(*Update: This post had been unpublished while I worked to gain some perspective. I have done so. I am in a different place. I am republishing for purposes of honest continuity.)
This is an area in which we should exercise the most discernment, and yet, consistently for myself and others it seems to be the area where we practice discernment the least. We keep poor defenses against the enemy without and seemingly reserve no margin of safety from the supposed ally within.
An excellent Faithwalkers Seminar titled “All You Need is Love: The Simple Path to Marriage” planted some seeds that may only now four months later to be sprouting. They lured us in by promising us a methodology that counters the last 25 years of Christian dogma on dating and relationships. Something different, and something far less complex, onerous, and dictatorial. A breath of fresh air maybe, right?
Here’s the seminar description:
Thousands of books, seminars, and counseling sessions have been spent on trying to figure out exactly what you need to get married. I think the path to marriage is a lot simpler than it is often made out to be. Of course simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy, but let’s get together and talk through the Biblical principles of love that provide a simple path to marriage.
Pastor Paul Johnson opened the seminar [LISTEN] by handing us a 20 item list of all the great chestnuts of rules and advice that we’ve all been told by youth leaders, pastors, and our Christian mentors about seeking relationship. They asked us to classify each one as either 1) a command, 2) a principle, or 3) a preference. I’ll list them here; a whole list of externally imposed [musts/shoulds].
- You must get counsel before pursuing a relationship
- Physical attraction should not factor into your interest in another person
- Only marry a Christian
- Don’t date until you’re ready to get married
- Don’t kiss until your wedding day
- Husbands must bring home the bacon
- Wives must stay home and take care of the kids
- You must be out of debt to get married
- You must be convinced that this is the person you’re going to marry if you want to date them
- You must be content to be single and not looking for a mate
- You must be sexually pure before marriage
- You must be a mature Christian before you get married
- You must be able to make and keep a budget before getting married
- You must “like” and evaluate a potential spouse for at least a year before talking to them about your feelings
- Men must pursue and women must wait
- You must be completely objective in your evaluation of a potential spouse
- Your life vision and direction needs to be identical for a potential relationship to work
- Men must talk to a woman’s father before asking her out on a date
- You must guard your heart from any attachment
- You must have convictions on birth control before dating
S’wha? I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that last one. Perhaps they made it up to round out an even twenty items.
Two I think? Yes, two. Two of those are biblical commands. All of the rest fall into the categories of good principles (one may read Proverbs for that), and preferences. We have all experienced those who give advice and instruction (whether solicited or not) with the attitude of you [should/must]. They tend to be rather legalistic about it and they suffer no discussion or disagreement. Questions are shamed to silence by being called sinful. Unwillingness to let go of something is responded to with accusations that the something has become an idol. Principle becomes Command and well, Preference too in most cases.
An longstanding irritant to me has been the careless and thoughtless use of the admonition “Guard your heart?” or the challenge, “Are you guarding your heart?”. A helpful phrase turned mantra instead does harm. I sometimes have the hyperbolic image in my mind of a married youth pastor telling a young man on his first and ill-considered foray into love to “Guard your heart.” who, even though the young man has matured and has his eyes set on finding a Godly companion for the road of life, is thoughtlessly chastised each successive time to “Guard his heart.” Played out to the ridiculous end, the scenario changes venue to a nursing home where the no longer young man, bachelor his entire life, shows interest in a widow on the same ward, only to be told by sign language to up the volume on his hearing aid by his curmudgeon of a youth pastor so that he may hear his youth pastor’s admonishment to “Guard Your Heart.”
The seminar leader pointed out that the bible gives us a word for people like that who do those types of things: Pharisees. As bad as these outward Pharisees are, they often pale in comparison to the Pharisee many of us keep inside of ourselves.
I know that in my own life I impose ridiculous, sometimes impossible ‘shoulds’ on myself. My arrogant Pharisee also then decides for others that since I fail those standards others must be protected from me for their own good. They really must be allowed no say in the matter.
So how do we guard against the outward and inward Pharisee? I’m only the rudest novice in this new discipline, and as such, I only have a list of things I am testing out for possible inclusion in a personal how-to list.
- First determine if the source is external or internal.
- Question. Do not blindly accept.
- Respect leadership, but do not assume that they infallibly lead in all things.
- Pray. For guidance and wisdom. Pray for confirmation or invalidation.
- Test all against scripture.
- Avoid extremes. Seek to grow towards the ideals of paradigms, but never to achieve them entirely.
- Be on the lookout for statements made in the absolute.
- Be on guard against generalizations too vast in scope.
- Be highly self-skeptical of anything motivated and crafted internally; most especially if much internal thought and debate over a long period of time has led to unorthodox conclusions.
- Be wary of emotional states that lead to self-imposed ‘shoulds’.
- The more I am certain, the more uncertain I should probably be.
- Does a conclusion eliminate hope, condemn holy desire, or affirm helplessnes? If so, it’s doubtful it’s from God.
- Be alert to the reactions of others when I share my thinking and conclusions… if they start looking at me funny, I should weigh carefully all responses and not assume I’m right.
- If it’s a personal ‘should’ that I’d never suggest others adopt, Be afwaid. Be vewy afwaid! Is my double-standard born of arrogant pride and contempt for another’s ‘low standard’? Am I holding myself to an unreasonable impossible standard that greatly differs from the one I measure against others.
- Be willing to learn from someone less knowledgeable than myself.
- If I’m reluctant to solicit the opinions of others or to seek guidance then it’s an especially good time to take Elmer Fudd’s advice to heart. The greater the reluctance, the greater the likelihood that I NEED an external gut-check.
- Stop unilaterally deciding things for others. Stop stealing from them the right to make up their own mind, to take their own risks, to explore a possibility that excites or intrigues them! Acknowledge and respect their wisdom and honor their right to test and weigh and decide for themselves. Do not hold contempt if they reach conclusions dissimilar to mine. They may well be the wiser and have a better understanding. Be willing to let them make mistakes … This is perhaps one of the things for which my friends gave me greatest grace and patience, because I kept making these unilateral decisions and conclusions that I must not, or am supposed to not ever seek a new beloved for the rest of my days. This was the time period where my excellent Christian counselor Bradly Roark told me that “Perhaps you need to let someone who is less knowledgeable than you teach you about love.” I thought it profound at the time, but as usual, I failed to really grok his full meaning. That came with the fullness of time and more hard lessons. Far more profound than I originally kenned, and far far far more humbling. Learning that I can be a very well-educated idiot has been so very freeing.
- If I am self-denying myself some potential blessing due to some self-imposed rule or standard I can never achieve, and if it’s a standard or denial God might not be willing to back me up on and hasn’t been explicit about in scripture, I must remind myself that God is a loving non-dictatorial parent who loves our free-will, who gave us the bible not as a rulebook, but as a fence around a lush green pasture, keeping us in the good, and away from the bad.
- Do not take the bit in my mouth and run. Do not wear blinders. Do not stick fingers in my ears and yell out obscuring noise like a bratty child.
- Sunscreen good. No sunscreen bad. Rest of advice based on years of Jedi teaching experience, yes?
- I did mention ‘pray’, yes?
Over several years, and under the guidance of Chaplain and beloved friend Bart Larson, with some reinforcement from my pastor at church, I have tried in my communication to replace “you statements” with “I statements” and most importantly the “you should statements.” Likewise I have been trying not to use hyperbole like “always” and “never”. I’ve tried to put in check a tendency when excited to carelessly use superlatives, sweeping generalizations, and exaggeration. Needlessly to say, despite trying a million times, I always always fail and never ever succeed in efforts not to use the very most egregious exaggerations and worst hyperbole. Actually, it’s a process and I’ve made so much wonderful progress down that road. I still slip from time to time, or forget and grow careless. Success has been very rewarding as it has allowed friendships to go deeper and prevented much offence that leads to argument. I’m grateful to both of these men