Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Sometimes Avoidance IS Purity

Aimee Byrd has a new book out entitled Why Can’t We Be Friends? The subtitle, Avoidance Is Not Purity, pithily advances her thesis: that because evangelicals view ourselves as “time bombs on the brink of having an affair — or of being accused of having one,” we miss out on the joys of friendship between the sexes, fail to give expression to our “siblingship” in Christ, and are a less-than-optimal testimony to the world.

For a thesis, maybe it’s not the worst idea ever. But it’s right up there.

Downright Foolish

This is not the first time I’ve heard this notion expressed, but it’s certainly the first book about it I’ve come across. And, let’s face it, in our current cultural climate, avoiding close non-sexual relationships with members of the opposite sex can certainly appear like petty, legalistic virtue-signaling to some.

Byrd puts it this way:
“Most of us instinctively know what constitutes sexual impropriety in conversation and action — but, due to influence from our overly sexualized culture, we tend to scandalize ordinary acts of kindness and business. It becomes suspect to give someone a ride, share a meal with a coworker in a public place, or text the other sex without copying our spouses or another third party. Prohibitions of these acts are couched in language of protecting our purity, honoring our spouses, or wisely avoiding the threat of temptation. Challenge any of these suggestions, however, and the language of danger is invoked. If these ordinary acts are dangerous, it must be downright foolish to use a meaningful term like friendship to describe a relationship between the sexes.”
Hmm. Let me think about that.

Hello Time Bomb

Well, whether you are convinced we evangelicals really are a bunch of walking time bombs on the brink of breaking out into a raging affair-pandemic, or whether you believe such events happen rarely among believers (and they DO happen rarely, on the whole), there remains a fundamental problem inherent in focusing on sexual impropriety in the areas of “conversation and action”. That is this: it is the heart that is most in danger. As the Lord Jesus put it, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, adultery, sexual immorality ...” The heart is the place where all the bad stuff starts, and even if that bad stuff never gets acted out or even discussed in the real world, an infected heart is still a potentially devastating problem for the married Christian couple that has to deal with the fallout from it.

Most Christian husbands who give a single woman a ride home do not remotely risk being overwhelmed by their out-of-control biology and leaning in for a goodnight kiss or something more intense. Far from it. If for no other reason, most of us recognize we have too much to lose.

It NEVER Occurred to Me!

But assuming the woman is in any way attractive, the driver is certainly at risk of at least finding himself thinking about the possibility, even if the idea only flashes through his head and is summarily dismissed. This is something women rarely grasp about men: put us in a situation where we have opportunity to entertain a previously unconsidered sexual possibility, and we will absolutely consider it. All of us, with perhaps the sole exception of those who are not much attracted to women at all. Some men will push the image out of their heads faster than others, some will let it fester a little and then repent, and some will be plagued by recurring fantasies. Few of us can say with any degree of plausibility, “The thought NEVER OCCURRED TO ME!”

Moreover, if such a man’s wife has any experience in the world, and especially if she grew up with brothers, the thought that her husband might be (even very, very fleetingly) attracted to another woman will eventually occur to her too. This is true even if she is the one pushing him to drive So-and-So home from church after the social. And say what you like about modern couples and their open-mindedness, that’s not a fun thought to get stuck on repeat in the back of your head. What if you can’t get rid of it, even long after your husband has forgotten all about the incident? What if it causes you to mistrust him, worry about what he’s thinking in other situations, or doubt his love for you?

The Pursuit of “Friendships”

My own feeling is that it is indeed “downright foolish” to use a meaningful term like friendship to describe a relationship between a Christian man or a woman and any other man or woman who is not their life partner. Why? Because the New Testament does not. At no point are we counseled to pursue intimate or close friendships with members of the opposite sex outside of marriage as if they are in any way desirable or necessary. Even as a young, apparently-single man, Timothy is counseled to treat “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” That suggests, even outside of marriage, a Christian reserve that today is rarely maintained.

Now, I may enjoy a friendship with my mother or sister by virtue of shared values, interests and history, but I have never had to pursue one. Not even a little bit. Those friendships occur organically where all sexual possibilities have been so utterly and completely dismissed by both parties that they don’t even occur to us as possibilities in the first place. We are sufficiently well-taught by scripture or acculturated to the evils of incest that the very thought would repel us. It is that all-but-automatic exclusion of the sexual aspect of the relationship that makes these genuine friendships possible in the first place. The same complete absence of sexual interest and all the potential internal conflicts that arise out of it makes many male/male and female/female friendships equally pleasurable.

But try (I speak as a man here) having that same friendship-with-complete-sexual-dispassion with anyone of the opposite sex outside your family who is the least bit physically attractive. Good luck with that.

In an Ideal World ...

It is all well and good to say that under the leading of the Holy Spirit, all Christians should naturally view Christians of the opposite sex this way: as family members absolutely devoid of any sexual charm or attraction. In heaven we almost surely will. But here we manifestly do not, no matter how hard we may try to attain to that sublime state of mind.

Well, maybe Aimee Byrd does. I don’t.

Now I DO believe it is possible for one married Christian couple to be great friends with another married Christian couple, but it is possible only so long as you are genuinely friends with THEM rather than specifically friends with HIM or HER, or so long as the “you” is you and your wife together. Much as we may dislike the idea, that may require a little prudent management on the part of all to avoid the sorts of situations in which sexual attraction easily flowers between married “friends”. A man who aches with longing for the wife of a fellow Christian, even for years, is certainly better off than the man who acts on his longings, but we would not argue that his state is a desirable one (and least of all for his wife!). I have known of at least two single women who actually packed up and moved to another city rather than be in the same zip code as a married man with whom they were infatuated. They were not being silly or dramatic.

Mucking Around with Temptation

After all, the Lord does not tell us to muck around with the things that tempt us. The language of scripture is explicit:
“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
These instructions to chop, gouge and sever, rhetorical though I believe them to be, come right in the context of looking at a woman “with lustful intent”, and are followed immediately by teaching about the evils of divorce. They are precisely on point.

Are we so dull that we don’t get what the Lord is saying here? He is saying that our lusts and desires, actual or potential, are not amusing little emotional twitches and quirks to be coddled and minimized. Rather, they are drastic, toxic things that are to be handled with brutal dispatch. We are to solve the lust problem by mortifying it, not playing around with it in hope that a tornado of desire can be successfully downgraded to a light breeze of “meaningful friendship” at some future date.

Sometimes avoidance IS purity. Sorry, Aimee.

Wait, I know what this needs. FYI, this, right to the left here, would be Aimee Byrd. She would like you to be her friend. Good, loving, serious, totally biblical Christian friend, with no unfortunate complications whatsoever.

Er, does this case not make itself?

Transparency and Realism

But rarely should we encounter this sort of difficult situation, provided we make it our habit to maintain our Christian relationships in transparency. Historically, this has been done by engaging with the opposite sex only in group settings, and avoiding the sort of little, private tête-à-têtes that are so effective at fanning passing interest into full-blown, ongoing temptation. This was done not because Christians in other decades and centuries were excessively prudish or excessively wicked, but because they were refreshingly self-aware.

We would be wise to emulate their godly example rather than encouraging one another to play with fire in the interest of pursuing the sorts of relationships the New Testament nowhere encourages us to seek out and cultivate.

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