“Starting with a Clean Slate”
Sections like these remind me of what Joshua was going through at this point in his life. He didn’t grow up in the Sovereign Grace cult-like atmosphere headed up by the charismatic and powerful C.J. Mahaney. He’d only been there a few years, but like the old saying goes there’s no zealot like a convert. At this point in his life he’d been inducted into an inner circle, was being tapped for leadership, and he most likely achieved all of that through his commitment to SGM and its way of thinking, way of living, way of believing.
That’s demonstrated fairly clearly in this chapter (in my opinion), especially with the self-flagellation he performs. At multiple points through this part of the book he’s going to rip his teenage self a new one, and as a spiritual abuse survivor myself it practically screams of religious trauma. There’s a lot of shame wrapped up in how he viewed himself at this point in his life– he has no room for grace for his mistakes, no way to say “well, that’s not how I’d handle it now, but I was sixteen and I’ve matured since then.”
I wonder what he’d say if he looked over this now that he’s left SGM behind and been in seminary for a bit:
The lesson … is an important one for all of us who have built our relationships on the faulty attitudes of this world. (112)
He had important relationships tied up in SGM … and I imagine it all sort of exploded on him after he found out that Mahaney and other church leaders had covered up child sexual abuse in his church, among the people he pastored. After I realized I’d grown up in a cult and most of what I’d been taught was utter horseshit, I had to re-evaluate statements like these more than any other. Some things were easier to toss, but the belief that my relationships weren’t “faulty” and “of the world” because I was friends with Christians and we saw each other as brother and sister in Christ was deeply ingrained … but then you find out your mentor protected a rapist. What do you do with that?
But, let’s dig into the “5 Steps to Build a Godly Lifestyle” that’s the bulk of this chapter.
1. Start with a Clean Slate
Two points to highlight here. He’s talking about being truly repentant and what that means, and uses a young woman he met after a music festival as an example:
With a giggle that contradicted her words, Emily told me she kept “messing up” with boys and wanted God to help her change. As I asked her additional questions, it became clear that Emily wasn’t actually convicted of her sin … there was no sadness over disobeying and failing to honor God. (113)
This is a problem I encountered a lot in fundamentalist culture: the belief that you can see the deepest motivations of a heart after a brief conversation. So far, I haven’t encountered this in the Outside World in the same way … especially when men and women like Joshua (Debi Pear comes to mind) think that something like a giggle can be used as evidence against someone and their Standing with God. I know I’m not the only person who giggles/chitters/chuckles/laughs when nervous or embarrassed, and Emily was probably both. But Joshua was such a good Christian that he can just tell that her giggle meant she wasn’t sincere.
This section is the place where a lot of people were hurt by this book because he encourages his readers to break up immediately. He tells them to “have the courage to obey now” (114). Obey. Joshua is so utterly convinced as a 23-year-old that he’s right about how everyone should act that following his advice is obedience to God.
2. Make your Parents your Teammates
There’s nothing wrong with involving parents you trust in difficult decisions, including romantic ones. Simply by the nature of having been alive longer they can be extremely helpful. They also know us pretty well and have spent a lot of time figuring out what could help or hurt us … unless, of course, they’re abusive, something Joshua doesn’t even hint at. He does, however, go out of his way to highlight how much of a problem it could be if your parents aren’t Christians, though … because non-Christian parents can’t possibly offer sensible advice (116).
Another problem with this “step” is that Joshua doesn’t understand adolescent development. I’m not shocked by that– he was among fundamentalists who mocked the very existence of psychology — but like anyone who dismisses entire scientific fields as irrelevant, he’s going to run into problems. Notably, here, it’s clear he doesn’t understand individuation and sees a perfectly natural and healthy behavior as sinful. Teenagers are supposed to start branching outside of their parents and start making independent decisions. Without that process, without learning how to make decisions wisely and safely, they could be emotionally and intellectually compromised adults.
3. Establish Clear Guidelines
I found one bit of this entertaining. He tells us to “establish guidelines … that are based on the wisdom of God’s Word” (116). Apparently God’s Word (which means the Bible, not Jesus) can tell us “what constitutes a romantic setting” in 21st century America.
However, the actual problem with this section is that Joshua disguises what is blatantly legalism:
There are not hard and fast rules. These are issues of wisdom and will differ based on your age and spiritual maturity …
So I’ve created a policy about this issue: I will not go to a girl’s home if no one else is there … I don’t have to weigh the situation or pray about it–I already know that I won’t accept the invitation. (116-17)
I grew up among Christians who did this sort of thing all of the time. It’s not truly legalism if it only applies to you, personally. If you are personally convicted about a particular thing. We don’t make rules for everyone, just ourselves. Personally. And, anyway, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.
However, Joshua does make it clear what’s so attractive about legalism in the first place: you don’t have to think. Making determinations about individual situations with all their complexities and nuance is difficult, so just make a rule for yourself and voilà problem solved! Except … this is not very useful. In fact, my experience demonstrates that it’s damaging. Life doesn’t work this way, and being a person means tailoring your responses to the situation at hand. If you’re not allowed to do that, ever, then your emotional growth is being stunted.
5. Season Your Conviction with Humility
Step 4 was really just more of Step 3, only applied to music and TV with a dash of build yourself an isolating bubble and never leave it (118).
Step 5 is … bad. It’s so bad. He’s trying to to tell us how to “communicate your convictions without coming across as self-righteous” but he epically fails. After telling us that it’s probably not smart to shove your convictions down the throats of strangers (I agree), we get here:
But your main goal is to humbly communicate what you feel God has shown you, to encourage your friends, and to contribute to their growth … If you maintain this humble spirit, you’ll often find your listener willing to share his or her own struggles and questions. This opens up the opportunity for you to give counsel and support. (119)
He’s already made it clear we’re supposed to be having these conversations with friends, perhaps colleagues. Y’know. Peers. How in the world are you supposed to come across as not a self-righteous prat if you view your friends as “listeners” that you are helping to “grow” and that you “give counsel” to? I do not counsel my friends or my peers. Sometimes I can offer an outside perspective that someone might find helpful, but I am not counseling them toward anything. I don’t view myself as someone who will “contribute to their growth.” We’re all just people. Equals.
But, if you’re so convinced that you’re right that you think following the advice in I Kissed Dating Goodbye is tantamount to obeying God … yeah. Someone needs to look in a mirror.