I ran across this the other day on a blog. I had completely forgotten about this story, originally printed in Josh Harris' book I Kissed Dating Goodbye and used by many a youth leader to teach their students about purity.
The story starts with a girl getting married. She gushes for awhile about how pretty the church is, yadda yadda, and then stuff happens:
But as the minister began to lead Anna and David through their vows, the unthinkable happened. A girl stood up in the middle of the congregation, walked quietly to the altar, and took David's other hand. Another girl approached and stood next to the first, followed by another. Soon, a chain of six girls stood by him as he repeated his vows to Anna.
Anna felt her lip beginning to quiver as tears welled up in her eyes. "Is this some kind of joke?" she whispered to David.
"I'm...I'm sorry, Anna," he said, staring at the floor.
"Who are these girls, David? What is going on?" she gasped.
"They're girls from my past," he answered sadly. "Anna, they don't mean anything to me now...but I've given part of my heart to each of them."
"I thought your heart was mine," she said.
"It is, it is," he pleaded. "Everything that's left is yours."
A tear rolled down Anna's cheek. Then she woke up.
My eyes widened and I might have even shouted out loud, "OH MY GOSH, I JUST REALIZED! THAT STUPID METAPHOR IS WHAT MESSED WITH ME!"
When it comes to talking about relationships for teenagers in the church I grew up in, the big emphasis is on purity. The guys mostly learn about physical purity, while the girls learn about emotional purity and guarding our hearts. And most of the time they use a particular metaphorical story from Josh Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye book. While I am totally OK with nontraditional dating styles, that metaphor has (and had, for me) some unintended consequences.
So the teaching is that if you give too much of your heart away before marriage, you won't have anything left for your spouse.
And here are the problems with that.
1. It makes it sound like love is finite.
This is the most obvious problem with that. The more I love, the less love I have in the end? That is not how that works. While obviously romantic love is a little bit different than platonic friendship, it still doesn't work that way and nobody really thinks it does. If it did, the church would be cautioning people to pace their love in their early years, otherwise they won't have enough left for later. That's complete nonsense, and we recognize it in that scenario, so how come in the emotional purity scenario, I'm suddenly running out of love? This is just a silly, silly way of thinking about it.
2. It makes it sound like we can never let go of our past.
This is a more serious issue. There's no such thing as really moving on in Josh Harris' story. The groom admits that these women mean nothing to him, but it doesn't matter. Every relationship (for girls, this teaching is frequently extended to every single person with whom we've even desired a relationship) will leave a permanent, damaging scar on our hearts and souls. Even mutual breakups where the pair are still friends. Even a silly week-long camp romance in middle school. Even lighthearted impossible crushes. Each one of these will stay with us forever and come between us and our spouse in marriage.
It's an even more damaging message, however, when the relationships are serious one. I have a friend who was engaged and then found out some pretty terrible things about her fiance, so they broke up. That's a terrible thing to happen, and according to this teaching, she is never, ever, ever going to be able to get over it. If only she had kept herself emotionally pure - every romance she heads into now is going to be tainted by this previous one.
Now, obviously that kind of hurt does take time to get over, and obviously there will be some baggage there for quite awhile. But Josh Harris' story takes away any hope of that scar ever healing. There's no moving past it, there's no letting go of it, you're stuck with that relationship forever.
That is completely opposite from Christian teaching, and it's a paralyzing thought, because sometimes there's no way to know if you're with the wrong person in a relationship. Sometimes, as far as you know, everything's great, and then suddenly everything isn't and it comes as a total surprise to you. What if something goes wrong and you're stuck with this failed relationship on your record for the rest of your life? Then you'll going to have to explain to your future spouse that you screwed up and that that failed relationship is going to be invading your relationship with them. Forever. And there's nothing you can do about it.
That's just not how it works.
3. It teaches emotional distance.
Annnnd this was the biggie for me. All throughout high school, I found myself feeling guilty every time I had even vaguely romantic feelings for anyone. I was a sensible person - I knew most of the people I liked didn't (and wouldn't) like me back. I knew there was a slim-to-none chance that even if they DID, that I'd end up in something long-term with them - not in high school. And I was never obsessive in my liking someone. It wasn't ever a mad fit of teenage lust - it was just warm fuzzies and wanting to be around those people a lot. Nothing that I could ever pinpoint as something wrong, and yet I still felt guilty, as if just the feelings themselves were wrong.
It wasn't until I ran into this story again that I realized where this sense of guilt ever came from in the first place - thus my shriek of, "Oh, THAT'S what it was!" I had heard the idea of guarding your heart, the idea of remaining emotionally pure, and began distancing myself as much as I could from guys emotionally, because that was the best way to do that.
If I still believed this as literally, it would completely destroy the relationship I am in now. I would be terrified to get too close to my boyfriend because, again, until we either got married or broke up, I would have no way to know if I was sinning by letting him into my heart or not. What if we got close, and then something went wrong, and we broke up? It'd be my fault for being so emotionally open and vulnerable with him. I would have felt like I needed to put up a wall and never share too much of myself.
And that is a terrible idea.
It would keep us so far apart emotionally. I could never choose to marry somebody who I felt emotionally distant from. Part of building the relationship at all is building trust and emotional openness. I don't want to marry someone I haven't been emotionally open and honest with. But, again, since there's no way to know whether you're on the right track or not until you're actually married, I should apparently avoid being too emotionally open with anyone, because they might turn out to be one of the failures instead of the success.
Sometimes relationships go wrong. It just happens. People are complicated, weird creatures. But they're a whole lot more likely to go wrong if one of the people does the "right thing," guarding their heart and never opening up emotionally, hiding a whole part of themselves from the other person.
This whole metaphor teaches that romantic emotions, positive and negative, scar us for life and are usually wrong. The easiest response to that is shutting it all down, because then everything is safe, and when we get married someday, it'll all be easy to open back up again and then we can instantly be emotionally open and acceptably romantic with each other, no problem.
4. It can wreak all sorts of havoc with platonic opposite sex friendships.
This one is less terrifying than the other three, but I wanted to mention it because Christianity isn't sure what to do with these anyway. Some groups encourage it, some suggest against it, some say it's OK as long as nobody gets too close.
Either way, with this kind of teaching, it's difficult to figure out how platonic friends fit in. Is getting emotionally close to *them* wrong too, or does that only apply to romantic relationships? (In which case, it's all sorts of awkward if you go from being friends to being a couple. You'd have to immediately withdraw from them emotionally, and I can't see that ending well at all.)
One of my female friends recently told me, "I wish someone had told me growing up that I could have very strong, very intense feelings for a guy without it needing to be at all romantic." She had to figure that out on her own, and so do many girls in the church today. Some don't figure it out at all.
The emotional purity teaching has good intentions. I am absolutely a fan of being emotionally smart - be sensible about who you open up to, learn to distinguish "being in love" from minor crushes, be aware of when an interest in someone is unhealthy or obsessive. But the metaphors and stories attempting to teach this lesson have been poorly chosen can easily be taken to an extreme that traps young women in fear and keeps them from learning healthy emotional responses. It almost did that for me.