Dating, God and Gospel Obedience

This morning, I encountered a couple of articles discussing recent apologies by Joshua Harris, the famous (or infamous, depending on your circles) author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye. I grew up in the fervor of that book and the larger purity/abstinence movement that rose alongside it, and I thought I'd offer a few reflections I've had over the years about that world.

There was something good about what that book and the larger movement it spawned was trying to do. In the biblical view of sex and sexuality, marriage is the relationship within which the power of sex is meant to be expressed in a way that is beautiful and non-destructive. Some of those celebrating Harris's apology are people who don't like that idea. They are taking this as a victory for polyamory and the pleasure-without-price view of sex dominant in our world. Those people are probably not going to be satisfied by Harris, who is still committed to the biblical view.

That said, I also think the book (and the movement as a whole) had serious problems.

On one level, my issues with the approach of IKDG are simply practical. It's basic argument is that dating encourages intimacy without commitment, and so the solution we need is something much more rigorous (what Harris labels "courtship"). While I suppose there are places like hook-up bars where this is sort of true, most of the dating relationships I saw as a young person were actually the opposite. They grew immensely committed very quickly, people spending every waking minute together and living in what amounted to informal marriages. I became convinced back in college that this was why so many evangelical kids in these relationships ended up having sex - not because they had too low a view of dating, but too high a view. It was indistinguishable from marriage. Incidentally, this is also why many of the couples I've known who did court still ended up sleeping together before marriage, even within that structure. Their relationships also had all the commitment and claims of ownership that came with marriage. In both cases it was little wonder that the sex tended to follow.

So on that level, I just give different advice when I talk to teens and twenty-somethings about dating. I encourage them to give each other huge amounts of freedom, to keep their dating relationships to a healthy segment of their lives rather than consuming everything, to keeping it casual, and to worry less about "having a boy/girlfriend" (a label which comes loaded with demands) and instead to have enjoyable interactions where they could get to know people. And then, when it became clear they wanted to commit to a person in that way, to get married.

Connected to this practical concern is a perfectionism about marriage the IKDG movement fed into. Tim Keller, in The Meaning of Marriage, argues persuasively that for many young people, religious and secular, the reason they postpone marriage isn't that they view it too lowly but too highly, waiting to be absolutely sure they had found the perfect person before considering it. In many ways the Christian abstinence movement aided this, except in it the decisions had to be made without even going on dates. This demanded a certainty about marriage without a context in which to gain that certainty, and regardless grounded that certainty on an impossible standard. While there are some basic questions that need to be answered before you marry someone, the reality is that you both are way more messed up and awful than you even realize, and that the commitment of marriage is about working through that rather than avoiding it.

All of those practical issues aside, however, I also think there was something deeper going on in the tone of the book and the movement that has far broader implications as well.

On the one hand, what is offered to people as the prize of abstinence is a wish-dream. There is a romance about marriage, people staring wide-eyed at each other and being swooningly in love forever, that is implicitly promised in the stories it tells. It isn't perhaps said outright, but they all hint that if you follow the courtship method, your marriage will be saccharine and sorrow-free.

There are no marriages in the world that are actually like that. I love my wife dearly, and she is a huge blessing, but here's the truth every married person knows deep down. You don't always get along - you bicker and fight and are selfish and petty. You aren't always attracted to each other - nobody wants to make out in the morning with the bad breath, and nobody looks hot while brushing their teeth sitting on the toilet. You will sin, and sometimes sin in big ways. You will have moments where you actually feel like you hate the person you're married to, where you struggle not to imagine what life might have been like without them. You don't only have those time - there are lots of beautiful and sweet ones too - but marriage is something that exists between sinners, and will always be colored by their sin.

Painting it as anything else is enormously destructive. It is the relational equivalent of the prosperity gospel so many evangelicals decry - telling us that, if we'll just do these things, God will make life easy and happy. It's not what Scripture promises, and I have seen marriages fail because they were entered into with unrealistic expectations.

On the other hand, these books also rely on an immense amount of shame to motivate obedience to their methods. Harris imagines giving little pieces of your heart away in each of your relationships, as if dating itself (never mind failing sexually) somehow makes you less of a human being. He imagines having to tell his future wife about all his past mistakes, and how much it would hurt her. The shaming got even worse in the movement he inspired, especially towards women - picturing those who weren't virgins as whores and asking how they could dare wear white on their wedding days.

This use of shame to motivate obedience is common. It is especially common when we deal with our children; we so desperately want them to do what is right that we will use any means we can think of to motivate it. But it is anti-Christian, has nothing to do with the gospel, and will leave them destroyed.

One of the consistent themes in Scripture is that there are two ways we can miss God. One is through disobedience and rebellion; the other is through obedience without deep relationship and deeper grace as its foundation. Jesus warns against being either the prodigal son or the bitter elder brother. Paul cautions against living as slaves as opposed to children of God. While we don't want to encourage disobedience, it is just as destructive to try to encourage obedience through the tools of slavery - the shackles of guilt and the scourge of shame. Perhaps more destructive - I know a lot of people who think that this cruel and merciless religion is Christianity, and who struggle to hear the gospel because of it. They bailed on a taskmaster God, and it is almost impossible to persuade them that this is not the God named Jesus.

Christianity calls us to obedience, but it calls us through grace and freedom. It is built on grace - on an acknowledgement that our sins are already forgiven in Christ and now have no power over us. There is now no condemnation for those who believe. And freedom - which in Scripture really means that the call to obedience should be an invitation into joy. We should call people to God's ways because they are good - not good in the fairy tale, impossible way we mentioned earlier, but good because they are noble aims worth pursuing that help us to flourish as best we can in a broken world.

Or, to put it another way, I think Harris's root failing was that he saw dating as dangerous and tried to create an extra-biblical structure within which it could be "safe." To do that he (and even more those who followed him) had to erect all kinds of walls and turrets and moats of duty and shame and fearful obligation. Not that they meant to, but they did. What resulted was intended to be a fortress around our purity - a praiseworthy goal. But what actually resulted was instead a prison within whose walls the freedom and flourishing of actual human relationship couldn't reach.

The gospel is all about breaking chains. That is a risky proposition, to be sure. It turns people loose in the world with the hope that the truth of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit are enough to foster true obedience. And because of this risk, we will at times fail. Some of us maybe won't be as pure as we would within the prison walls. But with the blood of Christ to cover our failures and the goodness of the Father to draw us homeward, we will actually be able to grow into creatures far more beautiful than anything shame and fear could ever form.