Can I tell you an embarrassing story?
Picture me and a guy I liked sitting together on some stairs on our college campus. We’re having a serious DTR. Since the first time I met this guy, I thought he was super-cute, and over the last year and a half, we’ve spent more and more time together. He’s genuinely nice, very serious about his faith, and craziest of all, he seems to like me too.
And in this conversation (this is the embarrassing part), I’m explaining very carefully why I cannot date him anymore. I’m not doing a very good job, either, because despite my sincere conviction that this DTR is necessary, I don’t really understand why I can’t date him, either.
As I go over my talking points again, his face ever more hurt and confused, my own stomach wrenched with dismay, I tell myself, this is what doing the right thing feels like. It’s hard.
I really wish I could go back and whap that girl upside the head.
Look—it doesn’t really matter that I didn’t date that guy; I like my husband, thank you very much. What chagrins me about that long-ago talk is not its effect on my dating life but the reasons I opened my mouth in the first place.
I did it because I thought that to have integrity, be pure, pursue virtue, I needed to cut my own heart out and serve it to God on a platter.
If you’ve been part of Evangelical subcultures at all, it will surprise you not a whit to learn that before that conversation. I read Elisabeth Elliot’s book, Passion and Purity, about her long courtship with and eventual marriage to her husband, the missionary Jim Elliot.
It’s been decades since I read the book, but my overwhelming impression of it at the time was of the rigor with which Elliot talked about her dating life. No conversation, intention, or thought was too fleeting to interrogate. No emotion, flicker of attraction was too minor to feel bad about. Elliot’s language reminded me of the exactitude I’d practiced for years as a ballet student, training my body to do incredible things by ignoring the burn in my leg when I raised it over my head.
I knew what was possible when you denied yourself. I wanted my faith to be a work of art, too.
The other thing that impressed me at the time was her steadfast stillness. Her soon-to-be-husband took the lead, as men were encouraged to do in the circles I was in, counseling times of separation and lack of contact in order to purify each of their intentions. Often, his suggestions filled Elisabeth with dismay, and she spent pages chronicling her internal agony even as externally, she reacted not at all.
At the time, Jim’s conviction and insistence on separation impressed me. I wanted to find a man that knew the right thing to do, who would push past my objections to set me straight.
And in Elisabeth’s stillness, I saw a path for myself. This was also like ballet; you danced on blistered feet with a smile pasted to your faith. My heart would be a hard-won work of art, and no one but Jesus would know what it had cost me.
I decided to clean house. Liking someone because you had fun with them, admired them sincerely and thought they were cute was not a good enough reason to spend time together. It was worldly, lacking seriousness.
That’s what I explained to that boy on the stairs.
Looking back, it’s still hard for me to pinpoint just where I went wrong in that conversation. I love the earnestness of the girl on that staircase, her eagerness to seek virtue, her willingness to have a hard conversation. I admire her desire to please God, to make wise choices, to follow the counsel of people she respected.
But underneath it all, I imagined God as a kind of benevolent torturer. If you know anything of human physiology, you know that ballet is a highly unnatural art form. My hips still ache, twenty years after quitting. To think that God called me to twist myself into some unrecognizable shape, to push past pain, emotion, and desire, to ignore who I was and what I actually wanted—well, it’s to believe God is happy to abuse us.
I once admired that Elisabeth Eliot was able to deny herself completely. At the time, I thought this was literally in agreement with Jesus’s exhortation to take up our cross and follow him. But it conveniently ignored a God who also tells us that he desires mercy and not sacrifice, that we are made in God’s image and called “very good”, and that Jesus was known for enjoying a party and breaking Sabbath rules to nourish himself.
In other words, knowing exactly how to deny ourselves is complicated. And simply crushing our own spirit is not what God is asking of us.
Looking back, I see how much of my desire to cut off my own pleasure and attraction said something about trauma stemming from sexual abuse in my family and church. I was afraid of desire, afraid of pleasure, not understanding that abuse of power is a very different thing. I had also grown up in an abusive family, and had always contorted myself and denied my own voice in order to survive. It was not a healthy impulse, but a way of denying the imago dei in me.
My interpretation of Eliot’s words was less taking up my own cross and more about trying to achieve salvation on my own power. It might have looked holy, but it was anything but. The self I actually needed to deny was the one that thought God was an abusive dictator and that it was up to me to eviscerate myself accordingly.
For so long in my Christian life, I believed that the harder something was, the more it hurt, the worse it felt, the better it was for me. There’s so much messed up about that thought process that I can’t believe it held me captive for so long, but to my deep grief, it’s common in Christian circles. The Bible sings of a God who created a world of incredible natural beauty, who gathers up Her children like a mother hen with her chicks, who died to save us from harm, and yet we imagine God asking us to cut ourselves.
But true integrity is actually about the word at its root. Integrity is literally being whole. Not perfect, or rigorous, or scraped smooth, but intact, unbroken, healthy. Yes, we will feel pain in our lives, but it should be the pain of childbirth, of expanding to make room for new life. It should not be the pain of injury or abuse, where we seek suffering for its own sake. Learning to tell the difference is the work of the Spirit in our lives, of deep discernment and maturity. But at its heart real integrity is not about becoming someone different, or cutting away at our hearts. Real wholeness is about being who God has created us to be, with all the power and joy that implies.