In the past months, as I’ve talked with different single sisters in Christ, the conversations have made me wonder about certain concepts that are being communicated to Christian young people. Concepts of what is the “best” and most Christ-honoring way to go about relationships. Though these girls were all in different situations and were doing their best to go about their romantic relationships in a way that glorified God, there was a common theme: all of them felt guilty that they supposedly weren’t remaining “emotionally pure”.
The last fifteen or so years has brought back the practice of courtship into Christian circles and with that has come teaching on the idea of “emotional purity”. This teaching basically says that you shouldn’t become emotionally connected with someone that you’re interested in until there is a binding commitment. Books have appeared that are completely devoted to the subject, talks have been given about it at conferences, and it is bound to come up in almost any courtship discussion.
The idea definitely sounds good and the phrase has a nice ring. “Emotional purity”…who wouldn’t want that? It has been equated with physical purity, something that many young Christians are striving very hard to have in their romantic relationships. But in real life – in the nitty-gritty of real relationships – is this even attainable? I don’t believe it is.
Short of a hard-core betrothal, where there is a binding marriage-like agreement between the man and the woman before they get to know each other (which carries its own risks), there will be an emotional connection in courtship. You can’t learn whether or not you love someone without emotional risk. In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis relates: “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…”
One of the main concepts taught by advocates of “emotional purity” is that if you get emotionally attached to someone and the relationship doesn’t work out, then you’ve given “pieces of your heart” to him. According to these teachings, the “missing” pieces will then leave your heart in a sorry condition for the man you do marry. That’s certainly a sad scenario, but where is God’s grace in that picture? An emotional attachment that is broken will leave pain and scars, but we have many promises of God’s comfort and healing… “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18), “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)
One of the problems with the teachings on emotional purity is that it equates “emotional purity” with physical purity. The idea is implied that, as you become more emotionally connected, you’re bound to go farther than you intend to in the physical realm. That’s just not true! It is entirely possible to stay physically pure while still having an emotional connection with the person you are courting. It’s incredibly hard, but it’s worth it.
Another issue that arises from this teaching is found in the phrase itself. The words “emotional purity” themselves end up condemning people, because they imply that if you “fail” and become emotionally connected to whomever you are courting, then you are emotionally impure. This contributes to a lot of unnecessary guilt in young people who are honestly seeking to honor God.
Granted, in saying all of this, I’m not condoning the other extreme of completely baring your heart to whomever you’re courting. As in most things, balance is key. In our courtship and engagement, my husband and I went through several stages of reserve around each other. We decided together that we wouldn’t romantically touch each other (i.e. holding hands, cuddling, hugging, etc.) before we were engaged as we felt that we didn’t have any right to do that. In addition, there were many things that we wanted to say to each other during that time (i.e. our full feelings for each other, etc.) that we wouldn’t allow ourselves to for the same reason we used physical reserve: we didn’t feel that we had the right to say them before we were engaged. As such, during our courtship there was a physical reserve along with an emotional and verbal reserve. However, with all this reserve, there was a definite emotional connection there and one that continually deepened as we got to know each other more and fell more in love.
We can’t ignore that the emotional purity teaching addresses valid concerns. There is definitely a need for something drastically different than the common practice of heading into romantic relationships with no reserve at all. But do we need to swing completely to the other side and condemn any kind of emotional connection? Once again, balance is key. Each couple needs to evaluate their own relationship and decide if it’s bringing glory to God and putting the other person’s needs before their own. For one couple, saying “I love you” or holding hands before a commitment may not be an issue, for another couple it may be. The important thing is not that your relationship looks a certain way, but that you’re honest with your conscience and with each other. And, unfortunately for us Christians who like to have a set of rules to live by, it will be different for each couple. “’Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive.” (1 Corinthians 10:23)
Purity in a romantic relationship is a very beautiful thing. Yet our strivings for purity should not leave us in bondage to guilt and discouragement. Forming an emotional connection is a normal and necessary part of any relationship, especially a courtship.