Passion and Purity, pg. 33: Unruly Affections

Today we start chapter 4!

“Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners…” …I had been reading my Bible, I believe, quite faithfully, nearly every day through high school and college…It took no specially profound understanding of it to know that I did not begin to measure up to its standards.  As I grew into womanhood and began to learn what was in my heart I saw very clearly that, of all things difficult to rule, none were more so than my will and affections.  They were unruly in the extreme, as the diary entries attest.

Bringing anything into order — a messy room, a wild horse, a recalcitrant child — involves some expenditure.  Time and energy are at least requred.  Perhaps even labor, toil, sacrifice, and pain.

Let’s start with the second paragraph.  It’s true that forming new thought patterns and habits requires work, and this is good to keep in mind when you’re focused on self-improvement of any sort.  It’s very easy to be very lazy with yourself, to begin feeling entitled and self-righteous, and it takes a certain amount of discipline and self-awareness to identify bad habits, address them, and begin forming new, healthier habits.

In fact, I think that it takes time, energy, discipline, toil, sacrifice, and pain, to do most things–a project, a job, a career, a relationship, a dream.  Anything worth fighting for is, at some point, going to require work.

But here Elliot has gone beyond encouraging self-discipline and good habits.  She has characterized normal human emotions as sinful.

It’s normal to have intense crushes on cute guys when you are 19 years old.  It’s normal to stay up at night wondering if he’s The One.  It’s normal to go on mediocre first dates and wonder if you should bother with a second.  This is not what I would call “unruly in the extreme.”

Experiencing emotions is not a sin.  Wishing for a husband — or just a date! — is not a sin.  Feeling lonely and confused is not a sin.  Falling in and out of love is not a sin.

I realize that Elliot could also be implying that she felt she needed to control her emotions better in order to make good decisions about her relationships and her future.  Fair enough–but that’s not exactly what she says here.  She says that her will and affections do not live up to the Bible’s standards.  And as evidence of this, she provides diary entries in which she goes on dates and wonders about the future–standard young adult activities!

Couple problems here.  First: what are the Bible’s standards?  She alludes to them in previous chapters, although she only supported with a few verses: complete commitment to Christ and absolute sexual purity.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, these standards are fine, but hardly comprehensive, and the way Elliot interprets them is shallow.

And I’ll bet cash money that those “unruly wills and affections” listed in the Book of Common Prayer (which she quotes at the beginning) are not only sexual, but include greed, selfishness, gluttony, pride…you know.  Sex is not the only thing that tempts our wills.

Second, and most importantly, this evangelical tendency to think of even emotions as sinful is a really big problem.

It goes like this:

  1. Jesus said we are supposed to be pure in heart.
  2. Jesus also said that even thinking about sinning is the same as actually sinning.
  3. The Bible says that man’s heart (and that obviously includes emotions) is wicked and deceitful.
  4. Therefore, we can’t trust our emotions because they could be leading us into sin.
  5. Therefore, we should spend a lot of time and energy second-guessing our emotions and controlling our thoughts so that they are pleasing to God.

This line of thought is dangerous.

This line of thought teaches people to distrust their intuition.
This line of thought plays down the gift of fear and teaches instead a reliance on authority figures who may or may not deserve to be relied upon.
This line of thought leads people open to spiritual and emotional abuse.
This line of thought ignores completely the role of the Holy Spirit.
This line of thought emphasizes thoughts over actions, in direct contradiction to both common sense and the book of James.

This book, and this line of thought, is the directancestor of Joshua Harris’ still-popular book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, in which Christian youth are instructed to maintain “emotional purity” by not “giving away pieces of their hearts.”  

The repercussions of those teachings are harmfulsignificant, and well-documented:

…having a crush on someone was called, a la Josh Harris and his book ‘I kissed dating goodbye’, ‘giving away a piece of your heart’. Someone went further than this and said that having a crush on someone you weren’t married to was being an ‘emotional whore’. So I had a huge amount of guilt about my crushes, even though they weren’t sexual (which I didn’t know)…The long and the short of it is that a lack of information about sex and sexuality combined with the sexual-attraction-blindness of my asexuality led to many, many painful hours and tears over very innocent matters. It also led to ignorance of my orientation, which is not helpful when you hope to meet a compatible spouse, and which caused a lot of complications in my relationships. – –Christine

[Purity teachings] create skewed views of relationships which lead to dysfunction…Where others see nothing wrong, I am suspicious of every look, every situation, every witty exchange. I am still uncomfortable hugging one of my best friends who is a guy. Because we were never to hug or have physical contact, even innocent, with a guy. Voices in my head scream “defrauder!” just by giving a friend a quick hug. I feel ill at ease sometimes even talking to other men. Oh, they never notice. Because I’m really good at pushing those feelings away and acting “normal”. But I am bothered by my reaction to everyday situations. We were taught never ever ever to be alone with a guy. Because it could look bad. He could be tempted. You might start thinking impure thoughts.  —Darcy’s Heart-Stirrings

What I gleaned from Joshua Harris was that I should only ever have a relationship with one person, else I would be giving away pieces of my heart and would end up with marital discontent and problems. I should marry the first man I loved, the first man I had a relationship with, for only then would my heart be intact and pure. But of course, this meant that I should guard my heart and not fall in love until I was sure I had found the man I would marry, and man who had wooed my father just as he wooed me. Some families, though definitely not mine, take these ideas to their natural conclusion and advocate arranged marriages.  When I realized, in my early twenties, that love is not finite, I felt lied to and betrayed. —Libby-Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism


What Elliot does with the first page of this chapter is set everyone up for failure.  Not only do you have to be sexually innocent, but emotionally innocent as well, examining every seed of every affection in case it’s ungodly.  If you’re not perfectly controlled, you might be led astray.  The unspoken assumption is that if you discipline your feelings, you’ll end up in The Right Relationship For You, From God.

But how many happy couples met in a moment of “unruly” affection?  How many wonderful relationships first went through months of heady, murky indecision?  How on earth are you supposed to learn how to handle emotions in a relationship if don’t let yourself have them in the first place?

The best way to learn about emotions and how to handle them is to have them.  You might make mistakes along the way!  That is OK.  Learn from your mistakes.  Use your words.  Take as much time as you need to think it through.  Ask your mom about it.  Apologize when you hurt someone.  Say “no” if you’re uncomfortable.   And trust your gut.


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