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.

 

 

 

 


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.