Relationships are funny things to talk about—everyone holds very strong opinions on what a relationship should look like and what acceptable behavior in a romantic relationship is. If there is something that has to do with a relationship, I guarantee you there are strong opinions on it. I am not here to advocate people going against their personal convictions, and I am not calling for the abolishment of ways of going about romantic pursuits. What I am attempting to do is start a discussion about self-control, framing it the context of romantic relationships. Want to share your story? Comment, shout out on social media, or email me! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A little over a decade ago, a book was published that pointed out problems that can be found in many dating relationships. The author saw these problems and the pain that it caused in his own life, and the lives of his friends, and presented an alternate way. This alternate relationship movement was dubbed the “courtship” movement and quickly took off in Christian circles. This movement stressed concepts like “purity”, “modesty”, and “waiting until marriage”. An over-simplification of the advocated model is that it focused on self-control, typically in the context of two key concepts:
- To avoid “going too far” physically, the courters should limit physical intimacy (no kissing, etc.) and be with others (either hang out in groups, with friends, with their families, or in public places—not alone together)
- Because a bad relationship can be so emotionally damaging and potentially physically compromising, we should abandon the traditional “dating” model and instead focus on only entering serious relationships with the intention of marriage.
This model is often presented as exercising self-control and not indulging in our “desires”, by nature of removing ourselves from situations where something could go wrong. This is often followed up with the commands to not allow “even a hint” of sexual immorality in our lives and to “flee temptation” like Joseph did when Potiphar’s wife came on to him. Here’s the thing though: This model isn’t self-control at all.
Time for an analogy!
I love a good apple pie. You put a delicious, fresh-baked, still-steaming-cause-it-just-came-out-of-the-oven apple pie in front of me, and I’m going to start going a little crazy, because I. love. apple. pie.
So I’m sitting in the kitchen one day, minding my own business, and somebody walks in with an apple pie they just pulled out of the oven and sets it down in front of me. They give me permission to have as much as I want to. Oh, it smells something delicious: that flaky crust—that smell (is that nutmeg and cinnamon dancing their way up my olfactory passages?)…I love this! I look at that delicious pie and I just go to town on it—I grab a fork and eat until there is no more pie. This is Response A that I could have.
Here’s Response B: same scenario; I’m in the kitchen and somebody gives me an apple pie. I start to smell that pie and my mouth starts to water. I realize that I shouldn’t eat this whole thing—I mean, there is a lot of pie here, and I’ve heard that a lot of people have heart attacks because they ate too much pie. I should exercise some self-control. So I grab the pie, run out of the room, lock the pie up in a safe so that I can’t see or smell it, leave the room, and vow to not hang out in the kitchen anymore because a pie could show up there and I’m not ready for that yet. I should wait until after supper to have my pie.
Let’s look at one more scene before dissecting this parable: Response C. Someone gives me an apple pie, and it looks good. I’d really like to eat that, but I know I should exercise self-control. I know I shouldn’t eat the whole thing at once, and that it isn’t healthy to be a glutton. At the same time, I also recognize that there is nothing wrong with eating a little bit of pie now, as a snack, and then I can have some more later after supper. So I cut a little slice, enjoy that piece of heaven on earth, and set the rest of the pie aside till later. I tell you what, that is going to be so good to eat once the time is right!
Okay Michael… why do you like apple pie so much anyways? And I feel like that is a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor.
Well, I like it because it is a delicious representation of everything good about fall and the world, of course! But enough about pie.
That first scenario (losing control and eating the entire pie) happens a decent amount in our culture, whether that is in a sexual sense, a gluttonous sense, or an entertainment sense. Total honesty here, I’ve binged on Halloween candy and blown through a season of a TV show in two days more times than I’d like to admit. This is a major problem! It is not healthy to binge and be a glutton. In fact, the Bible talks about how gluttony is a sin, and it says that one of the signs that you are in a relationship with God is that you will have self-control.
What happens a lot of times is that we see this excess, this utter lack of self-control, and we want to avoid that, especially with something like physical intimacy/“purity”/etc. So we set up rules and boundaries that go above and beyond the ones God lays out (that is, love God, love each other, serve the other, and don’t have sex until you are married). These are some rules that I’ve come across:
- Don’t kiss until you are married (or at least engaged)
- Don’t hold hands (not exaggerating here—I know several people who insist that a couple shouldn’t hold hands until they have been courting for a long time)
- Don’t be alone with someone of the opposite sex, especially if you are seeing them. Always have another person around. This ensures that you won’t lose control and start making out, groping, or having sex.
The list goes on and on. What we are doing here is the same as that second response: we’re locking that pie up in a safe and refusing to go into a kitchen because there might be more pie in there, and we are calling that self-control. After all, we should “flee temptation”, and we shouldn’t have “even a hint of [gluttony/lust]”, which would be equivalent to kissing or eating some pie before supper. (If you subscribe to this view, please don’t get mad at me yet—stick it out to the end of the post, then you can get mad)
The problem is this: that is not true self-control. Self-control means just that: you have control over yourself. Self-control doesn’t look like me wanting to look up porn and having to mentally fight myself or physically grab my hand to prevent me from doing so—where’s the control in that? Self-control means that even if pornography pops up on my screen, completely uninvited (which does happen on the internet), I can calmly close that window and keep going about my day. I don’t have to throw my computer across the room and swear off the internet! If that is the case, what will happen the next time I get on the internet? I’ll fall right back into the old habits and ways of thinking and have a battle again.
That third response to the apple pie scenario is what self-control looks like. Something presents itself, and you can make a rational, good decision to participate in the right amount while avoiding gluttony. I can eat just a little snack of pie before supper without “losing control”. Someone can give their significant other a peck without becoming overcome with animal lust and humping each other silly, or even having that desire! Someone can have a beer with their friends without becoming a drunkard.
Here’s where the difficulty lies: Abstinence is always easier than moderation. (and it is certainly easier to teach one hard and fast rule than ever-in-flux personal convictions)
Is that first scenario a bad scenario? Yes—100% of the time, it is bad to be a glutton and to lose control.
Is that second scenario a bad scenario? Possibly. We’ll get there, I promise.
Is that third scenario a bad scenario? It just might be.
Huh? I thought you were advocating that third scenario? Moderation vs. total abstinence and all that jazz…
Every person has weaknesses and strengths. If I know that if I eat a little bit of apple pie I might have a really hard time controlling myself from eating it all, it is foolish and wrong of me to flirt with that gluttony! I should “flee temptation” and refuse to go anywhere near what might make me stumble. It would be wrong for me to have a snack of apple pie in that situation.
It is equally wrong for me to dictate the actions that others should take when they are eating apple pie. Just because I might be an apple pie glutton doesn’t mean that every other person is one to! For me to take a personal conviction and apply it to everyone is wrong and un-Biblical. This is where so many problems in the church’s history have come from:
- I struggle with drinking too much, so no one can drink because it is wrong. [Ironically many of the most popular theologians (looking at you C.S. Lewis) viewed alcohol as a wonderful thing, and a blessing from God]
- I find that kissing someone I love and am not married to leads me to want to do things I shouldn’t do, so no one should kiss someone else before marriage.
- Buffets make it really hard for me to not pig out, so Christians shouldn’t eat at buffets.
A Christian leader told me and a bunch of high school guys that we shouldn’t give “frontal” hugs to girls because we, and I quote, “were doing it so we could feel boobs.” Maybe that was something he did back in the day, in which case sticking to side hugs was a good idea. I can tell you that I have never hugged a girl to feel her breasts—to me that would be a completely arbitrary and ridiculous rule to follow.
I applaud my friends who decided that they wanted to “court”, not kiss, have people around them, etc. Without a shred of condemnation, mockery, or distaste, I want to congratulate you for sticking to your guns and doing what you feel you need to do to follow God best, and I encourage you not to compromise your personal convictions because of pressure.
All that I ask is that we recognize the difference between personal boundaries and what God lays out (i.e.: don’t have sex until you are married). There are some standards that apply to everyone, but the vast majority of these are simply personal preferences or personal convictions. Let’s make sure that we aren’t condemning others for not following our own personal conviction.
Paul talks about freedom in Christ, and how we should adjust our actions to what lets us experience God the most while violating our consciences the least in Ephesians, a very applicable discussion to this topic. I talk about that in these two posts: Is Steak a Sin?, Giving Up Our Freedom. Allison Vesterfelt also wrote a wonderful ebook on some of these topics called “Asking All the Wrong Questions: Why Christians Are Waiting For Marriage For Sex” that I highly recommend.
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