This for all of you out there who are reading this in a feed reader. What was published yesterday was a small portion of what it was intended to be, the rest was accidentally deleted. Unfortunately, the part that got published was the part where I ranted a little bit and not my reasoning behind it, so I probably came off pretty ridiculous. Especially when I didn’t even finish all my sentences! So I sat down and just spent a LOT of time rewriting this… I realize it’s long, but if you read what came out yesterday, please read this to understand the rest of the story. I’d love to keep the comment conversation going, but perhaps we should move it to this post.
Clay and I had an interesting conversation last night. It was one we’ve had before, but the topic came up again because it’s such a part of our every day experience. We talked about the ways in which men and women interact in friendships, specifically how we’ve experienced our own interactions with the opposite sex since being married. I would say that my general experience (and Clay agrees that this has been his as well) has been that most men that we are friends with, especially those that are the husbands of my friends, don’t really see me. They’re nice and friendly, and perhaps we’ll share a laugh or two, but there’s no real person-to-person connection. It’s as though I’m just their wife’s friend, just somebody else’s wife, just somebody’s mom… I don’t feel taken seriously like a whole person. Don’t get me wrong, they’re perfect nice and congenial, there’s no rudeness or disrespect. It’s just that it is rare that I experience a conversation or a friendship with a male that seems to understand that I’m my own person with my own qualities, experiences, thoughts, and contributions apart from the fact that I am a wife and mom. And Clay pretty much feels the same way, probably more so.
I don’t really think this is the fault of the people we’re relating to, I think it’s due to what we’ve grown-up hearing about how to love your spouse and protect your marriage. Christians are all about protecting the marriage, and for good reason, it’s a very important subject to pay attention to and discuss with your spouse. And trust me, I take very seriously the sanctity of our marriage and we both are highly aware of not putting ourselves in compromising situations or relationships. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kinds of friendships that often involve the presence of our respective spouses, not even anything super close or serious, simply just the kind of relationship where the person is appreciated for who they are as an individual. I’m not talking about the boundary lines of whether you should go eat lunch together, talk on the phone together, ride in a car together, etc… That’s a whole other conversation, one that I’m not willing to address! And I’m not even really interested in that, honestly. I’d simply just like a little human-t0-human conversation where there’s a freedom to be curious about the other person, his background, his thoughts, his heart, and his dreams. Where he’s not afraid to hold eye contact with me, whether it’s for fear of no common ground to talk about or of an affair suddenly popping up, I’m not sure.
I think in our zeal to affair-proof marriages, Christians (perhaps non-Christians, too, but I’ve experienced this mostly with Christians) end up ignoring half of the population. I feel like we’ve been so indoctrinated about the dangers of having a close relationship with someone of the opposite gender while you’re married (the negativity of that concept is debatable) that we only see each other as potential affairs waiting to happen should we engage in a real friendship. We don’t actually see each other. We’re so scared that passions will be aroused that I think we actually over-sexualize each other.
Because, the reality is, I don’t want to have an affair with your husband. In fact, I’m probably not attracted to him. I might even find him annoying. But I could be friends with him, and it could be a real friendship alongside you and my husband. In fact, you could be friends with Clay! Really, I don’t mind! In fact, what IF we could actually all four be friends together, as in group togetherness, not just girls in one corner and guys in the other. As in, it’s ok if another woman has a two-person conversation with Clay about more than just our kids while I have a conversation on the other side of the room with her husband. I think this type of relating should be normal. In fact, it used to be before we were married, most of us had friends of the opposite sex, and I would guess most of those friendships were appropriate and healthy. We’ll have to redefine what it looks like to be friends with someone of the opposite sex other than our spouse, but rather than this being seen as walking the line of adultery, I think it’s called normal, healthy human relating. I believe that the intent of all of our indoctrination on how to affair-proof your marriage is wonderful; marriage is sacred and worth taking intentional steps to protect. But the extent to which this is sometimes taken is, I believe, not how God intends for the Body of Christ to function.
Image of God
Men and women are created in the image of God, and we each reflect his attributes in a distinctively male and female way.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
Each gender is a different type of Man, and Man was created in God’s image. Male and female represent this image in distinct ways, and it is our togetherness that reflects the complete picture. We were not designed to function apart from the opposite sex but to live in holy community together. Marriage is a specific picture of oneness that unites male and female, yet our spouse is the not only relationship to reflect the image of God. Man and woman were created to complement one another in all of our relationships, not just our marriage. In all areas of life men and women bring something different to the table, and God created us to work together in our strengths and weaknesses to more fully reflect His glory. We were created to need each other, and I believe that God designed men and women to complement one another in all of His purposes for mankind. To reduce this needing of one another to reflect the image of God to marriage is to miss out on the strengths we can offer each other and the blessings that come when we work together as originally intended.
Ruth Barton says, Our attitudes and relationships will be transformed as we consciously remind ourselves, “This man (or woman) reflects the image of God to me. She (or he) is a royal priest just as I am, and I need her (or him) to work alongside me to carry out my priestly responsibilities.”
Body of Christ
Gender conflict has always occurred, but the God-given design and potential of men and women working harmoniously together in community is part of what makes the Body of Christ so unique. God has given each of us spiritual gifts and strengths, and He wants us to use them to build-up the Church and to advance His mission in the world. Paul described the Body working together in all its individual parts, and though different, they only truly function well when they work together. To avoid any type of relationship other than a surface-level congeniality with the other gender is to not work together with half of the Body. It messes-up its function. We were created for healthy relationships that exhibit true teamwork. Paul argues, “To each one is given the gift of the Spirit for the common good… The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ “ (1 Cor. 12:7, 21)
In Christ, we relate to one another as family, brother and sister, and it is the presence of Jesus in us that transforms our relationships to the kind that reflect unity in Him. In the Church, every man is my brother and I am his sister. I think many affairs happen because we don’t take this seriously enough. We don’t intentionally interact with an awareness of the presence of God in each other and the familial relationship that we share. When a man relates to me simply on the basis of who I am as someone’s wife and someone’s mother, I being reduced to my roles and not acknowledged as a sister. A sister is someone that you share your life with. You don’t get romantic, you probably don’t touch a whole lot (unless you’re a super touchy-feely family, I guess!), and you don’t spend a lot of time gazing in each other’s eyes. But you do speak honestly about your heart and your life. You do spend time together amongst other family members, and you do acknowledge that this sister is different from your other sisters and brothers, she’s an individual, married or not, and worth getting to know based on her individual traits. I think some of us have been indoctrinated to be so afraid of the opposite sex in case we accidentally have an affair that we’ve completely lost a real understanding of familial relationships in Christ. And for this, we lose, we miss out. We miss-out on knowing our brothers and sisters and everything they have to give. We miss learning from them, laughing with them, and sharing with them. We miss all of the blessings that God gives people who love each other with His love.
One of the hallmarks of the Church should be unity. In John 17 Jesus prayed that we would become one heart and mind, and that we would be unified and together as he and the Father are. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean that this only applies as women relate with women and men relate with men. The Church is made of relationships, and how people actually get to the point where they are “of one heart and mind” is by being in relationship, not sitting next to each other on Sunday morning. Paul exhorts the people of the church to build-up one another, show each other love, and the nuts and bolts of how this actually happens is through relationship.
I think that the process of seeking a unity of the heart that goes across gender lines is scary because it we’re told that in order to avoid an affair, we have to hold our cards close and avoid any intimate sharing that could allow for emotional attachment. While I believe it is extremely important to be vigilant in examining our hearts in our relationships with the opposite gender, Christian love necessitates that there be a certain level of honesty and depth in healthy relationships. When we resort to keeping one another at arm’s length in order that we don’t fall into temptation, we’re acting from what is natural in us, not what is supernatural. We’re focusing on our old nature and forgetting that we have a new one. Although our intentions are pure, we’re rejecting what is good, what’s a gift from God. We’re missing an opportunity to bring this relationship to God and let Him transform it. We’re missing an opportunity to let God teach us how to have self-control and a heart that is open to His voice in our relationships. We’re missing the chance to let God develop integrity in us as we relate to those of the opposite gender, turning what may initially be weird emotions into a holy respect. Unity is not achieved when we all agree and think the same and are the same gender, it’s when we allow God to redeem our differences. Holy unity among men and women doesn’t mean that there have never been any messy emotions or situations, it means that He has redeemed and transformed them into something beautiful.
In a post about lust in women, Jonalyn Fincher writes of her experience of transforming covetousness toward a man other than her husband into an opportunity to invite Jesus into her experience and allow Him to transform her heart.
I was lusting after that guy. I wanted him to notice me, and I wanted to let our eyes rest into each other and I wanted to distract him and I wanted to check him out a lot more. Why? well it wasn’t to tell him about Jesus.
Typically in situations like these, my first response is some serious reining in and self-talk. Something like, “Jonalyn, that’s wrong. God doesn’t want you to think of him like that, stop it right now.” You know the ol’ accountability line.
But, since I’ve been reading Letters by a Modern Mystic which has been teaching me to invite Jesus into everything, I steered around my blamey self talk and prayed instead, “Jesus, I invite you into my lust.”
And I went back to my conversation with my friend.
Then, in a flash, something changed, not about the man (he was still tempting to look at), but about my eyes. I felt like light had cracked open in the restaurant and I was seeing things clearly.
A lull in our conversation gave me a chance to lift my head and really look at that man across the restaurant. He was sitting with a man, perhaps his father, and a woman, presumably his wife. I felt his presence as a son, a brother, a father, a husband. The last one completely changed me.
I do not struggle with lusting after my family members, nor those who I clearly see in familial roles to me. I see them as friends, members of my family and therefore easily respect them. In that moment, after uttering a prayer, Jesus came into my lust and reformed my eyes to see the man as a human, made in God’s image.
My desire for him as an object to possess melted and I saw him as someone worthy of my respect. I know I could have bumped into him later and not been afraid to look at him.
So, all that said… I really don’t want to be best friends with your husband, or any other man. I have no ambitions toward that. I’m not even arguing that we should have close friends of opposite gender other than our spouse. That is a valuable discussion, but I’m so not even going there. What I’m after? I’m after men and women relating like normal, adult human beings. Acknowledging that God works in all situations, and we are not endangering our marriage when we have a conversation that’s more than a passing “hello” with a person of the opposite gender.
I actually wrote this because I’ve had a few good interactions with men lately, not because I’ve had bad ones. I’ve had several conversations that somehow felt different from what I’m used to. Not because of the content of them, but rather because I felt like I was honored as a human, someone who bears of the image of God and has something worthwhile to say. They men weren’t paying any special attention to me, it wasn’t an intense conversation, we weren’t gazing into each other’s eyes, they weren’t trying to uncover the depths of my soul, I don’t even really know them super well. Maybe it was just the fact that I was included in the conversation as an equal, I wasn’t patronized with awkwardness, I was treated as though I was just a normal person. And there was something that was very life-giving about that. It wasn’t about me needing something from them, rather I think it’s about the fact that that kind of normal, honest relating with all sorts of different types of people is what our souls were designed for. We were meant to be in relationship with people of both genders, and when we’re not, something is missing. I think I simply noticed that something that had been missing lately, and when it was given to me, it felt holy and good.
Several previous friendships with men come to my mind as being blessings from God. Some were before I was married, some were after. Sometimes the men were married, sometimes they weren’t. These relationships occurred in the context of community, had distinct boundaries, and I believe were honoring to God. Somehow they helped to round-out the overwhelmingly female influence in my life, and there have been times when a distinctively male input made a difference. There have been times when God has used men to discern His voice for me, to show me His heart, and I don’t know if I would have received it in the same way had they been female due to His unique imprint of His image on a man’s soul.
So, what about Clay? Shouldn’t he be my everything, the only man I’ll ever need? Why would I need male input on my life aside from him? Well, I’ll just say that I don’t believe Clay is a god-like representative of all of the male population. I don’t believe that marriage is intended to be the only friendship with a man I’ll ever have in my life. I’m not out scoping for a new guy best friend, far from it, but I think Clay would be cool if somewhere along the way I connected with a guy and every once in awhile we’d stop in the hallway at church to have a conversation. In fact, Clay has always been the type of guy who relates well with girls, long before I met him. And reality is, I’m not The Perfect Girl. I’m perfect to be his wife and his companion in life, but I don’t fill his needs for friendship in all areas of his life, and I’m ok with that, I don’t think I was ever meant to.
And now…. I’m done. Wow, I wrote way too much on this and now it’s late and I’m tired. So, no clever conclusion paragraph. Just….