That Time I Said "Yes" When I Really Meant "No": One Last Thought on Eugene Peterson's Interview
When friends of mine are hurting, their pain takes root in my own belly. I feel what people I love feel, and I feel it intensely. Several times, that empathy has been so strong, a friend's suffering has disoriented my own convictions.
Once a friend of mine was going through a brutal divorce. The spouse was not only sexually unfaithful but also emotionally abusive. Flagrant affairs were thrown in my friend's face. Marital sex was used as a weapon of emotional torture. Cruelty to the entire family (including their children) was intentional and boundless. I don't know if a personality disorder was involved, but the spouse seemed to delight in setting traps for my friend, causing as much pain as humanly possible.
My friend was close to suicide, and for weeks, I spent long hours walking as close as I could. Many nights I got just a few hours of sleep because I was committed to being there no matter what. I was scared a lot. Scared I'd get a call that my friend had given up living.
When a second romance came into this friend's life, we were both fatigued. It's hard to tell you how happy I was when for the first time in a long while, I saw a flicker of joy. I saw hope. I saw this friend realize that she could actually be loved.
Waves of relief washed over me.
When you've seen someone you love on the brink of death, this sort of change is like rain in a drought. I was so thankful for this man who loved my friend.
Then they started to sleep together, and this is where I stopped knowing what to say.
I don't believe in sex outside of the confines of marriage, and I don't say that out of naivete. I'm human enough to have experienced the temptation and the excuses. I have never followed up on those temptations, but I do know how a wrong thing can seem absolutely right. I know that, and still, I hold to Biblical morality.
Yet this friend who was nearly dead seemed ecstatic as she engaged in extramarital sex. Instead of suicide threats, there were tears of, "I finally feel seen. I finally feel known."
As I loved her, I never stopped believing that sex outside of marriage was wrong. I always believed that, technically. But I also knew everything about the hellacious emotional torment my friend had experienced. Some days my compassion for my friend was so strong, I wondered if a sinful thing might somehow be used to repair the consequences of abuse. I wondered that because I loved her, and I felt so much relief that she was finally joyful.
I never changed my beliefs, but in flashes of empathy, I wondered if there were individual human exceptions to the rules. I wondered if cases of gross abuse made a difference in the boundary.
But as months went on, the sex that initially brought so much color into my friend's life brought grave trouble and pain. What felt like being known was being used. Love wasn't love; it was two lonely people leaning on one another until they both fell down. Extramarital sex had been a trap, of course--a trap that hurt everybody involved.
God's rules are always there because he loves us. He isn't trying to be cruel with any boundary, sexual or otherwise. But the intense pain of earth can cause us to mistrust him sometimes. After walking with my friend through this situation, I understand how hard that struggle can be now.
I didn't wonder if there were exceptions to the rules because I wanted to defy God. I didn't waver because I wanted to be a relativist.
I wavered because I was overwhelmed watching someone I loved suffer at close range. I wavered because I desperately wanted her to live. I wavered because I wanted her to find immediate relief instead of waiting for God's long and difficult rescue.
In those moments, I was wrong. But I was wrong out of fatigue and human empathy.
As I've grown older, several standards I've embraced "on paper" have had to work out in the context of real people. What was easy to proclaim at a distance became complicated sitting with my arm wrapped around the grieving and the dying. Getting down in the trenches has made me ask different sorts of questions.
I have emerged from those struggles holding to orthodoxy--but those convictions haven't come cheap.
I trust God's boundaries now, but I trust them as someone who has doubted them and found them solid and kind. And, I can see why someone like Mr. Peterson was caught off guard if he has lived taking the risk of loving at close range.
If someone had asked me a question about my beliefs randomly, during a season when my heart was bleeding for my friend, I might have given a rash answer from my gut instead of speaking from my spirit. It might have taken me a few days to go back to God's throne to say, "Do I really trust you? Even when it seems like your rules are way too difficult for hurting people to follow?" If I had prayed hard prayers in honest pain, I might have had to correct myself, too.
As I look across the landscape of evangelicalism, I see the sorts of leaders who bloviate and blast, and I used to be intimidated by them. But over the years, I've seen enough sex scandals emerge from this camp, I'm no longer awed by their proud self-righteousness.
I'm now drawn to gentle teachers who speak about sin with a tender understanding of how human pain works. While these tender men still hold to orthodox truth, they engage with humility and deep concern because they've taken time to weep with those who weep.
When we pray for the Lord to break our hearts with the things that break his heart, we are asking to be shown the intimate details of human suffering. That's going to involve emotional challenges we can't even imagine when we are living safe, comfortable, removed lives.
There's a huge difference between speaking of gay people categorically and speaking of your gay friend, Christine, who was brutally abused by her uncle for two decades and now feels nauseated every time she smells a man. It might be possible for me to walk with an evangelical swagger and act like an expert when postulating about the first category, but the second is a real person whose story brings me to my knees.
Do I think sex outside of marriage is wrong? Absolutely. Do I believe in the sanctity of male-female marriage? Yes.
Do I also sometimes kneel beside my bed and weep for my abused friends by name--friends who seek relief in ways that don't align with God's word? Yes. I do.
And when I pray for those friends, I don't pray simple, condescending prayers because their lives aren't simple, and their wounds aren't simple, and they bear horrible old complicated burdens that I have never had to carry.
I appeal to the father, holding up all their suffering and saying, "This story. This story. This story is so messy, God. How will you save my friend?"
As someone who has wandered into the underworld of pain with people I care about, I affirm my strongest convictions with tears in my eyes and not with hate or hostility.
I am firm in what I believe, but I am not unfeeling. And every "no," I give comes from learning the hard way that "no" is the most loving response--even when it doesn't feel like it.
Because of this, I'm willing to allow Mr. Peterson the chance to clarify without my condemnation. He has a huge heart, and he loves people profoundly. If he was momentarily disoriented because of tenderness, I get that. I've been there, too.