Friday, May 22, 2015

Healthy attitudes for young men

A fundamentalist radio station I listen to has been featuring readings lately from Elisabeth Elliot's Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot.

This biography of Elliot includes generous excerpts from his journals. I was much struck when I heard it by this entry, from November 23, 1951.

Just read again the story of Abraham. Convenient food just now--with this pressing sense of need, the want of warmth and woman, tenderness, relief, and children. The God who 'prepared laughter' for Sarah in her old age, whose promises made Abraham himself fall to the ground and laugh because they seemed so goodly and impossible--fitting thoughts for my present attitude because I feel now as though it may mean five years of single life, these next five resilient years, years when I will most want her, most need her, and best be able to satisfy her. Then, maybe after I'm thirty, getting paunchy, wrinkling and balding even--then the marriage bed! Mother said the other day 'Who wants to wait until they're thirty to start raising a family?' Certainly not I. All I knew to say was, 'You raise a family when God wants you to.' And I believe. I feel sure that God is doing the best for us, and that in the face of what seems most unlikely. Perhaps I'm wrong in thinking I have years to wait--but a man can't feel the 'lustihood of his young powers' swell and surge inside him and not be affected by restraining them. It may be that He hasn't planned to make us wait years, but it certainly looks like it from here. Of course I hope I'm wrong. But if I'm not, then El Shaddai, the God who saw and heard Hagar, considered Sarai's laugh, and disregarded Abraham's 100th year--this God is the One I believe to be guiding and governing me in these affairs. And in this, in prospect, I with Abraham can laugh. (pp. 211-212)
At this time in his life Jim Elliot, twenty-four years old, thought that God wanted him to be a single missionary for a substantial time. I don't know how he picked the five-year period. It doesn't appear to have been a matter of finances. Perhaps he just thought that God wanted him to do work entirely alone for about five years in order to get the work well-started among the Indians in Ecuador to whom he felt called.

As it happened, the wait was almost exactly two years. After much indecision, Jim finally concluded that it was God's will for him to marry Elisabeth somewhat sooner, and they were married on his twenty-sixth birthday, October 8, 1953.

There is something both touching and refreshing about this passage from Elliot's journal. It is a little amusing that he thinks of his future, over-thirty self as paunchy, wrinkled, and possibly unable to satisfy his wife sexually. It shows such a charmingly youthful attitude toward the ancient early thirties.

But that youthfulness is bound up with a robust and healthy attitude toward sex and life in general. Young men nowadays would do well to read this passage and emulate Elliot's thinking. Here are several things I notice:

--Elliot doesn't think that a desire for sex is an ignoble motive for wanting to get married. He is no prude. He doesn't act as though he has to desire marriage entirely for reasons independent of the sexual ones. He understands his desires to be natural in a young man and realizes that marriage is their telos.

--Elliot takes for granted that his own sexual satisfaction is to be found only in marriage. The fact that he desires marriage for sexual reasons emphatically does not mean that he is thinking of Elisabeth in a cold-blooded or instrumental way. His romantic feelings are naturally and inextricably bound up with his erotic feelings. There is no question of his not being able to "get" sex otherwise and being forced to wait for marriage, as if sex were a product and the woman the mere provider of the product. The whole cynical idea that women have to withhold sex from men in order to make the men marry them is foreign to young Elliot's way of thinking. It is not that he is reluctantly holding himself to a traditional moral standard. Rather, the fact that he wants sex means that he wants the marriage bed. Nor does he think it quaint to speak or think that way. He wants sex precisely in the context of tenderness, warmth, commitment, and a family. He doesn't think for a moment that he would be satisfied with promiscuity, a prostitute, pornography, or anything else. In fact, he clearly knows, if only tacitly, that he wouldn't.

--Jim Elliot wants children. The idea that seems to have taken hold in some circles now that only women want children is foreign to Jim Elliot. He, personally, wants children, wants a family. He takes it to be natural and inevitable that a man wants children. He doesn't just want Elisabeth to have a chance to have children. He yearns for them himself.

--Elliot understands that a man needs to think about biological clocks. Now, he may be a little confused here by his funny notion of himself over thirty as sexually comparable to Abraham at one hundred. But beyond that, I suspect that he realizes that the woman he has chosen will not be as fertile herself in five years and therefore that his own desire for children means that he needs to think about getting married sooner.

Some further thoughts:

The Book of Common Prayer says, of marriage,

First, It was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name.
Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication; that such persons as have not the gift of continency might marry, and keep themselves undefiled members of Christ's body. 
Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
It may be that lots of conversations are taking place where I do not hear them and that in these conversations young men are telling their older, male advisers (fathers, pastors, Christian mentors) that they would like to get married while young because they don't think they have the gift of continency and realize that God has ordained marriage as the proper channel for what Elliot calls the "lustihood of his young powers."  As a woman, I certainly wouldn't be the proper recipient of such confidences. But I have a feeling, which I would be glad to be proven wrong about, that such conversations aren't taking place nearly as often as they should be and that our society, including Christian society, has been o'ertaken by a peculiar reticence. It is as though we've all been seized with excessive delicacy or prudishness about even mentioning sexual desire as a motive for marriage.

Marriage is assumed to be undertaken later and later, and I don't hear of very many people asking young men, even reasonably attractive young men who don't believe in sex outside of marriage, "Er, don't you have a reason (hint, hint) why you would like to get married sooner rather than later?" This (and the desire for children) is a reason not to set out to be in college and graduate school throughout one's twenties or even longer. See related post here.

It is strange and to my mind ominous that, in our increasingly p*rnogr*phic and sexualized society, Christians, who reject the norms of that society, continue to accept late (even very late) marriage as reasonable. Since our young people are probably not being swept up in a wave of vocations to permanent celibacy, we should encourage them to be marriage-minded. For that matter, promiscuity and p*rn use are horrendously destructive for anyone. Non-Christians, too, used to understand that and need to understand that. So there is a reason to encourage healthy, early marriages throughout society as a whole.

Lest there be any question, I am not assuming that only men have sexual desires! I am, however, assuming a traditional perspective according to which the initiative should lie with the man to ask the lady on dates, pursue her, and eventually ask her to marry him. It's interesting to note that even in our feminist-influenced society a lot of girls would prefer not to be the one to ask the man out, much less to propose to him.

But all of this somber talk does not mean that romance is to be separated from marriage. Far from it. What we need to recapture is not the cold-bloodedness of an ancient Chinese marriage broker but rather something like Elliot's freshness and ardor. Yes, it is natural for young people to want sex. Yes, marriage should be encouraged for that reason. Therefore, romance and falling in love should be encouraged for the very same reason. No one, including men, should seek sex in an impersonal fashion, not even in seeking marriage. This shouldn't need to be said, but it does. Nor is cynicism the answer. We do a grave disservice to our young people if we encourage them to be cynical about the opposite sex. Wise and prudent, yes, and aware of the sad dangers of this world, but not cynical and hardened.

As regards children, I find it disturbing to run into the idea that women want children but men don't. Normal men should, like Jim Elliot, desire children. Young men, if you think that you don't want children, or if you just never think about the matter at all, stop and think about it. There is nothing unmanly about wanting a family. Not just a girlfriend, not just a wife, not just a sex partner, but a family, including children with the woman you love. If you already have a girlfriend, then you should think about her in connection with a family and children. Which is yet another reason actually to marry her, of course, or to break off the relationship if you cannot picture yourself marrying her.

Relatedly, if a man does want children, and if he doesn't want to marry a woman much younger than he is, then he shouldn't be deliberately (or unthinkingly) putting off marriage until late. I'm not actually opposed to a gap in ages in marriage. In fact, I think our current society needs to lighten up on that. There's nothing intrinsically creepy or exploitative about a marriage between a man of thirty-five and a woman of twenty-five. Many such marriages through the ages have been joyful, God-honoring, and fruitful. But there will be some challenges unique to such a marriage, and as it happens many people don't want that kind of a gap in ages. On the assumption that for the most part people will marry those of approximately the same age, then men, her (your prospective or hypothetical wife's) biological clock is your biological clock, and there is another reason to be marriage-minded sooner rather than later.

I suggest that men who advise young men (especially Christians) consider using this journal entry as a conversation-starter in a male-only Bible study or other serious discussion.

P.S. I anticipate an objection to the fact that I am not giving more advice to young women in this post. The main reason for that is that my thoughts were sparked by Jim Elliot's journal entry and by the extreme healthiness of his attitudes as the attitudes of a man. Also, I have recently run into an extremely cynical article (that I'm trying to resist writing about) that endorsed all the wrong attitudes for men, exactly the opposite of Elliot's; hence, this is on my mind. Naturally I am not proposing that a man should marry a woman selected at random, a shallow woman, a promiscuous woman, or a bad woman. I acknowledge that a good woman can be hard to find just as a good man can be hard to find.  I also happen to know plenty of good women, good men, and happy marriages.

1 comment:

John said...


I am hearing all of your wonderful reflections and considering them (as you have) against the backdrop of a culture not well positioned to produce more Jim Elliots. In my workplace, when a young man voices his considering of marriage, the societal voice is loudly discouraging. And the crowed mainly includes roaring pagans, non-Christians, pseudo-Christians--many of whom have failed their own attempts at marriage.

I also try to keep in mind that the first "day-care generation" is showing us as adults what that social experiment of decades ago will produce--whether relationally successful or not. These were children whose parents left parenting to an institution.

I often get willing ears from young men at work as one of very few voices confidently encouraging and celebrating marriage. I say what I can, but wonder how my one voice carries against the tide of nay-sayers, who either warn off from marriage altogether or advise saving it till the greater fun is over, and how much weight my words carry against "weightless" alternatives like promiscuity, p*rn, and strip clubs.

As far as getting the message out in our fellowships, this largely comes down to effective, Biblical preaching. A healthy dose of 1 Cor. 7 would make said what needs to be said, but it may not be the "crowd pleaser" of sermons based on the social calendar or "Six Steps to Happiness." Given two churches who part ways on God-pleasing or people-pleasing preaching strategies, we all know where the big crowds are.

So, I'll take the smallish victories from a much more successful anti-God zeitgeist until God's working in our own day prompts a sea-change of revival as He has so often done in the past. It may happen, or these may indeed be the last days.

My one confidence is that God has given us the relational stuff that makes for relational success, not least in marriage. I love Eph. 5, where the same relational "nuts and bolts" that make our relationship with the Lord successful are the ones that make a Christian marriage such a marvel. After the missed opportunities to learn from competent parents, who are successful spouses, the day-care generation may one day be looking for the skills and know-how to bring marriage and family to fulfilling success. When they do, we will have it.