On “Virginity,” Women, and Worth

Let me tell you a story, and a couple of brief anecdotes.

A girl I went to summer camp with as a teenager was from a pretty observant Christian family — mostly Catholic but not exclusively so. She’d been raised to value virginity, and was very proud of the fact that she was a virgin despite the pressure she felt from her circle of rich, popular, athletic friends. And she used to regale us with stories of how she would lie to her parents and tell them she was going to a friend’s to study, and instead go to her boyfriend’s house and spend all day skinny dipping with him… etc. She also had strong views about the circumstances around re-pledging one’s virginity — apparently you could have intercourse exactly once and then repent, and God would accept you as a virgin again, but after that, if you had intercourse again, it “counted;” you were officially defiled at that point, and probably shouldn’t wear white at your wedding.

I have friends who are virgins by some variation of the technical definition, but who’ve fooled around with dozens of people, who’ve struggled with pornography addictions, or whose sexual fantasies dominated their thoughts. I also have friends who aren’t virgins by any of the most common understandings of the term, because they were raped or molested or sexually abused.

And speaking of how we define virginity, I read a news story a few weeks ago about Quebec barring doctors from performing “virginity checks” on girls as part of their annual physicals. It struck me, once again, how much our culture’s language of sexuality aims its force at women — a “prude” is usually a woman, but so is a “slut.” Physiologically, too, we too often attach the concept of virginity to intact hymens — body parts men don’t even possess!

Christians have an obligation to be more biblical than that, to refuse to put an unfair burden on women (who are substantially more likely to be victims of sexual abuse than men) or on men (who are much more likely to feel cultural pressure to be sexually active and to use pornography than women are) in the way we talk about God’s purposes for human sexuality.

I think it’s long past time we quit talking about the ideal for Christians’ sexuality in terms of “virginity.” What, honestly, does the word “virgin” mean if it can be applied to a person like my summer-camp friend above and a person who’s never been so much as kissed, but not to a person who has been sexually victimized? What purpose does it serve to hold up virginity as the standard, if not to confuse the “experienced,” alienate the abused, and stir up pride in the hearts of the “inexperienced”?

To those who might object that “virginity” is just shorthand for “sexual purity,” is there any real sense in which a pornography addict is sexually pure simply because he or she hasn’t had intercourse? Is there any sense in which a sexually victimized person is not sexually pure simply because sex acts have been forced on him or her? It’s ludicrous to think that God’s design for human sexuality can be summed up with a word that frankly isn’t used all that frequently in Scripture.

So once again I’m going to propose that we speak of chastity rather than virginity or even sexual purity. Virginity is a state of being, but chastity is a choice, an ongoing, daily decision to live one’s life in a way that embraces God’s design for sex and sexuality. Virginity, for most people — those who marry as well as many who don’t — is temporary. Chastity is a permanent lifestyle that continues into marriage, because it encompasses all godly expressions of sexuality. It’s just as accurate to speak of a chaste single person, a chaste husband or wife, a chaste person separated from his spouse, a chaste divorced woman, a chaste widow or widower.

Chastity is about a life, a choice, a path of dedication. Right now, as a woman who is not married, chastity is a way for me to witness to the ultimacy of Christ, over and above romantic or sexual love. My life, by God’s grace, can become a picture of the future God has for all his people. If the Lord purposes marriage for me, that path of chastity simply continues as my life becomes a picture of the church’s love for Christ.

Our bodies matter to God, it’s true. He made them, down to the minutest detail. But for those of us who have been made new in Christ, what we do with all of our lives in these bodies matters, not just a few parts. Let’s stop categorizing one another based on what we have done, or what has been done to us, with just a few of those parts, and begin to encourage each other to walk now in a way that honors God.

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How To Be Awesome

OK, people, I am super excited about this. In the last few weeks I’ve talked with a couple of my guy friends — the ones who’ve rocked it out in the dating arena — about doing a series of interviews with me about their successes and… um… not-so-successes, what worked and what didn’t, how they managed disappointments, etc. and they agreed to do it! Man oh man. They’ll be anonymous, although those of you who know them well may recognize some of the details of a few of the stories.

I’m hoping that these will be useful to both men and women, because they’re going to be super-practical and wonky and nuts-and-boltsy. Guys, be on the lookout for advice, because there will be plenty, and ladies, let this be an encouragement to you too! These fellas have lots of experience with sisters who’ve responded well and not-so-well to them, so keep your eyes peeled for advice in your direction too.

Tune in Monday for the first installment. Pumped!

In which I attempt to encourage dudes. Here we go.

By far the most common objection to what I’ve said to men in the Details series goes something like this: “It’s all well and good for you to say men should initiate, but that means that they’re taking on the majority of the risk. I’ve been turned down, and it sucks, and now I find myself gun-shy and unwilling to take on the chance of more disappointment.”

I guess there are a couple ways for me to approach this. I don’t have the spiritual gift of mercy and I’m not terribly sympathetic as a human being so my knee-jerk response to this sort of reply is typically something along the lines of, “Oh, just grow up.” But I know that’s not actually helpful, much as some men (and women) need to hear it. So. Read on.

First, I do want men to remember that, as I said in another “Details” post, attraction is a complicated thing. When a gal says, “No thanks,” to a man’s request for a date, it’s a bummer for him, but men need to stop seeing it as a personal rejection. It’s not. It’s just that, for whatever reasons from legit to ridiculous, she’s not feeling it. And — here’s the kicker — she’s not under any obligation to explain or justify those reasons to the guy who asks her out. In fact, I generally have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for things like that.

I think a huge part of the problem is waiting too long and investing too much emotionally in the potential date. If you find a girl interesting, ask her out, soon after the interest develops. Don’t wait until you’re into “hurt and disappointment” territory if she turns you down. It’s not that big a risk — or it shouldn’t be unless you’ve spent weeks mentally composing a speech about how much you like her or whatever. And nine times out of ten, it’s not really “about you” at all, it’s something intangible. And please know that I’m working just as hard to encourage women to take a chance and say yes (it’s a risk for us too!) to good guys.

My second thought is, well, is there a common theme emerging as far as the reasons you’re getting a “no thanks”? Among my friends, probably the most common reason for saying no is too much intensity rather than just, “Would you go on a date with me?” I’m not saying guys need to change who they are, but it’s wise to be willing to work on your approach if that’s causing problems. I mean, you know the old definition of “crazy,” right?

So, are you coming on too strong? Only asking out the hottest girls in your circle? Overlooking the solid female friend right in front of you? Do you get stage fright and just need to practice a thousand times? Are you investing your heart in a girl pre-asking-out, and just feeling the pressure? Are you one of those guys who asks out girls he’s never spoken to before? All of those things are pretty quick fixes. Ask a girl out if you’ve talked to her a few times (great opportunity to work on your conversation skills) and find her interesting. Don’t wait weeks or months, don’t invest too much, just keep it light and casual.

And since this is always the elephant in the room in conversations like this, I’ll touch on the whole “looks” thing. Just the other day I read an article about online dating site profiles and the fact that the more polarizing a person’s looks were, the more likely that person would be to have others contact them. In other words, the more classically pretty/handsome people were getting contacted far less often than the ones who some people thought were not just less-attractive, but actually ugly. And in my own experience I can tell you that the men of my acquaintance who’ve had the most success in the dating world are not necessarily my best-looking guy friends. The three or four of them who have just rocked it out in the last couple of years aren’t the face-melting hotties, they’re just the ones who’ve been persistent in the face of a lot of “no thanks”es from girls, even stuck it out through a series of girls going on three or four dates with them and then calling it quits — and they’re the ones married, or engaged, or in serious relationships. Their attitude was that they just had to do what the Lord called and equipped them to do, which was to be initiators, and leave the results to Him without worrying about women’s responses, trusting that He uses means to accomplish his purposes.

From my own experience, I know that, because I’m not a five-eight, 110-lb blonde volleyball player or a Megan Fox lookalike or whatever, there’s going to be a narrower range of men who find me attractive. That is totally fine — I’ve gone out with guys who thought I was perfect looking and had no interest in the skinny blonde type, much to my surprise. And I have some really gorgeous friends, so I know from their experiences that being the prettiest girl in the room isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. The less conventionally-attractive you are, the more specific your dating pool is going to be, sure. But haven’t you seen some weird-looking married people? Don’t all sorts make it down the aisle? Tall, short, fat, thin, gorgeous, ugly, and everyone in between? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: attraction is complicated. And that can work for you as well as against you. Play up your quirks. Roll with them. And at the same time, work on your character. Whatever you look like, strive to be the godliest, most contented, most gentlemanly, most confident Whatever Type You Are that you can possibly be. (I’m going to throw in a pitch for The Art of Manliness here. Seriously, guys. Check it out. Taking their advice is going to put you way ahead of many, many dudes in the 20-35 age bracket.)

Third, and just getting really practical here, it occurs to me that it might be a good idea for guys to have a quick definition of “date” to throw out to girls who might think “date” means “OH MY GOODNESS HE LOVES ME.” You might say something like, “Hey, I’ve been wondering if you’d go on a date with me sometime. And I’m using the old-fashioned definition of the word ‘date,’ as in, I find you interesting and I’d like to get to know you better. Casual. What do you think?”

Overall, what I want to say to the men reading this is, be encouraged. Hurt and disappointment? It’s part of life. You can’t insulate yourself from it. It’s going to happen whether you ask interesting girls out or not, so if you want to be married, why not take the bull by the horns?

Details, Part Five: In Which Agony Aunt Laura Troubleshoots Your Dating Fails

“Dear Agony Aunt Laura,” you say, “I screwed it up. A totally good dude asked me out and instead of saying yes, I let out this huge spiel about why I couldn’t go out with him, but I was just nervous and I didn’t really mean it and he’s really cute and now I’ve RUINED MY CHANCES FOREVER and I’m probably going to DIE ALONE and be found three weeks later half eaten by Alsatians. What do I do?” Or, “I’ve liked this girl for months but I didn’t know what to say and now I do, but we’ve hung out in groups so much that I know she’s put me in The Friend Zone, and now I don’t want to ask her out for fear of causing awkwardness. Little help?”

Well, I’ve got a twofer for you today, friends; a little advice for the ladies and the fellas. Guys, you first:

1. Waited too long and now you’re friends and don’t want to make things weird? Lame. Carpe diem, bro. Adults can be friends with people they asked out or went on two dates with. Asking a girl on a date is not a proposal. It’s not even saying, “I could marry this girl.” It’s starting an investigation. Like I said: is she interesting? Ask her out. If she says no, that’s fine. Just go back to being friends. (Ladies, this goes for you too; if a guy friend asks you out and you know his character and find him interesting, go out with, him for crying out loud!) The boundary between “friendship” and “romance” is porous. Don’t get so freaked out about the difference between girls-who-are-friends and potential girlfriends. Pick up the phone and make the call. Do it.

2. Flirted, charmed, complimented, sent long emails, texted with her until the wee hours, unburdened your heart to her, hung out with her in datelike situations, basically treated her like a girlfriend without actually asking her out? Brace yourself for some tough love, guys: You’re a jerk and you need to repent. OK, you might not be a jerk, but still. Repent. Because those actions say, “I want to win your heart,” but refusing to actually ask her out says, “I don’t actually care enough about you to think about how my choices influence you, and I’m cool with lying to myself about your level of heart involvement so I can keep getting my emotional needs met (but only on my terms).”

If you’re doing this (or some degree of this) right now? Then, hombre, you need to open a new tab and start composing this girl an email. I’m serious. Vamos. That email will differ depending on your situation. Do you actually like her and have just been a total bonehead about it? Tell her you’re sorry and want to start over by asking her on a proper date. Have you just been using her as a romantic placeholder until a hotter girl comes along? Apologize for your actions and assure her that you’ll be changing the way you behave towards her. And then cut that out. Next time you want a girl to act like your girlfriend, make sure she’s your girlfriend first.

3. General screwups merit an email, too, albeit a much shorter and less-serious one. Got all marriage-y/relationship-y on the first couple of dates? Keep the tone light, and tell her that you’re out of practice on this whole dating thing, you got carried away, and you’d like to assure her that 100% of the conversation on the next date will be about movies, food, travel, or music. Name-dropped all your semi-famous grad school profs — by their first names (or just generally came off insufferable)? Apologize for being a clod and ask for a do-over. Keep it to the point. No rambling, no excuses.

4. Listened to your bonehead roommates and waited too long to call after a date? Relax. Call her, apologize for the delay, don’t make any excuses, and then ask her on date two. (But, guys, don’t be shocked if she tells you she’s gonna pass. Many, many women have had a really painful, heartbreaking experience of being strung along at one time or another, so if she says no, it’s probably not personal, it’s just, you know, once bitten twice shy.)

Now ladies:

1. Wigged out when he asked you out? The only mature choices: cut your losses or ask for a Mulligan. Seriously. Call him up, quick, apologize profusely for being a stammering boob, explain that you didn’t say what you meant, and tell him that you should have said yes, of course. And laugh! Laugh at yourself! It’s funny! You’re ridiculous! You’ll tell this story someday and crack up about it anyway — why not start now?

2. Came across as high-maintenance, catty, ice-princessy, whatever? Email time. Short and to the point: “Hey, I really did have a good time last night and I realized after I got home that I acted ______________ when I really didn’t feel that way at all. Sorry about that! Chalk it up to first date nerves. Do-over?”

3. Worried that you’re leading him on if you’re not super into him at first? Please. Don’t worry about this until… like… date five. Besides, you’re not leading him on unless you’re acting like you like him when you don’t. Being open-minded and willing for your attraction to grow is just smart. As long as you’re having fun and are still interested in finding out more, keep going out with him. On the other hand, if your interest isn’t growing, don’t be afraid to call it quits. It feels fantastic to have a good guy interested in you, I know. It’s a little addictive. But if you know for a fact that you’re not into him after, say, date four, do the kind thing and move on (and go ahead and enjoy the fact that a good guy liked you enough to ask you out, girl).

4. Responded favorably to a dude who did what I mentioned in the guys’ #2 above? Ooh, child. Toughie. Been there. A man who does this is either not ready for a relationship or not a good guy. Email time: redefine the terms of your friendship (as in, back to “friends” rather than “OH GOD I LOVE him and I THINK he likes me but I just don’t KNOW ohtheAGONY”), emphasizing that you’re not going to act like his girlfriend any more without actually being his girlfriend. It’s not an easy step, but it’s so necessary. Again, short and to the point is best. Try to keep it to a paragraph so you don’t accidentally end up confessing your undying love to him. (What? Like that’s never happened to anyone else?)

Everybody:

Dating is awesome. Not only is it the best way to find a mate, it also gives you tons of life experience — getting along with lots of kinds of people, figuring out the opposite sex, being a good conversationalist, dealing with screwups and successes gracefully. It’s a grownup thing to do. So do it more, OK?

Fellas, I have a serious, legit challenge for you. Ask a girl out in the next week. In fact, make it a contest: challenge your roommates or work friends or the dudes in your small group to man up and ask a real live flesh and blood woman, someone you know and see in person, on a date. Whoever doesn’t, gets… I dunno, dogpiled or sucker-punched or whatever it is men do to people who lose these challenges. Or set yourself a challenge to ask one person out a week until someone says yes. I bet it won’t take nearly as long as you think. Y’all are awesome (seriously: I know some of you reading this are off-the-charts solid dudes) and you can totally kill it.

Ladies, I have a challenge for you too. Make it a policy to say yes to good guys. You need a better reason to say no than, “He’s only a barista” or “I don’t want to date guys who look like me” or “He’s five years younger/older than I am.” I’m talking about serious stuff, like “He dumped my best friend last week after dating her for six months,” or “He hasn’t had or looked for a job in five years” or “I find him absolutely, utterly unattractive both physically and personally.” Say yes. Really. Let that be your default answer, even if he’s not exactly your type, even if he’s “only” a barista/UPS box-slinger/T.A./waiter/still in school. You want the men around you to act like men? Then you act like a woman. Respond. Go on, what’s it going to hurt?

All right. I am tapped out on this topic for the time being. So go forth, y’all.

Details, Part Four

Fellas, here you go:

1. Plan. Ask for her input on your ideas, but you should generally make the plans. Obviously this isn’t a hard and fast rule — if you’re meeting for lunch because you both work downtown, or if you’re working around some schedule conflicts, you’ll need to be more collaborative, but if it’s a dinner date and you’re picking her up, just make the plans. If she’s weird about it, chill. Remember last time I told the ladies to cut you some slack about potential mom/sister/ex-related baggage? Do the same with her. She might have experience with a tyrant or a sissy. Give her grace.

2. Be a gentleman — open doors, let her order first, chew with your mouth closed, pick up the tab, use your basic kindergarten manners, tip well, walk her to her car or her door. All that stuff is part of what makes a date different than “hanging out.”

3. Come prepared to ask questions about her — see #2 in the last installment. I think what frequently happens on dates is that women, who are often naturally better connectors, end up asking all the questions, and men end up giving all the responses. That’s not a good dynamic. See it as an opportunity to develop into a better conversationalist. You’re interested in her, right? Act interested! (This holds true pre-date as well. Your mantra should be I’m Interested: Act Interested.)

4. Just like I told the women that they’re not running an audition for their own Mr. Darcy, remember that you’re not running an audition for your own Megan Fox 2.0: Christian Edition. Put down the pen and back away from the checklist, fellas. She is a person, and your sister. She’s not a fantasy-fulfillment device, she’s not your mother/nursemaid/housekeeper, and her purpose in life doesn’t have one darn thing to do with your needs or desires — not on a first date, that’s for sure. Please treat her accordingly.

5. After the date, if you had a good time, don’t be That Guy and wait four days to call. Tell your bonehead roommates to shove it if they suggest anything like “making her wait.” Passive-aggressiveness is a great plan only if you want to die alone. Shoot her a text, let her know you had fun, and ask if you can call her again in the next couple of days. If she says yes, you’re golden; start planning date two. If it turns out she’s a psycho hose-beast, call her and thank her for her time, letting her know (briefly and simply, again) that you don’t see this going anywhere. Continue to be polite and kind to her when you run into her again. Again, I strongly recommend going on two or three dates before you pull that trigger, barring mega red flags.

Next up: a little troubleshooting.

Details, Part Two

So in Part One I gave a little advice to the ladies. Now, guys. Like I said, I’ve been on the receiving end of some seriously ridiculous and seriously great efforts in this area. The successful and encouraging efforts have had a few things in common. With that in mind:

1. Treat your female friends as sisters. Some dudes have a needlessly hard time figuring out what that means, but it’s actually really simple: you do not make out with your sister, but you do treat her with respect and kindness. Have a few common-sense boundaries, but don’t go overboard with a list of hyper-obsessive rules. For example: if you’re driving home and you see a friend walking home in the rain, DO pick her up and drive her wherever she’s going. That’s good manners. On the other hand, DON’T pour on the flirtation and charm with your female friends, or try to fulfill all your relational needs through them. That’s weird. You can be friends with women, but only if you actually treat them like friends and not like a mommy-girlfriend-nursemaid hybrid.

2. If you like a girl, ask her on a date, playa. Go on. You don’t need much more info to decide do this beyond, “Is she interesting?” If the answer to that question is, “Yes!” ask her out. Either talk in person the next time you know you’re going to see her, or call her up. Have a SHORT intro and execution ready, something like, “Hey. How’s it going? Great, thanks. So the reason I called is that I wanted to ask you a question. I’d like to know if you’d go on a date with me.” And then shut up (harder than you might think) and wait for her response. You don’t need to tell her all the reasons you’re asking her out. Irrelevant.

3. Have a plan for an affirmative answer. No, a plan besides going into the kitchen and high-fiving all your roommates. Like, be ready with a couple of suggestions for free afternoons or evenings. Dinner is traditional but coffee is more low-key, especially if you don’t know her well or haven’t known her long. A weeknight is better for a first date because there’s less pressure (and a time limit). Don’t do something upscale or expensive but go beyond fast food or counter service unless it’s a really unique or interesting place. Don’t go to the place all your friends go unless you are a HUGE fan of awkwardness. Map the date out in your mind but don’t get bogged down with some grand scheme. It’s just a date.

4. Have a plan for a negative answer, too. She said no thanks? Keep it cheerful, thank her for her time, and let her go. For the love of your manly dignity, don’t ask her to tell you why. Be an adult. Don’t sulk. The next time you see her, treat her like that conversation never happened. And remember, attraction is a complicated thing, bro, so I want you to read me loud and clear here: it is not personal, it is not a “rejection,” and you are not thirteen. Get over it and move on to the next girl.

5. Extend grace. If you read my last post, you’ll know that guys do not have the corner or the market when it comes to screwups in the dating world. If she gives you a big long speech or blames Jesus or lists 800 reasons why you’re such a good guy but she still can’t date you, please, just let it go. Don’t let it make you bitter. Remember that we’re human too.

Details

In reading a few things on The Internets recently, it has occurred to me that many 20- and 30-somethings just actually don’t have the skills to ask out or be asked out. I, in my 12 years as an unmarried adult, have been on the receiving end of seriously great and seriously awful efforts in the dating arena, and have responded both well and poorly to those efforts, so I want to just throw my experience and advice out there. Hope it’s helpful.

Part one is for ladies.

Gals, it’s a risk for a guy to ask you out. Recognize that. Men are screwups and klutzes just like we are, and we need to give them a break. So, with that in mind:

1. Encourage your guy friends. Be nice to them. Ask them questions about themselves and their lives. Be an interested, interesting conversationalist.

2. If you like a guy, be extra encouraging to him. Smile a lot. Laugh at his jokes. Don’t suppress your natural feminine responsiveness. Dare I say it? Flirt. Not in a shameless or provocative way, but in a responsive, open, charming way.

3. If a guy asks you on a date, say yes, unless there is a glaring (and I mean glaring) red flag. I’ve turned down guys I had absolutely zero attraction for, both personally and physically, or whose request for a date sounded more like a marriage proposal because that level of intensity is not something I want to encourage. Overall, I’ve probably said no to three or four guys in my life, counting junior high and high school. If he’s a nice guy, a Christian, and you think he’s interesting, say yes. On a really practical level, say something like, “Sure, sounds great. What did you have in mind?”

4. If you have to say no, keep it simple. Don’t patronize him with a line about how great it is that he was brave enough to speak up (done that). Don’t make up some nonsense about how you’re “not really into a relationship right now” (done that too). And for the love of everything good and holy, don’t feed him that awful nonsense about how you just don’t think it’s God’s will. God is not your scapegoat, girl. Be kind but not long-winded. Cook up a brief response, practice it in the mirror, and stick with it. He’s a grownup. Treat him like one. My canned response is, “Thanks so much for asking, but no thank you. I appreciate the thought!”

Possibly Quite Controversial

Brace yourself. Also, this is a bit scattered, mostly because it’s just musings and I decided to publish rather than edit and re-edit ad nauseam. Any feedback would be most appreciated!

Hormonal birth control separated sex from procreation for essentially the first time ever, in a way that older barrier methods didn’t, in the minds of an entire culture, and it changed the way that several successive generations viewed the human desire for intimacy. And when the (inevitable?) rise in (public/unhidden, at least) promiscuity began after the so-called sexual revolution, unfortunately, many churches and Christians, rather than simply saying what the Scriptures say, demonized sex outright, and failed to teach young people that the desire for intimacy is normal and good and right and purposeful, designed by God in part to to encourage marriage, the only safe haven for both sexual intimacy and children. (Of course, some churches and Christians and professing Christians had always demonized sex, ever since dear old Augustine forgot that denigrating the physical was Plato’s idea, not God’s.)

So now, post birth control, post sexual revolution, sex, marriage, and children are spoken of, even in the church, as three completely separate things with three completely separate sets of attendant sin issues, rather than as God made them — inextricably connected.

What’s the point for us? Well, in my experience, often unmarried Christians will see their desire for sexual intimacy as purely sinful, and unrelated to either marriage or child-bearing. So they’ll go along in their single years thinking they’re terrible people for having strong desires, and often, alas! in their despair over their own apparently incorrigible lust, toying with sinful outlets for those desires.

Instead, all unmarried people with a desire for intimacy should thank God for that good desire, praying toward and seeking the comfort of marriage and the blessing of children all the while.

Choosing Singleness?

I don’t think that (most) Christians in my generation are making some sort of conscious choice not to marry. Many of them are making or have made practical life choices that have resulted in or contributed to prolonged singleness, but I don’t think many, if any, of them set out at age 20 to postpone marriage indefinitely. Most of them, frankly, simply lack the skills to make marriage happen. This is a big indictment on men, since they’re the initiators, but many single women also lack skill in encouraging and responding to godly masculinity when they see it. It’s also a pretty serious indictment on our parents’ generation, unfortunately. Somewhere along the line many parents forgot that they had a duty to pass on a legacy of maturity and responsibility to their children and became enablers of adultolescence instead — many parents even misguidedly encouraged their children to put off marriage as long as possible! (Side note: if you think young people today are too immature to consider marriage, the solution is not to tell them to postpone marriage; the solution is to encourage and teach them to grow up!)

But we have to begin where we are. We have to dismantle the lie that people have an expiration date past a certain age, or that a person’s singleness is either their choice or their fault — most of the time it’s really neither.

I just do not have a clever title for this.

Dear Single Men,

Look around you. Please. You work with, or are in a small group with, or go to class with, or sit in the same pew at church with, or run in the same circles with a fantastic single woman (or, if you go to Sojourn, TWO HUNDRED FANTASTIC SINGLE WOMEN). Stop fixating on the girl all your roommates are obsessed with and just look around. It is ok that she doesn’t look like Megan Fox. It’s ok that she has a kid, or a past; it’s also ok that she’s never dated anyone, that she turned down the last guy who asked her out, that you’re younger or older than she is, that she has a good job or a bad one, that she’s more or less educated than you are. It’s ok that she’s in school for missions or international business or is planning on going back to her hometown after she graduates. It’s ok that she talks more than you do or that she’s really quiet. It’s ok that you’ve already been friends with her for a year or that you just met her two weeks ago.

Look at her. See her. Do you find her interesting? Then ask her out. She’s right there. Go out with her twice, or three times. See what happens.

Love,
Laura (on behalf of all the single women you know)

 

Dear Single Women,

Say yes.

Love,
Laura

No, I wouldn’t like to try online dating, but thanks for asking.

I’ve given some thought to just coming up with a brief little canned response when people ask me why I don’t try ReformedChristianSingles.com or eHarmony or whatever. Brief, because they do NOT want to hear the whole spiel, which goes a little something like this:

Marriage is good and I would like to be married. But it is not the goal of my life. The goal of my life is Christlikeness. Now, if I felt like there was some Christlikeness-obtaining value in me signing up for eHarmony and going on dates with strangers, then I would consider it. But all that would be accomplished if I personally signed up for a dating service would be for me to be more focused on marriage as a goal and a purpose for life, rather than more focused on Jesus. Online dating isn’t inherently evil or anything, and I know many happily married people who found their match online. But online dating is also definitely not for everyone, and I can tell you without the slightest hesitation or doubt that it is NOT. FOR. ME. 100%. End of story.

 

Here’s the thing: I think for some people, they can sign up for eHarmony or whatever, humbly submitting to God and feeling like He’s leading them through the whole process to the person He means for them to marry. But for ME, with my personality? It’s totally going to be me either saying A) “Look, Lord, you’re not doing things quick enough so I’m going to take it into my own hands, thanks,” or B) *siiiiighh* “Fine, I guess if I don’t want to be a pathetic spinster for the rest of my life, if I want my life to have any meaning, I’d better just resign myself to whatever loser I can find online…” And both of those things are founded on total lies, and completely stupid, and I’m not going to have anything to do with either of them. You dig?

See? People are not going to want to stand and listen through that whole thing.

I’m Really Over The Word “Helpful”

Talk about overused. Anyway, that mild irritation aside, I want to mention one hopefully brief quibble about a not-so-helpful way (married) pastors and (married) women’s ministry leaders — and even, crazily, some unmarried folks — often talk about marriage. I don’t even think it’s intentional, more reflexive than anything, but I think it’s biblically inaccurate and misleading.

How many of us have heard some version of this from the pulpit, in a Bible study, or at a conference? “Marriage is absolutely the furnace of sanctification! I now know how selfish, how inward-focused, how prideful I was before I got married, and let me tell you, I had never experienced the kind of sanctification I experienced that first year. Friends, there is nothing in your life that can prepare you for it, and there’s nothing else like it to make you more Christlike.” For the sake of brevity, let me throw down a few bullet points explaining why I think teaching like this, well-intentioned though it may be, needs to be retired, STAT.

  • it implies that single people are selfish, inward-focused, and prideful just because of their marital status.
  • on the flip side of that, it implies that marriage is the key to becoming selfless, others-focused, and humble.
  • it sets marriage up as a big, terrifying leap that people take in part because they’re blind to the consequences and results.
  • it paints sanctification as the result of circumstances rather than as a work to which God himself is committed because of our salvation.
  • it can imply that unmarried people aren’t being sanctified to the degree married people are, and thereby reinforces the idea that unmarried folks are the JV squad of Christianity.
  • particularly for men, it can be one more confirmation that all that’s expected of single dudes is spiritual slackerdom and perpetual adolescence, and that they’re off the hook for serving, leading and teaching until they start checking the “Married” box on the census form.
  • particularly for women, it can reinforce the totally false view that women are spiritually superior to men (no pressure!), and it can be incredibly alienating. How does any of that apply to me, the unmarried woman, Married Pastor With Five Kids?

OK, now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not looking for offense, I’m not trying to get my feelings hurt, I’m not calling anyone out. In fact, I’m totally not offended by this kind of stuff. I know people can’t help but speak from their experiences, but I also don’t want people in church leadership to stay stuck in those experiences, unable to speak to anyone outside their stage of life. So here you go, friends.

The Fixup

Married friends, I just want you to know that I love you. Which is why I want to help you out. Not just MY married friends, but all married folks who are friends with single folks. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

So. Say you’ve got a couple friends you think would be great together, and you want to set them up. Here’s what happens ALL THE TIME. Married Mary comes to her friend Single Sue and says, “Would you be cool with a fixup?” Sue says sure, and Mary starts telling Sue all about Single Sam, her husband’s best friend since junior high who’s moving to town next month. Every time they get together, Mary extols Sam’s virtues, shows Sue pictures of him, tells her why she thinks they’d hit it off, and assures her she’s going to set them up. Meanwhile, Mary’s husband Gary says to Sam, “Hey, Mary’s got this friend she wants to set you up with.” And Sam says, “I dunno, man, my life is going to be so crazy in the next few months with moving and school and work and stuff. I’ll let you know once I get settled.” So Sam moves to town, gets busy with school and work, and two months later starts dating a girl from one of his classes. Sue, who’s been thinking about Sam this whole time (at Mary’s encouragement), is really disproportionately upset, and feels rejected and ugly and undesirable and all those things unmarried ladies often feel about themselves.

Do you see where this all went wrong? I hope you do. So I’ve got some advice about how to manage a fixup in a way that doesn’t end up with somebody mad or hurt.

First, KNOW YOUR DANG FRIENDS. You should know if your unmarried friends are cool with a fixup on general principle because that’s the kind of thing friends know about each other, right? You should also have a broad idea of their “type.” If your friend is really into, say, the preppy, classic all-American boy, it’s not a fantastic idea to set her up with your brooding tattoo artist friend. There are exceptions (like if your average-looking pal refuses to go out with anyone who doesn’t often get taken for Megan Fox, or if one of your bestie’s “standards” involves net worth), but be considerate. You have a type, everyone has a type. Respect the type.

Second, think minimalist. You want to give two great people a chance to see if they could potentially hit it off, not orchestrate a David O. Selznick-style epic romance starring your friends, complete with soaring violins and exquisite costumes. Accordingly, don’t daydream on their behalf, don’t paint them a picture of their future life with this person, and for heaven’s sake don’t exaggerate.

Third, go to HIM first, either the dude or as a couple (i.e., don’t just do this by yourself, married ladies; you need your husband’s help not to be a Yenta). And, again, keep it simple. Say something like, “Hey, my friend Sue is terrific and I think y’all would get along really well for reasons X, Y, and Z. I’d like to set you up. Here’s a picture; she seems like your type.” Then go to her and say something similar.

Fourth, get their input on the next step if they both say sure. Would he prefer to just ask her out? Or ask her out after you’ve introduced them? Or would it be less pressure to have some kind of social event be the first meeting? Or to have pizza and cards at your house, the four of you, some Tuesday night? Or go the Facebook route? Leave it up to them. And then…

Fifth, BACK. OFF.

OK, married folks, go forth and set up your friends! 😉

Honestly, Why Do We Need Posts Like This? Argh!

I have blogged about this issue before (ahem, several times), but the firestorm of comments on a couple of Kevin DeYoung’s posts (darn that guy, always writing stuff I wish I’d written) makes me think it’s time to revisit.

Look, people. There is nothing inherently wrong with or less mature about being unmarried. Paul? Pretty darn mature guy. Jesus? Him too. Also: Marriage isn’t the silver bullet to make you grow up, and it’s not a superior status. Also: Don’t give advice to people you just met. Also: Don’t try to fix people and certainly don’t try to “fix” them with pithy axioms. Also: Don’t be a jerk. Also: The golden rule, you guys. Nine tenths of the hurtful, ridiculous stuff that gets said to single folks could be eliminated if people just remembered their basic kindergarten manners.

That stern intro aside, here are some Dos and Don’ts, bullet-point style:

DO pray for your unmarried friends. DON’T just pray for them to get married. (At a loss? Start with “Christlikeness” and go from there.)

DO be on the lookout for potential mates for your closest unmarried friends. DON’T assume that you can make romance happen between two of your friends however much you want it to, and DON’T accuse your friend of being “picky” if he or she says, “No thanks.”

DO encourage your unmarried friends to grow in godliness, contentment, and maturity. DON’T imply (or say!) that any deficiency in these areas is what’s standing in the way of them getting married.

DO offer specific counsel when appropriate to your level of friendship with your unmarried friend. DON’T just offer pat answers — why don’t you move churches, why don’t you try online dating, why don’t you do speed dating, etc.

More soon on the right and wrong way (or… a wrong way and a better way) to fix up two friends and other ways for you married folks to step into the lives of unmarried folks.

Lent, Day 2: In which the top of my head shoots off.

OK, I have to get this off my chest. Sorry it’s such a long, rambling bit of nonsense. If it’s too long and rambling and nonsensical, I won’t be offended if you skip it. 😉

Fellas: you are misinterpreting data, to your own frustration and the frustration of many, many single women around you. In 2011, a woman who has a career and a college degree (maybe even an advanced degree) and a mortgage, who pays her bills on time and takes her own car to the mechanic and hasn’t lived with her parents in ten years is not necessarily, by definition a raging feminist who thinks she needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Nope. She is NORMAL. Got that?

Tip: that’s the summary. If you’re sufficiently convinced, feel free to stop right here. Need more persuasion that you oughta change your mind? Read on, my friend.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, women in the business world were rare. The average age of a first marriage was still in the early-mid twenties for both men and women. And the message from Western culture was loud and clear: Sisters, get into work. You can still decide to have children later, after you’ve gone up the ranks in your job, after you’ve accomplished something “real.”

Add to this the shame that generation of feminists heaped on men: you’re irresponsible, power-hungry, insensitive; you’re someone to be resented and competed with, boxed in, restricted, pushed aside, stepped on.

But, guys? That was thirty years ago. Somehow, it seems, too many Christian men are still being taught to see career, mortgage, and financial stability in a woman and interpret that as “feminist, not wife material, run far far away”!

I grew up being taught not to waste time or money sitting on my hands, and that it was ungodly to waste my gifts and opportunities. You know who taught me that? Not just my mother, though she certainly did. No, it was the women who had, thirty years ago, bought the lie that they could subjugate their God-given desires, that those desires were wrong, that “wife” and “mother” were not the most honorable titles they could seek, but that they were rather titles to be avoided. These women, who learned through bitter experience, taught me to cherish my God-given desire for marriage and motherhood, but also to seize whatever opportunities the Lord put before me. They passed on their experience and wisdom, and started to break down that paradigm.

In my bitter moments, I want to sock every Christian single guy who whines about modern women being overly independent, and tell them that, if they didn’t propose to a girl in college, it’s their own fault there are all these career women running around. But in my better moments, I just want to be helpful.  So let me help you.

Most of us, brothers, are working, paying our bills, getting promotions, working on our degrees, and all those other things, not because we  don’t  want to get married and have children.  It’s because we had the opportunity to use our gifts in a job, or use our finances more wisely by buying instead of renting, or develop our skills with an advanced degree, or whatever… and haven’t had the opportunity to get married and start a family. Most of us would happily re-arrange any or all of those things for the right man, if given the chance.

If I have one word of caution, it’s this: guys, you tiptoe toward slandering your sisters when you silently accuse them of selfishness, unhealthy independence, and unbiblical attitudes toward femininity just because they have careers and mortgages — love, after all, believes the best about people. You are misinterpreting the data, and coming to wrong conclusions. Don’t be put off by a woman who makes a decent living at a job she’s good at, a woman with an advanced degree, a woman who owns a home. Don’t assume the worst about her.

Thirty years ago, a power suit and a mortgage might reasonably have meant this was a woman who didn’t want marriage and family. It doesn’t have to mean that anymore. Got it?

A Thought Or Two On Singleness And Sanctification, Part Three

In my last post I mentioned that we really struggle to give single people a big vision for God’s work of sanctification in their lives.  I was going to go on to say that it’s essential that we do more to help single people really ground their identity in Christ rather than success at work, or being liked, or whatever, but then it occurred to me that that’s a desperate need for everyone in the church. 

I’ve talked to many married folks, especially women, about “the moment” when they realized that this person they were married to was never meant to give them their identity.  For some people, that’s the end of their marriage.  For others, it’s the beginning of a long and difficult journey of finding their identity in Christ and resting there.

I’ve also had plenty of conversations with single folks (um… including myself) about the identity crisis of not having a spouse, of feeling valueless and adrift without this supposed anchor of marriage.  It’s daily implied to us that marriage is not simply a good and worthy state, but one that defines us as, and makes us, mature.  (Think I’m overstating my case?  Name one unmarried ministry leader at your church.  Or consider what percentage of your congregation is single vs. what percentage of the leadership.  Now, I know… correlation and causation.  But it’s something to think about.)

Who am I because of my job?  Who am I because of my marital status?  Who am I because of who I’m attracted to?  Who am I because of my income?  Who am I because of where I live?  Who am I because of my politics, or my eschatology, or my taste in music, or the food I eat or the education I have or the clothes I buy?  All those things, to the Christian, must take second place to the question, “Who am I in Christ?”

And if we spent the rest of our lives trying to work that out… Well, that would be ok.

A Thought Or Two On Singleness And Sanctification, Part 2

So, I wrote the last post to sort of point out the problem of our unbalanced understanding of singleness and sanctification.  In this one, I’d like to think through what a solid, biblical view of singleness and sanctification looks like.

I think, first of all, that it’s not just about “patience.”  We get told this a lot — that we’re so blessed to be learning patience, learning to “wait on the Lord” as we’re single.

I think it IS a lot about… just life.  Married folks and parents especially get all kinds of advice about how to turn everyday stuff into an opportunity for sanctification.  Messy husband?  It’s a chance to love him sacrificially by just picking up the stupid sock and not nagging him about it.  Hate folding laundry?  It’s a chance to pray for your family, one stained onesie at a time.  Frustrated by the neverending cycle of strife between your kids?  Just think of how God feels when we continually rebel against him!

Too often, we only address the external, apparent frustrations of the single person (loneliness, desire for marriage) without just dealing with their everyday circumstances, so we end up giving them the same prescription for sanctification.  Be patient.  Rely on God.  Both great, but just not enough, and definitely not specific enough.  I definitely need sanctification in those areas, but not only those areas.

In my life, for example, my biggest sources of sanctification are my students and hosting community group.  I’m constantly confronted with my own pride, laziness, and selfishness at work.  At home, I constantly fail to live up to my God-given task of home-keeping, making my little domain a place of peace and welcome for whoever God sends.

But not only do we fail to give specific, life-focused counsel to single people, we also fail to give them a big picture.  Ultimately, God’s purpose for me and God’s purpose for my married friends is identical: that we would be more like Jesus.  And we do married people and single people a great disservice by overemphasizing their dissimilarities and under-emphasizing their similarities.  My best friend, who’s married, needs to remember the Gospel just like I do.  She needs to be made more like Jesus just like I do.  She needs to respond to God’s grace by striving to live a life of excellence, purity, generosity, wisdom, perseverance, and self-control, just like I do.  She needs to joyfully submit to those whom God has made her leaders, just like I do.

The external circumstances whereby she is reminded of the Gospel might be different, or they might not.  The trials that refine and strengthen her faith might be different than mine, or they might not.  But the final outcome is that God, who has promised to complete the work he begins in his people, will make her, and me, and every other believer, more like Jesus.

A Thought Or Two On Singleness And Sanctification

My sweet, encouraging sister-in-law and I had a really good conversation last week, in which she said something I don’t think I’ve ever heard a married person say, at least not quite in that way.  She actually told me that singleness was sanctifying me, not just in one area, that of patience, but in my whole life as a Christian.  Single folks don’t really hear that a lot.  Sojourn does a better job at addressing this than many churches, but I imagine it’s tough to work in a lot of exhortations to singles, especially single women, when you’re a married guy like all our elders are.  So this isn’t a post where I call people out and tell them to get on the ball or anything.  It’s just thoughts.  Thoughts: I has them.

As is typical for me, I’m finding it helpful lately to see the whole concept of how we talk about sanctification as single people on a continuum, with error at each end, and a range of orthodoxy in the middle.

So: at one end, you’ve got the idea that singleness is a less-than-ideal circumstance for sanctification, and that marriage is not just normal but normative.  Few people actually teach this (although… I can tell you from experience, they’re out there).  But a lot more people sort of accidentally teach it, or at least imply it.  The error here is reading the Scriptures and seeing marriage described as sort of socially and culturally normal, as well as good, and that probably most people described in any detail in the Scriptures are married, and drawing from that something that’s normative.  It’s a common interpretive problem, confusing descriptive and prescriptive aspects of Scripture.  Plus, marriage “has a verse on it” as we say in the South, the lovely and oft-read-at-weddings passage about the mystery of marriage referring to Christ and the Church.  We seem to think that means that singleness is just one tiny step down from marriage, because singleness doesn’t have a verse about Christ and the Church attached to it.

Here’s where you get marriage just hammered on from the pulpit, and talked up, and praised, and presented as the furnace of sanctification, without any notion that we’re failing to give people a vision of what godly celibacy (which, in case we’ve forgotten, is our eternal future state) looks like.  Instead we’re telling people to direct all their energies toward something that’s temporary, and discouraging single people from pursuing sanctification because we’re implying that it all will just happen automatically and effortlessly once they get married and start having kids (insert collective snort of disgust from all my married readers).

(Incidentally, and just as a little side rant: why are we ok with denigrating the lives and experiences of single people by constantly saying that marriage/child-rearing is “harder” than singleness?  I’m positive that it’s harder in some areas, and it’s definitely a different kind of hard, but, married folks, please.  Stop telling us that we’ve got it easy.  /rant.)

At the other end of the spectrum is a view that’s totally foreign to us Protestants, that celibate service is spiritual and, in fact, that married folks (basically, in most cases) disqualify themselves from vocational ministry.  We can’t get our brains around this.  So because we can’t get our brains around it, we mostly don’t provide a path for celibate service, and we retreat all the way to the other end of the spectrum.