'Pairing off is one of the major problems in the church here. We lose more young Christians from the church because of boy/girl relationships than through any other one contributing cause. Couples fall in love, they form an exclusive relationship, they hive off into a corner, backslide from the faith and before long they've slipped out of the fellowship altogether.'
The person who made that statement to me was a youth worker. Our conversation highlighted two pressing needs: first, the urgent need to define this over-used phrase 'pairing off'; second, the need to educate Christian couples in the 'how to' of radical one-to-one relationships. If God, architect of our bodies, spirits, and emotional and psychological make-up, created us, as he did, lonely in the absence of a person of the opposite sex, it is inconceivable that such relationships automatically push us into spiritual apathy. The fault, if God dreamed up the design, cannot be with the design itself. Perhaps we have failed to read the Maker's instructions?
In this chapter, then, we define 'pairing off'. We go on to examine some of the questions left dangling in mid-air from the last chapter. And we consider some new problems. How do you find such friendships? Do they just happen, like catching chicken-pox, do they come through fervent prayer, or as divine favours for pious people, or do you go out and search diligently for them, like the woman looking for her lost coin? If you are fortunate enough to find such a potential friendship, how do you get started? How do you say 'No' if a
particular friendship seems wrong? Are there dangers to avoid? If so, what are they?
'Pairing off' is frequently used in a derogatory way to describe an exclusive, possessive, even gruesome twosome: the kind of couple who cut themselves off from others and the maelstrom of life, spend a great deal of time shut up in their room or car, resent the visits of friends which are seen as 'intrusions' and rely heavily on petting and the sexual thrills they give each other through caressing. The dictionary seemed to support this common usage. Of 'pair', it writes: thing with two similar parts not used apart (p. of scissors, trousers); mated couple; pair off: divide entirely into pairs.
But 'pairing off' can be used in a mildly teasing, twinkle-in-the-eye, warm-tone-of-voice, way. Here it describes a one-to-one relationship between a boy and a girl who are powerfully attracted to one another, who are learning to be special to one another, and who feel they belong to one another, however temporary that 'belongingness' may prove to be. It has that 'everyone loves a lover' seal of approval.
As we took trouble to note in the last chapter, partnerships which fall into the second category can contribute to our emotional and spiritual growth. They can hinder it too, of course; so much depends on how they are conducted. But relationships which fit the niche of my first definition of pairing off should, in my view, find no place in the life of the committed Christian. These friendships quickly become claustrophobic, inward-tuned, time-wasting and unhealthy. Sticky and greedy as it is, the relationship quickly stagnates. Even so the couple refuses either to separate or change its behaviour-pattern. They continue to make demands of the other, continue to ignore others, continue to neglect their responsibilities and deliberately reject opportunities to serve Christ and to mature as people. Such worldly wastage of young life is tragic.
As we have observed before, the realm of relationships, as indeed every other area of our lives, must be lived in the consciousness that King Jesus could return at any time. We
must constantly apply that touchstone of behaviour we've applied before: 'Supposing Jesus returned now? What would he, the Master, think of our life-style?'
The problem is that most of us convince ourselves that Jesus will not come tonight nor even within the next five years and so we carry on, careless and complacent. But if we are serious about our Christian commitment, dare we watch the years roll by and continue leading mediocre Christian lives? Metropolitan Anthony Bloom thinks not. Prayer and commitment to Christ, he claims, bring new responsibilities.
We must learn to behave in the presence of the invisible Lord as we would in the presence of the Lord made visible to us. This implies primarily an attitude of mind and then its reflection upon the body. If Christ was here, before us, and we stood completely transparent to his gaze, in mind as well as in body, we would feel reverence, the fear of God, adoration, or else perhaps terror but we should not be so easy in our behaviour as we are.1
Add to this apt challenge a solemn question of Jesus: ' "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" ' (Luke 6:46), and perhaps I need not put the screws on any more.
If you recognize yourself from my description, if you have been sucked into an exclusive, emotion-draining relationship, you have not committed the unforgivable sin but you have been unwise. Don't wallow in guilt or self-pity. Admit your failure. Confess the sickliness of it to God. Repent; that is, determined to live differently. Perhaps go with your partner and talk to someone who can point you in the direction of Jesus' style of one-to-one relationships. Or, read on!
When that delicious thing we call pairing off happens to us, it does not discharge us from that basic code of Christian conduct summed up by Jesus in Matthew 22:37: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and
with all your mind.... Love your neighbour as yourself.' Love in this context does not mean sentimentality, gushing feelings; it does mean love in action. Service. Self-sacrifice. So, how do we hold these two things in tension: our earnest desire to please God and the sometimes more urgently felt heart-longing for intimacy?
We shall return to this question later in this chapter. First I want to reflect on the difference between the kind of relationship I have ruled out of court and the kind I am advocating.
Lewis Smedes captures the subtle nuances of healthy relationships across the sex barrier in this way:
Whenever a man and woman relate to each other as persons it adds an indefinable tinge of adventure and excitement, uncertainty and curiosity to the relationship. It colors the conversation with all sorts of brighter and lighter hues absent from the paler conversations between members of the same sex. The sexual dimensions of a totally 'innocent' relationship provide the added adventure and mystery of personal relationships that unisex society would sadly lack.... We should be conscious of it, accept it and rejoice in it. The more we affirm it with thanks, the less likely we are to be deluded by the fear that any sexually exciting relationship will lead to the bedroom.2
Compare the language used to describe these relationships: 'adventure', 'mystery', 'colour', 'excitement', with the words I used to sum up the in-grown kind of friendship: 'claustrophobic', 'emotion-draining', 'inward-tuned'. One kind is selfish and causes couples to shrivel. The other kind puts a spring in your step, a twinkle in your eye and a song in your heart. As a friend of mine once put it, healthy relationships make you glow all over and feel warm inside.
Even though a person may never have embarked on a close relationship of the kind we envisage, they sense the cosiness, the contentment, the thrill and the euphoria such relationships bring. 'I see couples strolling along the riverbank hand in hand or laughing into each other's eye or
sitting in the park together and I want what they've got even though I don't know what "it" really is.' 'It' somehow communicates itself through a wink, a knowing look, a laugh, a touch or that intangible something we now call 'vibes'. But the vibes are good. Most want what these couples have because this love does not stagnate, it overflows. Everyone feels the benefit of its energy. That, of course, prompts a question: How do these friendships start?
How do such friendships spring to life? One moment they're not there; the next minute they're flourishing. How do they happen? Do you pray for them, search for them, wait for them, manipulate them? Or what?
Many Christian I know do seek for romantic relationships. The inner longing is so great when that broody feeling sweeps over you that this is perfectly understandable. It is understandable, but, I suggest, counter-productive, time-wasting and unwise. As we noted in the last chapter, our first aim, as Christians, is to seek the kingdom of God; to serve the King. If we attend this meeting and that conference, this houseparty and that camp in the expectation of finding an eligible partner, or if we spend hours agonizing in prayer for a romantic relationship, we may well end up frustrated, disillusioned, embittered and spiritually impoverished because we have become absorbed with self, even wallowed in self-pity. We shall steered our boat off course, therefore. What is more, unless we are very careful, the cattlemarket mentality creeps into our thinking and governs it. As one girl expressed it to me, after her first few Christian Union meetings: 'I now know what it must feel like to be in the arena on market day. As a group of girls came into the meeting you could almost feel certain blokes eyeing you up and down. It was horrible.' This girl happened to attend a university where there were fewer women than men. But the same principle applies in many colleges and in any church which attracts crowds of eligible single young people. Girls are not guiltless: they have their own methods of short-listing certain eligible bachelors. Instead of finger-pointing, if we
are serious about our commitment to Christ we will ask the Holy Spirit to deliver us from this snare and renew our mind continuously so that we meet fellow Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ, not as potential lovers or sex conquests.
So how do such friendships seed themselves? The most fertile soil is to be found in an unexpected field: in Christian service, creativity groups and fellowship groups.
Talk to any happily married Christian couple, ask them how they met, and it becomes clear that God is no man's debtor. We cannot outgive his generosity. The story repeats itself over and over again with delightful regularity and a complete lack of monotony: two single people run a youth club or Christian organization together and friendship flourishes as they strive for Christ side by side. Friendship thrives and blossoms into marriageable love. Or a couple might find themselves involved in a shared-interest activity: music, rambling, drama, sport. The experiences encountered on the way will be varied: shared joy, shared effort, shared fulfillment, shared tension, shared festivities. This variety of sharing often provides the place where deeper sharing, deeper friendships, 'in-loveness' are conceived. The two people concerned never joined the club or offered their talents with the intention of finding a partner. They were simply expressing their God-given creativity or using their skills for Christ. In fact, if they had deliberately sought romance it would probably have eluded them. Yet while they absorbed themselves in other activities, that elusive but welcome guest, an attraction for a person of the opposite sex took up residence.
It reminds me of springtime in the country. You see the tree weighed down with blossom, you watch the rhododendron buds unfold and you wait for that other sign of spring: the call of the first cuckoo. Look for the cuckoo and you will rarely find it. But work in your garden or go for a ramble and, such enough, in the fullness of his time, that cheeky cuckoo-call will echo through the valley. And you rejoice because summer, too, is almost here.
'But how do we get doing? The brothers in our fellowship seem so slow.' When I toured Singapore and Malaysia, girls
clamoured for a solution to this tiresome question. (In Malaysia and Singapore the Christians have a delightful custom of calling one another 'brother' and 'sister'.) But the problem is not simply Singaporean or Malaysian. English girls pose the same problem rather more crudely, 'How do you catch a Christian man?'
I well understand the frustration girls feel (after all, I am feminine too), but it is useless to fume. Perhaps we females need to understand the problem from the male point of view?
Rightly or wrongly, the initiative still rests with the man. Most girls prefer the men to do the chasing. Most men prefer to make the first move in relationships even in these liberated days. Thus, all the onus rests on the men. But as some inexperienced, would-be 'suitors' have explained to me, 'It's all right for the girl. If we make the first move, she can assume that we like her, otherwise we wouldn't have invited her out in the first place. But if we take the plunge, how do we know she won't turn us down? Supposing I make a fool of myself? Supposing I think a girl likes me a lot, but all the time I've been kidding myself? And worse, supposing I ask her out and she gets more serious than I want to be at this stage of my life? It's such a precarious business. At times I'm plain scared. And what do you talk about on that first date?'
Comments like these remind me of James Kavanaugh's admission in the poem 'Will you be my friend?' which I quoted in the last chapter: 'I'm sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive.' Many men are like that, though few admit it, since the fashion is to imitate macho man. And, of course, not all men dither. Some enjoy the 'Does she or doesn't she like me?' phase and soon pluck up courage to discover the truth of the situation for themselves.
But since many men do confess to shyness and vulnerability it adds weight to what we have already said about the value of group friendships, shared activities; of young people enjoying being alongside each other unite by an activity outside of themselves. If a young man in the church music group forms a close friendship with one of the girls, it can be the most natural thing in the world to invite her out for coffee or a pizza after the practice. No mention need be
made of 'going out' at first. If they enjoy one another's company and the attraction is mutual, this will become self-evident and they will continue to meet in the context of the group and outside it. If the man is uncertain after several attempts at decoding the girl's reaction to him, he could perhaps arrange a foursome or sixsome in an attempt to get to know the girl better. If the friendship is true friendship, it will include the ability to communicate not just facts but feelings, and the couple will find that they can talk about their feelings for one another without the man ever having to make a formal proposal, 'Will you go out with me?'
I am writing this in a cottage in the country. It's dark outside and a moth, attracted by the light of my angle-poise lamp, is pressing against the window-pane near my desk, clearly frustrated that the invisible barrier blocks his flight. The waiting game sets many a girl into a similar state of agitation. Even so, we owe it to the men in the fellowship to understand them. If we put ourselves in their shoes and begin to appreciate their vulnerability, we shall take great care not to hurt them unnecessarily if they do decide to make the first move and we decide that this friendship is not right at this moment in time, or with this person. In such an eventuality, our 'No' must be clear but kind; firm but gentle. And we should never stoop to gossiping about the person who approached us behind his back (telling us some truth about him), or making up a string of excuses for avoiding him. Such bullets, once fired, not only wound, they scar.
Of course, the young man may well be disappointed. That cannot be avoided. What can be avoided is any unnecessary trampling over his feelings with offhandedness, mockery, rudeness, or bluntness. Although they do not always admit it as readily as women, men have feelings too and are easily hurt.
A few do's
But your reply may not be a regretful 'No'. It might be a grateful 'Yes'. Whether this is the long-waited invitation or whether it comes as a bolt from the blue, there are certain
do's and don'ts which Christians who are serious about their commitment to Christ should observe. We now look at these one by one in an attempt to return to the question I left unanswered earlier, 'How does Jesus show us how to relate?'; in an attempt, too, to ensure that such friendships do not lead you into a spiritual deep-freeze or on to an emotional scrap-heap but rather make a lasting contribution to your spiritual, emotional and sexual growth.
The first 'do' that needs to be underlined several times is this: Do remember that we are vulnerable. In the kind of relationship which we are envisaging, the sphere, the relationship, is as fragile as a bird's egg. If either party removes their hand, the egg crashes to the ground, cracks or breaks: the contents spill. Similarly if either or both partners grasp the egg in a possessive, jealous gesture, they will crack it and again the relationship will be damaged.
At the moment, where I live, my neighbours and I keep finding little blue eggshells in our gardens. 'It's the magpies,' my knowledgeable neighbour told me the other day. 'They steal the startling's eggs and eat them, then litter the ground with the broken eggshells.'
The society in which we live today is not unlike that. It, too, is littered with the fractured remains of once-promising relationships as well as the wastage and spoil of cheap and trivialized relationships. In certain circles casual relationships are encouraged, even applauded. But this is worldliness at its worst: living for self, living for kicks, treating people whose lives are precious to God as toys. Such worldliness, like a creeping sickness, is infiltrating Christian circles causing a frightening malaise among young people today. If we are to be true to ourselves, to the Lord whom we have enthroned as King of our lives, and to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are every bit as fragile as we ourselves are, and if we are to create Jesus' kind of relationships, we must keep this 'we are vulnerable' slogan ever before us. We must learn to tread as gently in our relationships as Jesus did. In John 13 17 it becomes apparent that loving the way Jesus did includes a desire to protect the loved one from unnecessary hurt; it reflects, too, the fact that Jesus assumed responsibility for others' feelings. This attitude, not the antithesis (self-gratification at all costs), should characterize our one-to-one relationships.
Watch your thought-life
In practice this means, among other things, watching your thought-life. Our imagination, when dedicated to God, is one of the most powerful senses entrusted to us. With it, we can be transported in worship; with it we can live, for a while, in a world a plane above the tragedies and traumas of this life; with it we can write poignant poems or be inspired to paint pictures that 'speak'. But the imagination is equally capable of disrupting our lives, of upsetting our equilibrium completely.
If you have ever fallen head-over-heels in love you will know exactly what I mean. The infatuation leaves no part of
you untouched. Your mind spins as thoughts of the beloved swirl round vying for attention. The whole of your body tingles at the thought of the beloved's touch or loving look. Your will melts like butter in the sun. And your imagination runs riot, untiringly embroidering what has been: every cherished glance and word and embrace; feeding on all that the relationship is or seems to be and over-glamourizing what will be. You may push these thoughts away, but like a jack-in-the-box they pop up again, dance before your eyes, mesmerize you as they clamour for attention.
Such infatuation can be fun for a while, but the accompanying fantasies can be fatal. Your imagination roams out of bounds. You protest that you cannot call it to heel. But that is not Jesus' verdict. Christ-like friendships recoil from lustful daydreams (Matthew 5:28). As Martin Luther shrewdly observed, using a different metaphor, 'You can't stop birds flying over your head but you can stop them nesting in your hair.'
Recognize the difference between infatuation and affection
We not only can we must. Unless we do stop these birds nesting in our hair we shall put the relationship in jeopardy. Fantasies, like seeds hidden in the warm soil of the desert, germinate fast and produce prolific growth. Just as seasonal rains will transform the desert into a garden within hours so fantasies, if nourished, will take root and proliferate. The problem then is that you manipulate the relationship to take up where your fantasies left off, thus refusing it permission to develop at its own, more innocent, pace.
This leads me to my next 'do'. Remember that infatuation, overwhelming as it is, fun as it is, has little to do with affection. Infatuation, in fact, is usually thoroughly 'me-centered' rather than 'other-centered.' You fall for someone, you beguile yourself into believing yourself deeply in love with this person round whom your dreams revolve, you believe yourself ready to renounce your absorption with self for the sake of the well-being of this other person. Then, one morning, you wake up to discover that the euphoria has evaporated in the night. What is more, you find yourself held
captive by identical feelings for another person.
Jesus, attractive as he was, in all probability attracted female infatuations and fantasies, though no doubt he was able to discourage them without hurting the persons concerned. But, as we observed in chapter one, he was prayerfully selective about the close relationships he encouraged. And if we are wise, we shall follow his example even in the climate in which we live; even when the peer-group pressure to pair off is fierce.
Another 'do' which is essential in any one-to-one friendship is this: beware of the booby-trap bombs of possessiveness and jealousy. I sometimes find myself aching for couples where the girls act rather like the rhododendron roots I saw strangling some pine trees on one occasion. These girls climb and cling and refuse to let go. I agonize, too, for couples where either partner is consumed with jealousy every time their partner enjoys the companionship of another member of the opposite sex.
One young man was honest enough to express this problem to me recently. 'The jealousy inside me is terrible. It makes me want to possess her. I want her to walk with me to church. I want her to sit next to me. I want us to do everything together: little things like washing and shopping; big things like studying.'
In answer to my question, 'How do you feel about these demands?', his girlfriend pulled a face and admitted that this possessiveness was fast feeling claustrophobic. 'It feels more committed than I'm prepared to be at this stage. It's not that I don't love him. It's just that I don't want to act like his wife until we are married.'
That puts the situation in a nutshell. A relationship where jealousy and possessiveness prevail inevitably becomes claustrophobic. People suffering from claustrophobia look for an escape-route. They fear that unless they escape they will choke. In Jesus' style of friendships there is an absence of such strangulation. Far from stifling his friends, Jesus encouraged them, as we saw in chapter one, to love each
other, to express this affection, to discover their God-ordained mission and to be caught in it. Jesus provided his friends with the free and fearless space to grow as individuals and in the service of God.
Promote your partner's growth
And one of the purposes of love, on the pattern of Jesus, is actively to promote the growth of the loved one. This is the key to radical one-to-one relationships. They do not exist for self-gratification or sexual thrills, but to provide the environment where each friend can be loved into the next phase of personal growth.
Look at it this way. Good parents bring a child into the world, not to feed their own need to be needed, but to unpack, with the growing child, God's purpose for this new life. Indeed, the chief purposes of parenthood is to provide the environment where the little person can discover his God-given potential. Similarly, one of the purposes of marriage is to take up where parents left off. In healthy Christian marriages, each partner encourages the other to plumb the depths of their God-given love.
One-to-one relationships, as I see them, are the bridge which spans the gulf between parental love and marital love. Even though a particular boy/girl friendship may never result in marriage, its main aim should coincide with the relationships which precede and follow it: to generate the atmosphere where the loved one's further growth can most easily take place.
True love never restricts or hinders a person's growth. On the contrary, as Jesus demonstrated here on earth, true love gives the loved one roots, by providing a secure place of belonging, but it also gives the loved one wings, permission to come and go as he pleases.
If we keep this high purpose of one-to-one loving before us, the Christian church need not bewail the pairing off problem I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, but will rather rejoice in the maturity and zeal of the young people who serve the King.
A few don'ts
Don't, then, trap each other or deprive one another of the joy of serving God. If your boyfriend is endowed musically, set him free, no, encourage him to join the music group in church. Yes. This will be costly for you. You will appear to your friends to be statusless because you sit alone. You will be denied the physical cosiness of sharing your songsheet with him and maybe brushing his hand as you do so. But think of the benefits for your boyfriend (see Matthew 5:14ff.), think of the value of his ministry within the body of Christ, look at the situation from God's perspective. Chew over the example of Jesus. Ask him to purge you of the resentment that would restrict your partner's movements.
Don't over-commit yourself
Many couples who start going out in their middle or late teens feel very committed to one another, like Graham and Jane whose relationship I described in chapter three. A certain amount of commitment is clearly important. But don't over-commit yourself as they did, planning for years ahead when both of them would change in the intervening years. No. If, one day, engagement and marriage are right for this relationship, that is the time to make long-lasting promises and plans. Not now. One of the vital lessons Jesus taught us is to live one day at a time, to live it to the full, and to live it for God. If Graham and Jane and Graham's parents had lived life as Jesus lived it, Graham and Jane could have parted without bitterness and without deliberately inflicted wounds.
Don't precipitate a teenage marriage
And don't let infatuation or euphoria or pressure from family or friends precipitate a youthful marriage. The statistics suggest that 50 % of teenage marriages result in divorce within the first five years. These figures are frightening. Young adulthood is a time of change. Enjoy the richness of one-to-one relationships by all means, but be prepared to wait for the responsibilities of marriage.
And, as I implied at the beginning of this chapter, don't
allow this relationship to fritter away God's gift of time. Don't reject opportunities for serving God. Don't cut yourselves off from others. They need you and you need them.
Much of what I have written goes against the world's grain (and we haven't tackled the petting problem yet.) If you set out to forge Jesus' style of friendships you will be swimming against society's tide. You may be mocked, you may be rejected, you may feel foolish.
But Christianity never did pretend to pander to worldly opinions. Neither did it ever pretend to be for the chicken-hearted. No. Christ turns worldly standards on their heads and calls us to live differently. To live differently means to stick out like a sore thumb. It means you have to be tough. It involves a radical re-appraisal of much we take for granted. It calls for radical relationships.
I don't guarantee you an easy ride. But what will happen if you live life as Jesus lived it is that any relationships you make will leave you with few regrets, few blushes and, instead of a nasty taste in your mouth, a grateful prayer: 'Lord, for what we have each received from you in this relationship, make us eternally grateful.' What is more, if you ever do marry, you will never be embarrassed to introduce your spouse to an 'old flame'. Such walking in the light is liberty.
Note for chapter four
1. Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (Libra, 1976), p. 12 (italics mine).
2. Lewis Smedes, Sex in the Real World (Lion, 1976), p. 96.
Chapter Five || Table of Contents