Friday, March 23, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Kissing Through the Fence

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Let me give you a scenario that plays out over and over again.

I’m a young Christian man, say … or maybe I’m a middle-aged Christian woman. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. But let’s go with the young Christian man for a minute.

I have always been told that, for some reason, it’s bad for a believer to partner up with an unbeliever. But now that I’m in the situation myself, I can’t quite see why.

Immanuel Can: After all, girl X (my intended) is a lovely person. She’s just like me. We have great conversations. She thinks exactly like I do about practically everything that matters. We have wonderful times together. And I have deep feelings for her.

Tom: “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right …”

The Best Possible Person

IC: Right. In every way I can think of, she seems like the best possible person for me to be with, and I can’t stand any thought that there would be any reason I can’t take the relationship to the next stage … which I’m thinking about doing. And I don’t really want to be talked out of that, but I do want my conscience to feel better as I go forward. This business of the so-called “unequal yoke” is the last fly in my ointment, so to speak.

So explain to me, Tom: have you got any reason I haven’t thought of that I should be concerned? Or should I maybe be content to consider this just a bad idea created by a bygone era of Christians, and just get past it? What do you say?

Tom: Well, first, it is the scripture. God said it, not a team of psychologists or Dear Abby. And I’m batting something like 0-60 in situations where I go ahead and do something the Bible tells me not to do. I don’t fancy your odds will be any better than mine.

IC: Okay, so you’re going to tell me it hasn’t worked out for you. Maybe so. But (says the young Christian in question) I’m not you. My situation’s different.

Tom: This girl is SPECIAL™ …

IC: And while I can’t account for your experiences, and shouldn’t have to, I can tell you that in my own experience I feel like going ahead makes more sense, and maybe it will work out for me.

It’s Not Complicated

Tom: Okay. Second, it’s about as straightforward a command as is possible to deliver: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?” You cannot possibly misunderstand it. You can only misapply it, or fail to apply it.

If, for instance, you were only contemplating getting into a business venture with an unsaved person, we might be able to argue that if your proposed contract gives you an “out” of some sort, or gives you the final word in any decisions to be made, then what you are doing is not technically getting “yoked” together, or that the yoke is not “equal”, and therefore the verses do not apply. However, the one and only situation to which they always apply is marriage.

IC: That’s a good point. If the commandment not to “yoke” with unbelievers means anything — anything it all — it must surely apply to marriage relationships. There’s no reasonable doubt there at all. Good answer.

Playing the Vegas Odds

What would you say if the young Christian were to respond, “Well, I wasn’t thinking about marriage, just about maybe hanging out or dating and seeing where things go. Like, maybe girl X will even get saved …”

Tom: I will concede that in fifty-something years I’ve heard of two that did get saved (not that I can speak to the quality of those marriages one way or another, or speculate what might have been if the now-husband had been obedient in the first instance). And I’ve also heard of maybe a hundred that didn’t.

But, you know, if you like Vegas odds ...

Okay, if you’re going to be difficult, it might be worth looking up what the Bible tells you to do when you’re tempted: watch and pray (Matthew 26:41); pray (Luke 22:40); do not make provision for what your flesh is telling you to do (Romans 13:14); and flee it (2 Timothy 2:22-24). But I’m sure you know better.

You can certainly do your own thing on this issue if you don’t mind ending up as a cautionary tale. Just don’t claim to be living like a Christian when you do it. The standard is not up for debate, regardless of your personal situation or the intensity of your feelings.

The Question That Remains

IC: Okay. So far I’ve been playing advocate for the young Christian who’s in the situation. And I think technically you’ve got him. If he believes the scripture at all, he’s to the point where he cannot escape the realization that in pursuing a relationship with an unbeliever he is in direct contravention of the explicit word of God. But as much as I have to admit that, I think there’s still a question, and one that is more pressing to the present generation than to past ones: what about the fact that I don’t feel what you’re saying?

Tom: Oh, you mean like most sins ...

IC: Now, being older than some, you and I might well be tempted to dismiss such a reply as merely reluctance to obey. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But I think that many people simply won’t. The residual intuition that they can or could establish a working, intimate relationship with the unbeliever in question would simply be too compelling to them. And yet, God says they simply cannot. If we look at the chain of opposites in 2 Corinthians 6, it’s very stark: not just believer/unbeliever, but in parallel construction, light/darkness, Christ/Belial, temple of God/[temple of] idols …

Two Reasons

So let me put the question this way: if it’s such a clear matter of stark contrast, how can I possibly account for my lack of sensing that, or having the experience that the issues are really as clear as scripture suggests? Shouldn’t I have some sense in my personal experience that things are as stark as all that? Why don’t I?

Tom: Well, part of it is cultural. We Christians in the West do not generally live separated lives. We don’t do a lot of talking amongst ourselves about the things that it is better to do differently from the world when our kids are young. So advice to your daughter like, “Look for a Christian husband who wants kids and can provide rather than a career” or “Marry young”, or advice to your son like, “Put away the videogames and learn how to make enough money to own a house and raise a family” ... well, these are rare sentiments. We are not raising realists or pragmatists. We’re raising fantasists who buy in to the romantic myths peddled by the media. So of course we live and act pretty much like the more civilized worldlings around us.

The other part of it is not cultural at all: it’s a problem that plagued Adonijah, Samson and many other men throughout history, and that is that an attractive woman is an attractive woman, and infatuation is a powerful thing. It messes with your head. It will not make doing the right thing feel like it is the right thing.

IC: Yes, I think you’re right. The second motive you talk about is simpler to understand, but I think perhaps the first accounts better for the emotional difficulty many people have in detecting within their own experiences the truth of what God is saying. The bottom line is this: that a shallow Christian is actually not all that far from a very nice unbeliever … and there are some very nice unbelievers around.

Tom: I think you’ve put your finger on it.

Two Meadows

IC: Picture it like this: there are two meadows adjacent to one another. Call the southern one “the meadow of the world”. Call the north one “the meadow of Christ”. A shallow, immature or naive Christian may be living every day on the south perimeter of the north meadow; just as a very nice, moral, decent unbeliever may spend all her time near the north fence of the south meadow. The two can easily meet, converse, make company, form ties emotionally, and so on … and from their relative living spots, it’s not difficult at all. And that’s what makes the Lord’s strong statements about the incompatibility of believers and unbelievers so hard to verify for some on the basis of their emotions or personal experience. If that’s their situation, I can understand why they may not feel the truth of what God is telling them.

Tom: And feelings are everything to the current generation.

IC: But here’s the thing: between the two meadows is a high, high fence. It’s infinitely long, and infinitely strong, because God put it there and he maintains it. Once you’re genuinely on the Christian side of the fence, you are kept by divine power from ever going back: it just cannot happen. So long as you’re not a Christian, you can never get through that fence by any other means than abandoning your home meadow, dying to your old life, and giving yourself to Christ.

Tom: That’s 2 Corinthians 6 in a nutshell.

Meeting at the Fence

IC: Right. Now, meanwhile, you can still meet at the fence. You can talk through the fence. You can hold hands through the fence. You can kiss through the fence. But you just cannot ever really be together in the way God intends. And if either one of you decides to make further “progress” in the respective meadows in which each of you lives, you can only do so by leaving the fence, and moving farther away from the partnership you’ve formed.

A Christian who wants to grow and develop in his spiritual life must necessarily leave the south fence and walk north. A worldly person who decides to become more worldly will be going south. A gap will open in the relationship if either of you decides to become more of what you truly are. And if neither of you does, then both of you will end up living shallow, uncommitted inauthentic lives, never being able to explore the fullness of what your “meadow” offers.

Tom: And here’s the thing: your feelings will always lie to you about the presence of the fence. Maybe it’s not really that high or wide. Maybe there’s a little hole over here or there that you might be able to sneak through. That’s what your feelings will tell you. And not without reason: God has indeed at times graciously overlooked egregious violations of his law and his word. The problem is that you can never count on being that rare instance.

Foolery and Faith

IC: Yes. And worse than that, you can actually fool yourself into thinking you are the exception. But life has a way of changing that — if not a whole lot sooner, then certainly when your first child comes along. Because then you’ve got to ask yourself what you’re going to do.

So you sold your partner on the idea that your own Christianity didn’t matter. But now are you going to sacrifice your children on the altar of your relationship with the unbeliever? But what will you tell them now, since you’ve been pretending it didn’t matter? And how will you now be credible, since you have been selling out all along?

Tom: Isn’t faith the real issue here? Faith, and your view of our heavenly Father.

IC: Yes, quite. That’s the key. Do we believe our heavenly Father actually knows what’s best for us, and provides according to that? Or do we just say that publicly, and secretly hold a different view?

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