“How can I cope with my sexual feelings when I’m single and there’s no end to my celibacy in sight?”

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Dear Bronwyn,

I read your article on sexuality when you’re single  and the importance for me as a guy of developing gendered friendships with both men and women; but I’m not sure what that looks like. What do you mean by “embracing sexuality as a man” while remaining sexually pure in friendships with women?

I am 26 year old Christian man, trying to “wait until marriage”, but I’m struggling with feelings and needs, and the older I get, the more worried and sad I get about it. I don’t want to sin, but I feel the need to do some things I shouldn’t, and I just wish I could marry and fulfill these desires in a non-sinful way. I’ve tried eliminating thoughts of sex from my mind, but it isn’t working. I feel so guilty and unclean about these desires, and I’m lonely too because, while I make friends easily, I’m shy with the girls I’m interested in and nobody seems to like me enough to be my girlfriend. The fact that there are no dating prospects in sight (and so, no foreseeable end to this frustration) feels like an unending burden.

Can you help?

Lonely and Longing

Dear LaL,

Here’s the challenging thing about talking about sexuality these days: instead of sexuality referring to our identity as men and women, and what that means for us relationally; we almost always associate sexuality with SEX. This is very much a feature of the age we live in: we’re saturated in a sexualized and sexualizing world – where women are viewed as sexual objects: in obscene and awful way (like porn), but also in a zillion other ways that happen so frequently around us that we think it’s normal. “Getting the girl” is the plot for umpteen stories: a couple landing up in bed is the closing scene—the climax!—of narratives from TV to movies to music. Sexily clad women are in the media all around us: selling cars and web host services and beer and soap to men, and selling beauty products and dream vacations and who knows what else to women. The world we live in puts a CRAZY amount of pressure on men and women to direct their thoughts and goals towards landing up naked together.

I think the church has, in some way, drunk the Kool-Aid. We, too, have focused our conversations regarding sexuality on what you can and cannot do with your genitals. We haven’t left a lot of room for conversation and imagination on what it means to be men and women apart from being sexually active. We have bought into the lie that we are supposed to function as androgynous/asexual Christians in all our friendships and relationships; and then expected people to “flip a switch” and suddenly turn on their sexuality and express their maleness and femaleness safely once they’re married.

This doesn’t work. But of course, you know that. This is exactly what you’re struggling with. We are not asexual beings who suddenly get permission to inhabit our sexuality once we get married. We are, for the entire length of our lives, sexual beings. There is no way of being human without being male or female. It’s part of who we are, and so we need to think about what it means to live as a healthy MAN or a healthy WOMAN in all our relationships, in every season of life. And friend, in a world where the images and stories and sounds around you keep directing your focus towards the erotic, that’s a SERIOUS challenge.

But it’s a challenge you need to face.

You need to learn how to be friends with women without the glaring awareness of them as potential sex partners. You allude to struggling with masturbation, and I’m not really going to comment on that except to say that if porn is part of that struggle, it is making things exponentially worse for you. Porn hardwires the brain to see women and sex in an objectifying way, and with each participation in that body-brain experience, it puts more distance between you and the possibility of a healthy sexual relationship with a woman in the future.

However, even if porn is not part of the issue, it’s still a real challenge to learn to see women as whole, complete, made-in-the-image-of-God partners in life in a world which sees them as sexy bodies. You say you make friends easily but get shy when there’s a girl you’re interested in…  I strongly suspect that’s because all of a sudden you’re hyper aware of her as a potential sexual partner, and that distracts from you getting to know her as a person.

You need to learn how to be a guy who can talk to women, to listen to them and learn from them and work along side them and appreciate them as essential partners in life, and to be your full self in these relationships (not just a guy hoping to get a date). Are there opportunities for you to participate in group efforts where you work alongside women? Maybe serving in some capacity at church, or volunteering at a Habitat for Humanity project, or making sure you’re plugged into a small group that has both men and women talking about the big issues we face disciples of Jesus (and not just an accountability/confession group)? These kinds of scenarios are important: they shift the focus from the “small talk” of social meet-ups where the unspoken-but-desired-for-outcome is often romantic/sexual/dating interest; and instead have you working shoulder to shoulder with women.

If there are opportunities to laugh together, to get your hands dirty together on a project, be an environment where there is healthy hugging and touch. Doing these things might go a long way towards your relaxing around women and expanding your view of them… and in the process, you may well find yourself developing some new intimacy in friendships with the men and women around you… and maybe one day, one of those might lead to marriage and sex.

Your sexual feelings won’t be disappearing any time soon, but I do think there are ways you can pursue rewarding, affirming, healthy touch and intimacy in relationships without those needing to be sexual. Can I recommend Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship to you? He is a celibate gay Christian, which is not the struggle you’re facing, but his insights on deep, fulfilling relationships and stewarding our sexuality well while we’re celibate are really helpful and healthy. Even as a married, straight woman (and he is none of those things!); I’ve found a lot in his words to encourage me (as a woman, and inherently sexual being) to relate deeply and well to the men and women in the family of believers in a holy and wholly intimate way. Even once people are married, there may be seasons where sexual feelings can’t be expressed (due to illness or extended absences or childbearing or aging…), and so the question of learning to pursue healthy and holy intimacy in the face of pent of sexual tension is one all believers have to grapple with at some stage. You’re not alone in this. God knows us and will help us as we continue to ask Him for help in stewarding—rather than suppressing—our sexuality.

Blessings to you,

Bronwyn

 

 

Ask Me: How Can I Protect My Kids From Sexual Abuse?

How can I protect my kids from sexual abuse?

Dear Bronwyn,

How and when do you start talking with your kids about their bodies and being safe around other people? My son is 2 and talking more, and we are wondering when to start talking to him about his body being only for him, about not keeping secrets from us and to tell us if anybody tries to touch him inappropriately. What’s age-appropriate in content? Any ideas on how to say it? Is this conversation different for sons and daughters?

Related to this is the question of what we can do to prevent sexual abuse happening. I have a great deal of fear about this. I had no idea child molestation was so common until I volunteered with an inner healing prayer team at my church and have heard so many stories from women who endured abuse. I am horrified for my children, and this translates into a deep fear about how to handle child care with our kids. Is there any way to know whether my caution is healthy or over-the-top? My husband and I have had some disagreements abut what we’re comfortable with when it comes to babysitting, but I really am having a hard time trusting anyone, really, primarily men. 

Please help,

Cautious Mama

Dear CM,

I totally identify with these questions and fears, and if I had a guaranteed formula for things to do and say which could prevent them from happening, I’d be a millionaire. This is one of the deep and terrible burdens of parenting: knowing there is evil in the world and wanting desperately to protect our children from them, and yet knowing that, in truth, we probably can’t. I don’t know that there’s anything which so reveals how little control we have in life as parenting.

Still, that doesn’t mean we are totally helpless, and so the question is really what can we do. I think your instincts in this are better than you realize, so I’ll add my few thoughts to things  you’ve already mentioned.

Talking to our kids about their bodies and touch

We taught our kids the words for eyes, ears, fingers and toes very early; and so it seemed logical to teach our kids the names for the private parts, too (I’m refraining from typing them here not because I’m prudish but because I don’t want the internet’s auto-search features to identify those words and send you ads to match that content!!) From a young age, we talked with our kids about privacy though: certain body parts (and conversations about them) were nothing to be ashamed about, but they were private – which meant for ourselves and family only.

We have always let our kids bath together and get dressed around us, but they are not allowed to touch anybody else’s private parts. I would say most of our conversation about body-touch and privacy has happened in the context of bathing and getting dressed, and these have often been our most hilarious but also our most honest conversations: for example, my not-yet-two year old cornered me as I was getting out the shower and asked with a mixture of curiosity and horror: “Why don’t you have a pen1s? What happened to it? Does it hurt?” I assured him that I’d never had one because I was a girl, and that no, it didn’t hurt. He expressed some sympathy, and then wanted a closer look at these curious girl parts. I shooed him away and told him those were private and so he couldn’t touch or look closer, just like no-one else should be touching or looking at his private parts unless they were a doctor or a parent helping with self-care.

These quick, at-home conversations have provided the bed-rock of our conversations about our bodies and privacy. Stop It Now has a very helpful website with a guide to what conversations are age-appropriate, and there are also a bunch of books out there to help families talk about these things: one of those is The Story of Me (God’s Design for Sex, Book 1), which might be the kind of thing you’re looking for in talking with your preschooler.

Teaching Our Kids What NO Means

I’ve written about this one before. From the youngest age, we have wanted to teach our kids that their “no” matters. If they didn’t like tickling, and said no, we stopped. If a kid yells “no” when they’re building blocks, we swoop in and insist that they respect other people’s no. We have made it a point to never turn those kinds of play into a game: it is never okay in our family to keep teasing/tickling/chasing if someone has said “no”, even if that person is laughing and doesn’t appear to be distressed (because I know that fear and discomfort sometimes manifests as nervous laughter… so we teach our kids that laughter doesn’t always mean a person’s having fun). If they’re saying no, and someone keeps doing it – they are always encouraged to enlist an adult’s help. We want our kids to SAY their own “no”, and to respect the “no” of others, too.

Not Keeping Secrets 

I wish I’d realized this one earlier, but just last year a friend told me their family policy has always been that there are no secrets in the family. They have allowed “surprises” (for birthday presents or trips to Disneyland, for example), but surprises always have a “tell-by” date. Secrets don’t.

Building Trust To Hear The Hard Things Without Freaking Out

As my kids are getting older, I’m realizing more and more that I need to be a safe person for my kids to tell things to, even when they’re afraid I might not like what they are saying. This has meant a lot of me learning to just listen and delay my reaction to things instead of swooping in with my Mom-fixit-hat. (More about this here). I try to say this to them with words as well as model it with actions: you can tell me anything and I will still love you. In practice, this means I am having to learn to not freak out when they confess mistakes (of their own or of their friends). My “play it cool” face is getting exercised.

I’ll add this: now that my kids are further into elementary school, I have explicitly started to say to them that sometimes there are people that will warn them not to tell parents things (or else they’ll get hurt, or things will get worse etc). I’ve told my kids this is almost ALWAYS a flag that they should tell me. I’m assuring them that I know more about people, sex, danger, and consequences than any of their friends.

Being Wise About Childcare Arrangements

It is our family rule that we don’t do sleep-overs, unless they are whole family affairs (e.g. all your kids can come camp out with all our kids over night so parents can come out etc) My eldest is at an age where kids are starting to have sleep overs and I’m the kill-joy Mom who will come and get you at 10pm. Sorry, honey. That’s how it is in our family.

As far as baby-sitting goes, we generally have people we know care for our kids in our home, rather than sending our kids elsewhere. We do allow our kids to have play dates at other people’s houses, but visit first and the first play dates are always pretty short in time. We talk to our kids a lot about who was there, what they liked and didn’t like, whether they felt comfortable there etc, to try and keep a pulse on things. For what it’s worth, the people I am most suspicious of are the ones who are very extroverted and touchy-feely with our kids IN OUR PRESENCE. After reading more and more stories of predators, I’m learning that many of those who would “groom” our kids are not the quiet ones but the ones who work hard to establish themselves as safe, fun people in front of the parents…. so, one of the things I look out for with adults who are affectionate with our kids is that they demonstrate a respect for the kids (and our) boundaries in our presence (for example, they ask “is that okay with your mom?” when offering lemonade).

I have a hard time with the “should I trust men less?” issue, given that most sexual predators are men. But I don’t believe that most men are sexual predators, and I most certainly balk at the idea that my husband, or other dear Christian brothers, should be viewed as untrustworthy by nature simply because they are men. In fact, we really want our children to have a community of healthy, safe relationships with adult men and women around them. But it’s tricky: because how will we know??

We do have friends who have made it a policy to not allow any men to care for their children if they are unaccompanied by women/their wives. This was awkward for us at some point because they wouldn’t let their kids play with ours at a park in my husband’s care… but at the end of the day we respect that rule and try not to take it personally. It’s not our rule though, although we are always mindful of how many adults/which adults will be present when we say yes to an invitation for child care.

The unnerving thing is that, like all people, we hope to rely on our intuition to discern whether a person is trustworthy or not, and the terrifying thing about stories of child abuse is how parents tell the same story that they trusted this adult, and had no idea what was going on. That our gut feelings can’t be trusted to protect us in this is probably the most unnerving thing of all. For sure, if your instinct tells you not to trust a person – by all means pay attention to that. But instinct alone can’t tell us whether a person is trustworthy – that’s why predators are so successful, and why their evil is so insidious.

I don’t think there’s anything we can do to stop deceitful people being deceitful, but I don’t think the solution is to “trust no-one”. Rather, the line we are taking is to try and keep conversation open, to pay attention to when our children or others indicate discomfort or reluctance and not to “shoo” those away, and to maintain a connection to a community of people who will help us be eyes and ears for the welfare of the children around us.

These are not guarantees, but it’s the best I know how to do.

And for the rest? As with all things: we learn to entrust our children to God. Worry ends where faith begins.

Love,

Bronwyn

Got a Question? Send it to me here. You can ask me anything. 

 

Ask Me: How can I know if he’s the one? And are we too young to get married?

Am I too young to get married? How can I know if he's the one?

Dear Bronwyn,

My boyfriend and I are both 20, and have been dating for 4 years. We have been talking about getting married for a few months and I’m getting scared. I’m scared that he’s not the one for me because I don’t have that gut feeling and part of me is saying run away and that were both pretty young. I really want to be with him and wake up next to him. I’m worried I’m just in love with the idea of getting married and he’s convenient so I should just marry him. But we have a fuzzy electrical feeling when we kiss or touch and I don’t want to let that go. He says he knows I’m the one for him, but I just wish I had that feeling too. He’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband. I’ve prayed and asked God for a sign to let me know if hes the one for me. The first time He sent a shooting star. The second time I felt like He was telling me through particular songs that kept coming up on the radio. After that second time you would think “Okay, God, I get the message,” but I still can’t shake the gut feeling of wanting to run. Is that the devil at work? Does the Bible say anything about this? Please help.

From,

Dating but Doubting

Dear DbD,

I hear three questions in your letter: Are we too young to get married? How can I know if he’s the one? And, will God give me a sign that I’m making the right decision? I’ll try to touch on each of these:

Firstly, on the question of “how old is old enough to marry?”: A hundred years ago (and probably for centuries before that), a couple who were twenty and had been together for four years may well already have been married! It is a strange feature of our modern world that it has become normal to delay marriage for ten, even fifteen, years later than our ancestors did.

But there is still much to be said for marrying young. In her excellent article The Case for Getting Married Young, Karen Swallow Prior talks about the difference between seeing marriage as the cornerstone, rather than the capstone, of your adult life. I was one who married a little later, but am now in a position where I have a group of friends who are my age but many of them have been married ten years longer than we have (and have kids going to college already!!), because they married in their late teens and early twenties. When these friends of mine talk about their marriages, they talk about how they and their husbands had to grow up together: they figured out how to “adult” (as it now seems to be a verb) as a team… and they are the better for it.

But this is not the norm with most people in their early twenties. I hear more people talk about first wanting to reach certain career and financial milestones before thinking about marriage, and while this is the conventional wisdom of our age, I don’t think the Bible has anything to say about seeking first career and financial stability, and then marriage being added unto you. Certainly, those who delay marriage and land up making poor sexual choices as a result have not chosen well. (In fact, did you know that in the Westminster Catechism, in the discussion of ways in which the seventh commandment is infringed, they list “undue delay of marriage” as one? Qu 139 over here.)

The health and maturity of your relationship matters so much more than your age. I would encourage you to try to rely less on your feelings and more on the wisdom of your community in taking stock of whether you and your boyfriend’s relationship is healthy and mature enough to move towards marriage. Ask your parents, leaders around you at church, trusted friends, and people who have been married a while: ask them about their experiences, ask them what advice they’d have, and then ask them if they would help you to identify any red flags they might see: do you have patterns of co-dependency that you might not be aware of? how do you handle anger, disappointment, and conflicts of interest etc? Also, if you are seriously thinking about marriage, I would strongly encourage you to do pre-marital counseling. Take your time and take it seriously: pre-marital counseling doesn’t “solve” any issues up front, but it really does a lot to help you walk into marriage with your eyes wide open and your expectations adjusted towards reality. If you can—and this is gold—stay in relationship with those counselor’s and ask if you can check in with them every couple of months after you are married. That kind of mentoring makes the world of difference.

As to the question: “how can I know if he’s the one?” I’ve written about the idea of finding the “one” and how much we can trust the tingly feelings of dating chemistry here, so I won’t go into too much about that more. I do want to add this, though: that you are dating in a millennial climate where we all like to keep our options open, but the downside of that is that sometimes keeping all our options open means also watching them all go by without having taken any. The desire to optimize all our experiences—to find the best deal, or the perfect vacation destination,  or the dream school, or the perfect mate—leads us to the deluded belief that if we just do enough internet research, we will make the perfect decision and then life will be easy. But it is a delusion. And sometimes, wisdom says that we would be happiest if we picked the GOOD option and worked with that, rather than indefinitely delaying deciding because we’re waiting for the best.

I mention this just to express some sympathy for the cultural climate we live in: the fear we have of “making the wrong decision” and “settling for second best” is horribly amplified by the world around us; and it is undergirded by the false premise that the “best” decision (or “the one”) really is out there, and that if we would just find that one then we will all live happily ever after. But life is not like that, and no matter how wonderful you and your partner may be (or how long you wait), marriage is still one between sinners and you will have seasons of deep challenge and mutual refining… and in the process, grow together.

Now that’s not to say we should go to a dance and “take a partner by the hand and doh-se-doh into happily ever after” with the first available single guy. Obviously, we need more wisdom than that: finding someone who loves God, who loves you, with whom you can grow and serve together, and (I think this is a deal breaker), with whom you can laugh at both triumphs and disappointments, goes a long way towards making marriage smoother. You say in your letter “he’s everything I didn’t know I wanted in a husband.” I think that’s a really encouraging start 🙂

Finally: will God give me a sign so I can be sure? Probably not. Will he give you wisdom if you ask? Yes. Will he give you guidance as you prayerfully try to figure this out? Yes. Will he make the decision for you? Usually no. Not unless you’re Gideon. But take heart, dear friend: just because God hasn’t put an appendix at the back of the Bible with the list of who you will marry (wouldn’t that be a trip?) doesn’t mean he isn’t leading, guiding, and providing, or that he won’t work in good and amazing ways through this process of questioning you’re going through. If I think back on the discernment process through my own dating and deciding-to-marry relationships: I felt so unsure at the time, and really wished God would just TELL ME WHAT TO DO ALREADY, but as I look back I can see his faithfulness in answering every one of my prayers, for being with me through the breakups, and in landing up where I have. I have ever confidence He has no less than abundant plans for flourishing for you, too.

All the best,

Bronwyn

Got a question you want to send my way? You can ask me anything here…

“Help, I’m jealous of my husband’s job”

I'm Jealous of my husband's job. Now what?

Dear Bronwyn,

I’m struggling with resentment about my husband’s frequent work trips. They’re often a week or more long, with mixed genders, and I struggle to keep my imagination under control. He is a loving husband and doesn’t seek out female colleagues as friends. He has told me this – and I trust him. Yet, when he is away, and I am left to normal life with young children, I can’t help but think he is off having a jolly time, making memories with everyone but me, and confiding in other people – I struggle with the idea of him having a “separate life” – a life where I, unless otherwise told, have no part of.

My husband does work hard to include me in his work life: I know more than many wives about what he does, who he works with, and he includes me where he can. It’s just when he goes away I become jaded and go into some kind of survival mode: I push away, resent, and think the worst. My husband is doing everything he can think of to help. My question is this: what can I do to combat these feelings?

Sincerely,

FOMO-Mama

Dear FOMama,
It sounds like there are a number of issues potentially at play here: wanting assurance about your husband’s affections, as well as some struggle with contentment and jealousy.
First: it sounds like you and your husband have a healthy marriage – you’re able to talk and are working hard to stay supportive and engaged in the other ones’ flourishing. That’s fantastic.
Having said that – travel for any extended period does put strains on a marriage. There are horrifying statistics about “the things that people get up to” on business trips, and so fears about sexual temptation and other excesses are not unwarranted. We have friends where the husband travels frequently and he requests that there be no TV in his hotel room wherever he travels (I’m sure the hotel staff *really* love this)… but it’s something he does for the sake of making sure there is no temptation there for him. If travel is a regular part of your husband’s job, I’m sure he has to think about ways to proactively protect your marriage while he’s away. That you can talk openly about this is important.
But I think this is really a deeper issue than a “can I trust my husband?” thing, since it seems you are more struggling with feeling left out/jealous of his opportunities, than really struggling with worry about his fidelity. I think that speaks more to a frustration about your current phase in life than specific jealousy about your husband. It’s his “freedom to go”, to stay out late if he wants to, to be ANYWHERE OTHER THAN HOME, to make friends etc, that shines a very bright light on some of the hardest things about motherhood… that being that life is just so. darn. continuous.
Remember when Fridays meant the end of the week? Ha, not so with moms.
Remember when weekends meant sleeping in? Not so with little ones.
Remember when eating out meant a meal free of issues? Not so with moms: either you’re wrangling people to just-sit-still at the table, or you’re bleeding from the nose with how much it costs to pay a babysitter. Tick tock. How long do we have?
Remember when someone asked you if you wanted to catch a movie, and you could say YES? Not anymore.
Remember when you had hobbies you liked to do after work? Not anymore: now there’s the carnage of cheerios and drool that comes after the kids are finally, finally asleep.
Remember when you used to do something and feel a sense of accomplishment that it was actually DONE? And sometimes people PAID you for it? Ha.
The life of a mom of small people is exhausting in physical and profoundly personal ways: for you work ALL DAY and it just gets undone by small people. What you tidy gets dumped out. What you clean gets smeared. What you fold gets worn. What you cook gets consumed, or worse yet – complained about and dumped on the floor.
Before I went on maternity leave, I supervised two interns. They came to visit me a few weeks after my eldest was born, and I was stunned to find I was insanely jealous of them describing the hum drum of making thousands of copies. I used to hate making copies, but all of a sudden I was crazy jealous of the fact that they had something to do which, at the end of their effort, would yield a VISIBLE PILE OF SOMETHING THAT HADN’T BEEN THERE BEFORE. Like real, genuine evidence of productivity. I was beside myself with jealousy. About stacks of colored paper.
And I felt SO pathetic realizing it. Because while my head told me *of course* it was worthwhile to be a Mom, I was still really grieving the loss of choices and efficiencies of my kid-free life, and when my husband worked late or went to a conference or my former intern made copies… I felt really crappy about my choice-less-ness and income-less-ness by comparison.
So how to get over that? Well, knowing what you’re dealing with helps… because maybe it means that what you need is not for your husband to travel less or have less fun when he does… but for you two to talk about what you might need to make space for you to have friends, or to take up a project that is not related to your kids. Would joining a book club help? Or an exercise class? When he’s home, would it help to have some “me time” scheduled in when you can take a couple of hours and go and enjoy brunch with a friend? I know these seem like small things, but I realized that adding few little things like that made the world of difference to me over time. I had become resentful that I could never take a nap. That I never got to eat hot food. That I wanted to talk to a friend somewhere other than in my house and holding a baby.
I hope I am not projecting my own experiences too much into your question here, but it does sound like you have two things going on:
1) wanting to be assured that you are your husband’s priority (and he’s working hard to show you that you are more important than his career), and
2) needing to be affirmed that you are still a PERSON, not just a domestic placeholder, and you need a work/rest/recreation balance, too. With the healthy sounding conversation that it sounds like you and your husband are able to have – maybe you could talk with him not so much about “how can I quash the feelings of jealousy?”, but “what is my jealousy telling me here?” Listen to what your jealousy is telling you about what you are needing to change in your own life, and maybe that will help you both to figure out some next steps.

All the best,

Bronwyn

 

Image Credit: Mish Sukharev – Revtank (Flickr Creative Commons), edited using Canva by moi.

Help: Am I Married Or Not?

are we married

Dear Bronwyn,

I have been reading about marriage, sex, vows and covenants in the Bible, and my question is: am I married or not? I can’t find what defines a “biblical marriage”: Genesis says a man should leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife. I am living with my girlfriend (but my registered address is with my parents), and “cleave” seems to mean glued. Does that mean if we live together and have sex we are married?

I also read a lot about vows and covenants: I am committed to her and don’t want to fully have sex unless we are married. She wants to have sex and says “we are married”, but then when I ask her about getting a marriage license she says no. If I have promised to stay with her, is that a vow? And what does it take to make a covenant? Is that what the blood is about when women lose their virginity?

Please help: I am worried about losing my salvation over this,

Confused About the State of the Union 

 

Dear CASOTU,

There are different schools of thought on when God would consider you to be married:

  1. God views you as married if the government you live under views you as married.
  2. God views you as married if you have been through some kind of formal, societally-recognized marriage ceremony.
  3. God views you as married if you have had sex with a person.

I believe that #2 is what counts: you have been through some formal, public exchange of views, declaring your new commitment to one another as one another’s primary family. However, ideally, all three would met: you’d get legally married (in your case, get a license), your community would publicly know about it and BOTH you and your girlfriend would be intentional about the promises you are making each other and what they mean, and that marriage would then be consummated by sex.

(However, there are circumstances where perhaps #1 is not possible: for example, in South Africa under Apartheid laws the government regulated who could and could not marry. There were, however, such things as “african customary marriages” where the local chief could marry a couple. The government didn’t recognize those, but I believe God did. Also, I know of people who, for various reasons, are unable to consummate their marriage and so don’t meet requirement #3: I don’t believe—and nor do they!—this makes them any less married.)

From God’s perspective, I believe marriage (however your culture acknowledges it) makes you a family (I’ve written about this before as this being the crucial difference between “living together” or co-habiting, and being married) . You and your girl friend have not made any private or public commitment to be one another’s family. And sex doesn’t make it so. I think the Genesis statement about “leaving one’s family and being joined to their wife” is not a one time thing like going out on a date and having sex. I think it represents a far more symbolic act of leaving your parents’ household and establishing a new one, so that in answer to the question, “who is your next of kin? and who should we call in case of emergency?” the answer is no longer, “my parents”, but “my wife”.

A covenant is a formal kind of contract, binding two parties together. All contracts involve people agreeing about something or making promises/vows to one another, but covenants seem to be a special type of contract: indicating a high personal commitment to one another, usually regarded as being unbreakable (whereas a rental contract might expire naturally after a year). To establish a valid covenant, you would need a few things: two parties, both willingly in agreement as to the terms of this new relationship, there would be vows made as each party commits themselves to the covenant, and sometimes the swearing of oaths. In ancient lands, the oaths involved calling down curses on yourself if you were to break the covenant. I think that’s what the blood represents in ancient covenants: as in a “I’d rather die than break this covenant” promise, or a “if I break this promise I’m deserving of death” idea: in both cases, death is represented by spilled blood.

In God’s covenants with people, the spilled blood also represents forgiveness of sins (death, represented by blood, is paid for by a substitute. And unless there a way to deal with sin, we couldn’t be in a relationship with a holy God… so the blood of sacrifices in Israel, and now Jesus’ blood, symbolize the covenant of grace with God: our forgiveness and relationship made possible through sacrificial death (for example: see Ephesians 1:7, Colossians 1:20, Hebrews 9:11-15 )

I have always thought that the ancient marriage practices saw virginal blood as being a “sign” of the marriage covenant, but I don’t know that our modern understanding of covenants acknowledge or require blood in the same way. Certainly, even in my personal faith, I participate in the “blood of the new covenant” symbolically by taking communion. More than once I’ve read through Exodus and Leviticus and just been so ridiculously grateful that we no longer live in an era where a high priest splashes bulls’ blood over our foreheads.

So what are our covenant symbols these days? In faith, we take communion and participate in baptism. When it comes to marriage, it seems to me that public vows and the exchange of rings at a ceremony are often outward symbols of that internal commitment. Since you and your girlfriend haven’t (and by the sounds of it, don’t want to) do that, you are not married.

One final thought: your question got me thinking about how it is we can say that “God joins people together” in marriage (as Jesus said), and yet still believe that marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a religious and sacramental one. Because it is true: the job of marrying people in ancient Israel wasn’t a priestly task, nor was it something we see Jesus, his disciples, or any of the ministers in the early church doing. Jesus attended weddings, but they weren’t “religious business”. I think this gives us a solid ground for saying that we take our cues for what constitutes a marriage from the social norms around us. Maybe that involved the men in the family exchanging sandals at the city gate (as it did in the book of Ruth), or in customary Zulu culture, marriage requires families to agree on a bride price, followed by a ceremony and celebratory feast. For us, we needed someone with a marriage license to officiate over our vows (they could be ordained in a church or a public official… but the law said it had to happen “under a roof”… so there was a local custom we had to observe to make it legal.)

However, saying that marriage is a societal institution doesn’t mean that God doesn’t work in and through our cultural norms to join people together. Maybe a helpful parallel is considering that God doesn’t tell us what kind of government we should have: He doesn’t prescribe communism or monarchy or democracy, but he DOES say that all authority is given by God, that all rulers are ultimately accountable to him, and that we all should submit to the authorities we live under (unless they are requiring us to disobey God). I find that a helpful parallel: God doesn’t say “you must have a marriage license”, but he does say sex belongs in marriage… and so depending on when and where you live, the definition of “marriage” is probably fairly clear. In your case, you’d need a marriage license. And your parents would probably need to know. And—this one is critical—both you and your girlfriend would need to be intentionally, willingly, life-long committing to each other.

May God give you grace as you work this out. You are not married, and my heart goes out to you because it sounds like you are trying so hard to figure out how to handle the sexual aspect of your relationship as best you can. We all struggle with our sexuality at one point or another, and I do believe God knows our hearts and he is our Father who has GREAT compassion and wants the best for us. I don’t believe you will lose our salvation over this: God’s invitation to you is to COME to him, no matter who you are or what you’ve done.  If you keep asking him for wisdom on what to do in this situation, James 1:1-5 promises that he will give it to you.

All the best,

Bronwyn

Ask Me: How Do I Choose A New Church?

new church

I’ve received two letters from readers in the past month asking for advice about finding a new church. Here are excerpts from each:

We were part of a church plant for a couple years: a wonderful experience of everyone being on the same page, but it has now disbanded. Now that we’re on our own looking for a new church, I feel totally lost. I realize we have to compromise… but there doesn’t seem to be a church that has everything in line with what we want.  I have no idea what’s dire to have and what’s okay to forgo. Is community more important than the teaching? What about the worship? Their beliefs on mission? Geographical proximity? Multiethnicity, women in leadership, discipleship, etc etc… I understand this question is TOTALLY personal. I just wonder if you have any suggestions on choosing the right church.

and,

After more than twenty years of working weekends, I have relocated and wanted to join a church to find a church home and make friends.  The church I was raised in was a Presbyterian church & seeing an older established Presbyterian church nearby, I gravitated there to the comfort, familiarity, music, friendliness I remembered of years gone by.  I realized recently that this church has taken a position on some issues (same sex weddings and creation) that I believe are against the Bible.  I feel the church I knew has left me. I am sad. I have made friends here, but feel I have to find another church.  How do I find a church that doesn’t turn the Bible’s words into something that suits man, rather than guides man, as God intended?

Your advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

Longing For A Church Home

Dear LFACH (x2),

Changing churches is always an emotionally laden transition. I understand the longing to be part of a faithful community, but it’s hard to do when you may be feeling disconnected, grieving for what you’ve lost, and also needing to muster courage for a new search.

I only know of one way to find a new church, and that is to visit a number in your area. You may already know of a few to visit: places where friends go, perhaps. Depending on the city, there might be some kind of local wiki which lists the churches near you and you could scout your options out online to make a list of three or four to visit. Those visits will be hard, but ask questions when you go too: ask people what they like about this church, how long they’ve been there, how they came to be there and why they’ve stayed. Of course, this assumes that someone talks to you while you are there…. if they don’t, it will take extra courage to make a second trip.
Of course you know there are no perfect churches, but I think there are a great many HEALTHY ones, and often talking to some of the people in the pews will give you a better idea of the health of the community than reading a manifesto. Finding a community who love God, love the Bible and love people seems like a short and simple list, but finding those three things really is gold, no matter what the worship style is. I also think for people visiting a church, it’s entirely appropriate to call the minister or someone on staff and ask them if they’d mind talking to you about their church. Tell them a 60 second version of your background and some of the things you are looking for, and what they say in response could be really illuminating!
My personal thoughts on things that are essential in church communities is that we would do well to stick to Acts 2, and seek out communities that devote themselves to the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship and to prayer. By apostle’s teaching, I understand that to mean a faithful commitment to understanding and applying the teaching of Scripture. We are people of the Book, and so the way the community handles the Book matters tremendously. It should be read, relied on, and the worship and prayer (whatever format that takes), should reflect the priorities and passions of Scripture. I believe this is one of those things where we can ask the Holy Spirit for His specific guidance as we visit: He is the one who is able to lead us into all truth. (I have some thoughts on different church cultures here, if you’re curious.)
When it comes to “deal breaker doctrines”, that’s a matter for bible study and personal conscience: if you have strong convictions about the earth’s origins, or the Scriptures teaching on the place of women in leadership etc – you need to figure out whether this is something you can extend fellowship to others who may disagree in the spirit of Romans 14 (which you would have had to do if you were a Roman Christian… there weren’t exactly a plethora of churches to “shop around” at), or if conscience is leading you to find a place where you can serve and submit to church leadership with a clear conscience. Certainly, finding a place where we could serve with a clear conscience was a big factor for us the last time our family found ourselves looking for a church.
Acts 2 also mentions something about communities devoting themselves to fellowship, which I think has a bearing on the geographical location of the church. My wise friend Kevin once told me he had stopped going to church in a neighboring town because “you can’t commute to community”. There is something to be said for attending church where there are small groups that meet within your area, so that it becomes workable to actually live some of your LIVES together: to see one another in the grocery store, to organize a dinner, or serve together on a project. Proximity greases the wheels of community-building.
As such, this probably means that a local church should reflect the demographics of the community you actually live in. If you live in a multi-ethnic and multi-generational area, but the church is only reaching a fraction of those, that may be cause for concern. If, however, you live in a place with a fairly homogenous population (a college town of highly educated people), then it’s a bit of a stretch to look at the church and say “why are there only students and academics here? where are the homeless people and African-Americans?” Because, in truth, those populations are vastly outnumbered in our area.)
Finally: a church that devotes itself to prayer. This might be a difficult thing to assess on a Sunday visit, but it is something that will be reflected in the way people talk about challenges they are facing, or approach problem solving in the church. I think many of our evangelical churches are great in programming and poor in prayer. I wish it were different.
All that being said: there IS a church community there that God has for you, and where YOU are currently being missed as a vital part of Christ’s body. I pray you will be able to find a place to connect and thrive soon.
Best,
Bronwyn
Got a question? You can ask me anything: contact me here 🙂 

 

 

A New Page

Every so often, I get a message in my inbox which reads something like this: “I was wondering if I could talk to you about something… I have a question.”  Usually, the email also says something like: “I know you’re busy and I hope it is okay to ask, but I didn’t know who else to talk to.”

ask-question-1-ca45a12e5206bae44014e11cd3ced9f1My heart always expands when I get emails like this. I want to invite them over, get comfy, make tea, and have a chat. Shared troubles are often halved troubles. A listening ear has done my soul much good in the past, and where I am able to offer it to others, I am thankful. If part of my story or the lessons I’ve learned as God has helped me hobble and wobble through life are of encouragement or help, I’m grateful.

And so I never mind being asked questions. It is not inconvenient, and it is not a bother. If I am able to comfort with some of the comfort I have received (2 Corinthians 1:3-7), then that’s a ministry I’m thankful for. At the very worst, I can say “I don’t know, but I’ll pray.” And I believe even that helps.

So today unveils a new chapter on this blog: an “Ask Bronwyn” page. It’s up on the tabs at the top of the page. If you have a question, or know someone has a question, and perhaps I can help – then drop me a note. I’ll answer some of them in (anonymous) blog posts, and perhaps some of them in private emails – but I’ll do my best to be faithful. And I know that God is faithful.

So here goes. A new page. Feel free to click over and check it out, and to share it with others.

Photo credit: en.hdyo.org