If a divorced person told you he or she was worried about the wisdom of you marrying your fiancé[e], would you listen?

Or would you disqualify her advice because of her failure to make her marriage work? Even if she did everything right according to the Christian system and listened to her parents, waited to have sex until her wedding night, prayed exhaustively about the decision, and sought lots of counsel from pastors and mentors?

I am not going to be getting any brownie points among Christians for this piece, but this been driving me nuts and what else is my blog for?

Here is my best advice for good Christian kids looking to get married: have sex already.

I’m watching too many couples play Russian roulette with their lives because they aren’t listening to their gut instincts about who they want or need to spend their lives with because they happened to have found one person somewhat enchanting and willing to play the Christian marriage game and the stakes are: your whole future on this decision, made in the worst possible state of mind, horny celibacy.

Hermeneutically speaking, St. Paul’s “it’s better to marry than to burn with passion” was probably not about what you think it’s about. All my books are in storage in boxes, so I’d love to have someone with an accessible library help me out with citations here, but it’s pretty widely accepted in schools of theology that he was talking about couples disturbing idealistic celibate communities by sneaking off to have sex and making everyone feel either jealous and upset. As in: don’t be Gnostic, early church! It’s okay to not require celibacy of all Christians. C.f., Reasons why no one should ever be forced into celibate living against their will.  Not a lot of people have that gift, and that’s what Paul was acknowledging in that well-worn passage.

But what that passage doesn’t say (and honestly, what no passage in the Bible says) is “God’s best plan for your life is to be a virgin when you get married.” Seriously. Look for it. It’s not there. Two years ago a couple ex-fundy friends and I started hunting for it when we started to be troubled by why courtship was failing and why we were seeing so many unhappy marriages with good Christian kids like us who followed the rules. So we started searching the Bible ourselves and we haven’t found a much biblical basis for Christian purity culture and how it treats virginity and sexual experience.

There’s a whole lot about sex in the Bible, I learned. Most of it is dictated by the assumption that societies required clearly defined patriarchal lineage in order to operate (e.g., if your wife wasn’t a virgin when you married her, how would you know if her kids were yours and thus keep your family property and name in tact for the future?). Such things were very much a part of the historical period in which the Bible was written, but those things related to preservation of pure bloodlines are really irrelevant to our social order today. We can have healthy, happy communities without needing to be constantly in fear of the threat of a bastard child. Once that’s established, looking at the rest of the verses in the Bible about sex, it becomes evident that the sexual ethics laid out are essentially those of respecting each other and not abusing sex as a tool for power or domination or for revenge. It is, quite simply, an ethic of sexual behavior that values consent and human dignity and respect for social propriety within the context of an ancient patriarch-dominated culture.

If that was our culture today, it would be much more directly applicable, but that isn’t where and how we’re living. Today, we have a lot more freedom, a lot more ground gained in the realm of respecting diverse people groups and identities, and a lot less risk in terms of economic security and social honor riding on our sexual behavior.

Therefore I believe, based on my research, that it’s possible to have consensual, safe, and private sex* outside of marriage and not be transgressing any of the basic ethical guidelines for sexual behavior as laid out in the Bible.

But all that is just contextual framework for my primary point.

Christian culture over-values virginity at marriage so much that it heightens to an unreasonable degree the tension of an already momentous and risky decision. Marriage is, in a lot of ways, a jump off the cliff of adulthood that forces you to come face to face with yourself, and that’s when you find out just how much you can depend on yourself [to be mature and kind], without the parachute or training wheels of an easy exit. Most of us find as newlyweds that our selves aren’t really all that dependable, and we’re actually pretty selfish and immature.

Within Christian purity culture, sex, as an unknown and desirable thing (known to be powerful and good, but forbidden), necessarily becomes the bullet that we imagine blowing our brains out with if we pull the trigger at the wrong time, and we trick ourselves into believing that marriage will somehow protect us from spiritual suicide by pre-marital sex. We can’t know better if we’re still treating sex as a huge scary-and-wonderful unknown entity, but you’d think that our elders/wisers/more-experienced influencers would bother to let us in on the game before we sign on the dotted line.

But they don’t. Instead, pastors and parents and Bible study leaders and youth group mentors have bought into and perpetuated a false fundamental assumption that binds us to shame and ignorance as a necessary part of spiritual integrity: 1) we are required to take them at their word that sex is life-changing and terrible (in both senses of that word), and 2) we are required to make our trust in their definition of sex a fundamental assumption into how we weigh out relationships and how we decide who and when to marry. The bogey of sex thus becomes a looming question mark for us and the already-significant risks of choosing to get married to someone become exponentially more risky because there’s a huge piece of the marriage-choice puzzle that we are required to leave up to chance (which our good mentors have named God’s Will to keep us quiet).

Thus, when we good [read: virgin] Christian kids decide to accept this system, trusting our parents and pastors’ terms and wisdom, and denying ourselves basic understanding of ourselves as sexual beings (which we are, but they help us overlook this by telling us that perpetual fear and denial of sexuality is a form of healthy [and therefore godly] sexuality), sex as an unknown other becomes a non-factor in our choices for who we date and who and when we marry, or it becomes the secret but driving factor for who and when we marry. It must remain secret as a motive, because everyone knows that marrying just to have sex is a bad idea, but there is no other alternative for healthy, safe, and consensual sexual experience when we have bought into this system.

And if we are unlucky enough to be just a little too horny to effectively deny the existence of our sexuality until the approved time and place (the wedding night), we are caught in an impossible place where in order to keep being Good Christian Kids, we have to not question what our parents and pastors have told us—which is, essentially, that everything I just laid out in layman’s hermeneutics about biblical sexual ethics is lies and that God’s best plan for sexuality is total ignorance and total commitment to one person and one form of sexual experience forever and ever, amen—and to jump through all the Christian social hoops to land in bed with someone and not get ostracized or shamed for wanting to have sex in the first place

Or you just keep your head down and have sex and keep that part of your life so very secret and separate from your public social life, for fear of being found out for what you know they will think you are: a Bad Kid** with wanton desires and a sense of judgment that cannot be trusted.

So, in the end, if you want to be labeled a Good Christian Kid, you play by the rules that your parents and pastors have laid out for you, and inevitably (if you find another Good Christian Kid you like well enough, who likes you well enough, and who also agrees to play by the rules of this game) you’ll find yourself sitting somewhere with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’ll have a choice.

You’ll be just turned on enough with this person for the first time to realize that sex is probably something powerful (which means your parents and pastors must have been right, after all), and you’ll both be feeling it, and you’ll both realize that this situation can end in two ways: one, you follow the feeling and have sex and ruin your standing as a GCK in your own mind forever, even if no one ever finds out.  Or, two, you’ll indulge the feeling and fool around just enough to get scared of how good it feels and “put on the brakes” (a timeless analogy used by youth pastors everywhere, as if sex is a car rolling unobstructed toward a large and frightening cliff), which is to say: you stop and feel ashamed of yourself and look at your partner in crime and realize that no one can ever know except the two of you (because even a little sexual “sin” is enough to ruin your Good Christian Kid status), and that you are probably going to marry this person and you are probably going to be happy about it. Whether or not you really are happy doesn’t matter, because you’ve been practiced at denying parts of yourself (read: an accidental follower of Christian Gnosticism) for long enough that what’s one more thing? If you’re married, you’re going to be having sex, which means one less thing to ignore—and so your desire for real happiness can replace sexuality under the wraps of self-control and shame.

And then you’re trapped, because you let your pastors and parents think through your sexuality for you (which is such a bad idea, seeing as sexuality is such a unique and individual thing), and you got married because that was the only way to explore your sexuality and stay sane in the face of such overwhelming social pressure and potential shame, and if you’re really lucky you’ll both be moderately happy and mostly sexually compatible and have enough in common to make a pretty decent life out of a pretty bizarre and unbalanced decision.

But the chances of ending up with that ending to your story are pretty slim—and after my marriage ended, the stories of unhappy marriages launched on these terms started coming to me out of the woodwork. Our pastors and parents may adore Dannah Gresh, Josh Harris, and the Ludys, but those relationship and purity gurus are the lucky ones selling their stories through books and speaking events. They do not represent the vast majority of American Christians, and while they mean well, their idyllic solutions have shortchanged most people who bought into their system out of blind trust.

So, as a divorced woman who did everything right by the assumptions of that system and found that it was full of empty promises and bad hermeneutics, I dare you to think for yourself about your sexuality and your beliefs. Put down the gun—stop playing Russian roulette with your life on someone else’s word.

*Consent requires consent of all parties affected, so naturally, if you’re married and assuming that your marriage means exclusive sexual fidelity to your spouse, then you don’t cheat. Likewise if you’re in a relationship and the terms of the relationship mean that your girlfriend/spouse/partner/fiancé isn’t comfortable with you having close friendships with members of the gender that you’re attracted to sexually, then you honor those boundaries and act in a way that respects your partner’s comfort zone.

**In either scenario, young adults, who are pushed and urged to be mature and wise because that’s godly, are still socially seen and treated as children—and I think that, subconsciously, sexual experience functions as the only real coming of age signifier in this Christian subculture, which is an entirely different subject, but one that also ought to be scrutinized for bullshit.


“The hardest part is realizing you’re in charge” – Helen Bishop, Mad Men

One of the things that has been a constant struggle for me, as a woman leaving the world of Christian patriarchy, has been reconciling reality to my learned “right” responses. I have to be gutsy and take charge of my life and heed my personality type and my needs and make sure I’m living in a way that works best for who I am. But it’s hard to learn to do this, because I grew up considering myself strongest when deferring to other’s needs and wants, most godly when negating my desires, and most strong and female when abandoning my preferences to respond and absorb the desires and choices of others.

The term I’ve heard used for this is “learned helplessness” and it’s frequently a gendered problem, but I think it’s not just an issue for women. It’s also an issue for everyone in the “new reformed” circles of young Calvinists.

This is, of course, at the root, a face of that age-old “predestination vs. free will” discussion, but I’m going to lift it from those over-simplified terms because I find that they are useless in the face of reality, where I see a good deal of both/and going on in terms of one’s ability to choose freely and one’s inability to change circumstances. I’d like to lay it aside with the understanding that I think the two concepts probably coexist, and I’m not sure exactly how. Paradox, yes. It’s beyond me just now.

So, first, as a woman dealing with The Most Unpredictable Year Of Her Life Ever!, I’m finding that I have to unlearn a lot of places in my personal character where I’d relaxed into patriarchal norms just because I could when I was married. Things like changing my oil, moving boxes on my own, driving across the country alone, booking a hotel room, getting a credit card, de-icing my car before work, etc. — these were things I had to take on and own for myself.  Some of that is just general cultural gender role stuff. Other things are more Christian patriarchy-related, like realizing that the church search was up to me, if I was going to find one out here in LA, realizing that I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to live my life, or that I don’t need to call anyone to tell them when I’m coming home.

But as I’m talking to other girls trying to take on adult decisions outside of the meet-a-man-and-follow-him-forever Christian patriarchy narrative for women (say, as a woman ends up out of her parents’ house and not yet married, or 30 and living at home without “prospects”), I hear from them over and over again statements such as: “I don’t even know what I like!”  Outside of the girl-to-woman-to-wife-to-mother narrative of patriarchy, they don’t know what who they are, why they want to do what they want to do, or how to make decisions without leaning overmuch on the advice of peers and elders, because they never learned to listen to themselves. Women in Christian patriarchy exist as negative space, conforming to the solid definitions of the men in their lives. And I’m still shaking off stray pieces of that mindset. It’s like sand and children: you’re always finding particles in weird places months after you’ve left the beach.

Similar to this is the “sovereignty of God” talk from the new Calvinists. I’ve been doing a linguistic experiment for the past year or so: every time I feel the impulse to thank God for something or claim his foreknowledge or sovereignty for something, I check myself to see if I’m just talking about an element of my life that’s because of social privilege. If I am, then I don’t do God-talk about it, because that’s just disrespectful to people who love God and live rightly, but still suffer because they’re lacking good things due to privilege. An example: a college graduate might thank God on Facebook for getting her through a private Christian school with good friends and a job offer ready for her in June. The impulse is nice, but it’s infuriating to someone who maybe didn’t have parents who could afford to pay for college, was marginalized socially and had trouble making friends, or got the short end of the stick with the economy and can’t find good work after graduation. It’s not wrong, but does it feels unfair to thank God for something you worked for and earned, or something that was handed down to you by genetics. It feels like it makes light of the hard work you did, or the hard work that less-privileged others put in to try to achieve the same ends.

On the other side of this mindset is the reaction to horrific live events with emotionally numbed reactions: cancer? God’s sovereign plan. divorce? it’s okay, God’s still good. grief? lack of faith in God’s sovereignty. I don’t think this sort of response is meant to be flippant or numbly blasé, but that’s how it comes across. It doesn’t allow for the full range of human emotions to be expressed in normal reactions to traumatic events, but instead cauterizes the emotions with shaming for lack of faith.

Agency is a funny thing. I don’t like that I feel more uncomfortable having agency than I do with feeling helpless. Between the God-is-sovereign catch-all explanation for anything hard or anything good and the patriarchy’s gender roles, the way I thought of myself I was not as an actor in my own life, but a pawn on a chessboard. Things happened to me instead of me making choices.

I don’t think God meant us to half-live our lives. I don’t think he meant for us to wait for life to happen. I don’t think a life of faith is lived in absence of risk or owning one’s full potential or full emotion or choice. I don’t think God wants us to constantly be yammering about how good he is when it’s not something that showcases his kindness in an honest way. It’s a waste of breath. There’s a difference between feeling genuine appreciation for quotidian graces and clanging a cymbal about how awesome God was to give you privilege.

The tension between brash American self-made bootstraps man mindset (which is also unhealthy) and the self-imposed helplessness of Christian patriarchy and new Calvinism is appropriate, I think, and should be embraced. There’s a glorious dignity to being human, and it should be embraced along with a peaceful awareness of one’s size in the face of the universe. These are not things to be taken lightly.


I feel like Stuff Christian Culture Likes is the comedy version of my Immodesty Rail pieces. If you don’t know Stephanie Drury‘s work yet, check it out. Her best work may be her themed Twitter search-and-retweet moments.

So, along those lines: stuff Christian culture likes [to do]:

Demand inappropriate justification for deeply personal decisions.

Maybe this is also a Southern culture thing. But if the South is Christ-haunted, the culture there is certainly also very inbred with church culture.

For example: when a divorced Christian (or a Christian dating a divorced person) is asked by another Christian if the divorce occurred on “biblical grounds” (or a similar question). You think you’re supported by someone, you think your trauma (if you’re the divorcé[e]) or joy (if you’re dating one) is safe to share with this particular person, and then you get hit with the icy water of presumption and judgment. And in that moment between the asking and the telling, you know that your ability to be vulnerable with this person ever again is dependent upon your answer. You are on the defensive, and you have to prove to the other person that your choices are worth their respect, that your decisions are good enough for them to take you seriously–either just as a mature adult, or as a “true” Christian.

It’s kinda traumatizing, and it’s irrational. It’s the milder, more benevolent version of that same sort of thinking that leads people to ask a rape victim if s/he was asking for it.

And I don’t think Christians mean to be so hurtful and oblivious–the discourse of most American Christian culture is premised on the assumption that love looks like challenging each other to be our best selves (in some way or another), instead of loving each other as if we were our best selves. The burden of hope should be placed on the possibility of being one’s best self, not on the act of achieving that possibility. It’s basic Works vs. New Identity in Christ stuff.

When I first told people what had happened, what my ex had decided, someone close to me asked me “What’s your theology of divorce?” and I was just devastated. Compassion and care and offers of support and help should have been the first response I got from this individual, not a one-line request to justify my actions (or, really, my ex’s actions). 

Similarly, demanding to know if there were “biblical grounds” for a divorce is like asking if a rape was legitimate. You don’t do it.

The concept of “biblical grounds” itself is flawed in the same ways that the idea of “biblical manhood and womanhood” is flawed–cultural norms are interlaced with the textual directives and you cannot draw a simple, direct parallel across the ages and say that the Bible’s most direct standards for grounds for divorce are culturally appropriate today. There is definitely ethical overlap, but the framework must be contextualized for the sake of interpretational integrity.

Beyond that, the thing that most people who haven’t personally experience a divorce (and even some who have) overlook is this: it’s more common for people to take the decision to go through with a divorce much, much more seriously than they do the decision to get married. They just don’t jump into it in a rush, eyes blinded by emotion. Some do, naturally, but it’s legally much easier to get married than to get divorced, and there’s a usually whole lot less incentive to change the status quo by ending a marriage. It’s hard to untangle two lives, it’s hard to go through the legal process and emerge intact, and it’s socially much, much harder to tell your friends and family that you’re divorcing than it is to tell them you’re getting hitched.

Black and white assumptions never help anyone. Compassion is an act of the imagination, at its root, and so before you go and ask if a marriage ended on “biblical grounds” or “who was at fault?” take a moment and put yourself in their shoes, and imagine what it must be like to be in that place.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.

[for some good voices on divorce and healing, check out: Natalie Trust, Letters From Scarlet, and A Christian Girl’s Guide to Divorce]


Okay. Okay. I’m fed up with the annual Summer Modesty Argument On The Interwebz.

Here’s the rundown:

1) Modesty keeps men’s uncontrollable sex drives in check! vs. NO THAT’S RAPE CULTURE

2) God commands modesty to honor his creation, your body! vs. Uh, modesty is a shame thing and that’s the result of the fall.

3) Modesty makes a statement about What Your Heart Really Wants, so be a good witness! vs. Rape culture, again! I wear what I want, and I’m not asking for anything, AND Jesus doesn’t depend on my clothes for his Kingdom, thanks.

4) Everything in our culture is so sexualized! Wish we could go back to the Good Old Days. vs. Let me give you a history lesson! Everyone was having sex and covering up is a cultural standard, not a godliness thing.

And then, there’s the one that set me off last night, which basically argues that I need to cover up to protect my God-given dignity as a woman.

I want to tackle this idea that my behavior, clothing, or other external things dictates the way church people perceive my dignity. I know it does. I grew up in the thick of modesty-shame culture in SGM.

The message of modesty = dignity was clear, though perhaps not defined in such a reductive fashion. But if your listeners (or readers) are coming away with an idea that’s false, the burden is on you, the teacher/speaker (or writer) to use your language clearly enough to eliminate miscommunication. And so I feel it fair to take on this idea in the manner in which it was received and assumed to be true.

Here’s the beefy quote on this from the article in the Atlantic yesterday:

Here, there is freedom for individual women to practice modesty not primarily to preserve men’s sexual purity, but to preserve their own dignity. To show in outward form the inward truth that they matter to society for their minds, their leadership, their passions, and their talents–talents that have nothing to do with how many heads they can turn. Modesty can become a form of female power.

Female power can take LOTS of forms. Usually by transgressing against a social expectation and rewriting some rules. I get that. I applaud that. Some of my favorite things about feminism is how it’s transgressing social orders as those who are traditionally marginalized are empowering themselves and speaking up.

But my dignity is not won or lost by my clothing OR my level of empowerment. And when we’re talking about my body and dignity and working with the assumption that our motives for this discussion are in keeping with pursuing orthodox Christianity, then I’ll take further issue with this.

If you separate my dignity from my physical self, you’re assuming that my spiritual self is “better” or “holier” than my body, and you are 1) demeaning Christ’s incarnation (and thereby devaluing the sacrament of communion), and 2) embracing Gnosticism, a classic heresy. 

God made humankind in his/her image and called us very good. God is not gendered, and we happen to be, but that means that ALL of us are in the image of God. Then, the fall happened, and THEN humans were introduced to shame and shame introduced clothing.

  1. Bodies made, called good.
  2. Sin/shame introduced, clothing happens.

My dignity as a human being comes from the fact that God made me and called it good. My body is inseparable from my human experience and identity, and my body is inseparable from my identity as a Christian, because it was through my understanding of the incarnation that I was able to overcome modesty culture shame about my body and re-embrace it as beautiful and good. Same goes for my sexuality, actually.

Don’t buy the lie that “modesty” will win you respect and dignity. If it does, it’s in a fear- and shame-centered legalistic culture, and Christ died to set us free, not bind us with more shame. My dignity doesn’t need clothes. Or your respect.

 


When one of my friends starts dating someone exclusively, I like to ask questions, to capture in my head not just the story of how he asked her out or how she warmed up to him, but to understand the essence, the thingness of what makes their new relationship attractive to them. What do you like about him? Why’d you say yes to a date? What about her makes you want to spend time with her?

I’m a collector of stories, of people, of ideas. I soak it up. There is so much to the world and I want to understand things.

I get some really interesting answers to these questions. And I’ve given some really interesting answers to friends asking me similar questions, too.

One thing that gets me a lot, that makes me feel a little hollow inside and worry, is when I hear a man or a woman bragging about their significant other unduly much, and when I hear him or her saying things like “s/he’s just so good to me!” whenever he or she talks about the person they’re seeing. 

I promise I’m not just being curmudgeonly. I promise I’m not thinking of anyone in particular. And I promise, that what I’m about to say is not a universal thing. But I have noticed some trends, and I think it’s worth talking about it.

You see, when you’ve grown up in the conservative Christian world and hope to save your first everythings for your forever other, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. To not get your heart broken. To push through hard things as a couple and make it work, dammit. I have good taste in men, really. He just needs to grow up. She’s not always like that–she’s really good to me! Just trust me. I’ve got this. We’re happy. 

Once you have this pressure on yourself from yourself (maybe you got to third base with this guy and you are ashamed and just want to marry him so it can be okay and romantic, instead of Potential Mistake And Regret For Lost Purity, or maybe you’re just afraid of heartbreak and being alone), it sets you up for codependence. Or it can, if both parties are subscribers to this way of thinking.

Codependence thrives on fear of loss. This is my realization of the week. Codependence has to have the potential absence or loss of the enabler, the person you’re dependent upon for emotional stability. You don’t notice your codependency until the security blanket is threatened. Once it’s threatened, you feel manic, naked, offended, and you may become possessive and jealous, or you may become cold and aloof and self-sustained, passive-aggressively determined to make the other miss you and make them come back to you.

I’ve played both sides of this game. I’ve seen it modeled for me over and over when I was growing up, and I’ve been slowly loosening the claw-grips of these emotional habits from my head and heart. Facing my deepest fears this year, against my will, was my personal Eustace-the-dragon moment. I couldn’t pick off scabs of codependency thoroughly, because I was afraid of how much it would hurt, and when my ex ripped himself out of my life in a matter of days, I was suddenly on the other side and codependency (what little was left after trying hard to unlearn it for two years) wasn’t something I could wean myself away from anymore. I had to quit, cold turkey.

And then I realized something. Yes, I loved him. Had been in love, still am working out the fact that you never really stop loving someone even after it’s over, and it was real, for me at least. But it was also childish in a lot of ways, and there were things that I had grown accustomed to about our relationship that were cramping me in unhealthy ways. Not in the sense of “he cramps my style,” because he didn’t. But there were things about who I am that literally had no place in our relationship. Things that defined me for ages before I met him, things that were always going to be part of me, but things I neglected to “fit” him better. I don’t mean this in a cheesy-finding-myself-better-off-without-him way at all.

What I mean is: I wasn’t done growing up when I met him, and started dating him, and did the Hard Thing and Made Things Work and sacrificed a ton to be there for him and be the right sort of girl for him. Initially this was smothering, and we talked it out and I learned how to not trip-fall-run all over myself to bring all these subservient and codependent emotional habits I thought were good things that would make him feel loved and make us closer. Our relationship had some really good times, and the best of these were when I was taking care of myself, not trying too hard to be there and be everything he needed, and when we treated each other like equals, with respect. When our relationship was at it’s healthiest, there was no sense of possession/possessing/being possessed by the other. There was give and take, but we were most whole and united because we were individuals being open with each other, as individuals. Without being afraid of loss of companionship or love, or autonomy and personal voice. But the thing is, it never lasted. It wasn’t safe like that most of the time, for either of us, for lots and lots of complex reasons.

And so, I see in my own story, that sweet teenage, godly girl bragging on her first boyfriend, “he’s so good to me! he got me this thing I needed when I had a rough day!” and I hear that young Christian guy talking about how wonderful his sweetheart is in all the right ways and how he never wants to lose her, and I feel sad. What if their story is like mine? What if they’re afraid of getting it wrong, so they force the first one to be the right one? What if they settle for someone who’s good, because they don’t know what they’re missing because they’re afraid to lose what they have?

This agonizing existential question is what my ex chased after, leaving me behind. It’s a real question, and it’s worth asking. But being afraid to ask it when you’re dating, when you’re engaged, when you’re so infatuated with the newness of everything sexual–this is the coward’s path. You feel the stakes are so high because they are emotionally so high.

But the mean little secret is: breakups suck, but you’ll live and it gets better. Being afraid of these questions isn’t worth stuffing them deep down in the back of your internal emotional landscape until they become so pressingly real and you can’t ignore them anymore, but you’re married and it’s too late.

Ask the hard questions. Do the harder thing. Don’t force it to work; face your fears instead. Don’t keep dating her because she’s a godly Christian girl and fits the list. Don’t say yes to him because he’s good enough and you don’t have any other options.

Being single isn’t that awful of a fate. Being married isn’t a heaven that will erase all your tensions and private lonelinesses.

[and please, if you’re single and lonely and reading this, don’t take this too much to heart. you’re held in Love’s arms. don’t tell me i wouldn’t say this if i knew how lonely it is to be single and face those hard things on your own. i know. we’ll be okay.]

 

 

 


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized story blended from a couple different real events in my life. All the guys who inspired this are good and well-intended men who grew up a lot afterwards. The point of this is not the guys themselves, but the ideas they assumed to be true because of the Christian culture in which we were raised.

We sat on the scrubby carpet of my dorm room floor, the door halfway open behind him. I held my mug of tea tightly, using the pressure to channel all my anxiety into the warmth and firmness of the mug.

“Mike” had IM’d me just 20 minutes earlier, when I’d just walked in from dinner. “Can I come over? We need to talk.”

I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to avoid this conversation. “I only have a few minutes,” I replied. “Come over and I’ll make a cup of tea. But I have to be somewhere with friends in 45 minutes.”

So he came over and there we were, sitting cross-legged on my floor, avoiding eye contact.

***

Dating at a conservative Christian school where everyone has read and seriously prayed about Josh Harris’s dating books is a complicated, dramatic process. Everyone takes everything too seriously, too soon.

After being isolated from male friendships by either coincidence or strategic parents (still not sure which) and my own insecurities around boys (after losing a really delightful friendship with one guy at 14 to a cross-country move and comments like “oh this makes me so happy! I’d hug you if you weren’t a girl!” me: Whaaat?), I got plopped down in the middle of one of those conservative Christian colleges where the primary campus traditions involve engagement hazing and a mad race to get hitched in May after graduation. And I was the naive INFJ who liked listening to people and felt horribly guilty saying no to anyone. By sophomore year I was in over my head.

So that evening, when I met to talk with Mike, a lot had happened already. He had scoped me out for a couple of months (I think we’d talked, one on one, maybe three times?), emailed my dad to ask permission to date/court me, gotten an non-committal “we should correspond and explore this, tell me about yourself” response, assumed he was going to be dad-approved, somehow found a stupid “husband qualities” list I had made early on in high school from an old blog, saw he matched a lot of them, and asked me out. I told him I’d think about it, but observed that I didn’t know him very well. (Reality: he was a good person, but I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I thought that I should give him a shot because…I didn’t know how to say no or feel like I had a right to turn him down).

In the month that followed I spent a little more time with him, but didn’t do anything outside of group events. He never asked me out to dinner, I never invited him over for a movie. Because, you know, conservative ex-homeschooler problems.

And then, he IM’d me and asked to talk alone. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him no — I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a friend. I didn’t know how to tell him “I’m not attracted to you” in a [conservative Christian] socially acceptable way. And the last time I had tried to tell a guy that things weren’t going anywhere, he ended up telling close friends that we were “unofficially a thing, but just working some details out” afterward. I was sure I had told him no! So I really, really didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

The conversation was brief and awkward. I remember we were both trying so hard to be kind and polite. I remember feeling flushed and restless the whole time. I remember that he was skittish about making eye contact.  But I was so proud of myself. I told him I didn’t see anything beyond friendship with him and I was as clear as I felt I could be while still being sensitive.

He was quiet for a long time. He finished his tea. He fidgeted with the mug. He put it aside.

“But God very clearly told me that you’re the one. How can he tell two people two different things?” It was sincere. He was hurting.

The perpetually impish side of my mind detached from the situation for a moment and snarked: “What the heck? Did he just say that? For REAL?”

But he was looking at me for an answer, and he was my friend. “Um,” I stalled. “Um, well, maybe God just hasn’t told me yet? Maybe he will? I’ll pray about it and I’ll get back to you if he tells me something different from what he’s been telling me so far. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying to me.”

***

I recently read a post by Allison Vesterfelt called “God told me to break up with you” and I laughed.

This idea — making God out to be the agent for starting and ending a relationship (“God told me you were the one”) – -starts in a theologically okay place (God has a plan for your life and it’s really good to pray and feel at peace with a decision before making it), but it really twists his role in relationships and puts too much pressure on sincere Christians to over-spiritualize everything about dating.

I remembered Mike and his sad, serious question, and the drama it caused that year. And I got to thinking about this. It was more than just a symptom of a problematic over-emphasis on the  charismatic type of hearing-from-God/knowing-God’s-will (which is a common concern in both charismatic and reformed circles — a sincere, but misguided anxiety to do everything correctly causes a skewed understanding of how God reveals his will to believers). This was a huge part of it, and it remains a huge problem. But there was something else that bothered me.

In a later conversation (where I had to tell him no again), I felt pressured (not just by him, but by my own understanding of how to “do right by him” and by my dad’s probing questions about why I didn’t like this guy) to have lots of rational reasons for saying no. I had to come up with a list in my head beforehand. I remember I wrote the list down on an index card and pulled it out to go over on my way to “end things.” (“Things,” which never existed.) I felt like I had to prove why we would never work well as a couple, and my game plan was to find something about myself that I knew he would accept as a deal-breaker and let him down with that revelation so he would be sure to never bother me about this again.

Why did I feel like I was obligated to do this? To have two or three conversations with guys to tell them “no” as kindly as possible? To have a list of “rational” reasons why we wouldn’t work? Why was the burden of proof on me? Why wasn’t it okay for me to just say “no, I’m not interested,” and leave it at that?

From my current feminist perspective, now I see a lot of cultural assumptions about women that I was going along with which made me feel this unnecessary pressure to “prove” that my reasons for not dating this guy were valid.

1) Men grow up being told by media and culture that they’re entitled to a pretty girl and if they go through the motions of being a nice guy and woo her, they’ll win the game and get the girl. [see this expounded more here]

2) Courtship movement teachings promote the idea that emotions are deceiving and that being attracted to someone isn’t important in the long run in a godly marriage.

This is pretty messed up — emotions do matter, and attraction is important. Love isn’t all about choice. Love also isn’t sexual desire or infatuation. It’s much richer and more beautifully nuanced than that! But I believed that my lack of attraction to this guy and lack of emotional “click” were not valid reasons. [This is usually only a girls’ problem in these circles, because guys are supposed to initiate, and can therefore choose to initiate a relationship with whoever they are attracted to. Girls are only supposed to respond. Again: messed up. But because of his privilege and his feeling of attraction to me, I had to defend to him my reasons for saying no.]

3) Saying “God told me” is a way of playing the complementarian spiritual hierarchy card. If a man is supposed to be the head of the house, spiritually, and women are not to teach and to submit to male spiritual leadership in the church, then a guy saying he’s heard from God and “hey, babe, you’re the one for me!” puts her in a difficult position. Even though he’s not yet married to her or her spiritual leader, he has a position of greater spiritual legitimacy and authority, and so if she thinks differently, she has to first question his spiritual authenticity and then question the validity of complementarian hierarchy to defend her own spiritual discernment of God’s will. Most girls won’t think this through and will either go with their gut and shut the guy down, or realize they’re up against a system where their spiritual voice is less valid, and go along with dating the guy for a while to “give it a shot” and see if maybe God’s actually in it.

This is utterly inappropriate. A girl should be allowed to say no without playing the God card, and if she has to play the God card, it should be valid independently of “gender roles” in the church and which gender is supposed to lead and initiate.

[Where this line of thinking leads: What if a girl is dating a guy and they’ve talked about engagement and plan to get married, as long as things keep going well, and he says that God told him that should have sex. He says it’s okay because they’re going to get married anyway. He also argues that, since Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and that was considered the same as being married in the Bible, it’s biblical! So then the girl goes along with it and has sex, even if she’s not ready/doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, because he “heard from God” and he’s her “spiritual leader,” since they’re “unofficially engaged.” This is basically manipulation, devaluing her comfort zone and her spiritual authenticity, and pressuring her into sex. And I’m not making this up — it happens.]

4) Girls are constantly given cultural messages that their feelings and opinions are always questionable because they might be “irrational.”

My first problem with this: this is a post-enlightenment concept which privileges reason over intuition. This is fine in the sciences, but the whole universe of human interaction doesn’t work on the basis of logic and we really can’t treat it like it does.

My second problem with this: If a girl who is sensitive and kind seriously desires to honor God, she will feel very pressured to avoid following her emotions or gut instincts on something. Because of this, I felt like my reasons (which were: I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t have any romantic interest in him) weren’t valid because they were intangible, intuitive gut feelings. He was perfect for me “on paper” — he matched the silly list I had made up once upon a time, my dad liked him, he had a solid career plan and no college debt, he was disciplined and spiritually mature (relative to my experience at that point),  etc. But I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t pursue it, and I couldn’t explain it because God hadn’t “spoken to me” and I didn’t have a rational, deal-breaking reason to give him.

This is a false gender stereotype/expectation. People are rational and emotional. Reasons for relational boundaries are valid whether or not they make complete sense, are wholly emotional, or are wholly logical. People deserve respect, whether or not we agree with their reasons. But I couldn’t stand up for myself in this, because I was still buying into the idea that my reasons were invalid because they weren’t logical.

If you want to have biblical support for this idea, look at the teachings of Paul, where he urges believers to care for each other’s weaknesses and not make them stumble. He urges the Corinthians: if your brother is uncomfortable with the origins of the meat you’ve got for dinner, respect that and don’t serve it to him. It’s not wrong according to the gospel, but it makes him struggle in his heart. Be kind.

Likewise, if she doesn’t feel comfortable dating you, leave her alone. Don’t turn into a stalker like every chick flick male lead and “pursue her” until you’ve finally worn down her defenses. Let her be. Let her feel safe. Boundaries are healthy. Love her where she’s at: not okay with dating you!

***

I’m really glad that most people I know have matured and grown past this silly idea  that it’s okay to tell someone “God told me to date you/break up with you/marry you.” I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to actually act that way, but it’s highly unlikely, given a quick survey of his history of acting in the course of human events. Yes, your love life and decisions are important to him because you’re important to him. But they’re probably not of such earth-shattering, instant significance that he’s going to you “look, she’s the one” without bothering to tell her that you’re the one for her, too.

Even if we don’t like someone’s reasons for saying no and feel they’re irrational, it’s not our place to push them into something they’re uncomfortable with.

 

 

 

 


I’ve been stewing on this one for a long time. It’s controversial. It’s probably something we don’t want to admit that we do. But I think it needs to be named and noticed.

Within the church and western culture, our assumptions about gender roles create some tensions between the personality of an individual and the ideal personality traits for their gender. Sometimes pastors will shame men who don’t fit the ideal gender stereotype, like when Mark Driscoll will call men who are nurturing stay-at-home fathers “man fails” [can’t find the original video to cite this, but he said it during a “Real Marriage” talk], or when another pastor, Stephen Altrogge, tweeted that men who wear messenger bags are effeminate and it’s actually a purse, dudes.

Feminists have long asked this question, but I think it’s time Christians did too: why should “effeminate” or “feminine” function as an insult for men?  If my husband admires stay-at-home dads or cares about matching the width of his suit lapels correctly to the width of his tie, he’s no less of a godly man. He’s just a unique person with normal human interests and traits, and he won’t always line up with your “real Christian men” checklist. These differences don’t make him less of a man or less of a Christian. It’s easy to let popular opinion or cultural assumptions make us forget these things (and sometimes these assumptions can even cause us to misinterpret Scripture to our own detriment).

I read this piece on Thought Catalog a couple days ago, “No One Will Love A Loud Girl.” I read it with some bitterness, because I’ve been that girl. I’ve been the girl who liked shooting guns because it was powerful and I was a good shot, but got told that it wasn’t feminine. I’ve been the girl with lots of loud questions and I’ve been shut down and told to listen. I’ve been the female Sunday school student who resented being talked down to in third grade and perplexed her pastor with a letter about how the teachers were being fakely nice and shouldn’t bribe us with candy to bring our Bibles or find a Bible verse, and should answer the hard questions I wanted to ask about the Bible stories instead of brushing me off. I was the girl who liked action movies and martial arts and people didn’t know what to make of the fact that I enjoyed some crude humor (this was shut down so firmly by the disapproval of authority figures that I stopped having much of a sense of humor until I was halfway through college and realized I liked Arrested Development). I was the 12 year old girl who attended church membership class with my parents and argued with the pastor about predestination, and then later asked about women attending the pastor’s college, only to be told that was for men who had been chosen for church leadership. Amusingly naive, yes. But the sobering truth in that situation was that I was a woman and I wasn’t fitting into the mold of the Keepers at Home groups where biblical femininity was taught.

In the mainstream church, we’re better at accepting an intelligent woman who asks hard questions. But we’re still not great at it (see anything on Rachel Held Evans lately for evidence of this).

But one thing I’ve recently observed, that seems to be an active prejudice within Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull circles, as well as mainstream “secular” America and the more mainstream evangelical Christian culture, is a real distaste for a woman who has any sort of anger present in her words or actions. Rightly or wrongly angry, acting on her anger or just talking about it, she’s almost universally shamed into passivity, because a passive woman is the cultural idea (subconsciously held or deliberately taught).

Don’t misunderstand, I think the result of anger can easily be sin. Violence is almost universally wrong, and is usually caused by anger or aggression. But what about a woman who has a damn good reason to be angry? What if she was a man and was angry about…oh, I dunno. Rape. A man gets raped, or was abused as a child. He speaks up about it. He’s angry. We’re not surprised and we sympathize and we say he has a right to be angry, but please don’t do anything rash. But a woman? She’s just supposed to be crushed and sad. Tender, broken, weepy. But if she gets angry, she’ll probably be thought of as shrill or bitchy or, worst of all, asking for it. That’s just terrible to assume, but it’s culturally a normal, even easy thing to think, particularly in conservative circles.

Now, on a less dramatic scale: you’re a woman in a church, and you start seeing your daughters and sisters and friends struggling with fear of sex, guilt and loathing for their bodies, eating disorders, shame, and fear, because of legalistic modesty teachings. You start talking about this, how it’s wrong, how it’s damaging. If you play your cards right, you’ll get listened to. But playing your cards right means: tearful testimonials to men in authority, navigating translation battles and hermeneutical landmines to confront the assumptions behind the teachings, and lots of long talks about law vs. grace to address the legalism aspect driving it, without offending anyone or turning them off from your vision of grace-filled teachings about women and their bodies to heal those broken by the weight of shame and the law.

If she goes mama-bear and is angry for the sake of those who are wounded (which would be natural), she will certainly be shut down, dismissed, and ignored. In some way or another, depending on the church. But her anger will instantly disqualify her from speaking about this. Why is that okay?

Likewise, if a girl grows up in an abusive home, and later realizes it, and speaks to that abuse with the normal response of grief and anger, she is told that she is slandering or being bitter, and she should not speak of her home life like that. If she is angry, she is not commended for finally recognizing right boundaries in a healthy relationship and naming the wrongs she used to endure. Instead it becomes uncomfortable to relate to her, because her pain and her anger is not acceptable in our social framework. She does not fit into our little set of boxes, so we either label her with a sin problem, or pass over her emotions in hopes that it was all just a misunderstanding. [Please note that I am not actually speaking of my own personal experience on this point. However, I have seen it done to friends and family members.]

How is that reflecting Jesus and his kind of love? I can’t reconcile this behavior to the teachings and example of Jesus. Angry women are socially uncomfortable, I get it. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or sinful or not worthy of love and community. They are not worse at being Christians. They’re just honest.


Shortly after her breakup with her serious boyfriend of two years, a friend confided in me that she worried that no good Christian guys would be interested in her, because of the things she had done with her ex.

“What sorts of things?” I wondered. Her response: nothing more than your average youthful makeout sessions, which was understandable considering she ended things after a long relationship and about two weeks before he planned to propose.

And yet she felt guilty and wondered if the next guy she dated would reject her because of what she had done.

She is not alone–almost every “good Christian girl” has worried about this. Some become paralyzed with guilt if they’ve “gone too far” or lost their virginity. Some feel guilty and can’t handle it, so they numb themselves and stop caring about physical boundaries or balancing trust and intimacy in a relationship, telling themselves they’re used, so why does it matter now?

I worried about this, too. At one point in our engagement, Kevin and I talked very seriously about calling things off for various reasons, and I found myself panicking, wondering, “If we break up, then what? Would any good guy be interested in me, knowing I was engaged to someone else? Would he resent the physical elements of relationship Kevin and I had?”

***

I call this “purity guilt.” And I am now convinced that this guilt is the wrong and natural result of a flagrant misunderstanding of real purity and real grace. But because we grew up in the purity (and courtship) culture of evangelical churches, we don’t know better. This guilt is the natural correlary to my last one on modesty and lust in its abuse of the law and corresponding misuse of grace. For what I can tell, it’s predominantly a female issue, but I’d be really eager to hear from the guys if this runs both ways.

***

When I turned twelve, my dad took me to a jewelry store where we picked out a ring to be my “purity ring.” Most of the girls around my age at our church were getting purity rings with precious stones for their birthdays, and my parents had planned on using this occasion as a sort of coming-of-age ceremony where they could talk to me about saving myself for marriage (e.g. maintaining chastity until after the vows—the technicalities of this were nebulous). After presenting me with the ring, they asked me to sign a document stating what “saving myself” meant to me and what I was promising (this was quite vague–I was twelve). However, this promise became nuanced with a lot of unspoken assumptions as I grew older.

The “godly” girls in our church made their purity promises too, saying things like “I will save my first kiss for the altar,” and “I will not hold hands until after I am engaged,” and “I will not tell a man I love him unless he is my fiancé.” I probably wrote down similar things in my little contract, which my parents and I then signed and stuck in my 7th grade school file. Here’s one like mine, that my friend Carley signed (along with her dad and her pastor–talk about weird).

This sort of thing was (and still is) not entirely unusual. What’s more unusual are the parents who try to enforce these pledges later on. Most don’t, trusting the self-consciousness and guilt of  the memory of these promises to keep their daughters making wise decisions. Some, however, like my friend Carley’s parents, try to hold their daughters to the letter of the law. Carley ended up eloping with her husband, because her white parents wouldn’t approve of him because he is black.

Her situation, obviously, was more rare, but the obsessive concern about girls’ purity/virginity is a troubling constant in the evangelical world.  The idea of Christian girls and virginity as a precious commodity is a value in Christian culture going back to the very beginning of the church, when many young believers chose martyrdom over marrying or sleeping with an unbeliever. These are the women of the Catholic canon of saints, and for good cause–their dedication to their faith is admirable.

But their situation and culture isn’t the same as ours–they were dealing with rape-or-death situations. We are instead dealing with young couples exploring intimacy in (often) healthy and normal ways. But girls like Carley and me are still urged to save our first kiss for the altar or asked by our parents to have short engagements, because “the temptation is too great.” And when we discover that holding hands or kissing is actually nice and doesn’t suddenly hurl us into sexual sin, we become confused and struggle with guilt: were the things we taught wrong? Or am I just being callous to sin? Am I ruining my hope of a good sex life in my married future by doing these things now?

This emphasis on sexual sin is turning good and natural things (the existence of my sex drive, discovering how my body works, kissing my boyfriend goodnight, etc.) into hotspots for guilt and shame. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t teach that sexual sin is somehow worse than anger or gluttony, and Jesus didn’t ration the grace he gave for the sexually experienced. Instead, he ate with prostitutes and protected the woman caught in adultery from stoning.

Sexual sin is real. But why have we made it out to be more than it should be? We have inflated the concept of sex to a spiritual high (which it can be, but this ignores the physicalness and humor and ordinary joy of it), and so the sexually inexperienced good Christian girl is plagued by fear of ruining this future experience by her participation in any number of normal and healthy physical elements of a normal and healthy dating relationship.

Furthermore, we’ve allowed ourselves to make this a gendered double standard: why is it usually no big deal if a young Christian guy is sexually experienced, as long as he’s repented and trying to stay pure? Girls don’t get that sort of treatment. Virginity is “lost,” and suddenly the girl is “damaged goods.” We girls feel guilty because it’s culturally normal to make us feel guilty. The church accepts this as okay without much of a second thought (and only mild lip-service to “second chances”) because this practice, called “slut-shaming” by those outside the church, has for so long been culturally normal.

Before I get into the grace & guilt part of this, I must say: Did you know that, physiologically speaking, it’s impossible to tell if a woman has ever had sex or not? The hymen is sometimes present, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s no bleeding the first time she has sex. Sometimes, it’s impossible to have sex for the first time without significant tearing. Every woman is different, and the idea of “virginity” is an abstract concept, impossible to prove physically. (Feminist author Jessica Valenti theorizes [not a 100% endorsement, but a very interesting read] that the concept of virginity originated as a way a man could prove without a doubt that his son was his and should inherit his property and goods–if the wife was a virgin at marriage and he was vigilant and sure of her faithfulness, then the son was his and the inheritance safe. The Old Testament concept of virginity reflects this feudal mindset in the law.)

Our culture has some messed up assumptions about purity and girls, and we’ve woven them into the Bible’s teachings on sexual fidelity and made purity 1) the woman’s responsibility, and 2) all about technicalities and rules and “how far is too far.”

My brother got a purity ring, too, and I commend my parents’ equal treatment of this issue , regardless of gender. Some Christians don’t just make it a girls’ issue, but this is not very common.  Modesty is the girl’s job, and it’s easy to make purity the girl’s responsibility, too.

The whole idea of “purity rings” and virginity as the highest sexual moral good is based on some fundamental assumptions made by about sexual sin being somehow “worse” than other sins, and this is problematic. Sexual sin is serious and can have more significant emotional effects on a person, but it’s no more damning than any other sin.

Parents who teach these detailed, legalistic approaches to purity often bring these things up (and even urge their daughters to make these purity promises) when they’re only 12 or 13. At this age, girls are often still in that blissful twilight of childhood where self-consciousness is still rare and interactions with other people happen without ulterior motives or fear. They simply don’t understand what they’re promising.

When purity and modesty issues are introduced, these young girls experience a rude awakening to fear of self and fear of interacting with the other sex–boys are no longer just boys, but sex-obsessed animals. This fear of self and sex and men is perpetuated throughout adolescence with modesty talks and sermon illustrations of girls who slip up and get pregnant out of wedlock, and the purity guilt (over flirting, over slips into “immodesty,” over sexual desires) is increased.

The New Testament teachings on sexuality don’t say that virginity is the highest good, that those who have sexual experience and aren’t married are dirty and unworthy of grace, or that setting physical boundaries is either a guy’s responsibility or a that keeping physical boundaries is a girl’s job.

Instead it says: flee sexual immorality. Be content, and if you can’t be content, get married. Don’t take advantage of each other, but treat each other with respect. Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t abandon your commitment to someone in the name of piety. Love one another. Mutually defer to one another in love.

Sexual purity for a couple considering whether or not to pursue marriage is never really spelled out  (at least not along the lines of the purity teachings my peers and I received from the pulpits of our churches). Sex is held in high value and reserved for marriage. But the guilt and the shame that follow the uncomfortably detailed teachings about purity and virginity–these can’t be found.

Jesus loved unconditionally. He didn’t die for us to wallow in fear that our sexual sins or infractions of a man-made purity code would ruin our marriages or future relationships. Sex saved for marriage is ideal, but Jesus’s best for us is a life lived without shame, with forgiveness and grace and unconditional acceptance by the Father.


This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.