I am excited to announce that I am now blogging for Evangelical Outpost (evangelicaloutpost.com)! If you would like to hear further thoughts on the theology behind the Purity Movement, you can check out my post! On E.O. I write as Alishia Lawman.
*photo by Bev Lloyd-Roberts
“To repent is to smile, not to frown—to look up, not down. It is not just the recognition that things have gone wrong, but the realization that through Christ they can be put right. It is not the sight of our own ugliness but the vision of God’s beauty.” – Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
As Christians, we are called to live a life (and share a message) of Grace and Holiness. My complaint against what I have referred to as the “Purity Movement” is that, on the whole, it is preaching neither of these. This may come as a surprise – I not only criticize the absence of grace but the absence of true holiness as well. After my last post, I received several correspondences from people asking what a positive message on sexuality would look like given my former critiques. I think the answer is – the gospel.
First, the Christian message of grace is extremely robust and must not be diminished. It is not, “When you sin, God is mad and thinks you suck, but don’t worry, He won’t smite you if you say you’re sorry” (“I mean, if you don’t say sorry then he’ll make sure you never find love and that you burn eternally, but, you know…”). If we have preached a “God is gracious, but …” message, then we have not preached grace. Grace is not just “the thing we get when we sin,” it is what we need in order to do anything else! Grace is God’s love and His life infused into us, and God is not stingy. His grace is knocking at our door at every turn. I begin this post with grace rather than holiness because, as Christians, we must believe that grace is first, last, and everything in between. When we are teaching teens about holiness, we ought to be teaching them that this holiness is achieved by the love and grace of God.
Grace is not God saying, “I see that you only got 40% on your ‘Living a Good Life’ test, here’s 60 points of grace so you will all be perfect in my book.” Grace is why our hearts beat, it is the only way we are able to love, it is the spiritual air we were created to breathe in Eden. If we had no sin, we would need no forgiveness but we would still need grace. It is by receiving God’s grace that we grow in His likeness.
I have heard too many sermons or speeches by people in the purity movement who are afraid of grace. As if the responsible thing to do is to pretend that God is really strict and that grace doesn’t exist. If you mess up, then try to grab hold of grace. But that’s a last resort; it’s better just to be good so you won’t need it. When this is presented to teens, they receive the impression that “God is a perfectionist who expects you never to mess up. If you do mess up, you can still go to heaven if you say sorry, but you will also go on God’s ‘B-List’; His ‘A-List’ is for people who obeyed the first time.”
I think this notion that we only need grace for mistakes makes us pursue holiness in all of the wrong ways. For one thing, chastity is a virtue – virginity in itself is not. Virginity can result from a lack of opportunity just as much as from genuine self-control. On the other hand, Chastity can remain in situations of rape or abuse and can even be regained when it is lost. It is chastity that graces the soul and radiates the faithfulness, holiness, love, and long-suffering of God. Through chastity we grow in love for God, love for others, and love for ourselves. Sadly, instead of seeking to participate in the life of the Holy Trinity by growing in the likeness of God, we narrow our vision toward merely attempting not to fail. Virginity that is chaste is beautiful, but it is chastity that is praiseworthy. Chastity will grace a marriage long after virginity is gone.
According to traditional Christianity, chastity for the unmarried takes the form not only of abstinence, but also of self-control and of a healthy, reverent view of sexuality. However, for brides and bride-grooms chastity changes its form from abstinence to fidelity, and this marital chastity is praiseworthy as well! Chastity is God reviving our sexuality into what it is meant to be and bringing it into relationship with Him. Abstinence is one manifestation of this, marital intimacy and fidelity another.
It is only by receiving grace that we pursue holiness, for it is God Who vivifies us. He is the Lover of mankind, our gracious ally, helping us and forgiving us. Christ does not condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery. He throws no stones. Neither does He say, “Go and continue to sin.” The path to chastity is arduous and, whether we are single or married, we will only embody it by the breath and life of God within us, making us whole. This is why grace and holiness cannot be separated. We will never grow to be like God by running away in fear of Him.
Let us remember our Lord and that it is His kindness which leads us to repentance and to any amount of holiness. We will only continue to try if we do not despair. But if we diminish the grace of our God, how can we do anything besides despair? Let us look to the kindness, gentleness, and beauty of God and never, even for a moment, pretend that there is any height or depth that can separate us from His love.
Growing up, I was a strong advocate for the “purity movement” of the late 90’s. This was a movement primarily in the Christian evangelical church which encouraged teenage boys and girls (predominantly girls) to avoid having sex before marriage. Some churches had purity ceremonies where teenage girls walked down the aisle and were symbolically given to Jesus by their fathers. They would wear a white dress and receive a ring and make a promise to “stay pure” until marriage. Some churches had purity bible studies where, without ever talking about healthy sexuality, young girls were told that “sleeping with someone” when you’re not married makes your heart grimy and dirty and means you are turning away from Jesus.
To make better sense of this movement, I need to go back to the Home-school Revolution of the early 80’s. In deference to James Dobson and several other fundamentalist leaders, evangelical Christians were encouraged to break out of societal norms and to revolutionize the world by keeping their children untainted by it. Many parents chose to pull their children out of school in order to shelter, protect, and influence their children in the way they saw fit. Others chose to have their children in private Christian education but kept a close eye. Many watched only “Christian” movies, listened only to “Christian” music, and only socialized with Christian friends.
Now, jump ahead to the late 90’s. All of these parents who had experimented with sheltering the children of the early 80’s found themselves parenting pubescent teenagers with romantic interests. How were they to parent young adults and find them mates in a post-sexual-revolution culture? The home-school and fundamentalist movements placed great emphasis on family – in fact the idea of living a life in singleness was predominantly viewed as tragic – but how were they to get their children to the altar?
It was on this fertile ground and with this high demand for Christian advice on romance that Joshua Harris published his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.” In this book, Harris advocates not only sexual abstinence but romantic abstinence until marriage. Saving one’s heart as well as one’s body for the wedding night. The purity movement’s mantra in answer to the sexual revolution was, “Don’t have sex outside of marriage.” Harris’ addition to the mantra was, “and don’t think about it either.”
Now, I am not here to speak against abstinence; historic Christianity has always been pro-marriage and anti-promiscuity. Nor am I speaking against emotional self-control; anyone in a committed relationship knows that sometimes fidelity requires more than just physical boundaries. What I am saying is that the purity movement addressed pre-marital sex without addressing marriage. Instead of painting a beautiful, fascinating, healthy and realistic picture of marital sex, they attempted to control the behaviour of teenagers and left marital sex almost entirely out of the conversation. No one was preparing young people for sex, they were trying their best to get them not to have it.
The purity movement didn’t address things like the dangers of sexual anorexia, male chauvinism, the prevalence of sexual abuse, or the path to healing. The movement didn’t acknowledge that marriage is less like a chic-flick and more like Baptism. Instead it only spoke of marital sex in order to promote a prosperity gospel that promises sexual bliss for the price of pre-marital abstinence. Empty promises were given, like, “If you don’t have sex before marriage, you will enjoy it so much more once you have it.” In addition to this, we must not forget the “petal plucking” philosophy which states that virginity is a rose and every romantic experience is plucking a petal off of that rose…on your wedding night don’t you want more than a stem to offer your spouse? Furthermore, no one explained what the poor little flower supposedly looked like the morning after the wedding. After all, if they got you to the wedding pure, you were on your own.
Even if a young Christian adult was strong enough or sheltered enough to avoid sex before marriage, many have been left to walk into marriage with all of the same polluted ideas of sex that they learned from the culture but with a hovering sense of guilt that sex is morally bad. Sadly, some learned this not just from the culture but from their “purity” promoting parents. Many Christian men were not taught that hedonism is false and to learn self-control; they were taught that hedonism is true but delayed gratification is more pleasurable. Wait for the wedding night, then have sex whenever you want. Many women were not taught that sex is for them too; they were taught female subjugation and that the real value of sex is the power to keep your husband. Don’t ever say “yes” to a boyfriend and don’t ever say “no” to a husband. A man will not stay with you if you don’t give him his pleasure, but nor will he buy the cow if the milk is free. I can’t even repeat that phrase without gagging a little. Comparing marriage to the purchase of livestock is just icky.
The purity movement didn’t speak out against marital utilitarianism like that found in Dr. Laura’s book, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.” They didn’t address how placating men by debasing women is degrading to both sexes. For some her book is even considered good ol’ practical advice for a Christian home. At www.bible.org there is even a review that describes it as “a wonderful instruction manual on how to carry out the New Testament’s principles for wives.” I confess that I haven’t read the book (I can’t stomach reading a book summary so I decided to spare myself!). In addition to this, consider that the Scripture refers to marriage as an image of Christ and His Church. Can you imagine how disturbing it would be to read a theological book entitled, “The Proper Care and Feeding of God”? This would be disturbing because God is a Person! I’m sure such a book would include all the necessary prayers and actions required to keep a simple God placated into not abandoning His people. It is philosophies like these that continue to poison our marriages. Men are not beasts or loyal pets. Women are not mere things – even pure things.
To call this a “purity” movement is a misnomer – this was a “virginity” movement. We taught people about abstinence; we taught them nothing about sex. Even worse, we taught them nothing about grace, about forgiveness, about salvation, about healing. We did not teach them how to love their spouse, we taught them how to keep record of wrongs. We did not teach them sacrifice, but mutual jealousy. We gave them a movie plot that ends with a wedding. But the altar is not meant to be a finish but a beginning: the beginning of a life of sanctification with another person. Marriage is like Baptism. Baptism is not where we demonstrate our purity, it is where we wash off our sins. Marriage is a place where we learn to love a sinner and so become less sinful ourselves. It is a place where we may be so loved by a sinner that we realize we can’t begin to glimpse the kind of love God must has for us.
“If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
Jesus makes a comparison here between God as our heavenly Father, and men as earthly fathers. He acknowledges that human beings have limitations God does not have (“if you, being evil…“). If we hold to any doctrine of the fall, indeed if we observe anything in ourselves and our fellow men, we know that man has evil in his heart in a way that God does not (“God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” – 1 John 1:5). So what are we to think St. Paul is asking of us when he says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord”. . . “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” . . . “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters . . . as to Christ”? (Ephesians 5:22, 6:1, 6:5.)
It seems that hierarchy among human beings is in some sense iconic. A father is an icon of God’s Fatherhood; a priest is an icon of Christ as our high priest; a husband is an icon of Christ in His relationship with His Church; a master is an icon of Christ our Lord. And yet we see in the above passage from St. Luke’s gospel that mankind falls short and that human fatherhood is not the same as God’s (“how much more will your heavenly Father give…”). It seems that our theology of icons will influence the way we interpret the commands of St. Paul.
I do not have the insight or the knowledge to unpack what headship is. However, what I would like to do is observe two different approaches I’ve seen that seem to go awry: iconoclasm and idolatry.
I have observed that some children grow up in a relationally iconoclastic system. In this system, there is no hierarchy of honor, but only of power or ability. For example, adults make the decisions because they are better at it and because they have power that children don’t have. Perhaps the father “leads” the family’s decisions, perhaps the mother does; it all depends on who is more capable and who can make it happen. In this system, human authority is not iconic, nor is the person of authority given the honor or veneration of an icon.
Another system in which children grow up may be an idolatrous one. In an idolatrous system, honor is given to particular persons of authority not on the basis of ability, but almost a sense of innate worth. This system does not disregard icons (as in the iconoclastic system), instead it replaces them with little substitutes for Christ. In this system, a father may be given a place of honor and authority, but it is not because he is an icon of God the Father, but for some reason like, “God put fathers in charge.”
Both iconoclastic as well as idolatrous systems may have a tendency toward abuse. In the fist case, the system may turn into “might equals right”. Without a given order, authority is a thing to be seized. We climb the ladder and reach for the stars and may end up pulling one another down. On the other hand, authority being given to a particular person as a right which is possessed, leads to an unchecked corruption of power.
According to the iconodules (those who have fought for the proper use of icons within Christian worship), an icon of Christ is venerated because and insofar as it represents Christ and is Christ to the people. If a priest or bishop apostatizes, he is stripped of his clerical authority. Likewise, if a father abuses his children, they are to be taken out of his care. No human authority is an end in itself, but is an end insofar as he/she is iconic.
One final thought/example is a reflection on the lives of the saints. It seems that the holier one is, the more he/she is able to see Christ in everything – even corrupt authorities. The great saints and martyrs have submitted to earthly authorities who were thoroughly corrupt. However, by submitting to human beings, they were really submitting to Christ. On the other hand, some saints and martyrs received their crown of glory precisely because they chose not to submit to the authorities which were contrary to Christ. When it was impossible to do both, they chose to obey God rather than man.
The following post is written on the basis of experience more than that of study. Theologians, Psychologists, and Anthropologists will be able to describe far better than me what I am attempting to understand and articulate here. This post is meant to be an exploration. I am merely trying to put into words common experiences and observations.
It has come to my attention that I do not hear – that is, I do not receive all informational content – in the same way. Of course, in one way this comes as no surprise. For example, if the cashier at the grocery store asks me, “How are you today?” I assume I know that he/she is attempting to be polite and courteous, and to give opportunity for me to voice a complaint about my shopping experience should I have one. If a therapist were to ask me the same question, “How are you today?” I would assume he/she is asking me about my core experiences which may have a broad range of intellectual, emotional, physical and spiritual experiences mixing together to form my current mood. In large part, it is not surprising that I hear these two questions differently because, in fact, they are two different questions. When we hear content, we do not hear verbal content only. The fullness of a question is heard, yes by language, but also through context, past relationship, body language, and other methods of implying meaning and intention. In the previous example it is not two different types of hearing, but hearing two different things.
The hearing categories that I wish to explore in this post are that of “thought words” and “feeling words.” I owe this distinction to many helpful psychologists and friends. These are categories I have only learned in the last several years, which many excellent authors and psychologists articulate much clearer than I do. A perhaps simple explanation of these two types of expressions, i.e. “thought” and “feeling”, is that a proposition is a thought you have about yourself or the world, whereas a feeling is an experience within yourself. Again, bear with me as these categories are neither exhaustive nor most likely entirely accurate. However, they have been experientially very helpful for me.
When in conflict, a person may say, “I think the position you hold on this subject is wrong” or they may say, “When you speak that way, I feel hurt.” However, beware of those statements which say, “I feel you are being selfish about this.” If we were to make a list of emotions or “feeling words” (Milan and Kay Yerkovich do this really well in the book “How We Love“), the words “I feel you are” would not be on it. Imagine a list of emotions that goes something like this: “sad, happy, hurt, scared, excited, betrayed, unsafe, helpless, like someone is selfish, shy, bashful” … etc. Let’s go back to our Sesame Street and say, “One of these things is not like the others.” The reason is that “someone is selfish” is a thought or proposition, not a feeling. We may feel “unsafe” or “hurt” because we think someone in our life is selfish, but we must be careful that we are being honest when we say “I feel” rather than “I think.”
I find it helpful to think of internal mailboxes. Imagine that we have a Thought Mailbox and a Feeling Mailbox. Our Thought Mailbox is read through our intellect and we evaluate whether or not we think something is correct (that is, that it corresponds to reality), incorrect (that it does not correspond to reality), relevant, consistent, reasonable, etc. Our Feeling Mailbox is read through our emotions and moves toward empathy. When a friend expresses deep grief or loss, the most helpful reaction is to be with them and feel with them. To come alongside them in empathy and to say, “Ah, you feel this right now and it really hurts; Mmm…I know what hurt feels like and I’m with you right now.” It is not for us intellectually to evaluate and say, “Is this hurt corresponding to reality?” Has it ever helped a person grieving the loss of a loved one for someone to come up and say, “They lived a good life” ? As if to say, “Stop crying like this is sad. Your feelings don’t correspond to reality. Wrong feelings! Fix them!” It is likely the grieving person is not grieving over their loved one having had a bad life, but over the loss they themselves feel. This is why empathetic hugs and tears combined with shutting up can tend to be helpful to those who are grieving.
Communication becomes problematic and people start to feel icky when they receive mixed messages. Mixed messages can occur when we use verbal language to say one thing and actions or body language to say the opposite. We have all heard this and, if we’re honest, we’ve probably done it. It’s the, “Sure, that’s fine” accompanied by the sigh and shrug of the shoulders which communicate, “Of course that’s not fine! How could you have thought that was fine?!”
Another way we send and receive mixed messages is when we send thoughts through someone’s Feeling Mailbox. Have you ever recognized how someone can be talking about “how they feel” and you find yourself feeling defensive, angry, and icky? I am finding it helpful to check to make sure the label was sent to the right box. If someone says, “I’m so glad you’re finally here!” This may be a thought sent to your Feeling Mailbox. Your intellect says, “They are expressing feelings, hey Emotions, this one’s for you” then your emotions pick it up and say, “Yay, they are feeling happy, I will empathize and feel happy with them.” This is great except for the fact that the word “finally” was meant to imply that people were waiting and it’s a morally good thing that they do not have to wait anymore. By expressing pleasure at your arrival, they are implying that this is in contrast to displeasure which your choices inevitably invoked. Your emotions then get tricked. While attempting to feel happy along with this person, your emotions are deceived into making judgments and feeling badly about yourself. “Yay, they are feeling happy. I know that feeling of happy. Also, I am bad that they didn’t feel happy until now.”
Now, if your intellect had had a shot at opening that message, it could have said something like, “Oh, I see. You had an expectation that I would arrive earlier and your expectations have been disappointed so you now irrationally think I’m bad; I don’t think that I’m bad because your expectations were different from mine, so I suppose we disagree on that.” Your intellect may have had the opportunity to disagree and save your emotions the hardship of coming to conclusions which they were spoon fed.
When your emotions receive the proposition, “You are bad because I feel disappointed,” they don’t have the same skills of evaluation that the intellect has. Emotions are really good at what they do. With emotions we are able to empathize as well as recoil; this is awesome. In fact, empathy does it’s job better than the intellect would do it. However, the intellect does it’s own job far better than the emotions can do as well. Thus, it is a sly move to send propositions to the emotions because emotions don’t know how to deal with them.
It takes a great deal of courage to say, “I think ________.” Saying we think something puts our thought into the forum of reason to be disputed or disliked. Because of this, we sometimes express our thoughts as “I feel ________” not because it is a feeling at all, but because we want to make our thought a subjective experience inside ourselves so that it will not be held up to scrutiny by others. This is actually unfair, and perhaps even tyrannous. It can be a way of imposing our thoughts on others by asserting them in a manner that forbids any discussion. By saying, “I just feel like we should all do this or that” we are actually giving a strong piece of advice. After all, we are saying “you should do this”; we are, in fact, invoking a sense of ought. How can one respond to us? To say, “Ummm, no you don’t feel that way” or “Well, you shouldn’t feel that way” or “But I don’t feel that way.” It can get messy and awkward.
On the other hand, sometimes we propose judgments when what we really want to express is a feeling. It takes a great deal of courage to express our feelings as well. To say, “I feel scared” to someone who is scaring you is a terrifying thing. To tell someone in whose company you feel anxious, “I feel unsafe when I’m with you” may take every ounce of courage you have. We may be tempted to resort instead to saying things like, “You make people uncomfortable when you act like that.” This is a proposition. We are keeping it in the realm of thought instead of expressing our feelings. And honestly, if a person is unsafe to be around, perhaps it is wise not to share our emotions. I say this just to point out that our mistakes go both ways. We can either communicate our thoughts with feeling language rather than courageously owning them as the thoughts we have. We can also avoid vulnerably expressing our feelings by making propositions about other people, propositions that do not get at the heart of what we desire to communicate.
I want to make one last clarification as I come to a close. I have distinguished between thinking and feeling rather starkly with the intention of seeing communication more clearly. I do not, however, think that the soul is divided this starkly. Emotions are aspects of our internal experience and are often based on thoughts that we have. The thoughts we have, thus, effect our emotions. I also want to clarify that although I am describing emotions as personal experience, I do not mean to say that they have no correspondence to the outside or objective world. Emotions are data about how we are experiencing the world. Although emotions are neither true or false, they may be appropriate or inappropriate to a given situation. In other words, emotions may or may not appropriately correspond to reality but they certainly can interact with it. We may (and often do) receive information through distorted processing, but our emotions can also give us insight into the world which propositions cannot. Finally, by distinguishing between Thought Mailboxes and Feeling Mailboxes, I do not mean to restrict the informational receptacles of the soul to merely two. There is a long tradition of Christianity distinguishing the nous as a sort of spiritual receptacle and I am sure many other possible aspects of the soul which are unaccounted for here.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35
We are told by Jesus that the strongest semblance we can bear to Him is when we love as He loves. Perhaps if we are utilitarian in relation to others they will know we are Machiavelli’s disciples; perhaps, if we pontificate without wisdom, the disciples of the sophists. However, according to Christ, the Church’s most prominent familial resemblance is love.
The most dangerous counterfeit of anything, is that which most resembles the real thing without itself being the same. Banks have nothing to fear from Monopoly money because it will never be attributed to the treasury department, and Elvis impersonators will never be Elvis. The Leaf Scorpionfish, on the other hand, is a fish that disguises itself as a piece of harmless coral, only to attack spontaneously its unsuspecting prey. Those things which pose the worst threat to us are often those of which we are not suspicious. Thus, if we are to love as God loves, we must be wary of persuasive counterfeits.
What psychologists call “enmeshment” – a merging of persons, identity, and experience such that another’s subjective experience is mistaken for one’s own – is one such counterfeit. The “principles” which an enmeshed family may use to defend its dysfunction may vary greatly, but there is a general rule that it will be defended by an indisputable principle which seems to be in place, though in reality has nothing to do with the family system. A family’s motto may be, “We put family first,” or “People are the most important thing,” or “God says to love our neighbor as ourself.”
Enmeshment is a relational dysfunction that begins in childhood – most often within one’s family of origin. As a developmental dysfunction, it is one that is very difficult to correct. To correct an enmeshed style of relating to others requires habitually relearning the most basic meaning and purpose of all human relationships. It may stretch back to the earliest, most primitive human connections of first learning to say “Mama” and “Dada.”
I have observed in many Christian circles that the enmeshment takes on a religious flare. For Christians, the authority of the Bible is often used to defend a system of relationship that actually blasphemes the true love of God. An enmeshed family may appear to be a loving, self-sacrificing, Christian family, though in reality may be violating God’s most foundational priorities of relationship. Apart from enmeshment being a foundational dysfunction, two additional elements make it particularly difficult to change: (1) it is a believable counterfeit, and (2)in a religious setting it is supported by and intertwined with many theological implications. Members of an enmeshed system which fuses itself to these religious principles may find themselves with the obligation to remain enmeshed in order to remain a Christian.
Enmeshment versus the Kingdom of God
There are two foundational differences between enmeshment and the economy of heaven, and these are teleology and freedom.
Teleology comes from the greek word telos – the translates as end, finish, completion, perfection or even purpose. Teleology is the study of the ends or purposes of things. According to Aristotle, any existing thing has four causes: a material cause, a formal cause, an efficient cause and a final cause. The “final cause” for Aristotle is the cause of purpose. This means that the final aspect of what makes any existing thing itself, is that for which it exists.
A chair’s material cause may be wood (that which it is made from). Its formal cause may be four legs, a back, and a seat (the shape which it holds). The chair’s efficient cause may be a carpenter (the agent which brings it to be). However, the final cause of the chair is to be that upon which a person sits. This is the reason why it was made. For Aristotle, you can never know what a thing is without knowing its final cause. Indeed a thing could not be itself if it did not have one.
In an enmeshed system, a human soul exists for the purpose of enhancing the collective. The child, the husband, the wife may be told to “die to self” or to be “unselfish” as his/her primary virtue. The motto “Family first” turns out to mean just that – family before all other possible things. It means family before God, family before friends, family before justice, virtue, moral judgment, reason, fact, reality etc.. It means family before any family member’s needs.
This reminds me of the Superman film, “Man of Steele.” This film explores Kripton’s sociological values and how each person is genetically engineered to serve a certain function in society. Soldiers, politicians, janitors etc. are engineered for a particular role. The film actually argues for human freedom against this kind of determinism/utilitarianism in a beautiful way.
Although this kind of utility sounds extreme, enmeshment does this very thing on a psychological level. You might say that in an enmeshed system, children are psychologically engineered to serve a particular function in this micro-society. One child may be the peacemaker, another the achiever, another may be the comic relief. The point is that in this system, a person’s telos – the purpose for which they exist – is defined by the social needs of the family.
In the Kingdom of God, teleology works in an opposite manner. When we say that God created the world ex nihilo – out of nothing – we imply not only that God created the world out of no former material, but that He created the world apart from any necessity (see “The Orthodox Way” – Kallistos Ware). He did not create the cosmos because in any sense He needed it. He created us out of His own love. He did not create us to “die to self”; He created us to be a self. The need to “die to self” is a result of sin and actually means to die to our false self. Sin means that we have become slaves to the world, the flesh, and the devil and that we have given up our human freedom. To become truly free – to beome truly ourselves again – we need to be delivered from bondage to our own passions, bondage to the world – its stories, lies, expectations and demands – and bondage to the devil.
God will never ask us to eliminate our free self – nor will he ever violate that freedom. Instead, He will only ask us to love with it.
Freedom is the second foundational point on which enmeshment and the Kingdom of God are opposed. An enmeshed system is built upon societal needs and thus it is also built upon obligation. Because each member exists to serve the whole, the expectations for each member are based not on what an individual has, but on what the collective needs. If the family need is for a sense of togetherness and belonging which results in a week-long family vacation, it does not matter if the individual has the time, money, or emotional energy to participate; what matters is that it is required.
Let us contrast this with tithing and Christian stewardship within God’s Church. In God’s family, we are also called to give and to sacrifice, but we are called to tithe of what we have. The Church member’s offering is not based upon the Church’s budget but upon his/her own. In the twelfth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel, we hear Jesus makes reference to this when he speaks of the widow and her 2 copper coins. He shows that God is not looking for an amount that is needed but the generosity of what is given from what one has.
In enmeshment, each member of the collective is obligated to give whatever is needed in order to remain a member. Thus all giving being itself obligatory, it is also transactional. Human beings cannot flourish alone (“It is not good that the man should be alone” – Genesis 2:18). Therefore, if one is threatened with ostracism from the only known community lest he/she meet that collective’s needs, there is little option but to attempt to comply. Thus, one sacrifices human freedom in order to be a part of the only community believed to be available.
I would like to close with this thought. According to what we know of God’s relationship to man, freedom is one of the most – if not the absolute most – important thing God wishes to preserve in man. God was willing to allow all evil, injustice, suffering and sin that has ever occurred in the history of the world. God was willing to incarnate Himself as a human being, to suffer and to die. God is continually willing to suffer the rejection of His creatures to their own detriment, strictly for the purpose of ensuring their ability to say “No” to God.
Without freedom, there is no possibility of love. And after all, it is by love that we will be known as our Lord’s disciples. This is how God loves, by offering freedom to the beloved and by suffering the consequences of that freedom. He loves by giving Himself (“I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” – John 10:17-18). He loves by giving us Himself and by allowing us to reject Him.
For this reason the Church sees that the Virgin Mother of God, the Holy Theotokos, is the first Christian and the model for every Christian. Our God is unlike other gods. He does not possess anyone. He comes to the Virgin Mary speaking to her of the Salvation God is bringing to the world and to her. He speaks to her of the Christ – God Himself – becoming incarnate within her. Our Mother gives her response, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” – Luke 1:38. Our Mother offers herself willingly, and our Lord receives our Mother’s response.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the our of our death. Pray for us, holy Mother, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ. Amen.
Like most people who grow up in a religious or moral household, I was brought up with the notion that it is important to be unselfish. Placing the needs of others above one’s own is both a primary goal as well as a constant struggle in each person’s life. Although selflessness is absolutely crucial to our growth in virtue and especially charity, I’ve observed that this practice can be quite imbalanced and even dangerous when it is reduced merely to meeting the needs of others instead of meeting our own.
For one thing, human beings do not survive when their “needs” are not met. If our physical needs are not met (i.e. food, water, air, exercise, sunlight etc.), we grow sick and feeble, and eventually we die. If our spiritual, psychological, intellectual needs aren’t met, then our soul will shrink, decay, and slowly die.
It is possible to treat our God-given survival instincts as if they were merely a propensity to wickedness. We may even do this while simultaneously contradicting this principle by praising our body’s “miraculous” ability to heal itself. Both healing and self-preservation are God given, provided they are in proper order and proportion. If we think that self preservation is evil, we may be tempted to confuse suicide and martyrdom – the taking of one’s life and the giving of it.
Reducing altruism to this kind of disregard for personal need, leads to the experience of guilt in association with met needs. Rather than experiencing guilt when we harm another person or do something for which we ought to feel ashamed, we may believe we are morally bad or unloving by accepting the generosity of others.
Since we cannot survive when our needs are unmet, we will be forced either to reject the gifts and services of others, or to deceive ourselves and attempt to get our needs met by stealth. We will learn that we can survive without causing our psyche to feel guilty about it, but only if our psyche never finds out that all of the things we do are actually meeting those needs.
In all of my training in selflessness, I never learned to guard against this method of stealth and self-deceit. All people need to feel loved, accepted, and acceptable in order to flourish. Self-loathing is emotional self-abuse that can result in slow emotional death. We slowly shrink and our emotional health deteriorates when we can’t receive the communal love and acceptance in which we are all meant to live.
When we feel shame for having our needs met in community, we will still seek to have them met (we can’t help it), only rather than openly asking for help, we will seek it in secret by another name. This is what I am calling uncharitable altruism.
It is as if you were to live in a world where it is socially unacceptable or morally bad to ask another person for food. So when you are hungry, you constantly offer to others the service of taking out their trash. You never mention to yourself or to anyone else that you survive off of the table scraps of others, you just offer to help everyone. The truth will come out when they decline your offer to “help” them. When you find yourself hurt or offended as if you’ve been wronged, it is evident that this was not for them at all.
When I find myself angry that someone does not want whatever help or service I offer, this is usually because in order to receive the self-acceptance I need, I am looking for others to feel grateful to me. I am primarily not out to help people. If I were, then them not needing my help wouldn’t hurt me.
I learned to be “unselfish” not altruistic. Instead of learning to sacrifice myself for others, I learned to feed my emotional needs on the emotional crumbs that fall from others’ tables. In essence, I learned how to use people in order to get my needs met by appearing to take care of them. This leads neither to charity, nor to humility.
In closing, I will give an example of humble, charitable altruism. The first example that comes to mind for me is blessed Francis of Assisi. Francis vowed that he would never find a person poorer than he. He kept his vow by having no money, by wearing the simplest cloak, and wearing no shoes. However, when he would stumble upon a beggar who’s cloak was more torn or tattered than his own, he would trade with him, offering him all he had to give.
This practice on its own, however, was not enough to guard Francis against false motives. Perhaps he needed to feel humble and so treated St. Paul’s admonition to “outdo one another in showing honor” as a literal competition. To guard against this kind of pride, Francis begged for all of his bread. Francis had no scruples about asking others to meet his needs. He regularly practiced both giving all he had to others, and receiving all he needed from others. Francis could practice self-sacrifice while also allowing others the sanctifying process of sacrifice as well.