I have written a post on my other blog that fits with what I was trying to do with this space. I invite you to join me in my other online home.
Actions have consequences. In scientific terms, this is cause and effect. Effects aren’t evil. They don’t have intent. They just are. There are natural consequences to everything. Some are easy to understand. Touch a hot pot, burn your hand. Combine bleach and ammonia, create a noxious gas cloud that could kill you. Throw a ball for the neighbor’s dog, gain a friend for life. Pinch your younger brother, draw the wrath of your mother. Even if he started it.
Sometimes the consequences aren’t what one anticipates. This usually occurs with people. My cousin was often quite mean to me when we would visit. He was only two years older but would act like there was a ten year gap between us. One day he was teasing me, calling me a baby. And then he dropped the gauntlet. There was no way I could complete a “highly” complicated Star Wars Rebel Fighter out of LEGO. I was just a girl. And a baby at that. Really, my friend? You’re going to challenge me to a task that married two of my greatest loves at the time – LEGO and Star Wars? You bet I handed him his ass. I was expecting my cousin to act the way my brother would whenever I bested him: to pout, call me names, and break apart the Lego creation. Instead my cousin looked at my Rebel Fighter with respect and invited me to play with all of his Star Wars Lego sets. We remain friendly to this day.
Sometimes consequences are confusing. They don’t seem to fit the situation, or the consequence comes in two parts that appear to negate each other. I remember one day I stood up to my brother’s bully. Sure, I got punished for punching the girl’s face, but I was also rewarded with praise for standing against those who wished to do harm. The message I learned? Hand someone their ass but don’t get caught doing it. The intended message? I’m fairly certain my parents meant for me to learn that standing against injustice is good, but there are ways to do so that do not involve violence.
I have a friend who loves her boyfriend so much she would do anything for him. She wants to take care of him to the point I start to feel smothered on his behalf. He is very independent and hasn’t had the best luck with girlfriends in the past. It’s not that he isn’t willing to share his life with my friend. He is very open and kind. But he doesn’t want her to take care of him. On a rare occasion where he and I went out for coffee without my friend, he told me his perfect relationship was with someone who wanted to be with him, not someone who wanted to be needed. In his mind, need was a slippery slope to inequity and losing one’s self. Wouldn’t it be better, he argued, to be with someone who doesn’t need you, who chooses to be with you because they love you. They want you. Out of all the people in the world they choose you.
I thought about this as it applies to action and consequences, trying to map out the logic of how this young man felt. There are far more potential consequences when dealing with people. Unlike the science experiments we had in high school, people can be unpredictable and the consequences may not be what we expect, therefore it is almost impossible to create a logic tree that includes all potential outcomes. But I had to give it a try. I wanted to understand.
So I asked him, that if a woman has a strong desire to take care of her boyfriend/spouse and is motivated by a need to be needed, what might be some possible consequences of this action. Together we came up with three:
These are by no means the only consequences that could be experienced, but they were the ones that were foremost on this young man’s mind. So why these consequences in this situation? He looked up at me and told me that his mother took care of his father. She anticipated all his needs and desire. Her life was about him. She often said she was nothing without him. And his dad? He once shared with his son that he felt smothered at home, which was why he often had “business trips” out-of-town. He didn’t want to be his wife’s sole focus. He wanted her to have a life that was rich and rounded. He wanted the same for himself. He felt trapped.
So this young man watched and learned and went to therapy to start to figure out what a healthy relationship looked like, because his parents’ relationship seemed to be one of the many opposites of healthy. One of his conclusions was that he didn’t want to be needed and he didn’t want to need. He recognized this as an extreme view and acknowledged that over the lifetime of a relationship there is give and take. But he didn’t want the foundation to because of need. It had to be choice.
My friend wants to take care of her boyfriend because that is the model she learned. You show someone you love them by taking care of them. She didn’t realize her family of origin had some serious codependency and caretaking issues. She didn’t know how dangerous these things could be to one’s health and wellbeing. The good news is that she is open to discussion and willing to see another point of view. She is willing to learn. This may lead her to therapy where she can begin to learn examples of a healthy adult relationship and gain the language and skills she may need to build her own.
Her new actions will have new and fascinating consequences. This is the process of growing toward our better selves. Beliefs lead to choices. Choices lead to behaviors and actions. Actions lead to consequences (or results) that lead back to beliefs and choices. I wish these two the best as they walk their relational journey together.
Human relationships are so messy sometimes. At the end of the day, we have to do the best we can with what we know and be willing to learn and grow. Sometimes growing means saying good-bye to beliefs and behaviors that no longer serve us. Sometimes it means learning that what we think is healthy is actually maladaptive behavior that is hurting instead of helping. Sometimes it means there will be pain in the process. Ultimately it means we become closer to that better version of ourselves we are striving to be.
For years God has been trying to get my attention regarding some specific weeds that are choking the life out of my spiritual garden. For years I’ve either dismissed Him or haven’t been listening for Him, and the weeds have been allowed to continue to grow and flourish. But God is full of second, third, tenth chances and this time I heard the message loud and clear. Maybe it’s because Claire and I spent some time last year doing some work that humbled me while at the same time preparing the ground. Maybe it’s because I’m not currently working and have nothing but time right now to talk with God. Maybe it’s also because God has a quirky sense of humor and decided to use a deceptively simple line of dialogue from one of my favorite fictional novels to drive His point home. Either way, as I was laying in bed rereading some of my favorite scenes, this line set off a clanging in my head complete with noisemakers and flashing lights.
Knowing isn’t always believing.
Deceptively simple, isn’t it? In the context of the story, the line is meant to point out that knowing something intellectually doesn’t equate believing it, of trusting it to be true. In the case of the book, the heroine knows she wasn’t responsible for the death of her fiancè, even believes it most of the time. She knows she doesn’t have to carry her burden alone, doesn’t need to protect her loved ones and friends from the trauma of her life, but her current actions point to knowledge with a lack of belief. Knowing without believing.
As I was reading this exchange, the proverbial light bulb when on in my head – I know many things about God, about His nature, about what He says He wants for us and His immense love for us. I know about the Holy Spirit, the Trinity. I KNOW and I fully believe this deep love of God, the relationship with the Holy Spirit, the redemptive love of Jesus…for other people. I only believe some of it for me. When I told Claire of my revelation, one I’m sure she had already deduced, she asked me one question that I’m still mulling. Do I know why I don’t have expectation?
What a good question. I’ve been sitting on that question for a long while and all I can think of is that deep down I’m not sure I’m worthy. And deeper down I’m afraid that all this goodness of God will be snatched away and I will be left broken and bleeding, alone and cold and that voice in my head that tells me that people like me, people from my family, good things just don’t happen for us, that this voice will be right. I’m not at the bottom of why I don’t have these expectations. There’s something else there, something that flirts with the edges of my conscious mind and disappears when I try to focus on it. The thing is, now I’m angry. I should be able to expect good things. God didn’t say He loved only some people. He loves the world. Every. Damn. One. Of. Us. Just look at the oft quoted verse that we all love for it’s validation that we are special to God but seem to forget when we interact with Him and with everyone else.
God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life.John 3:16, Amplified Bible (AMP)
If this love is mine, why shouldn’t I have expectations of God? Why shouldn’t I want something different, something more from my life? Why should I simply know and not believe? Claire once told me that she holds God to His promises. She actively reminds Him of what He promised and let’s Him know in no uncertain terms that she EXPECTS Him to fulfill them. She may not know what that fulfillment looks like, but God promised and He must follow through.
I admire that in Claire. That chutzpah. I have stood before God and held Him to the promises He has made other people. I haven’t done that for myself. It never felt right before, but lately knowledge and belief have been merging. My husband and I spent a long weekend at a lake a few hours from our home. While he was out chopping firewood, I stood at the water’s edge and I argued with God. At first, tentatively. Who was I to engage the Creator of the Universe in such an irreverent way? I’m His daughter, that’s who. And daughters argue with fathers, even while they love and adore them. My conversation became more intense. I reminded God of some of the promises He spoke to me. I told Him I didn’t see the outcome of these promises in my life. I demanded He remember these promises, the same way He remembered His promises to Israel. I have been trying to uphold my part, now I need to see Him uphold His. I expect Him to uphold His.
I don’t know what my future will look like. But I know, I believe it has to be better than it is now. I have an expectation.
I was expecting the usual quiet between the morning get-to-work-on-time rush and the just-finished-working-out crowds when I entered my favorite café. It seemed that as soon as I sat down, that quiet buzz quickly turned into something frenetic and loud. Distracted, I gave up all pretense of writing and used my laptop as a prop as I settled in for some people watching.
As I sat covertly people watching, a couple of women sat down at the table behind me. They wore the typical suburban housewife uniform of yoga pants, running shoes, designer t-shirt (no logo, thank you very much), and immaculate fleece jackets in subdued tones. It wasn’t what they were wearing that struck me. It was how easily they verbally eviscerated another woman in their circle of “friends”.
This absent third-party apparently tried too hard and yet not hard enough. Her parenting style wasn’t aggressive enough. She was too permissive with her children while also being too restrictive. Poor kids weren’t allowed to go see an R rated movie. Who puts those restrictions on a 16 year-old? Gasp!
From parenting, they moved on to attack her clothing, her car, her marriage, her involvement at church, her desire to work part-time. This woman did nothing right. Right as they were in the middle of tearing apart this woman’s career of choice, she walked into the café. These two women smiled and waved at her, motioned her to their table. They were all concern and goodwill when she sat down and conversation shifted away from her character assassination to how everyone’s spring break vacations went and what summer activities was everyone planning for their precious snowflakes this summer.
I left the café soon after. I had started to feel too deeply my own woundedness and found myself wanting to judge this group of women only knowing them through this single one-sided interaction. It was time to go and immerse myself in something beautiful so I could remember that deep and profound goodness exists. As I left I prayed for beautiful encounters for all these women. We all need the healing that comes from beauty and good.
Later that evening I witnessed something that chilled me and made my claws come out. A daughter had just completed her very first recital, with an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction. Nothing awful, it seems her skirt wasn’t fitted correctly and shifted around on her hips to the point where she had to futz with it during a portion of her recital. No biggie, right? Her older siblings brutally mocked her for it. I get sibling rivalry. What I don’t get, and never condone, is attacking a sibling, removing all joy from an experience or an accomplishment, and in return attacking the identity of another person. Even minimizing their place within the family or society. The parent started to say a few distracted things to move the older siblings away from verbal flaying, and then did something unthinkable. The parent actively encouraged the mocking by suggesting they ask others who were going to attend the recital later in the weekend to see if the skirt continued to be a problem.
This is not done. This is giving permission to be mean and eradicates any sense of kindness and compassion. It encourages finding fault and exploiting it. I had to say something, especially given that the family in question are practicing evangelical Christians. By encouraging such behavior, you are not modeling Christian values, you are modeling meanness and divisiveness. You are making it okay to cause others pain. And you are doing so to your own family. There is NO place for this. Ever!
I wish I was shocked by this behavior. That it wasn’t normative in circles of faith, or in society in general. I wish I could say I have never been on the giving or receiving end myself. I haven’t given into this type of behavior in a long time, but I recall a time when it was so easy to sit with a small group of women and pick someone apart all in the name of care and concern. Nothing is further from the truth. Speaking ill of someone is not care. It’s not life-giving. It steals goodness and care. It breathes life into malice. Nothing good can ever come from gossip and character assassination. Healthy relationships aren’t built on a foundation of unkind interactions. And while lashing out may be a symptom of a deep hurt or insecurity, that also doesn’t make it okay. It’s a maladaptive interrelational strategy that does immense harm.
I see this play out in Christian circles all the time. Gossip can be given a pass if one is speaking about another out of concern. It’s almost assumed everyone knows everyone else’s business and as long as you promise to pray for the individual or family in question, the careful deconstruction of personal and private matters is allowed. And we can be so mean to each other. It reminds me of being the poor family in an up and coming neighborhood in a small town. I had to take the judgement and the ‘poor dear, God bless her’ attitudes with a smile. I had to be okay with “well, dear, we’ll pray for you” when things were hard instead of having someone come alongside me and show me kindness. When kindness was offered, I was too cynical and disbelieving to accept it.
When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied, quoting from the Torah and said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40). He said we were to love, first God, then ourselves, and then everyone else.
What is love? If we look again at the Bible, love is seen in every word and every work of God. There is even a passage that is read during weddings that clearly shows us the characteristics of love.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
It’s right there for us in black and white and no where do I see any exceptions for gossip, for tearing down character, for meanness.
I don’t always live this. It’s hard to live up to. But that’s the joy of being human. To be human is to struggle toward becoming our better selves. It’s also important for me to remember that God feels this way about each and every one of us. The passage above, that’s God. If God is all things good, then God is indeed love and loves us all. If we are to love God, we come closer to God’s heart and begin to understand that God is patient, God is kind. God keeps no records of wrongs. Wrap yourself up in that amazing, life honoring goodness. In that love.
It’s difficult to be mean when I see just how much God loves me. You. The world.
“I’ve already had sex. That means God can’t love me. Right?”
My heart died a little the day the eighth grader asked me that question. It was in an abstinence support group I was leading in one of the local public high schools. No religion allowed. Just the facts, ma’am.
This brave, broken girl was only 14 years old, on that rocky divide between woman and child. And she was already sexually active. She came from a “good” home: two parents, stay-at-home mom, father who brought in the big bucks after working long hours. They lived on an island of privilege in a sea of borderline poverty. They attended a large church. She spent as much time at church functions as she did at school extracurriculars. I share this because I’m shocked by how many christians believe if they the parents do everything right, their children will remain virgins until marriage. Or at least until they are engaged. Because, oh my God, sex! It’s evil, it’s wrong. Avert your eyes, my children, until you say I do, and then through some sort of magic, sex becomes the right thing to do. It’s your duty, don’t you know.
Our group met once a week in the high school, a school she attended because her parents wanted her to be in the world while learning to be not of it. As a facilitator I had gotten to know each girl’s story, teased out what they knew about sex – biology and psychology. Who were their mentors and teachers of all things sexuality. While the majority of girls learned about the birds and the bees from their health class – with a little additional exposition from a parent or older sibling and continued “education” from peers – this girl had learned only about abstinence within the hallowed halls of church purity culture. Don’t do it. Save yourself for marriage. You are your virginity and once that’s gone, well, you will always be a broken doll. Why? Because Jesus and Pastor So-And-So said so.
She was shamed into remaining pure. And that shame, plus lack of knowledge, kept her at her older boyfriend’s beck and call.
She had been pulled from the units in health class that focused on reproduction and sex education. The wisdom of youth leaders and her parents would be enough to keep her pure until she married. She was kept so busy she shouldn’t have time to think about boys. Or dating. Or, God forbid, sex.
But she joined my group. A voluntary group where the focus was on abstinence and how to make good choices, but my focus was on relationships and education. Perhaps some of my experience, some of my hard won wisdom could help even one of these girls. I wasn’t going to preach purity to them. Instead, I helped them understand they had options. And how to weigh the consequences of those options. Some of this was totally outside of where my girls were developmentally, so I tried so hard to have open dialogue and to be a safe person to come to with questions. I was not there to judge. I was not there to parent. My job was to educate.
Since all the girls in my group were sexually active in one way or another, I asked them the question “How does having sex make you feel? Is it like how you thought it would make you feel?” One by one all the girls admitted feelings of shame, confusion, anger. So we talked about that. One girl loudly blamed the boys she had sex with. It was always about them, never her. Maybe she needed a real man. So we talked about what was normal developmentally at various ages. About statutory rape. About consent. We spoke of birth control. Of saying no and what coercion can look like. About the fact that guys get to say no as well. We talked about abstinence and how that may be appropriate developmentally. And how that at any time one could choose to be abstinent, just as one could choose to be sexually active. We spoke about abuse, self-esteem, and how hard it is to be the only one who feels like she isn’t doing it when the rest of the world is. How once we have sex, we will forever carry around something from that person with us. We discussed consequences.
Then one week we talked about how sex made them feel, deep, deep down inside. Ashamed. Scared. Loved but afraid that love will go away if we say no. Powerful, but only for a little while. Uncertain. Special. Dirty. Confused.
And that was when she raised her hand and whispered her fear that God could no longer love her.
My heart was breaking and I wanted to cry as I asked her why she thought that God couldn’t love her. Not wouldn’t or shouldn’t. Couldn’t. Like if there was one single act a human could perform that would cause God to turn away from us forever, that act would be sex outside of marriage.
She told us all in those quiet words that she was told by her youth pastor that a girl who has sex before marriage is forever damaged. That God prizes our purity above all. She painfully recounted how her parents would speak of the child of another family in church with condemnation. Why? Because this child had gotten pregnant at the age of sixteen. How horrible it was. How the troubles this family was now seeing were due to the sin of the child. And that the sin of the child was likely due to the sin of a parent. The rotten apple doesn’t fall far from the sinful tree. How another family was reeling from the news that their college aged daughter had been raped. Well, you know how those liberal state schools are – a breeding ground for sin and temptation. They should have sent her to a faith-based school. She was probably asking for it, anyway, with her skimpy shirts and short skirts.
I wanted to take those parents in hand and smack them. I wanted to share some words with that youth pastor. But even more, I wanted to take that girl and wrap my arms around her and tell her God loves her. God believes in her. And that we are not defined solely by our past or present. I shared my story. Molested as a young child by male babysitters. My own acting out and promiscuity. A boyfriend in college who was a predator and decided that broken me was just who he was looking for. Years of shame, anger, pain. Of carrying the guilt that wasn’t mine and acting out in unhealthy ways – not because sex is an unhealthy activity, but because of my motives. And above all, of learning that God loves me.
He loved me when I was being abused. He loved me when I was the one doing the abusing. He loved me through it all. And that right there – that is humbling, my friends. It didn’t matter what was done to me or what I chose to do, God loved me through it. That didn’t negate the natural consequences of my choices, or the fact that I had to deal with the consequences of the choices and actions of other people. Consequences don’t just go away because God loves us. But that love, that perfect love, that can help us work through and heal from those consequences.
God’s love isn’t something that is relegated only for the pure. And who can judge purity anyway? God’s love is for all of us. God’s forgiveness is for all of us. For all have sinned. All have missed the mark. All have wandered from the law. All. Of. Us. And guess what. God loves us anyway.
This is what I was able to tell this girl. I didn’t tell her she needed to repent – so many in the church have the concept of repentance wrong anyway. I didn’t tell her God would forgive her. I told her what she needed to know. God does love her. God will always love her. That won’t make the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of having sex go away. But it removes the shame. And once the shame is gone, we can have open conversations about those consequences and whether we are willing to continue paying them or whether we want something different. She had been continuing having sex because she felt she was already so broken there were no other choices. It wasn’t the boys she was having sex with telling her this. It was her church. It was her parents. It was a culture that prizes virginity and purity more than it prizes people.
I don’t know where she is now. It’s been fifteen years. I hope she’s found a life she wants to live. I pray she knows God loves her with a fierce and holy love.
Please, dear Christians, think about this girl who was so broken because someone told her that her virginity was valued above all else, that sexual purity was the standard God was holding her to and to step outside of that was to invite the wrath of God. Think about her the next time someone comes to you with questions. Or comes to you broken. What are you going to live out for them? Are you going to condemn? Heap coals upon their already fragile heads? Or are you going to love them as Jesus loved? It’s not our place to judge. It’s not our job to save. It’s ours to love. We got that so mixed up somewhere along the way.