Category: Articles

Love Without Limits: Polyamory and Friendship

Yesterday I watched Louis Theroux’s documentary Altered States: 1. Love Without Limits. It was a fascinating programme and one which is well worth reflecting on. It was documenting the rise of polyamory – that is, people who choose to live in ‘open’ relationships, with more than a single couple involved. It followed about three different groups (I can’t call them couples!) and explored how their relationships worked.

I have a few reflections which I’d like to talk about here, because I think the documentary has some relevance to what Friend Zone is about.

1. Polyamory is desire gone mad

It was painfully obvious, in every single arrangement, that there was at least one person getting the raw end of the deal. No-one came out and said they were unhappy with the polyamorous arrangement, but it didn’t take much reading between the lines to see that was the case.

The phrase ‘have your cake and eat it’ sprang to my mind more than once during the course of the programme. I think in every arrangement, it had originated with someone being unhappy and wanting to add to what they had rather than stop a relationship and start a new one. It was unhindered desire – human lust given licence.

2. One is not enough

One thing which was said repeatedly during the programme was ‘How can one person be enough?’ – i.e, one person is not supposed to fulfil every one of their partner’s needs. This is something I completely agree with – and a big part of the reason why Friend Zone is here.

However, the solution is completely different. Polyamory says – ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need multiple sexual relationships’. This is the complete antithesis of Friend Zone: this site exists to say ‘one person can never be enough… therefore you need lots of friends.’ Which leads on to the third point.

3. No-one got what they wanted

It really struck me that all the people involved were searching for something, but they never really found it. One of the things I enjoy is being around couples who’ve been together a long time – couples who’ve been through thick and thin together, who are comfortable with each other. I believe that my wife and I, having been married for 12 years, are more comfortable with each other now than we were to start with – and I hope that will continue to grow through the course of our lives. Because marriage is an exclusive relationship, we have a commitment to each other which has grown – and the level of trust and love for each other has grown as well.

What really came home to me watching the polyamory documentary is that, by introducing sex into everything, the polyamorists didn’t get either marriage or friendship. There seemed to be a constant level of tension and unease in the relationships. There was no real commitment

And it struck me that, in order to have deep friendships, one must be coming from a place of security: in order to relate to someone – especially someone of the opposite sex – you have to have the security of knowing what kind of relationship it is. If every relationship is  potentially a sexual relationship, then it’s going to spoil everything from the start.

And this is why I am increasingly of the opinion that the traditional Christian understanding of marriage – as in, the lifelong union of a man and a woman – is good news for the world. It is the bedrock of healthy relationships: sexual intimacy belongs within the confines of marriage, and is safe there. Friendships can flourish when sexual intimacy is taken off the table. However, if sex is loosed from the confines of marriage, it destroys everything – friendship included. As (I believe) Ray Ortlund said: “Sex is like fire: in the fireplace, it keeps you warm. Out of the fireplace, it burns the house down.”

Losing our ability to see beauty

Over the past week or two I’ve started working my way through Revelation with Ian Paul’s new Tyndale Commentary. I’ve very much enjoyed reading it so far – Revelation is a book I’ve always been a bit scared of, so getting to grips with it has been on my list for a long time.

The other day I came across an interesting comment on Revelation 3:18 (from the letter to the church in Laodicea). That verse says: “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.”

Ian comments:

In Greek culture, nakedness served to show off the glory of the human body, and participants in the games competed naked – hence our word ‘gymnast’ derives from the Greek for ‘naked’. The associated shame is in line with Jewish rejection of public nakedness (and hence their objection to the games), but here relates to the Laodiceans’ failure to ‘put on’ the way of living that is true to their faith (cf. Col. 3:9-14).

It’s hard to imagine participants in the Olympic Games participating naked! But the ancients certainly had a different view of the body and nudity than we do today in 21st Century Britain. Looking back through history and across the world, many different cultures have had different views of the body. Even cultures which are fairly close to home – for example, my wife was telling me the other day about her experience going swimming in France. It was the norm there (at least where she was) for the women to swim topless – even those who had one-piece costumes would roll them down. Everyone did it, it was just normal – no-one batted an eyelid! (For the record, she couldn’t bring herself to do the same…)

Societies throughout the ages have had different views about what is and is not permissible. However, I don’t think the church has always responded in the best way – I talked about this previously in my Christian Modesty post. The other day I saw this tweet:

I think this is a pretty fair representation of many British Christians: believing in Jesus entails modesty which means (amongst other things) always being clothed in public. Now there are, of course, many good reasons for clothes to be worn! But I wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on: do many Christians think nakedness is lewd and improper because the body itself is lewd and improper? In other words, the issue isn’t to do with nudity per se but rather what leads to that particular view.

Why does it matter?

The other day I was thinking about how things are so different for teenagers now broadband internet is widely available in the UK. Teenagers have access to pornographic material which is almost beyond imagination. Martin Daubney, ex-editor of lads’ mag Loaded, shortly after quitting as editor filmed a documentary called Porn on the Brain. He wrote about some of his research here:

I’d been invited to sit in on a forward-thinking class led by sex education consultant Jonny Hunt, who is regularly asked into schools to discuss sex and relationships. To establish what these kids knew about sex – including pornography – he had asked the children to write an A-Z list of the sexual terms they knew, no matter how extreme.

… when Jonny pinned their lists on the board, it turned out that the children’s extensive knowledge of porn terms was not only startling, it superseded that of every adult in the room – including the sex education consultant himself.

… When questioned, they had all – every child in a class of 20 – seen sodomy acted out in porn videos. I was stunned they even knew about it – I certainly hadn’t heard of it at that age – let alone had watched it and as a result may even have wanted to try it.

Pornography is changing the landscape of young adults – has already changed it beyond recognition in the time since I was a teenager. Teenagers now have access to just about anything, for free, on their smartphones. All of this has consequences – and we are seeing some of those consequences now (I talked about a few of them on this site).  The key question is: what is access to porn at such a young age doing to these teenagers? In particular – is it affecting not just their view of sex, but their wider view of the body? If the only nudity you are exposed to is in the context of pornography, isn’t that going to colour your understanding of the body?

What can / should we be doing?

In my previous post about modesty I suggested that modesty actually exacerbates the problem. The message it sends out is, “the body is something sexual – therefore it needs to be covered up.” I remember as a child going to the National Gallery in London and looking at beautiful works of art and feeling a bit uneasy seeing pictures e.g. of naked breasts or a penis – why should this be the case? As I explained in that post – the human body is not something shameful. We, the church, have the theology, we have the Holy Spirit – how then should we tackle this problem?

Here I have to say that I’m not sure the best way forward. How should we help young people to have a healthy self-image? There are a few steps in this regard, but I’m not sure that we’ve really cracked this one yet. Answers on a postcard (or comment below, or drop us an email).

Lest I be misunderstood, please understand that I am not recommending some kind of Christian naturism! I don’t think this is the right solution – not least because it locates the solution in nudity rather than in Christ. Calling the church to have a healthy view of the body doesn’t mean that we should go to the opposite extreme!

But I do think what Friend Zone is about has something to offer, and I think it is to do with seeing each other in the context of a non-sexual relationship. When men and women can see each other as genuine friends, part of that means appreciating what is beautiful without the corruption of sexual desire. That’s why I entitled this post, “Losing our ability to see beauty” – because one of the things I’ve realised about our society is that it’s virtually impossible now to see someone as beautiful without reading a sexual connotation into that. (Or at least, I think this is more true for younger folk – millennials and younger).

One of the things I’ve learned over the last few years is that it is not sinful for me as a man to acknowledge that a woman is beautiful. Partly this has been caused by watching my wife breastfeeding our children – which is a beautiful and natural thing for her to have done. It made me realise the extent of the way our society’s view of the female body has become distorted! And as I’ve thought about the body from a theological perspective, it has come back to me repeatedly that the body is not an insignificant or trivial detail in God’s plans: Men and women should see each other holistically – we are not disembodied souls floating around, but embodied. Count up the number of references in the New Testament for using our whole bodies for God – for example, 1 Corinthians 6:18-20:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.

It is not our disembodied souls that God lives in – but our bodies. And as Christians we are to honour God with our bodies – not just in the negative (avoiding doing what is wrong) but positively doing what is right. How we see each other’s bodies is a part of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit – we should not rest content with what society says, or with some kind of legalistic ‘modesty’, but rather the inner transforming work of the Spirit.

Summing up

Let me draw a few conclusions. I appreciate this is not a short post and I just want to make as clear as possible what I am and am not saying.

I am not arguing for nudity to be part of the church – rather, I think the British church’s attitudes to nudity demonstrate that we need to think more carefully about the body. Especially given our current cultural context.

The big question, to my mind, is this: how are we broadcasting the ‘better story’ compared with our society? Do teenagers receive a positive message about themselves and their bodies from the church – not just from what they hear in teaching, but from what we do? Are men and women, with the help of the Spirit, seeking to see each other holistically – with God-given beauty rather than a sinful distortion of it?

I don’t have the answers, not right now. But all I know is, unless we are prepared to ask some tough questions, we won’t get any answers.

Challenging ‘Christian Modesty’: Shouldn’t we be more positive about the body?

Yesterday I wrote a review of Aimee Byrd’s book, “Why can’t we be friends” (it’s great, by the way – you should read it). At the end of that review I said “As I got to the end of the book, it struck me that there are many more angles on this which weren’t covered. I don’t say that as a negative – just that I have realised this topic is so much bigger than I thought it was a few months ago.”

One of the things which I have been thinking about is about the body – a topic I wrote about fairly recently but I think is worth exploring in more detail. There is something of a ‘modesty’ culture in Christian circles – it’s probably more pronounced in America, from what I hear, but certainly Christian women in the UK know about it. Women are supposed to cover up, not to expose too much, lest their bodies might cause a brother to stumble.

The problem is, of course, that women start to see their bodies as a source of temptation and shame and men start to see women’s bodies as a source of temptation and something to avoid. This kind of modesty culture seems to me to actually encourage seeing one another sexually. The irony – something which is designed to avoid temptation actually ends up causing more of it! But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Trying to deal with a situation through the Law rather than Grace. It can’t be done – the Spirit is the only way.

If we truly believe that bodies are good, and that Christ came in the body to redeem us – body and soul – and that our whole bodies should be used as instruments of righteousness – shouldn’t Christians be known for our love of all things physical? Shouldn’t Christians be known to demonstrate our affection physically (“Greet each other with a holy kiss”, as Paul says in no less than four of his epistles!). What right does the church have to be so concerned with the pharisaic appearance of righteousness that it overlooks these things?

A few months ago I was at a youth event with some of our church teenagers. The speaker was from another local church, and he talked from Psalm 139 about how God made us and how God loves us. One of the things he said which really hit home to our teenage girls was about loving ourselves and our bodies, because God made us. These girls are so often given negative messages about their bodies – they need to look a certain way to fit in, etc – that it was revolutionary for them to hear something positive about their bodies. And it’s made me think: what good news do Christians have to offer for people, women especially, who are struggling in this way?

I know one or two women who are blessed with breasts that are above average in size (the fact that I had to resist a huge temptation to use a euphemism there is probably in itself indicative that something is wrong!). I think they feel a little ashamed of themselves, like they have to disguise it – that maybe their bodies are a cause of sexual temptation. Obviously this isn’t the case for every woman in this situation, but in a culture where breasts are sexualised to the point they are in much of Western society, you can hardly blame Christian women for feeling a bit guilty.

What kind of good news is the church offering young women if it sends out a conflicted message – “your bodies are good, a temple of the holy spirit, made beautiful by God – BUT try and cover yourself up and stop men looking at you.” The more I think about it, the more I think that we as a church need to be working hard at this – we need to show people what it means to love one another, bodies included. Not just tell them. I often think of Glynn Harrison’s book “A Better Story” – we need to be showing the world a better story, not preaching one story from our lips but demonstrating something else with our actions.

We believe that God made bodies and made them good – let’s ask God to help us show that and not just proclaim it.

So… we should all become nudists, right?

Haha. Good try, No, that’s not what I’m saying. But we still deal with the effects of sin and the fall – modesty is of some value, even if we haven’t got everything right in the church. But we should challenge unhealthy attitudes wherever they are found, and I do feel that some of the attitudes in the church at the moment are unhealthy. Bodies are good – that doesn’t mean we need to be naked all the time! Grace doesn’t mean that we can throw all caution to the wind, especially with those outside the church. (Paul may have been alluding in 1 Corinthians 11 about long hair to temple prostitutes, who would signal their availability by waving their uncovered hair around.  It’s important to be wise about how we engage with the world.)

The challenge is to present a right attitude to the world while at the same time acknowledge that the world has gone very wrong. How we do that is not an easy thing, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Personally, I’m just beginning to think about this and start to get my head around it.

But some food for thought: many of the great artworks of previous generations contained nudity – think of Michelangelo’s David, for example. He, and many classical artists, could see the beauty and dignity of the human body.  (I should say, so can many artists today). We, by contrast, live in a culture where women have to fight for the right to breastfeed their babies (I have two young daughters, both of whom were breastfed – I know a little of the struggle that goes on here). Breasts are so sexualised and seen as improper that it’s become difficult in public for a woman to do one of the most natural things in the world. What a messed up world we live in!

Perhaps we as a church need to recover something of the goodness of bodies, not reduce them (as society does) to sexual gratification but see the beauty inherent in what God made good. All of this is part and parcel of what it means to be friends – seeing each other holistically, as Aimee Byrd put it. I pray that God will enliven the church to meet the hour – that we may be driven further into the Scriptures to seek what the Spirit is saying at this time.

Friendship and the Body

It was the end of a long, hot day. We’d had a busy day getting up to all sorts of fun and now it was late in the evening, and we were sitting round a camp fire. I was 20 years old, and sat next to my friend Naomi. While we were sitting there, she just took my hand and held it for a while. Somehow we both knew it wasn’t a romantic thing – it was just friendship. We just sat there holding hands for a while, watching the fire and listening to others chatting around us. All that happened about 15 years ago – it was on a Christian Union summer house party (don’t ask). But the event is notable because it was the first and only time that such a thing has ever happened to me.

Why do I mention this? In my last post I mentioned an article about the body I’d been reading. It’s got me thinking again about how much of the Christian world at the moment – in the West, at least – seems to be fairly gnostic: that is, the body is often seen as a bad thing. No-one actually comes out and says this, of course! – but sometimes our theology is revealed more by what we do than by what we say.

Bodies are sexualised – I can’t speak for women, but for me as a man you don’t have to look very far to see women’s bodies being sexualised on TV, media, etc. It’s mainstream now – and it has been for a long time. ‘Sex sells’. so they say.  Christians are rightly upset by seeing sex used in this way – but I think the reaction is seeing bodies as sources of temptation to be avoided rather than something good which God has made.

So, for example: for me, as a man, rather than seeing a woman’s body as a beautiful thing which God has made, I see it as a source of temptation and try to avoid them as much as possible. I think this is a large part of what contributes to avoiding cross-sex friendship.

But is it right to think like that?

‘In the beginning…’

I’m always struck by Genesis 2:25: “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” ‘Body-shaming’ is a horrible modern term, but there was none of it before the fall. Adam and Eve were comfortable in their own skin, comfortable with their bodies. God made their bodies, and made them good – every part of them. Shame didn’t come until after the fall – in 3:7, once they have eaten the fruit, the first result we are told about is realising their nakedness and feeling shame.

I often wonder – although we live in a fallen world still, Jesus came to inaugurate the new creation – to reverse the curse of the fall and free men and women from slavery to sin. Should Christians therefore be more or less ashamed of bodies? I think Christians should be people who are known for rejoicing in all aspects of God’s good creation – human beings and bodies included. God made our bodies, he made them good, God made beauty, we should rejoice in it!

This also means Christians should be more eager to use their bodies, more eager to touch – e.g. give someone a hug, etc. We are supposed to love one another – and, as embodied creatures, we don’t just love someone with words – we love them in an appropriate physical way as well.

But – am I being over-optimistic here? We do live in a fallen world, after all: does the reality of sin mean we should hold back? I don’t think so.

Using our bodies

One of the things which I never noticed before until recently was how the New Testament talks about bodies. Here, for example, are Paul’s words in Romans 6:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. (v12-13)

We should offer ‘every part of ourselves’ to God – body, mind, and soul – as an instrument of righteousness. This is more than our bodies, of course, but not less! What we do with our bodies matters.

Paul, again, writes in 1 Corinthians 6:

The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?

Here Paul warns against sexual immorality – because how we use our bodies really matters. Our bodies are “members of Christ himself” – what a high view of the body!

Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” So the Christian life is a bodily life – not simply a ‘super-spiritual’ life.

Lastly, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.

Controlling our own bodies – this is sanctification.  Again, not a ‘super-spiritual’ thing but an earthy, bodily sanctification. I hope that we as a church should expect the Spirit to be sanctifying us in every way – not to expect sinless perfection in this lifetime but to have realistic yet positive expectations for change and growth.

Bodily Purity

This is what I come back to time and again as I go to the Scriptures: we are exhorted many times against sexual immorality – but the point is not simply to avoid sexual immorality but to do what is right. We should be people who use our bodies in the right way, rather than simply in the wrong way.

I’m not a person who does physical contact very easily. I’m not really a hugger – generally, when people are giving out hugs and kisses at the end of my home group, they avoid me. Clearly they’ve understood my body language! But is that right? Is it right for me to avoid physical contact?

It seems to me, from the Scriptures, that to be pure is not simply avoiding wrong physical contact but doing right physical contact in its place. Similarly with bodies – not simply avoiding thinking about bodies in a sexual way but positively thinking about them in the right way.

We live in difficult times in the church, and I am increasingly convinced that we need to show the world a better way – A Better Story. How we see bodies and how we use our bodies really matters in this sexualised age when so much has gone wrong with the way our society sees and uses bodies. Let’s pray and trust that God can renew us by his Spirit, even at such a time as this.

Is feminism bad for friendship?

A few days ago I recorded a video “Is feminism bad for women?” (See the bottom of this post to watch the full thing).

In the video, I said that feminism is not good because – in its current incarnation – it seems to want to eliminate the differences between men and women, leaving no space for appreciating the traditionally ‘feminine’ roles such as motherhood. (Watch the video for the full thing!)

One of the things which struck me which I didn’t have time to talk about in the video is the question of feminism and friendship: is feminism actually bad news for friendships between men and women?

I think it is, for a couple of reasons. Firstly – since, as I just said, modern feminism seems to want to eliminate the differences between men and women, we no longer relate as men and women. We are just generic ‘people’. The thing is, if there are differences between men and women, relationships won’t take account of that.

Chivalry is a pretty old fashioned word these days – and I’m not saying we should bring back the 1950s or anything like that! – but I have found it enormously beneficial in all my relationships to be aware of the dynamics going on between men and women. The fact that it sounds so ridiculously outdated and sexist to be saying something which is actually fairly common-sense shows just how much feminism has influenced society. (I’ve written more on this site about the differences between men and women.)

Secondly, there is a large part of feminism which seeks sexual liberation – in other words, to have the same sexual freedom that men enjoy. (I think this is a large part of what is behind the abortion movement). In the programme I mention in the video “The Trouble with Women”, Anne Robinson talked to some of the grid girls at Brands Hatch. In this part of the programme she suggested that women should have the right to use their sexuality and bodies however they wanted to. However, later in the programme she talked to women who had faced sexual abuse in public places (e.g. the London Underground) – and yet didn’t really draw any connection between these two things, other than we need more feminism to correct this.

This, again,  struck me as being self-defeating. We live in a society which is obsessed with sex and sexual attraction. If feminism includes sexual liberation, then it will be bad for women and bad for friendship. I wrote an article about this on my blog – “Sex is burning the house down #MeToo”.

Watching the programme I was struck once again by how lost our society is when it comes to men and women, and how the Bible offers a compelling and attractive vision for flourishing for us whether male or female.

The Revoice controversy – can desire be sanctified?

There’s been a bit of a storm created over the last few days about the Revoice Conference. The conference description says: “Supporting, encouraging, and empowering gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality”.

This has created a big discussion online – for a start, Douglas Wilson has some links to different people as well as his own take. The gist seems to be (1) is it OK to identify as a ‘gay’ Christian? (this is what Owen Strachan takes issue with); (2) it’s not right to explore the bounds of celibacy as to what is appropriate for same-sex attracted Christians.

I don’t want to talk about the first issue as that has been going on for some time. I do want to talk about the issue of celibacy, as it’s relevant to what we’re about here at Friend Zone.

Doug Wilson says this in his piece:

As Hill’s book makes plain, a commitment to celibacy does not prevent one from falling in love with a best friend, or from being heartbroken when that friend moves away. So on one end of the spectrum we have a prohibition of sexual consummation, and in the context of this Revoice conference, no one disagrees about that. But on the other end, what is legitimate? Where is the line supposed to be? When does okay turn into not okay?

Some of my questions might seem ludicrous, or impertinent, but I am in deadly earnest. Suppose that an oath-bound set of friends—what Hill is arguing for—is living together. They are committed to celibacy, which means . . . what, exactly? What does day-to-day life look like in the home? We would appear to know of the one thing prohibited (although even the boundaries of that may be uncertain), but there would also appear to be a wide range of things that still need to be discussed.

But in this new world of blurry definitions, what does celibacy not allow? Is hand-holding out? When they are watching a movie, how close can they sit together? Can they cuddle? When a man falls in love with his friend, is that a violation of the commitment to celibacy? I think it is high time for someone to define celibacy. What do you mean by it? Does a commitment to celibacy exclude sleeping together? Showering together? Nudity? Physical, affectionate contact? Hand-holding? Back rubs? Falling in love? If there is sexual arousal, but no orgasm, is that still celibacy? If a man falls in love with his celibate partner, and they kiss, but it goes no further, is that celibacy?

This is interesting because I think it raises a question around the nature of sin and sanctification which underlies this disagreement.

Sin, I think all would agree, is more than simply actions – it comes from the heart. Luke 6:45 says, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks” (ESV). It’s not just the mouth – we know that sin proceeds because our hearts are impure, not the other way round. Our actions do not make us impure – impure actions flow from impure hearts. Therefore – the only solution is to fix the heart problem, not to fix our actions. God alone can fix our heart problem – these oft-quoted verses from Ezekiel 36 prophecy what God was to accomplish in Jesus: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

So we need new hearts, we need to be renewed by the Spirit. I think all would agree so far. God takes our sinful desires and transforms them into gospel desires. We are renewed from the inside out. It’s important to remember that the goal is not for us simply to avoid what is sinful but to love.

The issues seem to be (1) here exactly does same-sex attraction ‘fit’ within this? Is it ENTIRELY bad, or is there something good which is horribly distorted by sin? (2) is it actually possible for our desires to be truly transformed? Is it reasonable to expect that this side of glory?

Let me give an example from my own life. I am a married man, but I occasionally find women who I am not married to attractive. I used to think this was an entirely sinful thing and repent of it all – but, the thing is, it didn’t stop attraction happening, and it actually led to me basically avoiding women for fear of what might happen. In my mind, avoiding women became the way I dealt with sin. Over time, I have started to see that I was wrong here – or at least, only partially right. As I said previously, attraction is not one-dimensional: it has multiple dimensions – some of them are good and right and godly, some of them are bad and wrong and sinful. It has been in recognising this that I’ve been able to take steps towards friendship – when I meet a woman where there is attraction, I find it helpful to think that there are some good things about my feelings as well as some which are sinful. Through prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit, as I repent and turn to Christ, I hope that what is bad is decreasing whereas what is good is increasing. I wonder if something of this is going on with Christians who experience same-sex attraction – is the desire entirely wrong, or is there something which can be redeemed?

I often return to 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” We don’t lack the tools here – we have the Holy Spirit, we have the gospel, sinful hearts can be made new and desires restored.

Returning to Doug Wilson’s piece, I disagree with his argument around celibacy. It seems to me the Revoice conference is not about trying to push the boundaries of what might be permissible – the Bible is quite clear that we are called to absolute sexual purity. You can’t have a little bit of sexual purity! At the same time, I think it is right to explore what celibacy and friendship looks like – not for the point of ‘pushing the bounds’, but rather what love might look like in these cases. Physical contact is not necessarily sexual – in some cultures, for example, it’s quite normal for two men to hold hands. It’s not about trying to do everything right up until crossing some kind of red line! It’s about working out what sanctification and holiness look like in a specific set of circumstances.

My contention, and this is partly why Friend Zone is here, is this: we live in a sexually saturated world. Everything is affected by it. Christians need to show the world not just how to avoid doing anything wrong, sexually, but more – that there is a better way. Sex is not God. Desires can be transformed, sinners can be forgiven – and that love is truly possible without the corruption of sexual desire. Maybe I am being over-optimistic, but what I read from the pages of the New Testament is that God doesn’t call us to anything which he doesn’t also provide the resources for. If God is calling the church to a new area of sexual purity and holiness, one which has perhaps been unexplored for a long time, then maybe it’s time for the church to listen.

The perils of friendship?

Wesley Hill has written an article about friendship called Love, Again. He explains why he – a Christian, celibate gay man – befriends couples. In it, he tells his story of a friendship which went wrong. The whole article is worth reading – it’s well worth your time – but I just want to focus on one point which he makes. He says:

What I didn’t realize, though, is that, for the intentionally abstinent, giving up sex is only part of the deal, and there’s more than one line you can step across.

What he goes on to describe is a friendship which took on a bigger part in his life than it should:

Spencer was God’s solution to my loneliness, I was convinced. And, in so many words, I told God that I had made my peace with sexual abstinence—so long as I got to keep my friendship, the closest friendship I’d ever had, with Spencer. That was the deal. I felt confident about it, at peace with it, ready to shoulder the burdens of the decades ahead, so long as Spencer could live next door.

One of the issues we humans have is that of idolatry – the worship of created things (as in, things created by God) rather than God. In other words, exchanging the worship rightly due our Creator with the worship of created things. This exchange is described by Paul in Romans 1, but also Jeremiah 2:13 – “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Tim Keller wrote a book about this called Counterfeit Gods).

A god is something that we look to instead of the true God to provide us with security, prosperity, happiness, fulfilment, etc. And of course, the ‘gods’ we put in the place of God cannot satisfy. They might satisfy for a while – but we will be placing an intolerable burden on them.

This is why I think what Wesley says is helpful: it demonstrates what happens when a good thing – a friendship – becomes a ‘god thing’: a god substitute. It’s a salutary reminder that, as he says, there’s more than one boundary we can cross. It’s not enough simply to avoid lust – far more fundamental is the gods we worship.

I have a couple of thoughts about this:

Idolatry is not exclusive to friendships. Many couples go off the rails because they expect their partner to fulfil their every desire, when in actual fact only God can do that. If you put your spouse in the place of God, you will have real problems!

The solution to the problem is not avoidance. I’ve said several times on the site that the solution to lust is not to avoid those you are attracted to! It’s a  matter of being transformed to love rather than simply avoid sin. It’s the same with idolatry – when we are let down by people or things, the solution is not to avoid those things but rather put our hope and trust in the Lord. I believe that God sometimes gives us this kind of experience to help us know more deeply the truth that only he satisfies our deepest longings.  Much of what I’ve already said about immorality could be applied to idolatry also.

It’s helpful to be reminded that in relationships it’s always possible to go wrong in more than one way – we focus on lust because it in society it is perhaps the most visible, obvious issue. But the first greatest commandment is to love the Lord God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength – if we go wrong with that, we don’t do well with loving our neighbour as ourselves.

Does God care about women? – Abigail and Nabal

A couple of years ago, God led me to this passage in quite an amazing way – he focussed my attention on it in a way I’d never expected. I was reading through 1 Samuel in my daily devotional time, and I’d been getting more and more frustrated with the commentary I was using – I just found I wasn’t benefiting from it at all! One day it got to the point where I had a spare few minutes and I just decided to read that morning’s passage from the Bible, to see if I could do any better than the commentary. The passage I read then was 1 Samuel 25 – the story of David, Abigail and Nabal.

The story begins:

A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife’s name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings – he was a Calebite.

So, we have Nabal, a wealthy man but “surly and mean” – not good husband material! And we have Abigail who is “intelligent and beautiful”. I won’t go through the whole story (although it’s worth reading), but briefly: David’s men come to Nabal and ask to stay there. (David and his men had previously been good to Nabal). Nabal is true to character and says no to these men. They go back and say to David what he has said – and David orders them to get ready for battle, intending to kill Nabal and his men.

Abigail – again, true to her character – goes directly to David, apologises on behalf of Nabal and intercedes for him. David listens to Abigail and relents. The story ends with Nabal dying and David marrying Abigail.

What do we make of this rather strange episode? What I found interesting about this at the time – and still do today – is how it relates to our situation today.

I’ve written elsewhere about the problem we face as a society – that relationships between men and women are breaking down. Now obviously this affects both men and women. However, I think women suffer from this trend disproportionately. Consider the following:

  • If a relationship breaks down, who is almost always left with any children? The mother (according to this page, 90% of single parents are mothers).
  • Mark Regnerus’ book Cheap Sex (link in the resources section) highlights the fact that many women would actually prefer to be married, but find it hard to ask due to the way things are at the moment. Cohabiting is actually bad for women (even The Guardian sees this! as well as more conservative publications) – cohabiting favours the partner who is least committed, which tends to be the man.
  • As we saw in the #MeToo movement – sexual harassment and abuse are now commonplace – and this is almost entirely in the male -> female direction.

This is the society we live in, and women in particular are suffering.

That’s why I think this passage is good news. Abigail, the woman who is “beautiful and intelligent”, lives with Nabal – an oppressive husband, “surly and mean”. How things have changed in 3,000 years! But here’s the thing: does God care about her? Yes, he does. In fact, she comes to David – God’s anointed King – and he takes her for his own bride.

If you read your Bible carefully, you will know that Jesus is the King who comes “from the line of David” – this is made clear in several places, not least the genealogies in the gospels (e.g. Luke 3:31 includes David as an ancestor of Jesus). Jesus is the King, the Messiah, the chosen one – who is greater than David.

I think what we have in this story is a microcosm of what God is doing now: God listens and he cares about the plight of these women. He has listened, and will send his anointed king to take them for his own – to be part of the bride of Christ, the church. This story shows that God cares about women suffering – but this story also shows the solution: Jesus Christ. In Christ we have a solution to the problems highlighted by #MeToo – a solution which will affect both men and women.

That’s what this website is about: there are problems, deep problems, in our society – but Jesus Christ is the answer. Look to him.

Loving our neighbour

I just watched a great talk by Ligon Duncan on loving our neighbour – it’s well worth watching the whole thing if you’ve got a spare hour. He touches on a lot of the things which we are concerned with here on Friend Zone.

As I was watching, the question struck me: if you have a neighbour (of the opposite sex) who needs your help, what’s the right solution? To love them. It’s not right to use the law to justify ourselves, to ‘find a loophole’, to get out of our obligation to do the right thing.

The great news is that Christ came that we might be redeemed and have the power to live those lives of love which sin has marred.

It’s a great talk – do watch if you have time.

Can you overcome attraction to be friends?

Lust

Source: Flickr

Someone asked me a very good question after watching my story yesterday:

what happens when you do find a friend of the opposite sex attractive/they find you attractive, but you’re married – do you think friendship is still possible in such a case? Has it been so in your experience? Or do you think it’s best to distance yourself?

Now this is a key question, and one which lies close to the  heart of Friend Zone. Is it possible to tame the beast of sexual attraction? Is it possible to have a ‘platonic’ friendship?

My answer to these questions is ‘yes’ – although you have to proceed with caution! I’m going to build on what I’ve already written elsewhere about Sexual Immorality and Practical Steps.

Attraction is not one-dimensional

Have you ever had the experience where you first met someone and didn’t really think that much of them –  but once you started to get to know them, they became more attractive to you? Attraction is a funny thing, and it’s complicated. And I’ve come to believe that often there’s more going on than meets the eye – and it’s easy to get things confused.

Let me try and explain. I think there are, broadly, two things going on with attraction: love and lust. Love says, “I like you, I want to spend time with you and be your friend, I desire what is good for you.” Lust, on the other hand, says “I want you only for your body and what you can do for me.”

The problem is, they usually come together and it’s easy to confuse one for the other. In my Practical Steps piece, I talk about sin being a distortion – and I think this is what’s going on here. Lust is distorted love. It recognises goodness and beauty – but it wants that beauty for itself.

So what do we do?

Anyone who’s been in a relationship for more than about five minutes will know that you can’t spend your life ignoring people you’re attracted to (or, indeed, who find you attractive). The way I think most people deal with it is by keeping them at arms length – unless they cave in to it! And I think most people would say there are only two real optionseither stay away from someone / don’t get too close, or give in to it. What the Bible says, however, is that there is a third way.

With relationships, I see three options:

  • Moving away from the person in fear – i.e. shutting them out / keeping them at arm’s length / making sure the friendship is superficial. This is because you are worried about what might happen.
  • Moving toward the person in lust – i.e. giving in to temptation and potentially ruining everything.
  • Moving toward the person in love – developing a relationship of love, not lust. This is what I believe God wants us to do – but, something we can only do in his strength!

God is the only one who can really change our hearts. God can take away lust and put love in its place. God can enable us to conquer feelings of sexual attraction and form genuine friendships.

In fact, on a personal note, I think it’s often those who I struggle most with who God most wants me to befriend. God does this so that it is clear friendship only happens because of his grace, not because of my own strength. God doesn’t want us to be independent, self-sufficient people, living without him – he wants us to live our lives in relationship with him. Sometimes he calls us to do things which we would never otherwise be able to do so that we will be forced to rely on him and deepen that most important relationship.

A note (or two) of caution

To finish with, just in case I sound overly positive, I think it’s important to sound a note of caution. We live in a world where sin exists – people do have affairs, relationships do break up, etc. That’s why I created this website!

So – firstly, it’s important to remember what Jeremiah said about our hearts:

The heart is deceitful above all things
and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?

Jeremiah 17:9

Our hearts are deceitful and ‘beyond cure’ – from a human perspective. God gives us new hearts – this is absolutely and gloriously true – but we need to be sure that we are dealing with sin on God’s terms and in God’s ways, not ours. God’s ways are repentance (turning away from sin and to Christ), and then turning to him in faith. We must constantly be coming to God in prayer and asking him for the power to live in his ways. If we start to think we have the strength to do it without God, we will almost certainly fall. “if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12)

Secondly, it’s important to remember that relationships always take two: just because you have a particular idea about what’s going on, it doesn’t mean the other person does. The other person might have a very different idea. I think it’s important to be open, and important to be up front – if it is unclear – that friendship is all you want. Misunderstanding is easy – we need wisdom to ensure that we don’t mislead anyone. This is something I’m still working on – maybe another blog post to come?…

In Summary

Yes – I do believe that attraction can conquered, lust can be dealt with, and friendship can happen despite these difficulties.

I do apologise if all of this has felt a little bit cold and theoretical: this is why the stories section of the website exists, to try and flesh out this kind of thing with some real human experience. Do let us  know in the comments if this kind of thing works out in your life.

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