Living as Brothers and SistersBy Trillia Newbell | July 8th, 2012 | Category: Uncategorized | Comments Off on Living as Brothers and Sisters
Maybe it’s because I grew up with three brothers and was the one girl who ran off to play soccer with the boys at recess. Or maybe it’s because my bent toward theology and philosophy place me regularly in conversation with men in those male-dominated fields. But whatever the reason, I have often found myself in situations that challenge conservative notions about how men and women should interact. After Sunday worship, instead of talking to my girlfriends, I’m the one who approaches the senior pastor, with a baby on one hip and a preschooler in tow, to find out precisely what he meant in Point 2 about the nature of the atonement.
I have also regularly felt the awkwardness that comes from existing outside the norm. In the past, it was the changes that happened to my friendships throughout high school and college; and today it’s the subtle discomfort that I occasionally read from a man while discussing a point of shared interest. And I wonder, “Have I done something wrong? Have I crossed an invisible gender line?”
Still I have also been in situations where it became apparent all too quickly why many of us default to maintaining distance between the sexes. I’ve seen enough marriages devastated by affairs and had more than my share of late-night, long-distance calls from grieving friends not to take the danger seriously.
So over the years, it’s been important to me to figure out how to maintain appropriate boundaries without at the same time becoming so stilted that there is effectively no relationship at all. I’ve discovered that it is not so much about finding a balance as it is developing a higher ethic to guide those relationships. It’s not about simply avoiding certain situations; it’s about actively cultivating a mindset that supports healthy Kingdom relationships—a mindset that frees us to be vulnerable as brothers and sisters at the same time that it protects us from our tendency toward sexual sin.[i]
- Think in terms of family. When Paul was advising Timothy on relationships, he told him to engage older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women “as sisters, in all purity.” (I Timothy 5:1-2) One way to fight sexual temptation in close quarters is to change how you think about the other person. You check that stray thought not by willing it from your mind but by reframing it in context of family, by reminding yourself that you share a Father. The safety in this is that true familial closeness—the love that exists between brothers and sisters–does not lead to sexually exploiting one another but instead generates a loving protectiveness of each other.
- Focus on common goals. Friendships are the result of shared interests and experiences; as C.S. Lewis so famously put it, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Sexual and emotional affairs, on the other hand, are rooted in selfish goals and personal desire. We engage in them because we think that they will provide something that we are missing, some personal need, some personal satisfaction. When we actively focus on the common good—like the work of the Kingdom instead of our own issues–we make good headway toward keeping a relationship from becoming something that it shouldn’t.
- Accept the reality that you may will at some point be attracted to someone other than your spouse. I once had a friend (he was not a believer) who was struggling to decide whether to marry his current girlfriend. His tension wasn’t that he didn’t love her or even that he didn’t have good reason to marry her (they had a child together); instead his ambiguity stemmed from feelings he held for former girlfriends. In his mind, if he truly loved his current partner, he shouldn’t be experiencing those other attractions. But the truth is that marriage or “finding the one” doesn’t remove the potential to be attracted to other people. In some cases, after a hard week of laundry, doctors’ appointments, and mortgage payments, it can actually increase it! When you understand this about yourself, when you understand that there will be times that you will be attracted to your friends, you are better prepared to recognize the warning signs and successfully navigate the storm.
- Make sure your close friends are wise people. Proverbs is full of interpersonal advice, but interestingly enough, when it comes to relationships between men and women, the wisdom is not to avoid interaction but to avoid interaction with the wrong kinds of men and women. In fact, one of the overarching themes is learning to distinguish between foolish and wise people, regardless of gender; in this sense, a foolish man could be just as potentially dangerous to another man as the Proverbs 7 woman! Remember too that the husband of the Proverbs 31 woman trusted her not because he knew she would never have an opportunity to interact with other men, but because she was a wise woman and as such, knew how to relate wisely to the men around her.
- If you are married, pursue union with your husband. Healthy marriages are those that are lived together, lives intertwining to become one. In such a context, it’s almost unthinkable that a relationship with someone else could develop without his knowledge unless you actively hid it. Once when I was teaching adult ESL, I had a cheeky male student that was surprised to discover that my husband and I shared an email account. His response was “Wow! Then, you’d never be able to have…what you call it…an affair.” And while I’m not advocating that every couple have only shared accounts, it does underscore the point: developing union with your husband will by definition draw him into your other relationships and provide accountability, as well as insight, if a particular friendship seems to be heading in the wrong direction.
- Love your friend. No, I mean really love your friend. Love him enough to never do anything that would harm him, including allowing your attraction to grow into something that will destroy you both. Some of the greatest love stories (think Casablanca) are based not on a man’s pursuit of the woman he is attracted to, but on his willingness to let her go. Rick’s love for Ilsa reached its strongest point when he placed her best interests ahead of his own and put her on a flight out of Morocco… with her husband. As women whose faith is grounded in the commands to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves, this agape should be our first response when temptation comes.
- Love God. While perhaps assumed, our relationship with God Himself is often the element most missing in our relationships with each other. It’s hard for us to live consistently at the cross-section of the vertical and horizontal, but the truth is that the very best way to ensure that you will love your neighbor is to love God. It is also the very best way to ensure that you will escape sexual temptation. This is precisely what motivated Joseph to flee and what was missing when David succumbed.
In the end, the irony of friendship is that we are, by definition, drawn toward each other by shared experiences, mutual tastes, and common goals. This is precisely what makes godly friendships between men and women so valuable and so productive. But this is also what makes them so difficult. The resolution comes by learning to view each other, not first and foremost as objects of desire, but as co-heirs in the Kingdom of God. And it comes by remembering that these relationships–the relationships between Marys and Peters and Pauls and Lydias—are precisely what God is using to bring His Gospel to the world.
[i] We must also recognize that these principles must be large enough to include not only relationships between men and women but any potentially sexually-charged relationship. If we’ve learned anything from the culture wars, it’s that we must not assume that all of us struggle in the same way. For some of us, the advice to simply “never be alone with a member of the opposite sex” isn’t helpful at all.