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.

 

 

 

 


  • Women raised in a culture where they are not allowed to say “no” to men, or think for themselves, are even more susceptible to being raped. It’s worse because then they’re essentially raped but still “yes.” The rapist is then technically NOT a rapist (she consented- how was he supposed to read her mind? How are the police to know she doesn’t just have a case of “buyers’ remorse?”), and she’s left miserable and completely ashamed of herself. I want my girlfriends, and my possible future daughter, and her friends to know they CAN say no! “If even a tiny piece of you isn’t totally sure or you have even a smidge of doubt- give him a strong and firm NO.”

  • I used to have a couple of male friends who would come to me when they thought God had told them to date a specific girl, usually after said specific girl was hesitant. “But God told me! Why isn’t that enough?” they’d ask. I usually responded, “Well, if God hasn’t spoken to her, then maybe He hasn’t really spoken at all.” That was almost never received well.

    So many thoughts about this piece. 🙂

  • Andrea_Videographer

    So glad you untangled all this mess. It always pisses me off, but I can never articulate why. Bravo.

  • Hi Hannah. I love your writing: both what you say and how you say it. There were two things I noticed in this article. First, where you talk about reason in a post-enlightenment world, I think that this is a place where our cultural post modernism is actually a strength. In this developing worldview, emotions are highly valued with or even sometimes over reason. Our modern pastors and parents might have taught us otherwise, but our generation sees it differently. And second, I remember reading Martin Luther’s small catechism last year and being surprised by his take on God’s providence/ predestination/ our free will and other related topics. He writes that God clearly tells us to say yes and no when it comes to matters of salvation, but other things are much more so up to our discernment. Luther actually explicitly names marriage as one of those less important things that are up to us. I don’t mean to argue. I think you’re right on point. I just thought this related to what you’ve said here in an interesting way.
    Blessings to you!

    – Sami

    • Hey, you’re not arguing! These are great thoughts. I’m a little tickled to hear that about Luther. That’s good.

  • Good thoughts.

  • I love this: 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.

    Spot on my new friend. Spot on!!! So glad you took the time to write this. I just posted this on my Devotional Diva fan page 🙂

  • *standing ovation*

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  • This isn’t just this generation’s problem. Happened to me 35 years ago too. I didn’t have a problem saying no, but he had a huge problem accepting it.

  • Pingback: Relationships, A Series: Part One — What is Courtship? | H . A()

  • Someone linked your latest guest post and then I started reading (yes, that’s me who’s been on your blog all night) and I just started reading this series and… wow.
    I think a couple of things…
    One, (about the Purity guilt post) I started writing a letter to my (future) daugher(s) when I was 23 and had just come out of a very one sided relationship where I was taken advantage of. I think I might just tear it up and burn it now. It’s unfinished and I don’t think my daughters (now 18 months) really need to know the details of their mother’s dating relationships gone bad, other than maybe to listen to wiser elders when they tell you camping alone with a boy isn’t the smartest idea…
    But basically I hope the conversations I can have with them will be open and continue to be open for their entire lives. I didn’t grow up nearly as strict as you, but I could NEVER talk to my parents about boys. They don’t understand why I felt I couldn’t and they really weren’t as strict as many you write about, but after comments about “dating over my dead body” when I was at least a teenager I never felt comfortable talking to them. Even that failed relationship at 23 took me months to tell them about.

    Two, after this post… I think I owe my first boyfriend an apology. I was 21 and a guest speaker came to our school (Christian) and basically told us that where we spent our time showed what our priorities were (which obviously is true in one sense), but somehow it made me feel so guilty about my boyfriend that I dumped him without warning (honestly, I think I did still like him) and was a complete ass. I felt guilty later, but now reading this I think I more fully understand some of what happened.
    That guest speaker is now a local church pastor (no, not in our college town, but my hometown – weird connections) with major connections to Mars Hill and all the things I see and hear about his church have me worried. It makes a lot more sense now.

    So… this is one random comment after having read a large portion of your recent blog tonight. Thank you for sharing and for writing. I’m sorry about your divorce and I hope you go on to find a healthy love or whatever your HEART desires. 🙂

  • Beth

    What amazes me is that the blaming God doesn’t stop (for many people) even well after high school and college. “God told me I can’t be friends with you” or “God said I can’t babysit for you” are two things I’ve heard well into my early 20s. In reality, it’s okay if someone doesn’t like you or if someone does like you a lot, but they don’t need to blame God for it.