Well, I’m back. And I’m talking about sex. Sort of.
It was inevitable, really. I know that when I start talking about intimacy apart from sex, and that it’s actually a thing, the questions start rolling like logs on a beaver dam.
“How is that possible? How can men and women be friends? I mean, aren’t guys like always thinking about sex?”
Well, yes, men and women can actually be friends. And yes, guys do think about sex a lot, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of having a conversation. Or exercising honor. Or being self-controlled.
So how, indeed.
It’s impossible to begin such a discussion without first talking about the issue of self-control. Galatians 5:23 tells us that self-control is actually a fruit of the Spirit. In other words, the longer we walk with God, the closer we get to Him, the more He expects us to exert control over ourselves. We are responsible for our actions, our words, our attitudes—regardless of what anyone else thinks or does.
See, we usually want to dictate what others do: what they wear, who they see, where they go and with whom, or what topics they can discuss. And while boundaries are indeed important, by insisting on making it all about the rules, we’ve neglected this very central idea that I alone am responsible for me.
Then there’s this thing about honor. Honor is the ability to see someone else as valuable, as a person separate from me, with thoughts, feelings, wants, needs—a person created in the Imago Dei, the image of God Himself. When I insist on viewing everyone as a potential sex partner, I am, in fact, refusing to see them as anything other than something to be used by me, to fulfill my wants, needs, and desires. (Yes, that is an unhealthy thing.)
I’m regularly asked for a to-do list, or I suppose more accurately, a to-don’t list. But the issue is rarely our behavior; it’s about our motivation behind the behavior. Most lists of dos and don’ts in this area stem from two things: an assumption that women (and femininity) are inherently dangerous, and that men are all without ability to control themselves around women. Where do these assumptions come from?
St. Augustine, one of the most influential (and rightly so) early church fathers, had personal issues regarding sexuality. It was something he had struggled with before his conversion to Christianity, and he continued to struggle with it after his conversion. But instead of taking his struggle to his Heavenly Father and allowing Him to speak and heal, Augustine instead decided to place the blame and responsibility on others. He was convinced that he couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) change, so he began to place blame on others—others being women. This is what we call “projection,” blaming others for what you are unable (or unwilling) to control in yourself.
In his writings, Augustine wrote that women cause sinful desire in men, and therefore, women should be controlled and hidden away so that men wouldn’t stumble.
We’ve been teaching this ever since.
Rather than teaching and expecting people to be self-controlled, honorable people, we instead vilify the feminine, creating ever-changing standards of “modesty,” claiming that “men’s highest need is sex.” We repeat the “boys will be boys” mantra, whether overtly or covertly, unwittingly perpetuating the stereotype that men are indeed controlled by their, um, boy parts. (They do think about it quite a bit; but since when is it assumed that we are victims of our thought life? 2 Corinthians 10:5 …)
So, once again, what do we do?
We teach honor. We hold people—all people—in high regard, as if they themselves are walking, talking, breathing, thinking, feeling creations in the image of the Creator—which they are. We choose ourselves to become people of honor, regardless of what others choose. I feel totally comfortable in the presence of men other than my husband, because I am a person of honor. For one thing, I choose to honor my husband and our covenant. That alone makes me safe. But I also honor the man in front of me. I see him as valuable, as worthy of honor, simply because he is.
And we believe and expect that self-control is in fact a fruit of the Spirit that we should expect, cultivate, and embrace. Jesus spent plenty of time in the presence of women, and yet somehow, He never gave in to temptation (the Bible does say that He was tempted in every way we are, but He never sinned). In John 4, Jesus even sent the disciples away specifically so He could be alone with this woman (of rather ill repute, I might add, seeing as how she came at noon to do what the rest of the women did in the cool of the morning).
He wasn’t afraid, nor did He shy away from a situation we might classify as “dangerous” or “out of bounds.” Why? Because He understood these principles: He understood that He was always in full control of Himself (John 10:18), and He understood that He had unhindered access to a Kingdom full of honor, and He was full of that Kingdom, so He had honor to give. He could look at her, a woman with a reputation, and be perfectly safe.
We can, too. We can engage with literally anyone on the planet, regardless of gender, and be fully self-controlled and full of honor. Both are by-products of a life spent with Jesus, and both are choices we make, every day, in every relationship.
So this is how men and women can be friends. This is how we can have real intimacy, apart from sex. We were meant for it, after all.