[These are notes for a talk I gave at the 2019 Post College Life Conference. The audio for this talk can be found here.]
In some ways this talk and my talk this afternoon about singles in the church are two sides of the same coin. Please consider this talk and the next talk as going together. Apply what I say in this talk to that one and vice versa.
By Grace Through Faith
We are Christians, and so we want to think and act like Christians in every area of life. This includes how we think about, plan, and execute our dealings with members of the opposite sex. But it’s one thing to say we ought to do this, and another thing entirely to actually do it. Another way to say this is that you want all of your relationships to be by grace through faith. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:8-10).
Some of the good works that God has prepared beforehand include activities, friendships, Bible studies, worship, dates, courtships, and marriage to a member of the opposite sex. But the only way your relationships will be part of that work of art – created in Christ Jesus – is if they are pursued by grace through faith, which means completely surrendered to Christ. All of our problems are caused by ignoring Christ entirely or else beginning with Christ and then adding our own wisdom/works to the equation at some point. Paul recognized this temptation with the Galatians: “If you have begun by the Spirit, will you now be made perfect by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3)?
Crucify the Flesh (Hate Impurity)
Your own wisdom/works apart from walking by grace through faith will inevitably be full of your flesh. The word flesh doesn’t necessarily mean “physical body” or “sexual” (although it can), but rather it refers to the principles of the Fall that remain in believers (mind, body, and spirit). Before getting to some of the practical particulars about navigating life between the sexes, we need to understand how high the stakes are. We live in a culture that is deeply divided, and the divide is widening by the day, between those who are loyal to the world as God actually made it and is redeeming it and those who want to re-make the world according to their own whims and lusts. While for many decades this war has been waged under the guise of “freedom” from “harsh fundamentalisms” of various stripes, the fact that this war is simply against God, marriage, the family, children, and Christian liberty is becoming clearer and clearer by the minute (e.g. “bake the cake, bigot!”). So if you want in on this fight, you need to understand that it runs right down the middle of every human heart: “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those those thing which are above, where Christ is, siting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth… Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry…” (Col. 3:1-2, 5). So confess your sins, get forgiveness, confront sin where necessary, and let love cover lots of the bumps and bruises.
The practical suggestions and recommendations that follow will only help if you understand these first two principles. The practical suggestions are like a steering wheel and pedals in a car, but if you don’t have the engine of the Spirit under the hood, you will not make it very far.
Walk Like a Ninja: Some Generalizations & Cautions
- Boys and girls are different. But the bible clearly teaches that God made man in His image, male and female. So, despite the title of my talk, we are not actually from different planets, even if it seems that way. We may be from different countries and speak somewhat different dialects, but we are made in the same image. This is our ground for deep reverence for one another. Add to this, the fact that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. This is our ground for deep compassion for another. We have a common problem called sin and death. And finally, we have a common Savior, a common forgiveness, the same Spirit is given to all who trust in Jesus, and we have been made joint-heirs of eternal glory. This is our ground for hope.
- But boys and girls are different. God made women to be attractive, and He made men to notice. Adam said that Eve was “flesh of my flesh, bone of my bones,” and Paul makes it explicit that woman is the glory of man (1 Cor. 11:7). God made women beautiful. This is their glory. God made men strong. This is their glory. And it is not a sin to notice this and give thanks to God for this. But sin warps everything, including this. Men sinfully desire. And women sinfully desire to be desired. And these (sinful and godly) desires and our attempts to master them infiltrate all our dealings. When Paul warned Timothy, he urged him to treat “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, with all purity” (1 Tim. 5:2). And the related command to women is found earlier in the letter: “that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing, but which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works” (1 Tim. 2:9-10). Of course the same commands apply to the other sex as well, but the fact that we need to say that out loud reveals how far we’ve come.
- Paul instructs wives to respect their husbands and husbands to love their wives (Eph. 5), and this is not because wives do not need to love their husbands or that husbands do not need to respect their wives. But it’s because men naturally communicate in terms of respect, and women naturally communicate in terms of love. This is fine and good as far as it goes, but it can make for miscommunication and misunderstanding, even outside of marriage. A man showing a woman respect may be mistaken as showing romantic interest. If he says you have a good throwing arm, he may simply mean that he thinks you have a good throwing arm. A woman showing a man friendship/care may also be mistaken for showing romantic interest when all that was meant was an act of kindness. Add to this the tendency that men have to be mission oriented and for women to be relationship oriented. Lewis says that men tend to be friends side by side working on a project together, while women tend to be friends face to face. Men tend to assume everything is fine (unless it obviously isn’t), and women tend to assume something is wrong if there hasn’t been regular affirmation. All of this is reason to keep opposite sex friendships warm but distant. You can’t be “just friends.” So don’t waste a bunch of time overthinking it.
- Choose your friends very carefully (Prov. 12:26). Let your closest friends be blood relatives or wiser, older members of the same sex (parents, older brothers, sisters). And make sure your closest friends are people who are willing to wound you in love (Prov. 27:6, 17). Remember Psalm 1 and choose those you walk, stand, and sit with wisely. It may be that there is a progression of intimacy there, but this may also merely be a poetic way of describing different human scenarios, all significant and important: work, play, friendships, etc. Related to this is the fifth commandment.
- Guard your hearts. And I mean this in at least two directions. First, be honest with yourself about your intentions and emotions. Don’t lie to yourself, God, or your friends about anything. And this is why you need good friends who would ask you straight whiskey questions about what you’re doing and why. Second, do not let your imaginations run wild. Lust takes different forms, but it’s all covetous and full of lies.
- Don’t sleep with someone emotionally if you’re not allowed to go to bed with them physically. But connect the dots here: don’t act like a couple if you aren’t, or don’t intend to become a couple. This includes things like being team leaders for something, organizing regular outings together with friends, leading a Bible study together, going places together alone regularly (“we’re just carpooling”). God designed the world with a certain kind of gravity, a current that is pulling in a particular direction. Even when everyone is being good and pure, that current is pulling you. And your emotions/bodies are designed by God (and complicated by the Fall) to go somewhere. Unless you are a eunuch, you cannot become close emotionally and have no challenges. And the challenges may not always be sexual. Sometimes people have difficulty getting along or keep running into weird communication snarls for the same reason: you weren’t designed to be this close.
- Related: Be very careful professionally. Egalitarianism has swept through our culture such that we don’t even know when we’re in danger anymore. Don’t do anything alone with a member of the opposite sex where there are not lots of windows and witnesses. This is for everyone’s protection. If you are a real estate agent, do not take a woman alone into a house. If you are a plumber, do not work on someone’s house alone if it is only you and a woman alone together in the house. Do not work late at the office or go on business trips alone with a member of the opposite sex. Get an assistant. Invite someone else on to your team. Or get reassigned.
Keep the gospel central. You were created in Christ Jesus for good works. That’s where you want to be, and that means walking by grace through faith in obedience to Jesus. It means surrendering everything to Him. On the one hand this means being biblically wise in all your dealings, and on the other hand, this means giving it all to the Lord and not overthinking it. You do what you can do to be wise and holy, and then have fun and refuse to be boxed in by the fear of man or the future or man-made expectations.