“Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith” is a collection of personal essays from Christian women under 40, including Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian minister, and Amy Julia Becker, a writer and blogger. The women write about “taboo” topics such as domestic violence, religious doubt, homosexuality, menstruation and sexism in the church. Publishers Weekly said the book “offers a glimpse of the diverse lived realities of Christian women and encourages the church to accept the full humanity of women.” Enuma Okoro, one of the editors of “Talking Taboo” and an awarding-winning writer, speaker and communications consultant, wrote this excerpt, from a chapter on the subject of temptation. Naughty by Nature, Hopeful by Grace
I liked Chris from the start. And he liked me. We had so much to talk about and he was disarmingly attractive in an “I rode my bike five miles to your house ‘cause earlier on the phone you said you’d kill for this book” kind of way. We met at the wedding of a mutual friend. We both came alone.
“So, how do you know the couple?” It was an innocent enough question to ask the guy seated next to me at the reception.
Realizing we were both writers, we relaxed into conversation with instant ease and before we left the reception we had exchanged emails and phone numbers. It would be good to stay connected about one another’s writing projects, support each other vocationally.
And that’s what we did over the following months. I adore connecting with like-minded folks, especially about writing and publishing.
I would text him Joan Didion and Gail Godwin quotes about the writing life. Sometimes he would text me from conferences I couldn’t attend. “Just got done speaking. Wish you were here to meet all these great writing folks!”
We shared simple email pleas for professional affirmation and healthy reminders about sticking with the challenges of work. But it wasn’t simply our shared vocation that drew us together. We really enjoyed each other as people and soon became friends.
Eventually it was normal for our conversations to take tangents into other aspects of our lives: the upcoming medical exam that had me worried, his growing involvement at his church. Our slowly growing friendship felt beautiful, fitting, and life giving at this season of our lives.
Then it happened. I didn’t mean it to. But at some point I started getting flutters at the “dink” of my iPhone. A text or phone message from him could easily redeem the halfheartedness of an otherwise mediocre day. At some point I started crushing on him.
Maybe things would have been different if his wife hadn’t gone to her twenty-year high school reunion the same weekend as that wedding. Maybe if she had been there he and I never would have met.
I am beginning to realize how little the churches of which I have been a part have taught me about the beauty of boundaries and the reality of fine lines. No one really wants to talk about the normalcy of temptation and how, if unacknowledged, it can lead to behavior that goes against what is life giving, what is of God.
I get it now in a way I haven’t before; how temptation can slip slowly from shiny surfaces into the sin of unfaithfulness and undisciplined desire, from things that look good and usually are good, in the beginning. But no one talks about how to keep your balance on the slippery slope. No one wants to talk about it till everyone has slid right off. Then every pastor, priest, and prophet begins to preach about Eve and Delilah, biblical women culturally synonymous with the evils of temptation and the fall of men. In my friendship with Chris I felt the flutters growing and I wanted to start talking about it. I wanted to steady my stance on the slippery slope.
“So, I really like talking to Chris. Should I be worried about that?” I was at my girlfriend Jules’ house working on a project.
Jules looked up at me from her computer screen. “What do you mean? Like you find him super interesting intellectually or you think he’s hot?”
“Um, both? He’s just really great. But I’m starting to get butterflies when we talk and that’s not good ‘cause he’s married. Crushing is normal, right? Never mind. Forget I said anything.”
Jules closed her computer screen and sat up straighter in her armchair. “How often do you talk?”
“Maybe every 10 days. I’m probably just overreacting. I just want to be thoughtful, Jules.”
“No, you’re right. I think it’s wise to be aware of whatever you’re feeling,” Jules affirmed. “Even being able to see where the potential for harm might be in the midst of a really beautiful thing.”
I know the whole cultural conversation around “Can men and women be friends?” is as old as can be. So many evangelical-minded Christians have such firm opinions on the issue, mostly that it’s not possible or wise. But no one really talks in a healthy, reflective way about the real point of the issue: how to deal with sexual temptation in platonic relationships between heterosexual men and women. It’s really a matter of how we do or do not discipline our desires. I know that being attracted to someone, regardless of the relationship status, is not in itself wrong. But I also know that it matters how aware I permit myself to be of a growing desire to be in a relationship with that person and how I respond once I have acknowledged the desire.
Maybe we’d all be either more self-aware, or more willing to be, if as communities of friends and faith we talked more openly about how to navigate those seemingly innocent areas. But I can’t have these conversations with just anyone. I trusted Jules that day and knew she wouldn’t judge me. Rather, she would be committed to helping me think through this, holding me accountable, and not letting me delude myself. I know she cares about me, and she cares about the health and integrity of Chris and his marriage even though they’ve never met. That comes from her faith perspective and worldview about what it means to honor covenant and what it means to love one another well, even strangers.
“So, what are you going to do about this new revelation?” Jules asked.
I sighed and slumped deeper into the couch. “Well, I’m just going to stay aware without overanalyzing it. And I’m going to expect you to check in with me and to not be afraid of being honest with your thoughts or concerns.”
“Are you going to think about not talking with each other as much for a while?”
“No, not really. There already seems to be a natural ebb and flow to how much we communicate. But I am going to be even more intentional about asking about his wife when we do talk.”
Later that night after leaving Jules’ house I did what I told Jules I wouldn’t do: I started analyzing my feelings. I began to recognize that my crush on Chris wasn’t so much about him as it was about feeling seen and heard in a way I hadn’t experienced in a long time. Chris is a compassionate listener with a generous heart. What I was really crushing on was the experience of being loved well by another one of God’s children.
And yet, there’s a part of me that’s grateful for the distance of our friendship. It permits for more natural and necessary boundaries given our life circumstances. Maintaining good boundaries in any relationship takes certain energies and requires thoughtful self-awareness. But I think men and women are conditioned both within secular culture and within the church to relate to one another in primarily sexual ways rather than as friends. So even when such platonic relating occurs between a man and a woman it is instinctive to question the lines between what seems healthy and beautiful and what might be tiptoeing in temptation’s backyard.
As an imperfect creature, I am always prone to temptation. It’s part and parcel of being naughty by nature. But I also think that the love and the redemptive power of Christ found in a community of believers can trump my naughty nature. That grace keeps me hopeful.