(Click here for part one.)
(Feel free to skip, but please read the “one more thing” bit.)
First off, a disclaimer. I’m going to be turning forty in a few months. I received the teachings I’m critiquing here way back in my late teens and early twenties. The statute of limitations on blaming the church for my relational problems has long since expired. In my own mind, I’ve already forgiven those pastors, teachers, and leaders – all of whom had the best intentions in teaching what they did. They were just passing on what they had been taught and what had worked for them.
That said, their instruction sure didn’t work for me or help me grow and mature in how I interact with women I’m attracted to. So while it’s one thing to say, “hey, that teaching I grew up with was bullshit,” it’s another thing entirely to figure out what to do next. And for me, I’ve found that the only healthy way to move forward is to make a brutally honest assessment of where things went wrong and how that’s affected me since.
And so I write the post below as a way to unpack the damage that’s been done. It’s a case study in how an inadequate theology of desire can have devastating consequences. I also write because, well, to be frank, I write because I’m secure enough in myself to just put the junk in my trunk out there. Not to spew, but to help me sort things out in my own head. I also write in the hopes that others will read and relate and see that they’re not alone. Because I know that some of the things I’ll share, a lot of men have experienced to one degree or another. But not a lot of people are willing to talk about what they’ve been through. Because who wants to admit that their dating acumen is no better than that of a high school freshman? And so they feel alone. I know I did. And so I’ll speak up. For me and for them.
Oh, and one more thing.
When I wrote part one, I tried to write (as I always do) for as wide an audience as possible. However, as I suspected as I was writing it and as has been confirmed through comments and emails I’ve received, I can really only write from the straight, male perspective of this issue. I can only guess at what kind of (explicit/implicit) teachings on dating women received in the church and how that’s affected them. My hope would be that it was more positive than what guys like me got, but I suspect not.
And all this damage I write about? At least the aim of my desire did have some light at the end of the tunnel. For most of the LGBT community that grew up in the church? There was no such light. The theology of sexual desire really needs to be rethought from top to bottom, left to right, front to back. I will talk about the LGBT issue, but not right now. My posts are too long and rambling already (just look at how long this freaking preface is). Please know that I am thinking about you as I write and that I’m sorry I’m not addressing your concerns here. But I will.
In my previous post in this series, I wrote about how I’ve found that much of the theology/teaching around sexual desire and dating in the church has been unhelpful for me. Before moving on to talk about more constructive ways that the church can handle these topics, I’d like to get a bit more personal and talk about how this teaching has impacted my own life.
I joked once that this is how I approach a woman I want to ask out:
“so…um…don’t feel pressured or anything because it’s not really a big deal so feel free to say no because you won’t hurt my feelings and I hope I’m not putting you in an awkward position because…oh, you know what? I just remembered that I need to buy bread so I’ll be going now. Have a nice day.”
Thing is, it’s not much of a joke. The reality is even sadder than that. See, that bit of dialogue is not what I say to the woman, that’s what I say in my head as I try and psych myself up to ask her out. As you can imagine, I never end up making a move.
I’m coming to understand that there’s a ton of stuff underneath all that awkward rambling. Because here’s the thing. I know I’m a
good great catch. And I don’t mean that in the self-deluded way that early American Idol contestants do. I am objectively a great catch. Not the best bachelor on the market, but certainly well above a lot of what’s out there. I know this. I believe it the same way I believe Macs are better (for me) than PCs – that is to say, the reasons for my belief are based both on personal experience and can be verified by the experiences of others. I have lots of people who will readily vouch for my good-catch-ed-ness (references available). All that to say that it’s not necessarily a lack of confidence that’s at issue here.
So what’s the deal. Why do I completely fall apart when thinking about asking a girl out?
I go back to what I wrote in my last post about how I was taught by the church to fear desire. I was taught that any physical desire felt outside the context of marriage was sin. More than that, I was taught that it was an affront to God – that God saw me as a perverted, dirty, lecherous human being every time I experienced or felt any kind of sexual arousal. The only proper response to such feelings is immediate and utter rejection of those feelings, purging them through the flames of shame. That’s basically what I was taught. Perhaps not so bluntly, but that’s the way I received it.
“But wait a minute,” you might object, “I thought we were just talking about asking a girl out – it’s not like you were trying to seduce her.”
True enough, but in the teaching that I got in the church in regards to dating, they essentially did equate dating to seduction. And yeah, that sounds freaking insane, but really if you follow the logic of the theology, that’s where you end up.
Let me break it down for you.
- Start with their premise that all sexual desire felt outside the marriage context is sin.
- That leads to the teaching that it’s the job of the good Christian man to avoid situations that could lead to the arousal of desire.
- One situation that will inevitably lead to the arousal of desire is being alone with a woman.
- When you date a woman, you put yourself in just such a dangerous situation.
- Therefore, you shouldn’t date someone until you’re at the point where you’re considering proposing to her. Dating is nothing more than a final proving grounds, a way of confirming compatibility for marriage.
Madness, right? But begin with a theology that fears any and all sexual desire outside of marriage and it’s not hard to end up with just such an outline for “courtship.” And it’s that precise outline that got taught to me.
So back to the situation I was dealing with earlier (my awkwardness in even thinking about asking women out). Take the normal fear and insecurity that everyone feels when thinking about asking someone out. That can be hard enough to overcome but then tack on the fear of having the God of the universe turn away in utter disgust at my inevitable arousal (if not on the first date then perhaps the second or the third) and you can see how asking women out was not a simple, straightforward thing for me.
And so I didn’t ask many people out.
And that’s bad enough, but it gets worse.
The few times I did somehow go out on dates, they never went well. Let me rephrase that. I never dealt with them well. The date itself might have been fine, great even. But insidiously, sometimes the better the date went, the more freaked out I would be afterwards. Because that meant the possibility of more dates. And if that happened then maybe I wouldn’t just have to worry about my own desire. What if I caused desire to well up within the other person? Then I’d really be fucked (in every sense of the word).
And sadly, tragically, I’d find some way to not ask them out again.
Big disclaimer here. I can’t pin all of this neurosis on the church. There are other reasons my dating life played out this way – reasons I don’t have space to go into here (and besides, I’m pretty open in this blog but I do have my limits). But all that bad church teaching compounded, rather than eased my issues in this area.
This is one way that a bad theology of desire can damage a person’s life and why the church needs to rethink how it talks about it.
And I promise I’ll get to ideas about more positive ways to think theologically about desire in my next post.
But let me end with one more really bad theological idea that hindered my romantic life.
You know the carrot and the stick approach to motivating people to behave a certain way? The fear of desire was the stick the church used. The carrot? It’s something I used to call transactional theology (if someone knows the precise theological term for this idea, please let me know). It’s the idea that if you live a certain kind of life or do certain kinds of things then God will bring various kinds of blessings into your life.
One common place you hear this idea is when preachers talk about tithing. They’ll quote Malachi 3:10 where God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.
The way this idea got related to dating was this. IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.
And, of course I wanted that, so I did my part. And I kept doing my part. And when I noticed that God wasn’t bringing my wife into the picture I figured I must not be doing my part well enough and so I’d try harder. And harder. And harder.
But here’s the worst part. Even if some new woman started attending church who I thought was smart and cute and awesome, that whole fear-laden cycle I mentioned earlier would kick in and so I wouldn’t ask her out. Or if I did, I wouldn’t ask her out again – even (especially) if it went well. Because that’s what a theology of fear does. The carrot and the stick are supposed to work together towards some common end but in this case, they canceled each other out.
Honestly, I don’t know how anyone from my circle of church friends ever ended up getting married. Somehow, they knew how dysfunctional the church’s teaching was and just decided to do different. And let me let you in on a dark secret. While they were dating? There were Christian leaders who were condemning them. I know because they told me. They told me I was the better Christian.
And now they’re married and I’ve never had a girlfriend.
Shitty way to end a post, I know, but I feel much better now that I’ve gotten that off my chest. Writing does that for me.
I’ll get to some ideas about how the church can better handle this topic (theologically and practically) in the next post.