Swinging on a scar

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This topic isn't on my usual beat, but I have to give credit to a local TV station for handling it with a degree of maturity and depth. It got me thinking about why people would do such a thing, and that got me thinking about the nature of genuine intimacy.

It's not even a ratings period, as far as I know -- maybe February sweeps extends a few days into March? -- but KTUL, Tulsa's ABC affiliate, did a story about "swinging" couples earlier this week. What was notable -- and commendable -- about the story was that, after a bit of obligatory luridness, they spoke to a Christian counselor about the effect of this form of adultery on relationships and emotions:

In twenty years of family counseling, [Psychologist] Dr. [Sydney] Black has never seen a case where swinging strengthened a relationship. ...

"You can, without boundaries, go lots of places. As you begin to do that, I think at some level you have to cut off what I call the emotional part of your heart to be able to experience that heightened sexual experience with multiple partners." [Emphasis added.]

Pay attention to the next comment, and see how "swingers" have turned the concept of intimacy on its head.

"Some couples don't kiss other couples. That's just off limits. They can do the sex and everything else but that part is personal."

So kissing is personal, but aardvarking (to borrow Joe Bob Briggs' euphemism) isn't. By this logic, then, with a spouse's permission, it's OK to use another person sexually, just as long as you don't get emotionally attached to the human being whose body parts are providing the desired combination of temperature, friction, and lubrication.

There's something very Gnostic about that concept -- the idea that this physical shell I'm walking around in isn't really me, and it doesn't really matter to God what it gets up to.

The Bible teaches otherwise. Our bodies are as much a part of us as our souls. At the resurrection, my soul will be reunited with my transformed body. As a Christian, my body belongs to Christ, and I'm to use it for his glory and in accordance with his will. You can't detach body from spirit without doing violence to both.

Dr. Black's final quote is an answer to those who claim that joint expeditions into extramarital experimentation may actually bring a married couple closer together.

"I hope couples can get back to the root of what strengthens a relationship," Black says. "And that is being connected at the most deepest intimate level with each other."

Intimacy -- real intimacy -- isn't about the meshing of body parts. It's about knowing and being known. It is terrifying because it requires exposing your fears, your desires, your flaws, and your weaknesses to another person, and running the risk of rejection. Yet we are designed by God to desire intimacy, and I think He intends that drive to knit His people together into one body as we bear one another's burdens and learn to bear with one another's weaknesses.

But what is a risk-averse person to do? You get too close to someone, you open up too much, and there's a strong likelihood that the other person will get a glimpse of real ugliness, say "ick," and back away. Emotional intimacy is fragile and when it breaks it hurts like the dickens, because a piece of your heart breaks, too.

It seems safer to build a wall around your heart -- don't get too close to anyone and don't let anyone get too close to you.

The absence of intimacy leaves a void, but there are all sorts of counterfeits and substitutes available for filling that void without risking emotional pain. For some people at least, it seems safer to be naked in front of complete strangers than to be emotionally transparent. I can diet and tone and tan and even undergo surgery so that I can be naked and unashamed, but in this life my inner self will always be broken, flawed, sinful, and corrupt, no matter how hard I work at fixing myself.

These "swingers" have it exactly backwards. Rather than seeking a physical false intimacy with a large number of strangers while remaining emotionally detached, they should keep the physical intimacy within marriage, while building strong emotional ties with a network of friends and family.

(As an aside, I've heard some Christians claim that emotional intimacy ought to be confined to marriage. I think it puts far too much pressure on a marriage to expect that all of your emotional needs will be met by your spouse. Of course, your spouse should be your closest confidante, but God uses different friends to minister to your emotional needs in different ways.)

So how do you deal with the inevitable hurts? I first learned the answer at church camp when I was 15. To me, in my early teens, Simon and Garfunkel's song "I Am a Rock" wasn't poignant commentary on loneliness but my personal anthem, and I wanted to live up to the song's final line, "And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries." But I heard a couple of other songs that July week in the sweltering heat of Falls Creek Baptist Assembly -- two simple choruses:

I am loved. You are loved.
I can risk loving you.
We are free to love each other.
We are loved.

I am loved? By whom?

Oh, how He loves you and me!
Oh, how He loves you and me!
He gave His life -- what more could he give?
Oh, how He loves you!
Oh, how He loves me!
Oh, how He loves you and me!

Repetitive? You bet. It ain't Isaac Watts, but it broke down the wall I'd built around my heart. As a Christian, I can be secure in God's love for me, as demonstrated in the gift of His Son, so that I can stand the risk of rejection as I make myself vulnerable to those around me.

Do I actually live like that? No. I am still very good at building walls and wearing masks. And when I drop my mask or open a hole in the wall and it ends in pain -- a confidence betrayed, a silent rejection -- the temptation is to patch up the wall as quickly as possible. The temptation is to say, "You go ahead and be vulnerable. I'm going to stay safe. I'm not going to let you get close enough to hurt me."

As I said at the outset, this is not my usual beat. Others have written often and eloquently from their own experience of the spiritual damage inflicted by casual sex and emotional detachment. But this little local news story, no doubt merely intended to entice me to tune in at 10, got me to thinking, and I thought I'd be vulnerable and share my thoughts with you.


Roy said:

Proverbs speaks to that vulnerability you discuss, Mike. 5:19b continues the exhortation to rejoice in one's wife v18, to be satisfied always with her breasts v19a(contra the idea that God did not design intimacy). That continuation says that the husband ought be ravished by the wife's love, the context (breasts v19, captivation by an adultress, embracing the breast of another man's wife v20) making plain that everything from looking at one's wife to closest physical intimacy is meant by wife's love. The word for ravished (KJV) captivated (NIV) is used to refer to one being blind, staggering drunk, as a sheep, or a city without defenses. There is the cost of a sound marriage, and its foundation as well.

The idea of Pr 5:19 couples with the idea of "one flesh", which Jesus cites from the creation account. This unity joins in an actual, tangible, not deniable manner. One pastor (Bob Peterson at CPC in the 1980's) illustrated by gluing two pieces of paper together, each piece of a different color. He talked about marriage as the glue dried. Then when he pulled the two pieces apart, pieces of each stuck to the other.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on March 4, 2005 11:47 PM.

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