Passion and Purity: One More Thought on Unruly Affections

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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

Passion and Purity: Love Has Always Been Messy

Let’s get started!  In the very first paragraph, Elliot gives us a straw man, hints at a slippery slope, and throws in some good old days nostalgia:

The word love has fallen on bad times.  To many people it means nothing more nor less than going to bed with somebody, never mind what sex the other may belong to.  Bumper stickers substitute a picture of a red heart for the word love and apply it to just about anything, anybody, or any place.  

Love is a squishy word for a squishy thing.  I love wasabi peas; I love my husband; I love your new haircut!  All of these are true, and I’ll bet that you, reader, know exactly what I mean by each iteration of the word “love.”  Of course my love for my husband is quite different from my love for wasabi peas.  This is quite obvious and, of course, not a new problem in the English language or in our collective understanding of the concept of love.   Does anyone really think that “I ❤ NY” bumper stickers somehow devalue the word “love”?  (For the curious, Wikipedia tells us that “I ❤ NY” was introduced in 1977; this book was first published in 1984.)

I know exactly no people who think that “love” means “going to bed with someone regardless of their sex.” She seems to think that our modern loosey-goosey interpretation of the word “love” has lead to a slippery slope and now people just don’t know the difference between love and sex or even the difference between the sexes!  Individual sexual identities are not the result of a too-wide definition of the word love or the casual use of hearts on bumper stickers.  As in many Christian dating books, LGBTQ identities are completely overlooked, categorized here as meaningless, careless, and based solely on lust.

Continue reading