This is the fourth part in a series on my faith journey. It’s a link up to Addie Zierman’s Synchroblog in honor of her outstanding memoir When We Were on Fire. Click to read part 1, part 2, and part 3 of my faith journey. And if you haven’t already, read Addie’s book!
I sat in church today–the same church I went to as a small child, the same church I was baptized in, the church I got married in. And I realized that so much of my spiritual struggle–my struggle to understand grace–was not bad preaching from the pulpit or bad Sunday school teachers. Yes, all children must sort through what might seem like hypocrisy (the teacher who opens his eyes to fix his shirt during prayer or who writes out her grocery list while her husband teaches your Sunday School class). But no matter how good the teachers or the curriculum, children absorb stuff oddly sometimes or internalize it too much. Thus was my journey with Christian books.
It should be clear now that I was obsessed with having the perfect Christian family. I wanted my parents to only allow G movies. I wanted us to have watched Veggie Tales instead of Nickelodeon. I felt guilty that we celebrated Halloween. I just wanted to fit in.
This caused me to devote so much time and prayer to my own family and to my future family. I loved them, and wanted us to be an even stronger family. I wanted to make sure my family in the future was a truly Christian family (devotions in the morning and evening, sitting together in church each week, nighttime prayers, etc.). This is important for understanding this story today.
We start at our rehearsal dinner on June 17, 2011. In the midst of many thoughtful toasts, one of my best friends said she remembered that when I finally met the man I would marry, I threw out all those books I had read on dating and courtship and Christian relationships. But I wish this was more true.
I couldn’t get rid of all the stuff I internalized. Not all of this is the writers’ faults–I am the kind of person who can take a book too far. But the focus on purity and perfection can be too much, and coupled with my own brokenness, it certainly led to a lot of pain.
In January 2008, I was a college freshman. I had added a class last minute, increasing my hours of coursework. This was fine because I wanted to focus on school. I had decided to major in English with a minor in Secondary Education. It was rigorous, but it combined two things I loved–writing and teaching.
There was this guy in my New Testament class, and he was also in the music appreciation course I had just added. And he was cute, especially his thick, shiny, dark hair. Mainly I noticed him because we had a class together every day of the week. I also noticed that he laughed at the teacher’s jokes when I did (we were both nerds and major people-pleasers).
Before long we were walking out together. Sitting together. Standing for hours outside of the gym talking together. Making up excuses to hang out. And by March we were dating.
The first year was wonderful. We were lost in that haze of first love. We spent most of our time outdoors, walking on the trails near our college. We had thousands of inside jokes and many classes together. We studied for hours in the dorm buildings and libraries and watched movies until closed dorm hours (when girls had to leave boys’ halls and vice versa).
But I was already struggling. For the most part, the relationship checked out with what I had read about and planned for in those Christian books. We had defined our relationship and our boundaries. We kept the door open even farther than we had to when we watched movies in his dorm room. But I also noticed things that didn’t line up. Maybe we spent too much time together alone. Maybe we shouldn’t call each other “girlfriend” and “boyfriend.” Maybe our parents should be more involved. The list went on.
I remember feeling so guilty when we were sitting in a room off from the lobby of one of the dorms watching a movie one night. Jon grabbed my ponytail holder, and I said, “Jon, no!” A light immediately flipped on and an RA said, “We’re going to leave the light on.” I felt so guilty. I felt watched, and the book-voices in my head added to this. The second-guessing and list-making and striving slowly sucked a lot of the fun out of dating for me.
Then a year passed. In March, my parents’ relationship broke under the stress it had endured for so long. They separated. It was a dark time and put pressure on my still-young relationship that I wouldn’t see until later. I would drive 30 minutes to Chick fil A just to sit and cry by myself. I was angry, confused, and mostly sad.
My boyfriend of only one year had to deal with horrible nights of tears. He would drop anything he was working on to sit with me, to distract me, to make me feel normal again. But it wasn’t enough. And after a while, I turned my anger and fear from my parents’ relationship to my own. I began to see too many flaws in myself, then in our relationship, eventually in Jon. The information from the Christian relationship books coupled with this fear to create a dangerous mix.
To put it simply: I had picked up the message that if you could maintain sexual purity in a relationship, you could have a nearly-perfect romance. Sex was the main sin. It would hide around every corner tempting you. I watched out for it, and we made sure we stuck to our boundaries. I judged girls who dressed immodestly, as they threatened the delicate purity of our relationship. We were careful about what movies we watched. I judged couples who had boundaries looser than ours. I grew hateful and bitter and judgmental.
In the books, the couples either maintained sexual purity and went on to have beautiful marriages. Or they didn’t. It seemed so simple. But it’s not. There are other things that can ruin a relationship. Sin is sin, and our brokenness will always carry with us. My Christian dating books had never dealt with questions of family history. I had no idea that anger was as threatening to a relationship as sexual sin. I had no idea that the bitterness that sucked me down was far more dangerous than a skimpy tank top. I second-guessed and questioned and doubted because no one had given me information about the natural ebbs and flows of a relationship–especially one that lasts three years before “I do.” And no one had warned me of the fear and bitterness and joylessness that could also threaten a relationship.
We did make it. We had our worst fights before we got married. As we stood at the altar, I realized that there is no ultimate purity. By the time we got married, we knew each other at our worst. Sexual purity, guarding our hearts, letters to my future husband–none of this had meant a perfect relationship. We were broken even still. But that turned out to be beautiful. We had to un-learn some of our negative ways of relating to one another during our first year of marriage. But by then, we knew how to make it work. We knew how to stay up late working through things. We knew how to keep the drama out. And ever so slowly, he taught me how to have fun again, how to let go, how to enjoy a relationship.
I’m not saying sexual purity isn’t important. It is! But I realize I was affected too much by books–I let the messages be stronger than they should have been. In all fairness, I probably even read those books a certain way. However, temptation, lust, and sex aren’t the only things to watch out for in a relationship.
If I could go back, I would tell my nineteen-year-old self this: the man you write those letters to–that perfect guy in your head that you “save yourself for”–he doesn’t exist. Instead, you might hold hands and kiss before you say “I do.” You might marry a regular guy, not the intense, super Christian you imagine. But he will be full of life and joy and the kind of wisdom that comes from living–not from reading books. No matter what, you will always experience pain. But don’t forget to also see the good. And as my mom told me as a newlywed: “don’t make so many rules; have fun. You’re going to have a beautiful marriage!”