Author’s note 5/16/14: since Her.meneutics writer Anna Broadway’s slight challenge to this post there are two points I’d like to clarify. One, I have described what a healthy sibling friendship feels like (These are the benefits, the joys, the blessings) based off my friendship with my brother (the one I grew up with), not based on my hopeful romantic desires with other men. Two, my description includes the quality of delight which I believe is a necessary part of any friendship, not the sole domain of lovers.
This week, in a twitter conversation I heard this common concern again, “Why take the risk of a cross-sex friendship?”
The man said, “Marriage is hard enough without the extra distractions.” The woman said, “Major marital problems can grow from a single seed of doubt–so why plant an unnecessary seed?”
I tweeted back in defense of male/female friendship along with @TrinaKLee (you can see the whole conversation here). But I was left feeling dismayed at how easy it was to dismiss the richness of cross-sex friendships with a simple word . . . risk.
Was I just a crazy risk taker against the safety of other lans?
There is a prevalent idea in our culture that cross-sex friendships are unnecessary risks. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Religious News Service correspondent, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, recently tweeted this Baptist senior pastor’s advice:
Before I delve in, I want to be clear that if a couple needs to call off private opposite sex friendship until they get strong, that is fine. It may be what works best for them in this season. However, I have concern that this aversion to male/female friendship is becoming THE godly example we all are supposed to follow.
If we look at this statistically, we know better. All relationships (same-sex friends, marriage, family) are incredibly risky. Let’s just look at marriage. A little under half of marriages end in divorce, which is traumatic for your heart, not to speak of your economic assets, your health, your friendships, your church, your community, your routine, even your home. Your reputation can be severely harmed by your spouse walking out on you, you can lose your job, your children. Marriage is also risky, health-wise, especially for women. Domestic abuse ranks as one of the biggest threat to women’s lives.
But we don’t have a problem advocating marriage, despite its risks. We enshrine it so highly that gay people want access even to this incredibly risky institution. The intimacy and constant communion with an equal brings so much goodness it’s worth the risk.
Any husband or wife knows about the risk of knowing and being known. Many of you take those risks every day.
But some of us prefer certainty. We cling to it as if it can save our souls. Some of us even think Jesus wants to save us from risk.
A Word on Certainty
Who doesn’t have questions about cross-sex friendships? I do.
Questions point to our discomfort bubbling up as we discover this new freedom. It’s like the deep end of the pool is open for us, but we want to know what that means. We know people can drown out there. So we ask . . .
- What does a cross-sex friendship mean?
- How will it look in a year?
- Where will we go?
- What will my spouse think?
- What will people think?
Many of you shared your most pressing question in the poll from two weeks ago (it’s not too late to vote).
But in asking questions of cross- sex friendships, we need to question our own skepticism. Is our hunger for answers masking our own fear of being known? Don’t some of us feel like marriage paid the debt we owe to interacting with the opposite sex? And now, we can dismiss the rest of the women (or men) out there as threats to our marriage.
(dust hands off and move on).
Sometimes we demand certainty because we are afraid of taking personal responsibility. Or we hunt for certainty because we so deeply crave safety. And since cross-sex friendships are certainly not risk-free, we avoid them.
Demanding certainty so we can guarantee safety often absolves us from making commitment. For instance
- “Until I’m completely certain I will not befriend a woman (or man)” or
- “If I ever feel jealous or insecure or badly about myself because of my wife’s friendship with him, then I’m putting the kibash on what they have” or
- “I will not commit to loving a friend of the opposite sex, unless I can be guaranteed it will never threaten my spouse.”
Demanding certainty so we can have safety can sound so moral, truly godly. We can even use our spouse as justification as in “My wife loves my boundaries so that’s all the approval I need.”
But since when did following Jesus mean we don’t take risks? Even pushing our loved ones to grow?
This doesn’t mean being foolish. But it does mean that “It’s risky” isn’t enough reason to avoid the idea. We take risks when we think we can get a greater return, when we know our life has the kind of capital to invest more.
I believe that those who cannot spend time with the opposite sex may be actually weaker (not stronger). And after living for decades in the backwater where the weaker brother controls all the permission slips, I’m ready for a wider metropolis.
The lack of self control by some should no longer dictate the standards for those of us who want to grow in obedience in this area. I can honor the private needs for some couples to not have cross-sex friendships, but let’s not make that the Christian standard for all couples.
For me, cross-sex friendships are part of how God is calling me to be obedient. Some are not strong enough to obey in this area. However, this is area I am trying to obey God. To those who cannot engage in opposite sex friendships please do not make moral prescriptions against my obedience because you are afraid of risk.
To love is to take risk.
So, are cross-sex friendships too risky?
Of course they are. But not more than marriage.
But, wait a second, you might ask, God supports marriage. Where do you see God supporting guy/girl friendships?
Take a moment to read the passages that talk about brothers and sisters (my favorites: Acts 28:14, Hebrews 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:1-2) in the body. The same Bible that talks about loving our spouses talks about loving our brothers and sisters, treating them with tenderness, spending a week at a time together, seeking them out for our care and attention. We cannot cherry-pick these commands.
And how do you love a brother or sister?
Look at your family. We do not love by distance or a constant chaperone, or requiring that I only hang out with Tom when his wife Tina is present. Not unless I have personal weakness with sex (and newsflash, not all of us turn noticing a hot body into planning to bang a hot body. If you do, then you have a personal issue with self-control).
We do not love by avoidance, or refusing to meet someone’s eyes.
But lust, you might say, adultery, ruined marriages, failed communities, and all because of men and women spending time alone.
First, I no longer believe it is inevitable for men and women to start making out and ripping their clothes off if they spend time alone together. Last week, a guy friend of mine saw me come into our house. He left the guys group to come over and ask me questions about my upcoming trip. He drew up a chair and we shared a tiny smart Phone screen to scope out places he loved to visit. His legs kept bumping my chair.
But he is my brother in this body of Jesus. I felt grateful for the time to talk. I didn’t want to be his lover (the very idea has me wanting to whip around and say, “For Christ sakes (literally!) what’s wrong with you… he’s my BROTHER!), I want to be his sister without insinuations. Our friendship has stood against the test of time. And I am grateful.
Second, to insist that two healthy, kind, intentional friends are forbidden from connection alone unless they be of the same sex, I ask,
“Is that how you treat the brothers in your family?”
Most opposite sex sibling friendships have these ingredients in common. And, I would argue, they are all healthy and proper:
- Longing to know and connect
- Hope to get and give attention, to be seen
- Bubbling excitement for time together
- Curiosity about what he or she is doing
- Hope to not offend or mess things up
- Hunger to serve
- Eagerness to share whatever drew us together
- Desire to make him or her laugh out loud.
And we all go through stages in our love for the men (or women) in our lives. We often start, like blood siblings, with a childhood awe. For instance, in Marilynne Robinson’s novel Home, Glory and her brother Jack (the black sheep of the family) re-make their friendship. As they care for their ailing father, Glory remembers the way her love grew and changed for all her brothers.
Brothers. When she was a child, attention from any of her brothers was wonderful to her. It was rare, and it was wry, odd, not at all parental . . . When any of her brothers noticed her, it was to swing her around by her hands or to carry her on his back or to show her a card trick or the husk of a cicada. They were vain of their freedom and their manhood, of their cleverness and their long legs, but gentlemanly all the same, and vain of that, too. . . and she was in awe of them. Seeing Jack reminded her of those days. She knew the others now, after the manner of adult friendship. And fond as she was of them, it was hard to remember that they had ever seemed marvelous to her (p 70-71).
I believe that all cross-sex friendships go through a childhood, then adolescence, then (if they’re blessed) an adult stage, much like that between blood siblings.
If you cannot befriend your sibling, we don’t say that you’re protecting your marriage. Rather, we say that if you struggle because you fear you will objectify them, if you cannot look into their eyes to listen and to love, perhaps you have a weakness in this area.
We are all weak in places.
But do you enshrine this weakness with rules to prevent you from ever knowing a sister? Or do you place those weaknesses in the hands of our Savior? If you are avoiding the opposite sex ask yourself why? What is Jesus calling you to?
How are you meeting Jesus to will and to work for His good pleasure by asking him to make you new?
For me, friendship was the cure, not the fuel for my lust.
But, if we are willing to take risks for marriage, because we know there are big payoffs, then we cannot insist brother/sister friends are too risky.
For there are great payoffs as well.
The biggest payoff that I know of is that God has the power to heal the Darwinian divide that says “You are only valuable to me if I can mate with you.” God has a better way.
We cannot work for the kingdom of God while dropping our eyes when a beautiful member of the opposite sex asks us a question.
Here’s what I want. Freedom to let those strong in friendships to befriend their siblings in this kingdom.
This Friday, a bonus post on my vision for what cross-sex friendships can be (including some interesting ideas about kisses).