I wanted to save the last paragraph of chapter 4 for a separate post (page 37):
Each encounter strengthened the suspicion that I might be falling in love with this man. A delicious feeling, but not very sensible for a woman trying to steer a straight course for the mission field, which, I thought, was supposed to be Africa or the South Seas.
Precisely how did one pour at God’s feet the “treasure store” of one’s love? Well, I promised myself, I’ll find out when I really do fall in love. There’s no such involvement yet. [Emphasis mine]
There’s a tendency in evangelical culture to assign duties and responsibilities and challenges to distinct stages of life, whether or not that topic actually applies to you. If you’re single, you’re probably worried about finding your life partner. If you’re married, odds are you’re struggling with communication and submission. If you’re a man, I’ll bet you struggle with porn. If you’re a woman, it’s those emotions, isn’t it?
Particularly in the Christian subculture that prioritizes accountability partners and discipleship groups and taking every thought captive, there’s an undeniable social (if not spiritual) pressure to confess to each other your thoughts, actions, intentions, and sins. If you are in such a subculture and you start dating someone, there are certain types of things you are supposed to confess to each other and discuss in bible study. People start asking about how much time you’re spending together and do you think it’s too much and if you are holding this relationship with an open hand and have you talked about how you’re going to maintain your purity and have you talked about how he’s going to lead in the relationship. This is intrusive, sure, but it’s pretty par for the course if you’ve signed up for an intrusive sort of Christian fellowship. Fair enough.
It gets more difficult, though, when you start dating someone your fellow Bible Study-ers won’t approve of. Maybe you know they’ll think you moved too fast. Maybe you know they don’t think he’s Christian enough. Maybe they think you’re too young, or too busy, or too distracted by this new relationship. Maybe they worry that your relationship with God will suffer. It doesn’t matter what the reason is: the result is that you don’t want to admit to them that you’re actually dating this person because you don’t want to deal with the judgement.
And there will be judgement. There will be gossip passed along as “prayer requests.” There will be coffee dates where you awkwardly talk about everything else before your accountability partner says, “I wanted to talk about your relationship. How do you think it’s going?” There will be suspicions about how pure you are keeping this new relationship–do you really think you should be spending that much time alone together?
But there’s a very easy way to avoid this whole thing: just don’t admit you’re dating. Say you’re hanging out or waiting for God’s timing or interested, but not rushing into anything. Best of all, say you’re praying about it. This will encourage solemn nods of understanding and encouragement. “That’s so wise!” they’ll say. Then no one can ask about your relationship because, officially, you’re not in one.
(Of course, if you’re blatant enough about it–if you go to his dorm immediately after Bible Study and spend the night–then you’ll still have to meet your accountability partner for a coffee date. But, really, you’re smarter than that.)
This is what Elliot’s last sentence makes me think of. I understand that in her situation in this chapter, they haven’t established a relationship yet. They are not dating. She isn’t in love, but she’s getting there. But her words seem just a bit cocky, a bit triumphant. I can’t help but picture her as an evangelical teen who’s found a loophole: Oh, don’t worry about me and Josh, we’re not dating. There’s no involvement yet. We’re just hanging out. I’m praying about it. By her own rules, if she admitted she was in love, she’d have to start thinking about marriage. She doesn’t want to do that yet. So she doesn’t admit she’s in love. Easy–but dishonest.
It reads this way to me because she obviously, at this point in the story, IS in love with him. She’s hoping it works out. She’s anticipating their next meeting. She’s trying to figure out how their missionary careers can overlap. She’s in love. Denying that she’s in love makes it easier to put off dealing with it, easier to put off learning how to “give it to God.” That’s a totally normal thing to do–see: every romantic comedy ever.
But that’s not an appropriate lesson for a book about Christian dating.
There are certain red flags in dating that can signal something seriously amiss. One of them is if your new squeeze starts cutting off ties with friends and family–a hallmark of abuse. If you catch yourself before you tell your friends about what your boyfriend said last night, if all of a sudden you’re not sharing things about your relationship that you would ordinarily be sharing because you know they’ll ask you about it, you know you wouldn’t be able justify staying with him if they knew, there is a problem.
But the sort of thinking that Elliot is espousing here is common in evangelicalism. We’re not dating, so I don’t have to talk about it because I know that my accountability partner won’t approve. The problem is WHY the accountability partner won’t approve. Is it because your’e dating an abusive jerk? Or is it simply because you kissed “too early in the relationship.”? Because one of those things is not like the other. One of those things is unhealthy; the other is just frowned upon by a specific subculture. But in this subculture, the subculture that Elliot helped create, there is precious little said about identifying actual unhealthy or abusive relationships. But there are a whole lot of arbitrary dating rules that are considered equally important.
Blurring the lines between those two things is dangerous.