Sticks and Stones

The world tells us that we are helpless against the insults of others. It insists that every hardship leaves a wound that will never heal. Our forebears thought differently, and better. 

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.

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Spiritual Power

What is spiritual power? How do you get it? How do you use it? How do you give the glory to God?

A patient came to me in tears. As a child she had suffered abuse, alcoholism, and even rape. The Christianity she had known was stern and foreboding. Images of the past were hard to overcome, much less erase. Now she was in a good marriage, had a healthy boy, and was in a solid church. Nevertheless, she was fearful and depressed, feeling unable to face most days. Completing the basic tasks of life, such as caring for her infant son and keeping the house, was nearly impossible. In her dark moments, this woman was afraid that she would lose everything she had ever dreamed of, and now had.

She is not alone. One professionally successful acquaintance is going through a divorce, a job change, and struggling with alcohol abuse.  Another young woman told me of her troubles with anxiety and perfectionism while she was cleaning my teeth. A middle-aged friend struggles with his self-worth after being without a job for nearly two years. A woman jumped off the roof of her 17-story apartment building.

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Physical Beauty and the Christian

Physical beauty, whether in a lilac or in a lady, is a gift from God. We must enjoy it, develop it, protect it, value it, and ultimately give Him the glory. 

My recent travels led me to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a conversation with Felicity, a Boyce College undergraduate studying the Bible before she moves on to a degree in cosmetology. A beautiful and engaging young woman, Felicity believes that her call in ministry is to help others be beautiful and engaging. Helping other coeds with hair, makeup, and the like is a joy to her, and a source of some badly needed cash.

Yet there is a proverbial fly in the ointment. Felicity has a wonderful Christian role model who works in the industry, and she has reported to Felicity that cosmetology is hard for people dedicated to Christ. Many people involved, both workers and clients, act as if physical appearance is all that matters. Youth and vanity, already lauded in much of American culture, become idolized in the walls of the salon. Should a committed Christ-follower even be in such an environment? If so, how can she keep her heart pure? Felicity asked me what I thought on this issue, and I have written some thoughts below.

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Third Date Sex?

Sex outside marriage devalues sex, harms men and women, splits families, reduces the number of children, and weakens society. Sex outside marriage feeds the illusion that sex is the only thing, or at least the most important thing, in life. 

“The truth is that wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured.” C.S. Lewis, the Screwtape Letters

As family physician, minister, father, or friend, I am privileged to talk to a wide variety of people. I recently met a young woman, not long divorced, who is struggling with past abuse, present poverty, and future fear. We talked many times about the challenges she faced. Shortly after her divorce, she began dating another man. This young woman hoped for a future with him, but worried that he didn’t seem interested in her work and other key parts of her life.

In 2010, I was the team physician for the US military women’s soccer team at an international championship. One of the players came to me for a gynecological exam, concerned that she might have contracted something from her new boyfriend. We had long and personal discussions about her and about their relationship. She gave him her body, but dared not offer her thoughts, her hopes, her fears, and her heart. She was terrified of losing him.

In both cases intelligent, successful, and attractive young women went to bed with men within weeks of starting a new relationship. They freely offered themselves in the height of physical intimacy without intimacy in emotion, commitment, or trust. In my research for this article, I discovered the phrase, “third date sex.”

Ancient gnostics believed that matter is evil and the body is no more than a tent enclosing, and limiting, the human spirit. They felt that what one does with the body doesn’t matter. Some people believe that sex is only for pleasure, that no one should deny themselves pleasure, and that having sex without limits is good. Some women believe that since many men push for sex without commitment, they should have that right also. They may see no need for other forms of intimacy to coincide with physical intimacy. Yet none of the women with whom I have spoken wanted sex without love.  Physical intimacy, without any other intimacy, was a trap.

The word “intimacy” suggests closeness, attachment, affection, and confidence. In human life, there is no greater expression of physical intimacy than sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. This intimacy is unique because it alone can result in the ultimate human creative act, the creation of children. This intimacy is binding because with children comes responsibility, a responsibility that lasts until death.

There are many kinds of intimacy between people. To have mental intimacy is to share information but also to share and enjoy thoughts: scary thoughts, unique thoughts, crazy thoughts, and incorrect thoughts. To have social intimacy is to recognize each other as special, and you as a couple, in the presence of others. To have spiritual intimacy is to agree on the most profound questions in life, including the source, purpose, and end of life, to rejoice in the answers to those questions, and to understand and accept each other on lesser questions. To have emotional intimacy is to cry together, to laugh together, and even more to cry and laugh at the things that make your beloved cry and laugh. To have physical intimacy is to enjoy physical touch with your partner, first non-sexual and later sexual. Sex without non-sexual touch is not physical intimacy. All intimacy presupposes trust between the partners; that the bonds of love which create intimacy will not be broken, whether by the inevitable conflict, insensitivity, misunderstanding, or the intentional slight. Even betrayal, once repented, can be forgiven.

The love which supports intimacy, however, is not a feeling, fleeting as dry leaves in an autumn breeze. Rather it is a commitment, firm like a tree with deep roots planted by streams of water.

God brings all people together. His plan is that, at the proper time, a man and a woman will meet, and like the oak tree, their intimacy will grow. They will share thoughts and emotions, hopes and dreams, fears and trials, and innocent touch. The man and the woman will talk of ultimate things, such as purpose in life, and begin to see their role, together, in these things. They will become a couple in their own eyes and in the eyes of others. Their feelings will grow as their commitment does, and they will decide to love. In the presence of the most important people in their lives, they will commit to one another for a lifetime. Finally, in the ultimate physical expression of their love, their intimacy, and their lifelong promise, they will share sex, the ultimate physical experience. If they are blessed in this way, children will come, and a new generation will be born.

How many people, in their heart of hearts, do not long for such a relationship? How many used to long for it, but in their disappointment at the vicissitudes of life, have given up in anger and despair? How many are bitter? How many are resigned, settling for far less than their best? Imperfect people cannot have a perfect relationship, but imperfect people can align their intimacies with their commitment and have a more wonderful marriage than they ever thought possible.

Ultimately, it is “not good that man (or woman) should be alone”, and a person’s relationship in marriage, as with their other relationships, reflects their relationship with God.

“Third date sex” may be the best Western culture in its current state can offer, but our Creator intends for us to have so much more. The fault lies with both men and women. So often in relationships, men demand more than the women they say they love are willing to give…and yet these women comply.

Society bears a large part of the blame. We discourage marriage, which we say oppresses women. We call on people to marry late, preferably after age 25, and tempt them ceaselessly with stories and images during their teen and early adult years. We tolerate or even encourage pre-marital sex. We eliminate men’s and women’s roles and rules for building relationships and are surprised when people don’t know what to do.  Anything that makes one partner uncomfortable is punishable by breaking the relationship, or worse. If the societal standard is sex on the third date, many couples will follow.

Perhaps one day we will understand that maturity, not age, is the key to marital success, help the young to be mature, and encourage couples to marry when they are ready. Perhaps families and friends will help each young couple put boundaries around their physical intimacy. Perhaps older people will teach the truth and exemplify it. Perhaps men, young and old, will treat women with the love and respect of a husband, not a chattel. On that day “Third date sex” will be a memory, like many ill-advised flings, which we try to forget.