396. God is kind of an asshole (part 1)

[PREFACE]

Yeah, I haven’t been writing in a while. Life has been… overfull with stuffs. I hope to get to the last installment of the Language is Fuzzy series soon, but there’s something more pressing on my mind right now.

[END PREFACE]
Sam3_3

Photo by: Herbalizer Art by: SAM3

 
My girlfriend and I broke up recently and due to some of the circumstances surrounding that breakup, I’ve been feeling something pretty heavy lately. Put bluntly, I feel like God is kind of an asshole.

But let me backtrack a bit to give that statement some context.

There are many things I learned from my most recent romantic relationship and one of them is this: you can speak about the truth of your own experience even when you know that your truth is not the other’s truth.

For example, my ex has lived through some pretty shitty life experiences and because of this, sometimes she could be really critical of me (often for good cause). Now our relationship was one where we always tried our best to talk everything out, and I mean everything. And so when she would be critical of me, we’d talk about the criticism as well as what might be going on behind the criticism (sometimes an artifact of earlier life experiences).

I’ve written before about how much of my life has been one where I’ve focused solely on the needs of other people. That tendency is still with me (thankfully, to a lesser degree) and so in these times when my ex and I would talk about some issue she had with me, it was really easy for me to just focus on her side. It was much harder to talk about how I was experiencing the issue.

Sam3_2

Photo by: txmx 2 Art by: SAM3

 
Internally, I’d think: “well, yeah, what she’s saying about me does sting a bit, but I know that it actually comes out of this or that experience from her past, and so I should just focus on her and keep my hurt feelings to myself.”1 And one of the cool things about our relationship was that she didn’t want me to do that – she wanted me to express myself and what I was going through, even when they didn’t line up with where she was at.

And that brings me back to feeling like God is kind of an asshole.

Why? Because…

And I feel like God is kind of an asshole because all these things turned out to be utterly untrue. Even worse, these untruths played a role in my ex and I breaking up because even though I’ve rejected those teachings a long time ago, their residue is still with me.

Now at this point, I’m tempted to say, “well it was the church that taught me those things, so I should blame the church, not God.”

Yeah, maybe, but it was God’s church and God’s people who taught me, and that suggests that God didn’t care enough about me to intervene. And if that’s the case then yeah, I think I’m totally justified in feeling like God is an asshole.2

Sam3_1

Photo by: Herbalizer Art by: SAM3

 
But here’s the thing.

The relationship between my ex and I was often at its best when I was able to stay true to myself and say the difficult, honest thing to her. This was really hard to do (again, partly because of what God’s church had taught me) and even though I did my best to pay attention to myself, and she did her best to help, the times when I was able to do this well were too few and far between. And that took a toll on our relationship because when I wasn’t able to connect with and/or express what I was feeling, that would leave her feeling alone.

Robust, loving relationships only happen when and where the people in relationship are able to bring the fullness of themselves to the other, including what feels true to them when they know it may not represent the whole truth of the matter at hand. That’s what it means to show up in a relationship and that’s what ultimately leads to good, healthy, strong, mutually loving interactions.

And so I want to believe that my relationship with God only gets better when I’m able to pay attention to my feelings about God and express them in a way that is raw and real.

And right now, I want to say that I feel like God is an impotent, worthless asshole.

And I’m betting that in hearing me say that, God is overjoyed and thinking, “YES! Randall is finally showing up!”

And God is ecstatic because that’s the only place where true relationship happens.

And that’s ultimately what God wants from and for me, and from and for us all.

Sam3_4

Photo by: SantiMB Art by: SAM3

[POSTSCRIPT]

Stay tuned for part 2!

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Thanks for reading!


1 Often, this dismissal of myself was transparent to me – I didn’t even realize I was doing that.

2 I’ve actually moved to a process theology view of God and so I believe that while God did care deeply about me, God actually couldn’t intervene even if God wanted to. But I’m trying to focus on myself and my experiences/feelings in this post so please pardon the theological shorthand. 🙂

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386. damage and desire (part five) unlearning false church narratives

In my twenties, I attended some really conservative churches. I’ve written a number of times about how their teaching have been tremendously unhelpful in a number of different ways. And it seems like every time I identify a new kind of harm that was sown into my life and begin to work through it, I find another deeper layer of hurt.

A lot of this harm was based on what I’m going to call false church narratives.

ManuscriptDecay

Photo by: Jano De Cesare

 
The first narrative told me that if I saved myself for marriage (denied my sexual desires, and avoided dating) then God would miraculously bring the perfect woman into my life. Just like that.

The second narrative was based primarily on Luke 9:23-25, and this one taught me that the life of a good, faithful Christian is one where I deny not just my sexual desires but all my desires. In this narrative, the goal of the Christian life is to deny my wants and needs for the sake of saving non-Christians. Then (according to Luke 9:24), the more I denied myself, the more God would bless and fill me to make up for all that I had given up.

Now combine the first (sexuality denying) narrative with the second (wholly self-denying) one and you wind up with a narrative that says a romantic relationship is one where each person denies themselves for the sake of the other. This third narrative said that if I denied myself and gave 110% of my attention to the needs of the other person then that other person would deny themself and give me 110% of their attention… and then somehow that was supposed to make for a beautiful relationship.

I’ve actually known for a while now that narratives like these are bunk. Unfortunately, it turns out that unlearning something false isn’t as simple as deciding that the old ideas are wrong. For me, even though I’ve been trying to do and think differently by taking my own needs/wants/desires into consideration, it turns out those old self-denial teachings go far deeper than I thought.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been seeing someone. It’s been just over three months now and for the most part it’s been pretty freaking amazing. One of the really great things about our relationship is that we both check in with one another on a regular basis – we ask each other how they’re feeling about life in general and about the relationship. And we’re both brutally (yet kindly) honest with each other. And here’s where the toxic nature of those old narratives really comes into play.

PageBurn

Photo by: Thomas Guignard

 
Sometimes she asks me how I’m doing and if there’s anything she can do for me or if there’s anything I’m wanting/needing from her. And when she asks me this, sometimes (far too often) I don’t have an answer.

I pause for a moment, look inward, and try to identify an issue/need/desire/want and there’s nothing there.

Now let me be clear here. Sometimes I’m just content with life. Sometimes I’m just happy to be there with her and so I don’t have any needs to communicate. But sometimes… sometimes I’m unsettled because I can sense that there is some kind of vague concern that I have but just can’t connect with… but that’s not it either.

It’s hard to explain.

See, sometimes, she asks me what I want and when I stop to think about it, there’s just nothing there. It’s like I don’t know how to want, how to need, how to desire anything for myself and so I don’t know how to answer her.

Because there is no answer.

And so I say, “I don’t know.”

Now here’s how wonderful she is. Sometimes she’ll take “I don’t know” at face value but sometimes she pauses and insists on an answer because she knows how the church has damaged me and wants more for/from me. She cares and so she wants me to reconnect with myself and my desires. And when I can’t, it sucks for me and it sucks for her. And sometimes she gets frustrated or I get frustrated. Or sometimes we just end up sad because here she is wanting more from me – wanting me – and there’s nothing there.

And all this because all those years ago, I did such a good job of being a faithful, self-denying Christian.

I wish I could put a nice ending on this post, but the best i can say is that as hard as it’s been to unlearn old shitty narratives, it is kind of cool (though not easy) to be able to write new ones. And I’ve got a sensational writing partner (re)writing with me.

BookBurn

Photo by: Michael Shaheen

381. an unexpected (lenten) journey

Alternate title for this post: Bob redux (part 3)
Part 1
Part 2

[PREFACE]

I’ve been in a writing frenzy these past few weeks.

That little crying spell did quite a number on me – a lot broke open within me, a lot of really old, hidden longing and discontent and anger.

But in a strangely ironic way, all this outpouring of angst and bile was prompted by an initial glimmer of hope – a hope that I want to remind myself of.

And that’s the topic of this (likely last) installment of the posts about Bob.

[END PREFACE]

A few weeks ago, I posted this tweet:

tweet

Honestly, I put it up as kind of a joke. I didn’t actually mean it at the time.

And then I thought about it. And then I realized that it was actually kind of a good idea. And then something really unexpected happened.

The (emotional) shit started to hit the fan.

Again, some backstory is needed here to give you some context.

For just about all of my adult life, I’ve had terrible self esteem issues when it came to dating and relationships. Back in this very early post I described myself as someone who

accepted the thought that for whatever reason, I was chronically unappealing to women. I thought that perhaps because of some genetic defect, instead of releasing come-hither pheromones when attracted to a female, my body released a subtle, toxic go-yonder scent that made it impossible to hold the attention of anyone I was remotely attracted to.

There’s low self esteem, and then there’s self loathing. I used to have a really bad case of the latter. Let me share a brief story to illustrate how deep this loathing went.

Photo by: Adam Foster

Photo by: Adam Foster

 
Back in 2007, I had just moved to Seattle and was just starting to attend Quest Church. And that’s when I started to notice someone I came to call Quest Girl. She was smart, pretty, funny, fun – in short, she put the rush in crush (LOL). When I joined up with one of the church’s Bible studies, I ended up going to the same one she did (not entirely coincidentally).

Like most Bible studies, after the formal study portion is done, people hang around to mingle and catch up with friends. So a few months after joining this group, during one of these social times, Quest Girl walked across the room to where I was and started small talking. To me.

This was the first real conversation I had with her, so it was all really surfacy, chit chatty conversation. But you know how in small talk there are these pauses where two people normally break off the conversation and move on to talk to other people? There were a bunch of those pauses between Quest Girl and I, but here’s the thing. She didn’t move on. Each time one of these awkward lulls in our talk would crop up, she’d just stand there – sometimes looking at me, sometimes down at the cup in her hand. But she’d stand there until she or I (it was usually her) would find some other politely bland topic to chat about. And then there’d be another pause. And she’d stay standing there. And then we’d talk about something else.

It was painfully obvious (even to someone as utterly clueless when it comes to signs of attraction as I) that she was waiting for me to do something – something like asking her out for dinner or drinks or coffee/tea or walking her out to her car or asking for her number – something, anything!

But I just stood there like a fish, opening and closing my mouth as empty, insipid bubbles floated out.

Photo by: Luca Cerabona

Photo by: Luca Cerabona

 
My problem? On the inside, my brain was melting down. It was a train wreck up there. In addition to the “hurricane of terror screaming at me to bolt for the door” that I talked about in this post, there was something else in play, utterly frying my synapses.

Looking back on that time now, I believe I was suffering from an extreme case of cognitive dissonance – a condition where a brain tries to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. It’s like this. When you try to hold two magnets together with the same poles facing one another, the poles repel and it’s impossible to get them to touch. The stronger the magnets, the stronger the repellant force. While Quest Girl was standing in front of me, almost pleading for me to ask her out, my brain was struggling to bring together two opposite and opposing ideas:

Women I’m attracted to never find me attractive or want to go out with me.
I’m attracted to Quest Girl and she’s wanting to go out with me.

 
As hard as it tried, my brain could not hold these two ideas together but it also couldn’t let either of them go. And so in the midst of that struggle, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t able to string together these seven simple words: “would you like to go out sometime?”

Can you see how strong my doubt about my desirability was? It was so powerful that even when this woman that I had been crushing on for weeks was standing right there in front of me, signaling in no uncertain terms that she wanted me to ask her out, I still couldn’t overcome the belief that I was unwanted, unattractive, undesirable.

That, my friends, is what a shit ton of self loathing can do to a man.

PostSecret

Image from PostSecret

 
That was six years ago. Many things in my life have changed since then. I’ve worked through copious amounts of bad theology and shallow church teaching. Years of counseling have helped me work through a number of unhealthy self-denial patterns and relational issues. But this fear and loathing attached to asking women out goes WAY back – even before the church heaped guilt and shame on top of things. I’ve simply had really shitty luck when it comes to women, a trend going all the way back to high school. (In particular, one short-lived relationship that turned out especially awful early in college left me acutely cynical about me and my self worth.)

The law of averages have not been kind to me when it comes to dating.

And so, to return to the tweet that I started this post with – “This year for lent, I’m going to give up singleness.”

That tweet was a direct result of finishing a post where I was able to identify why it was that in the past few years, I was always abandoning relationships with women just as the relationship was getting good. That was quite a breakthrough for me and I was eager to get myself back out into the dating world to see if I could do different. I started to ask women out (yeah, plural). So I sent out the tweet in a kind of triumphal, celebratory pronouncement of my newfound dating bravado.

And then…

And then all those old fears and feelings of self-loathing started to creep up again. I found myself thinking very old, very cynical thoughts – thoughts like,

“yeah, maybe she said she’ll go out with you but that’s just a sympathy date. She’s gonna dump your fat, ugly, repugnant ass the first chance she gets. I mean, why the hell would anyone want to have a relationship with you? I’m telling you, that was just a sympathy “yes,” not a real one, so get over yourself.”

And if you can’t tell from the context, thoughts like that pop into my head right after getting off the phone with someone who just agreed to go out with me.

It happens that fast.

Photo by: Leeky-Boy

Photo by: Leeky-Boy

 
In the following days and weeks, as doubt and fear about dating again swelled within me like a mushroom cloud, I started sending out tweets like this:

I want to believe, but… (Mark 9:24)

and this

The problem with wrestling with hope is that it doesn’t put up much of a fight, even (maybe especially) when you need it to. #whereimat

But…

But then I started to see Quest pastors tweet things like

Lent is not meant for a 40 day challenge but a changed life. (Pastor Aaron)

and

When you give up something, replace it with something beautiful. Removing weeds without planting something…only produces more weeds later. (Pastor Eugene)

And then I went to Quest’s Ash Wednesday service where, upon the imposition of ashes, these words were spoken over me: “Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return.”

And all of these lenten affirmations made me realize that this season really is an opportunity for me to take this liturgical season and my tweet about giving up singleness with the utmost seriousness. I also realized that it wasn’t necessarily singleness that I was giving up for lent, it was the debilitating cynicism regarding my singleness that I needed to fast from. I could choose to silence (or ignore) the voices trying to convince me that I’m undesirable. I could choose, instead, to believe that I’m awesome – that I’m so money, I don’t even know it.


 
Pastor Aaron’s tweet reminded me that I could take up a new conception of life and Pastor Eugene’s tweet challenged me to replace my self-loathing with self-belief. And the Ash Wednesday liturgical phrase reminded me that “…it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.

This isn’t going to be an easy battle. These doubts around dating are old and entrenched. They’re reinforced by awful dating experiences and by bad church teachings. I’m not saying I’m going to emerge from this lenten season with a girlfriend, but I am saying that I am NOT going to let fear get in the way of trying. It’s me versus Clubber Lang and I’ve gotten my ass beat by him before, but that was then and this is the rematch.

Doubt is staring me down, saying, “I’m gonna bust you up.”

And I’m saying, “go for it.”

GoForIt

Who knows what this unexpected, unconventional lenten journey will bring. Worst case scenario, I go out on a bunch of dates with some really great women and none of these encounters blossom into a full blown relationship. In the mean time, I get to practice my swagga and gain some new confidence.

Best case scenario…

Well, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves.

380. Bob redux (part 2): the “blessings” of chastity

Photo by: fensterbme

Photo by: fensterbme

[PREFACE]

(Click here for part 1.)

Someone once asked the painter, Jackson Pollock how he knew when one of his paintings was done. He famously replied, “How do you know when you’re finished making love?”

Even though I was able to come to a fuller understanding of some things that had been troubling me in my previous post, I knew that there were aspects of Bob that I still needed to unpack.

To use Pollock’s metaphor, I sensed that I wasn’t done making love… to Bob.

And so I bring you…

[END PREFACE]

In my previous post about this metaphor I refer to as Bob, I was able to (finally) recognize it as “the piece of me that’s been screaming for love – God’s love as well as the love of others (more specifically, the longing for a woman to know and love, and to be known and loved by).”

But I also sensed something new – that in the years between encounters, Bob had also become about something more, something edgier, something much darker.

Luckily, this time around, it didn’t take me four years to understand what this new bit of Bob was about. This time, I knew exactly what this new bit represented.

In the past few years, I’ve written a bunch of posts about how damaging church teachings around sexuality have been in my life. But I think the scope of all that I’ve missed out on in life and love is only really hitting me now. And I’ve missed out on so very much. It makes me deeply remorseful. And it makes me furious.

Image by: Hugh D. Crawford

 

I wish I could find those former purity-centered teachers and ask them:

Did I do it right? Is this how things were supposed to turn out? I’m turning 41 soon and in all these years, I’ve been unable to sustain a relationship with a woman because of the fear and guilt and shame that you cultivated within me.

But I’m still a virgin so it’s all good right?

And that’s not the only thing I did correctly. I’ve also never gotten anyone pregnant. I’ve never had an STD. I’ve never “ruined” my “purity” by having sex outside of marriage.

If these are the blessings of chastity that you wanted for me, congratulations. Mission accomplished. Job well done.

But do you want to know what else I’ve never done? I’ve never held a woman’s hand in mine while walking down the sidewalk. I’ve never felt a woman’s lips pressed upon my own. I don’t know what it’s like to watch a movie with my arm wrapped around the shoulder of the woman next to me. I’ve never slow danced with a woman without being awkward and uptight. I’ve never gone out on more than a handful of dates before having to inexplicably flee from the relationship because of internalized shame.

I’ve. Never. Been. In. Love.

Are you happy now? Is this what you wanted? Are you proud of me? Are you proud of yourself? Did I do it right? Is this how things were supposed to be?

I’ve thought a lot about the problems purity culture has sown in my life, but in my recent crying fit, all the things I discovered about how toxic the church’s teachings have been in this area of my life moved from my head down into my heart and out to rest of my body. I felt the weight of all that I had lost, all that my life has missed out on – all of the missed opportunities for warmth, intimacy, and touch; all the beautiful, amazing women I hurt as I left them hanging, just as things were starting to get good; all the love that I never let in; all these potent, vital life experiences that I let slip by. It all hit me, all at once, in a gush of molten, bloody tears.

Photo by: Mazda Hewitt

Photo by: Mazda Hewitt

 

O, my God, my God. I have forsaken so much. I have wasted so many opportunities to love and be loved. I have sacrificed so much of my life on the altar of a false Purity idol.

And what have I received in return?

Self loathing.

See, all those relationships that I rejected? I didn’t know back then to blame the poor teachings of the church. If anything, those confusing experiences reinforced the idea that maybe the church was right – that relationships are dangerous and harmful and that I should just wait until God drops someone into my life like manna, magically falling from the sky. I didn’t blame the church and so I blamed myself. I would think, “well, that relationship didn’t work out. I must be doing something wrong – that’s what the church would tell me. Or maybe it’s me – maybe I’m just wrong.”

I thought my failure to find intimate, loving relationship was my fault. I thought either I sucked at relationships or I just plain sucked myself. I felt utterly undesirable. I had no confidence, and of course that’s unappealing, so in the few instances when I worked up the courage to ask someone out, it’s no wonder many of them said no. And then I’d feel even less desirable. Or in the even rarer cases where they said yes, we might go out for a couple dates but then my fear-and-shame trigger would go off and I’d flee. And when that would happen, I would blame myself. And then I’d feel even less desirable than before.

It was a pretty vicious cycle of despair.


“…and the book says we may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us!”

Indeed.

And I’m sorry (actually, I’m not) for this bitter, melancholy post, but this is not the end of Bob. Not yet.

There’s a dim ember of hope flickering deep beneath this near-infinite sadness and regret.

I’ll write more on this hope in a future post but for now, I leave you with these lines from The Smashing Pumpkins.

“On a distant shoreline, she waves her arms to me
As all the thought police, are closing in for sleep”

377. to all the girls I’ve shunned before

(Apologies to Julio Iglesias.)

So you know that line, “it’s not you, it’s me?” A lot of times, it’s used when one person wants to get out of a relationship but doesn’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings by putting any of the blame on them and so they blame themselves. More often than not, the person using this line wants out of the relationship because they’re just not digging something about the other person, but they don’t want to come right out and say it. So they put the blame on themselves.

In other words, they lie.

Now I’ve never used this line myself, but I probably should have. Because in my case, it was almost always true. I was breaking off the relationship not because of them, but because of me.

…but I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll get back to this point later in this post.

Something I’ve learned recently: relationships are what tether us to this world. Relationships are our interface between our embodied, internal world and the world that exists just outside the border of our skin. And love is this interface spread wide open.

I’ve written before about how I don’t really know/understand love and I’ve posited that the reason for this is because I’ve never let myself experience love – me loving or me being loved.

I used to think of myself as a kind of passive, porous subject in space, waiting for love to come to me, waiting for an external object to come along to which I could meld myself through love. I thought that love would just seep into me as in osmosis. I thought that love would flow out of me as in diffusion.

In other words, I used to think that love was a passive thing. But I’ve come to realize that this isn’t the case.

I’ve come to realize that love is an active process, not a passive one, both in the giving and the receiving.

More significantly, I’ve come to see that I have been actively protecting myself from both loving and from being loved… but mostly from being loved.

I’ve come to see that I’ve built myself a fortress. And that I am alone inside.
DistantFortress

Photo by: Trey Ratcliff

Now I could go on to list the numerous ways and reasons that I’ve done this to myself, but suffice it to say that growing up, I had many ways to hide my true self, and many reasons to paint a pretty picture on the walls that kept people from prying.

And let me talk about that wall for a moment. Know who taught me how to build that wall? Primarily, it was a really strict religious organization I used to attend.

I’ve written before about how their teachings really screwed up my ideas about dating and sexuality, but I’ve come to see that the damaging effects of their bad theology and pedagogy go far deeper than that.

See, here’s the thing.

In addition to the dating/sexuality thing, they taught a really strict, particularly moralistic version of Christianity. They taught a view of God where God was an all-seeing deity who was always looking for the tiniest ways that we fell short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). Of course the big things like entertaining lustful fantasy warranted God’s disgust and dismissal of us, but the same went for the little things – things like not reading the Bible everyday or not praying or swearing or listening to “bad” music or not listening to our Bible study leader (let’s call him Bill).

It’s as if God was on a hair-trigger pivot. Our job as Christians was to live in such a way that God would be pleased with us so we could keep God’s countenance turned towards us. We could only have a relationship with God when we lived righteously because that was the only time when God was pleased with us. But this hair-trigger God would immediately snap 180 degrees around any time we sinned in any way. And the back side of God radiated shame – shame that reminded us that we were weak and disgusting and not worthy of relationship with a glorious, holy God.

Our worth only came from God, but only when we lived in a way that didn’t repulse God.
The Facepalm of God

Our Bible study meetings were times when we were supposed to confess our sins, all the ways that we had let God down and fallen short of the standards set up for us. It was a really shitty, humiliating time. It was perverse, really. The people who shared the deepest, darkest secrets were, at first, lauded for their openness and honesty, but immediately after, they were lambasted with shame – the group’s and God’s.

People can only take so much humiliation, but Bill had bucket-loads to dish out. I couldn’t take it, and so I learned to hide (I learned to build walls). But confession was something that was expected of me, and so I learned presentation skills (I learned how to paint my walls). Now Bill was a skilled inquisitor – he could sniff out when we were hiding secret sins and he would go on hunting expeditions to root them out. And so I had to become better at hiding, and I learned that the best way to hide a big sin was to tuck it into a smaller sin, but to talk about that smaller sin as if it were the big one.

For example, let’s say in the week before one of these confession times, I had struggled with lust (interpret that in whatever way you choose). That was a HUGE sin that would have reaped boatloads of shame and I sure as hell didn’t want that. And so before the meeting I’d scramble to come up with something else I could share (because everybody had to share something – not sharing meant you were hiding something really big and Bill would be utterly relentless in his pursuit of whatever it was). When it came my turn to talk, I had to do one of two things. I could either say that I had a good week, one where I read my Bible and prayed and didn’t do anything wrong (in other words, I could lie outright) or I could say something like, “God’s really been convicting me lately about how little time I spend in the Word. He’s [sic] shown me that I spend too much time watching television and listening to music and basically wasting time. I need to spend less time on shallow things like that and more time reading and memorizing scripture” (which wasn’t a lie, exactly, but I knew that what Bill really would have wanted to hear was about the lust, which I had cleverly slipped inside the phrase, “wasting time”).

This kind of stuff went down all the time. There’d be the “bad” thing that I knew I should share but instead, I’d either lie or share something else. And all the while, I had to be flawlessly convincing, because if Bill sensed that I wasn’t being forthright, he’d start to probe and dig and needle and if I couldn’t continue the lie, I would finally share the thing and then have to endure the double shaming of what I confessed as well as the sin of trying to hide it.

This whole process was supposed to teach me to be a better, more honest Christian. Instead, it taught me to be a masterful liar. I learned how to mimic vulnerability, how to feign authenticity. And I got really good at it, really fast.

Now let me be clear here. I realize now that I was hiding and lying, but back then, this whole process was transparent to me. It was a subconscious defense mechanism, at work deep beneath. I wasn’t conscious of how wrong Bill’s shaming process was, I just knew that I felt like shit when it happened. And nobody likes feeling like that so my body learned to protect itself through subterfuge. Hiding and lying and putting up a front became automatic.

Muscle memory teaches a boxer’s body to protect itself from blows without having to think about it. Emotional memory does the same.

Boxer

Photo by: ElMarto

Fast forward to today.

I’m in a much better place these days, as far as theology and community goes.

But.

The analogy of the boxer is a good one. When self protection becomes a trained, unconscious, instinctual reaction, it doesn’t go away overnight or by itself. The emotional defense mechanisms I honed all those years back are still with me. In situations where I’m asked to share something of myself, without even thinking about it, the front goes up. I duck, I dodge, I lie. And I don’t consciously intend to, but I do it all behind a very convincing wall of authenticity. Remember how I had to learn to put up a front that Bill would believe – one that had to convince him that I was being real with him? I still do that. And I’m great at it. Bill made me into a world class emotional con artist.

Now here’s the thing. Remember what prompted this pattern of hiding and presentation? Bill asked me to be vulnerable, to share what was going on with me and my life, and when I did, I got my ass beat with the shame stick. And that hurt, so I learned to protect myself. See the pattern? Authenticity brings the pain of shame and so I learned to hide behind a clever mask instead.

That pattern got ingrained into me. It got metabolized into my style of relating, my way of being with other people. So now, even when my conscious brain tells me that someone is safe and that they want to get to know the real me and that they’re not going to hurt me, my subconscious brain doesn’t believe it. This part of me still cowers before the shame stick, even when it isn’t there.

Think of it this way. It’s like I go through life with a bubble around me. On the outside of this bubble is my presented self – the aspects of me that I radiate towards the world. It’s a carefully controlled, carefully crafted presentation. It looks like a real self. It acts like a real self. It’s a sophisticated surface that appears confident and smart and funny. It presents vulnerability seamlessly, preemptively. Most people see it and think, “wow, Randall’s a really with it, well put together kind of guy.”

And that’s what they see because that’s what I want them to see.

But every once in a while, someone gets up close, puts their face up to the surface and tries to peer beneath, beyond. They want to move past the defenses to the me that’s underneath. Thing is, whenever this happens, the actual, authentic me inside the bubble is cowering in terror, because in the past, when people like Bill muscled their way past the surface, I got the shit beat out of me.

Boy In The Bubble

And so to finally return to where I started this post, this dynamic goes a long way in explaining why I’m still single.

Because what is love? What is intimacy? What’s the whole process of dating about? It’s one person getting to know the person behind the presentation and doing the same towards the other.

The thing is, everyone has a surface self – the self they present to the world. When the bank teller asks, “how are you doing?” It’s the surface that replies, “I’m doing well, thanks for asking.” And we need that don’t we? Can you imagine how strange life would be if everyone was always their real, authentic selves? We’d never get anything done.

Our real selves are supposed to be reserved for our good friends and the really real self is reserved for the ones we love, the ones who love us. In a way, dating is just the process of peeling back these layers. If someone likes our surface and we like theirs, we go a bit deeper, we share more of ourselves, we open up more, and they do the same. This process continues, slowly and carefully, and if it turns out we’re really into this person and this person is really into us, we come to see that we’ve found a safe place where we can reveal more and more of our vulnerabilities – the truly sensitive parts of us that we normally hide from the world. To put it plainly, we can be naked with them and not feel shame. (And it’s no coincidence that this section can be read on a physical as well as an emotional level).

This process is supposed to feel safe and warm and freeing. It’s supposed to feel like that scene from 500 Days of Summer where Joseph Gordon-Levitt is dancing in the streets and everyone is dancing with him.

Unfortunately, for me, when I find that someone I like wants to get to know me – the me behind the bubble – the scene that plays out in my head runs more like the scene from The Shining where Jack Nicholson is battering down the door with an axe.

And so I run, just as things are starting to get good. And this doesn’t happen months into a relationship, it can happen right away, just a few dates in.

Because again, the thing about dating relationships is that they’re all about getting beneath the surface. But for me, all I know is how to present my carefully honed, well crafted surface. The me that’s inside is far too terrorized to come out and so as I begin to date someone and sense that they’re getting close, that they want to peer beneath the surface, I get triggered. In my internal world, alarm bells start going off, an all alert gets sounded, and I go into lock-down mode. In the external world, I find some lame excuse to not ever go out with this person again. And they’re always lame excuses. Because apart from the terror of my interior world, there are seldom any good reasons for me to break things off.

It’s a totally backwards, dysfunctional dynamic. I’m terrified by the very intimacy I long for and so I sabotage. I shield myself from the very person who longs to make my shields unnecessary.

And I suspect the women on the other end of this are wondering, “what’s going on? Why is he walking away just when things were starting to get intimate and fun?”

The only good thing about all of this is that I now recognize this pattern and understand where it comes from. It was rooted in awful theology which got branded into me by white hot shame. Through this process, I learned to protect myself through stealth and avoidance – strategies that were so well rehearsed, they became second nature.

For the longest time, I didn’t understand why I ran from relationships. I didn’t understand because that’s the thing about deeply ingrained defenses – they’re reflex, they’re automatic, and worst of all, they’re transparent to the person repeating them.

But now I have eyes to see.

I know that the fear I have of vulnerability/authenticity will be with me for quite a while. The urge to flee will likely always be my first instinct. I’ll probably see a person’s longing for intimacy as a threat for a very long time. But the hope is that now I’ll be able to recognize what’s happening. And beyond that, the hope is that in the recognition of it, I can make the choice to ignore the terror, the instinct to project and defend.

My guess is that things might not go so well the first few times around. I picture myself on a second or third date (yeah, can happen that quickly) with someone. I see myself at a dinner table across from someone brilliant and alluring. I picture the moment when I suspect that this person who I’m interested in might also be interested in me – that she wants to take a peek inside the bubble. In that instant, I’ll feel alarm bells go off. I’ll feel that deep, primal, familiar terror. I’ll feel my defenses going up and I’ll want to run or hide.

Red Couch Photo

Photo by: Dave Austria

So here I am, on this date that’s going well, and while on the outside I’m smiling and laughing and making witty conversation, underneath there’s a hurricane of terror screaming at me to bolt for the door.

My hope is that at this point, I’ll recognize what’s going on – that this is just an old, irrational pattern rearing its ugly head again. With this realization, I’ll excuse myself from the table and tell my date that I need to go to the restroom. I’ll walk away and cloister myself in a bathroom stall. At this point, I will not shame myself for what I’m feeling. I will not deny or dismiss what’s going on. I will breathe. I will tell myself that this person is not Bill, that she is not out to harm me, that it’s the opposite. I will tell myself that my fears are understandable. And I will tell myself that even if my fears still get the best of me and I continue to hide, even if I end up never asking this person out again, that there will be other people and other opportunities. Life goes on regardless of how this plays out. But this person is here now and perhaps worth the risk. And so I’ll tell myself to do the best that I can, to hide if I need to, but to try not to.

And then I’ll flush the (likely empty) toilet, make my way back to the table, and see what happens next.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I’ve written this post from the perspective of my dating life, but this fear and hiding plays out in many areas of my life.

I’m trying to restructure my way of being in the world. I’m beginning to understand that there are safe places where I can open up more of myself. My defenses aren’t a bad thing per se, but I don’t have to be on high alert all the time.

And so, to all the girls I’ve shunned before, I’m sorry. It wasn’t you, it really was me.

And to all the other people in my life who’ve been opening up safe spaces for me, thank you. I learning to let my guard down, but it’s not easy.

Indeed, it’s been a long December [but] there’s reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last.

359. damage and desire (part three)

(Part one here.)
(Part two here.)

[PREFACE] (feel free to skip)

When I set out to write about how the church has (mis)formed my views on dating and desire, I never anticipated that it would extend into a three part series. I also didn’t anticipate all of the positive feedback I’ve received through comments, facebook messages, and emails. Really, I began writing these posts for myself – because writing is how I work through things spinning around in my head. The first two posts in the series were relatively easy to write, because hindsight is 20/20 and so it wasn’t hard to look back and talk about how the teaching I received was bad theology and to highlight the various ways that bad theology ended up damaging my dating life. It’s a helluva lot harder to try and look forward and come up with more constructive ways to think christianly about desire.

Because to be honest, it feels like uncharted territory.

I’ve done more reading in preparation for writing this blog post than I ever have before. Hell, I’ve done more reading for this post than for some of the papers I’ve written for grad school. For something that plays a huge part in every christian’s life (sexual desire), it’s shocking how few books there are that deal well with this topic. I’ve drawn a lot from Rob Bell’s book, Sex God and from Lauren Winner’s book, Real Sex. I read and flipped through a few other books (some of them more academic, like Stanley Grenz’s book, Sexual Ethics).

And then.

And then I found Amy Frykholm’s stunning book, See Me Naked. It’s a revelation. If anything I’ve written in this series has resonated with you in any way, you MUST get this book.

As with a lot of what I’ve been writing lately in regards to my evolving theology, many thoughts are half-baked and are very much a work in progress.

Lastly, I’d like to state that I’m writing this post primarily to work through my own thoughts around the topic of damage, desire, and dating. So most (but not all) of what I write will be about how these issues impact straight, single males. I hope they’ll be of use to those outside that demographic, but to address this topic in all its permutations would be far beyond my current time and talent.

[END PREFACE]

Before we can get to a better way to think theologically about desire, we first need a brief history lesson.

In biblical times, there was no such thing as dating. At all. Marriage was primarily a pragmatic affair – something more akin to a sterile business transaction. Marriages were arranged. They were designed to ensure financial stability. And more importantly for the sake of this discussion, these marriages took place at a very young age – usually in the early teenage years.


Because of this, there’s a very good reason why the Bible has a lot more to say about adultery (sex with someone else’s husband/wife) than it does about fornication (the more general category of sex between unmarried persons) – because there weren’t many unmarried persons around to fornicate with, but there were a lot of married people to adulterate with.

So why this history lesson. What does it matter to our discussion of how the church deals with desire today?

Because the biblical texts that the church likes to cite in regards to sex and desire have nothing to do with the dating world we live in. In fact, there are no scriptural references one can appeal to that address the modern practice of dating and courtship. None. It’s a cultural convention that has no parallel in the world of the Bible. That should have radical implications for the way that the church applies biblical teachings in its discussion of desire, but sadly, it seldom does.

Take Matthew 5:27-30 – a verse that constantly got hammered into my head every time the church talked about desire.

(27) “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (28) But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (29) If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (30) And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Right off the bat, one has to note the word “adultery” in verse 27 and 28 – sex with a married person that you’re not married to. This is NOT a teaching that applies to single people – at least not directly. Pummeling singles with this verse without qualifications is lazy, irresponsible exegesis.

Take some of the other verses commonly cited when talking about desire (1 Corinthians 6:12-20, Thessalonians 4:3-8, Ephesians 5:3, to name just a few). Read those verses while keeping in mind that they are speaking to an audience that got married in their teens (and almost all of them would be married) and you begin to see that they have nothing to do with the dating/courtship world we live in today. These are verses concerned with protecting the sanctity of marriage – keeping husbands and wives committed to one another in a covenant relationship – NOT with controlling the desires of single people.

Today, we might look at the ancient world and say, that it’s awful that they got married so young – we consider that statutory rape. But really, there’s a kind of genius to it. All those budding desires, all of those bodily changes and the curiosity and exploration that goes along with them? Because they got married young, all of those new feelings could be freely explored within their committed marriage relationship. And that’s the way it was meant to be. That’s the kind of beautiful sexual exploration of desire that the Bible is concerned with honoring and preserving in those verses about fleeing from sexual immorality (by which the authors meant, adultery, not pre-marital sex).

Here’s a brief contrast of their world to ours:

Then Now
Married young, early teenage years. Median marriage in the US, 27.
Sexual curiosity, awakening, of puberty happens when married. Sexual curiosity, awakening, of puberty happens outside of marriage (see above).
Marriage arranged. Marriage self-directed. People date in order to find a marriage partner.
Set, recognized, and accepted customs, practices, and behaviors regarding marriage. Conflicting ideas, narratives, rules regarding dating and marriage

Those are just a few cursory examples of the contrasts but I think it’s clear that applying biblical teaching about desire from their time to our time can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be a simple, straightforward process.

And I realize that I’m being repetitive here, but I’m doing so because I’m trying to drive home a vitally important point: the verses in the Bible talking about fleeing sexual immorality (and adultery) are primarily talking to married persons because they were written to a world where almost everyone was already married.

But we don’t live in that world anymore.

But if the Bible is written to a world that knows nothing about dating and single adults trying to figure out how to handle their desires, then what do we do?

I think the first thing the church needs to do is to be honest about this disconnect. Every time the church talks to singles about desire and dating, it should say right up front that it’s extrapolating (a more polite way of saying that it’s making it up as it goes along). And the reason why this admission is important is because it leaves room for something that is FAR too lacking in the church’s teaching around desire: grace. Unconditional, radical, all encompassing grace.

This is a grace that needs to go both ways. The church should extend grace to congregants who choose to disagree with its teaching and congregants should extend grace to the church as it tries to accomplish the very difficult task of bridging the ethics of the ancient world with our own – something I’m going to attempt to do in the rest of this post (much grace, much appreciated).

First things first.

A confession.

When I started reading books about sexuality and desire and ethics in preparation for writing this post, I really wanted to find someone who could make a credible case for biblically sanctioned premarital sex. From a strictly pragmatic point of view, this would be the easiest way to come up with a modern take on the Bible and desire wouldn’t it? I mean it’s so tempting and easy to say that since the Bible has next to nothing to say about premarital sex, that maybe we should just say that it’s not prohibited at all. Since all the warnings against indulging in sexual immorality are only for married couples then maybe singles are free to copulate and explore sexual desire in any and all forms in their search for a compatible marriage partner.

So I confess, that’s what I wanted to find, because, whoo-wee! wouldn’t that preach on a Sunday morning?

But I couldn’t. At least, I couldn’t find anyone who could make a credible case for that stance. People have tried, but not convincingly (at least to my mind).

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let me bring a word into this conversation that is sorely lacking in the church’s discussion of desire.

Pleasure.

Isn’t that a beautiful word?

The fact that I never heard that word in any of the church’s teaching around desire speaks volumes about why things are so awry.

But why is it important to bring pleasure into this discussion? Because I think pleasure can be one way (though certainly not the only way) of bridging the ethics of the ancient world with our own. At the very least, it’s a way of resolving the nasty mind/body dualism (the idea that the desires of the body are bad and need to be rigorously contained/controlled by the mind) that fear-based teaching on desire engenders.

See, pleasure is something we experience in our bodies. It isn’t something we can wear, it’s not something we can eat, it’s not something we can (or have to) learn. We might wear things that please us, we can eat things that please us, and we can learn to experience pleasure more deeply, but it’s not a thing in and of itself. It’s something that wells up within us in response to something that happens outside of us.

You’re driving to work, the sun rises, and in that way that only early sunlight can, the city is illuminated. And pleasure wells up within you.

You go to a concert – the sound washes over you, the air is electric, filled with the endless possibilities of performance. And pleasure wells up within you.

You treat yourself to something delicious (a chocolate cordial, perhaps) – you put it into your mouth, you bite, and fruity, syrupy sweetness coats your tongue. And pleasure wells up within you.

And here’s a really good one.

Your significant other runs her fingers through your hair – slowly, caressing the curve of your ear as she draws her hand towards the back of your head. With the tips of her fingers she teasingly plays with those tiny hairs on the back of your neck. She closes her eyes and pulls your lips toward hers. Soft, warm, wet – flesh presses into flesh.

And deep, luminous, pleasure wells up within you.

God created a sensuous, tactile world. Genesis tells us that God created a world, a good world. And despite the Fall, there is still much goodness in the world. God meant for us to take pleasure in the goodness of this world. In fact, God designed our bodies to enjoy creation – to take pleasure in the exploration and experience of it. Why else would he have created us with such sensory-filled bodies?

And desire? It’s designed to draw us towards pleasure. It’s the precursor to pleasure. God places desire in our bodies to drive us out into the world he created so that we might take pleasure from the experience of it. In contrast, shut down desire and you shut down all that life is meant to be lived for. You corrupt God’s design for the world and there’s a word for that kind of corruption. It’s called sin.

Going back for a second, the genius of the ancient world lies in the fact that they got married just before or just as sexual desire began to bloom in their adolescent bodies, so they were able to explore all of their bodily and sensory changes within the safe confines of a marriage relationship.

But we don’t live in that world anymore. In the US, the average age that people first get married is their mid to late twenties – more than a decade later than our ancient ancestors. Raging hormones, unfamiliar bodily changes and urges – all of those things take place in bodies unfettered by the safe confines of marriage. And the Bible has no direct, relevant guidance for people inhabiting these bodies.

And so we have to (gracefully) extrapolate. We have to guess. Which isn’t to say things are hopeless. Because isn’t that just how life works? We don’t know what to do, we can’t find adequate guidance, and so we take a chance and make our best educated guess. I’d say that all the bad teaching around desire I got growing up was the church’s best guess at the time. Based on the results, I’d say that it probably wasn’t a good guess.

And so I’m gonna step out on a limb and see if I can posit a better guess.

And it’s here that I’m deeply indebted to the work of Amy Frykholm and her book, See Me Naked. She offers four “mechanisms” (not rules) to help guide us in our explorations of pleasure and desire.

  1. Discernment
     
    I love that she begins with discernment. Because it places the onus of developing a sexual ethic, not in an abstract, external authority, but in that liminal, wondrous space between the individual, the other, and God.
     
    One of the problematic aspects of the church imposing strict rules on dating and desire is that it severs relationships – relationships between people and their own bodies, between people and other bodies, and between people and God who created them uniquely and wonderfully.
     
    In contrast, living with discernment means that a dating couple needs to turn towards one another (instead of a set of rules) and prayerfully discern how they will navigate the commingling of their desires and their exploration of pleasure while honoring one another and God, their creator.

  2. The cultivation of wonder instead of fear
     
    Again, this is a wonderfully helpful guideline mechanism. It works in partnership with the discernment discussed above. It’s a balancing force – because discernment without the exploration that wonder elicits can become clinical and theoretical. Wonder explored without discernment can lead to reckless indulgence.
     
    In writing about the cultivation of wonder, Frykholm offers the following:

    In this alternative sexual ethic, we commit to addressing whatever part of us that seeks to be numb and dead instead of an active and living presence in the world. This principle asks us to rigorously address whatever it is that keeps us from living and being fully present to ourselves and to each other.

    That’s so revelatory and life-giving and beautiful (and so unlike anything I’ve ever heard in the churches I grew up in) that it brought tears to my eyes as I read it. Because life is meant to be lived – lived in all of its abundance.

  3. Aliveness
     
    By “aliveness,” she means a carefully attuned awareness. It’s a process. It’s learning to be aware of the things that bring us life and the things that suck it away.
  4. True, deep, real pleasure as an avenue to the Holy
     
    This is such a lovely way to think about pleasure – to see it not as something to be feared or shamed or withheld, but as an avenue to the Holy. And the only way to use pleasure as a means of encountering the Holy is through discernment, wonder, and aliveness (awareness). Because undiscerning, unaware pleasure seeking can all too easily devolve into a selfish cycle of empty self-fulfillment – what Frykholm calls “thin pleasure,” and if we’re not alive to it, we can easily miss it.
     
    In talking about the cultivation of deep pleasure, she shares a story about her friend’s eleven-year-old daughter. Entering puberty, this girl was beginning to sense unfamiliar changes in her body. She told her mother that she was afraid getting older. Her mother comforted her fears, saying,

    Your body will know more pleasure than you can even now imagine. You are going through a period where your body is going to learn to feel pleasure, and you will be amazed.

    Stunning words of love and wisdom.
     
    What a beautiful thing it is to tell someone to see pleasure as a guide through the murky, uncharted waters of adolescence. This is a mother drawing her daughter towards life, into the life abundant. There is trust and relationship here – the opposite of what rule-making brings.
     
    (And I hope it’s not too late for me to learn that lesson in my own life.)

One last bit.

Earlier, I mentioned grace. The idea of grace saturates the Bible but it seldom gets mentioned in discussions around desire. But that may be where it’s needed most of all.

Because here’s the thing. Nobody handles desire perfectly. Nobody. Especially in today’s confusing, highly sexualized world. And even if a church somehow found a way to teach intelligently, sensitively, theologically about desire, people are going to prayerfully discern different ethical guidelines for their relationships. And even as they create guidelines and boundaries for themselves, they’re gonna screw up.

However they make their way through, they need to know that God is still madly in love with them, that they are no less than they were before whatever “mistake” they might have made, and that they always have a place in the community of faith.

They don’t need shame.

They need grace.

We all do.

[POSTSCRIPT]

These feel like uncharted waters, my friends. And I am a more unfamiliar navigator than most so I would love to hear feedback, questions, push back, concerns.

Feel free to leave comments below or message me on facebook.

Thanks for reading.