Former evangelical pastor and author Joshua Harris and his wife recently announced their separation. This is sad because separation / divorce are always sad I think. We don’t get into and develop relationships with the hope or expectation that they will erode, degrade, fall apart, or even become hostile, harmful, and damaging. In a perfect world, I think that divorce or separation would probably not exist.
Harris’ separation is interesting though in that it is in a way symbolic. (I want to be clear that I am in no way gloating over their troubles.) Harris became well known for his book, “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, which is often one of the first things mentioned when someone talks about “purity culture”. One of the main ideas and motivations behind it was recognizing the pain people go through during the break up of a close relationship. The problem is that the paradigm behind the recommendations in the book was the idea that if people could just do relationship “right”, then they would be spared the pain which comes presumably as a result of doing them “wrong”.
I think this paradigm goes beyond just dating and marriage relationships. I’ve gotten this sense from conservative Christianity in general. It seems that one of the conservative beliefs (or at least hopes) is that we can control our lives, that there is an ideal out there, and if we just follow all the rules, we will attain it. But this isn’t the reality we experience. Sometimes people who follow all the rules still experiences failures and hardships rather than the ideal life. Others (someone famous comes to mind) may be despicable people yet obtain the height of worldly success.
I think this belief or hope in an ideal is a way people deal with the sometimes harsh realities in life. Broken relationship, illness, untimely deaths, financial troubles… these are difficult for anyone to deal with when they affect us personally. One way to try to alleviate some of the stress is to think, “I’ll be alright because I’m doing things ‘right’.” Unfortunately, those who do things “right” and achieve success can be very tempted to think that those experiencing lack of success or worse challenges must have done something “wrong” and are therefore to blame for their own troubles.
What is my take away? A person doesn’t reach an ideal life by merely following the rules. Or rather, following the rules doesn’t guarantee an ideal life. Nothing guarantees an ideal life. Jesus and the Bible teach us principals to live by more than they do hard and fast rules. But even these principals don’t guarantee any specific outcome. Yes Jesus instructs us on how to live, and while it’s wise to follow these teachings, even he says that we will experience troubles.
So what should we do? Simply break all of the rules and forget about trying to live by any principals? I don’t think this is the answer. I’m not sure it’s helpful to be too strict about rules, but this also depends somewhat on the rule. I think we should try to live by the principals of the kingdom as best as possible. But it’s not necessary to get too upset or condemning when we and others are imperfect, make mistakes, and don’t always abide by our principals perfectly. I think maybe we can and should weight our concern based on how positively or negatively certain actions effect others.
I guess what I’m getting at is that conservatives often seem to hold that sin/rules/morality are the most important, critical aspect of living life. But I don’t think this is correct. I don’t believe God is super uptight about everyone strictly following the rules just because they’re the rules. Doing something wrong can have negative consequences. But the consequences in some cases aren’t nearly as huge as some people make them out to be, while other behaviors (like even focusing too strictly on rules) can have greater negative consequences though the same people aren’t even mentioning these behaviors. Again, I think we should be wise and weigh these things according to the consequences to ourselves and others.