friends. So should you.”-Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, The HeritageFoundation, and author of “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and ReligiousFreedom”