Pairing Off: Crime or Apprenticeship

Ingrained in every human being is a thirst of emotional closeness with at least one other person. We examined this need in depth in chapter one. Inbuilt into most human beings is also a longing for closeness with a person of the opposite sex; the desire for the physical reunion which Adam and Eve rejoiced in when God created them for one another. We placed the spotlight on this need in chapter two and shall return to it in chapters five and six. Both needs, as we have seen, huddle under the overworked, umbrella term 'sexual intimacy'. Sexual intimacy in its widest sense includes emotional togetherness and bodily fusion.

   But what has this to do with boy/girl relationships which might result in marriage, but which will almost certainly not do so? What is the purpose of such relationships? Are they dangerous time-wasters, dishonouring to the Lord, or do they have value for the Christian young person? If they do have value, should young Christians actively look for relationships with the opposite sex? And what about the 'If only I had a boyfriend (or girlfriend), everything would be all right' mentality? Is this foolish? Or does it contain a grain of truth? And how committed can such committed relationships be?

   To these questions, and others like them, we apply ourselves in our quest for a foundation for firm, real and rich relationships. We will consider some of the implications involved in this chapter and the next.

Serious boy/girl relationships

Graham and Jane grew up in the same neighbourhood. Their parents knew one another well, they attended the same

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church, and Graham and Jane shared the same interests: walking, cycling, badminton, music, missionary work in this country and overseas. For years they enjoyed a platonic friendship: going to church together, cycling for miles together, playing badminton most weeks. And they belonged to the same missionary prayer group.

   Graham decided to apply for university in his home town instead of moving away, so they continued to see one another regularly during his undergraduate days. It was while he was studying for finals that his attitude to Jane changed. For no apparent reason he suddenly fell head-over-heels in love with her, and somehow needed to assure himself of her undying love for him.

   To Jane's amazement, Graham blurted out a question one evening. 'Jane. I've got to know. Will you marry me?' Jane didn't know what to say. She liked Graham a lot. In many ways he was her best friend. But marriage! Why? She was pulling all the stops out working for her 'A' level examinations. Why think of marriage now? Yet she felt flattered too. 'Fancy someone proposing to me before I've even left school.'

   The relationship changed gear after their conversation that night. For months, Jane deliberately avoided giving Graham an answer to his pressing question, but they started 'going out' in the sense that embracing and kissing crept into their friendship and escalated until heavy petting became a regular part of their diet. They dreamed dreams about the future, too. After Jane graduated they would settle down together, finish their training and then go off to serve God in India.

   Jane departed for university confident of Graham's love and he of hers. They wrote long letters to each other at least twice a week. Graham would sometimes come to visit Jane in her hall of residence at weekends.

   During her second term at university, Jane became strangely ill-at-ease about the relationship with Graham. She no longer looked forward to his visits. Somehow she sensed they were growing apart. They had little in common now, nothing to talk about. And yes, she could not deny that she was strongly attracted to a member of the Christian

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Union in her college. Was she being unfaithful? Should she break off the relationship with Graham? But what reason should she give? And what of their long-term plans?

    Graham sensed from her letters that Jane was changing but they did not talk at length about their disintegrating relationship until the Easter vacation. When Jane tried to explain, Graham became angry and defensive. He dared not  show his hurt but rather exploded and accused her of being disloyal. His parents were hurt too. They had, by now, earmarked Jane as their son's bride-to-be. When they discovered Jane's uncertainty, they cut her dead. Neither they nor Graham ever spoke to Jane again. Even her own parents failed to understand her bewilderment. She eventually returned to university with some emotional bruises and batterings which she felt unable to voice to anyone. The experience also left her with several unanswered questions: Had the friendship been wrong in the first place? Had she and Graham been wrong to let romance colour their existing relationship? Had she been wrong to dream dreams about the future with Graham? Had she now been wrong to break it off?

What is the purpose of such friendships?

In responding to these imponderables the question needs to be asked: What is the purpose of these boy/girl friendships?

   One of the purposes, as we saw in chapter one, is closeness, intimacy, the friendship which rejoices in discovering another person in life who is not only all for you, but who likes what you like; who is by your side, absorbed in exactly the same interests which add zest to your own life.

   The richness of this kind of friendship in encapsulated on a card which stands on the desk in my study at the moment:

'A friend is a person who is for you always... He wants nothing from you except that you be yourself. He is the one being with whom you can feel safe. With him you can utter your heart, its badness and its goodness. Like the shade of a great tree in the noonday heat is a friend ... He is the

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antidote to despair, the elixir of hope, the tonic for depression.' (Author anonymous)

   At every stage of life, everyone needs another person with whom they experience the inexpressible comfort of this security; someone into whose heart they can pour their innermost hopes and fears, their disappointments and successes, someone who will listen and care and act appropriately.

   In a moving, self-revealing poem entitled Will you be my Friend?, James Kavanaugh puts his  finger on the heart of the situation: he shows that the need for such a friend is urgent:

Will you be my friend?

There are so many reasons why you never should;

I'm sometimes sullen, often shy, acutely sensitive,

My fear erupts as anger. I find it hard to give,

I talk about myself when I'm afraid

And often spend a day without anything to say.

But I will make you laugh

And love you quite a bit

And hold you when you're sad . . . .1

   James Kavanaugh goes on to suggest that we need friends because there is a warm and tender side to each one of us which, though we hide it, yearns to express itself in the intimacy of friendship. So he repeats  the question:

Will you be my friend?

A friend

Who far beyond the feebleness of any vow or tie

Will touch the secret place where I am really I . . . .

   'The secret place where I am really I.' I love that phrase. In it lies the real reason for the craving that most people experience, the desire that someone in this world should discover and be concerned about the fearful, insecure and

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vulnerable person who crouches behind the personality we project to the watching world. So the poem persists:

And if at times I show my trembling side

(The anxious, fearful part I hide)

I wonder,

Will you be my friend?

   Most of us long for an answer to that question, because the need for friendship and love was ingrained in us deeply from birth. We need someone to enter into the hidden places of our hearts. We also need someone who asks us, 'Will you be my friend?"

   James Kavanaugh's quest is the quest of every man — and of every woman — the urgent search for someone with whom they can be real; someone with whom they can remove some of their masks, but someone who will love them, respect and understand them for who they really are underneath the camouflage; someone who will 'touch the secret place where I am really I'; but someone who will, in turn, open their heart so that the friendship can be mutual.

   We all need someone who will recognize the pain of our personal vulnerability; someone who will, in turn, expose their vulnerability. We all need someone who will seek to understand our quota of defeats and tell us about theirs. We all need someone who will pierce the layer of superficiality, understand it for what it is: the pseudo-confidence which is a cover-up for insecurity; someone who will admit, 'I identify with your pain because I'm a wounded healer too.' We all need someone to stay alongside us while we discover what maturity is all about; someone who will permit us to stay alongside them while they make similar discoveries.

   We long for someone with whom we can feel safe, to whom we can belong, to whom we can give ourselves to the fullest extent of our being and who will similarly give of themselves in return; someone who does not mind admitting that they love with the 'L' plates on, that they have not yet learned all there is to learn about this mystery called loving relationships.

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Why other-sex friendships?

Adolescents and young adults frequently find that their parents and older people in the church have forgotten or never acquired the art of identifying with those who suffer the traumas of the between years: those who negotiate that frightening gulf which spans the dependency of childhood and the full-fledged independence of adulthood. Peer-group friendships therefore flourish — quite rightly. Parents sometimes voice their alarm at the influence these friendships exert on their offspring. But surely most of us, in times of testing and trauma, turn for help to those who identify with our inner struggles, understand them, and offer us accepting love while we work through the pain?

   James Kavanaugh is honest enough to lift the lid off his struggles; to ask that high-risk questions: 'Will you be my friends?' What James Kavanaugh does not reveal is the need most people have, not simply for same-sex friendships, but for a soul-friend of the opposite sex. This need, as we have already seen in the earlier chapters of this book, is designed and implanted by God. It includes the need, on the male side, for the tenderness and trust which is communicated by women in a unique way, and the need, on the female side, for the respect, admiration, even flattery, which men give women and which increases their self-confidence and self-esteem. And, of course, it includes the need on both sides for touch. Touch adds spice to the warmth of togetherness. As one girl put it to me, describing an evening out with a boyfriend after several years of having no male contact, 'It felt so good to walk along the street holding hands with someone again: not just anyone - but his big, warm, supporting hand!"

   Graham and Jane, whose friendship  I sketched earlier, gave one another the support and acceptance, the love and understanding two maturing people need. Was their friendship a mistake, then, or could it be that, for a season, they enriched each other's lives, even helped one another to negotiate the wobbly stepping stones which seem to be the only route between childhood and adulthood? Was 'pairing off', in their case, so very wrong? Is 'pairing off'', in fact, the Christian crime some make it our to be or is it, for some Christians, a necessary route to greater wholeness?

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Pairing off: crime or necessity?

The Christian church, as often happens when people clamour for an answer to a question which is pertinent to them, remains sharply divided over the matter of boy/girl relationships. But at least three camps co-exist. Their varying emphases need to be weighed carefully by those searching for an answer to the paring-off problem.

   The first group is the prohibitionist camp. If you move in certain Christian circles, you will be warned against the dangers of romantic attachments at the adolescent and young adult stage of life. Young men will be advised to wait until they are 'thirty-ish' before they think of marriage. Young men and women will be encouraged to give their 'best years' to the Lord; not to be side-tracked by the trivia and encumbrances of boy/girl relationships with all the time wastage and heartbreak which such friendships frequently incur. Bible verses will be used to substantiate this teaching, notably 1 Corinthians 7:32-35, where Paul exhorts Christ's followers, 'I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs - how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world - how he can please his wife - and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord's affairs: her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world - how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.'

The prohibitionist argument

I know many, many Christians who are persuaded that this prohibitionist theory is biblical, and that Paul's word is the last word on the subject. Following Paul, or so they think, they abstain from one-to-one relationships with the opposite sex.

   All I can say is that I admire them. The calibre of their Christian life knocks spots off many of their more liberally-minded counterparts. One has only to assess the harvest of their evangelistic zeal or survey the fruits of their Christian

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creativity to be deeply impressed by their productivity. In terms of sheer single-minded determination to serve Christ, their example is hard, if not impossible, to beat. I repeat, I admire them. Nevertheless, I question the wisdom of this prohibitionist dogma. I do so for several reasons.

   First, we need to ask whether life is only about achieving for Christ. In the Martha and Mary conflict, Jesus seemed to emphasize man's need 'to be' as well as 'to do'. Yet many of these activists know little about 'being' before God. Even in prayer they have to achieve, it seems, and one possible explanation is that they have not yet learned how to be comfortable enough with themselves to be still with anyone, let alone God.

   A second question needs to be asked: How are these young people to learn to tame the tiger of sex rampaging within and go on to integrate genital desires and loving relationships if they never encounter members of the opposite sex at close quarters? Many of the adherents of this teaching attended single-sex boarding schools. Many admit that they feel ill-at-ease in a one-to-one encounter with persons of the other sex. 'I admit I'm a prude. And I'm proud of it.' 'I just clam up when girls are around. I don't know what to say.' Many of the men camouflage this fear and embarrassment with a layer of seeing self-sufficiency which leaves the girls in their circle of acquaintances screaming in protest: 'Do you think these guys really don't need women or do they just pretend?'

   Many of the women, too, conceal the very real pain and frustration. As one girl said to me as we discussed this book, 'Do say something about the "loneliness" of "waiting for the right guy". Speaking personally, I'm often found in floods of tears: tears of sheer frustration and insecurity. What's wrong with me? Why can't I catch one of these men?'

   Consciously putting on a brave face through which to smile at the watching world, shrugging your shoulders with a philosophical, 'Oh well! I think I'll trog off to the library and concentrate on Finals', is one attitude. Repression is quite another. When I watch young people, influenced by this teaching, visibly shrink from members of the opposite sex, repressing sex rather than accepting it, it concerns me deeply.

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It concerns me because such repression is harmful. It was not exemplified by Jesus, whom we are called to emulate. It results in stunted growth, not in Christian maturity. As I underlined in chapter two, we shall never be the outgoing, attractive, winning kind of person Jesus was until we have come to terms with our own sexuality, and this means rubbing shoulders (perhaps literally!) with members of the opposite sex.

    I do not want to knock another man's deep convictions on this subject, but I do want to express my concern and to warn that this teaching does not hold water everyone.

   The third question which bothers me is this: Is it permissible to lift Bible verses from their context and make a theology of sex from them? In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is not primarily addressing twentieth-century couples who are forced by circumstances to play the waiting game and who are therefore plagued with sexual hang-ups. No, Paul is addressing two separate sets of people who have each pestered him with specific requests: on the one hand the ascetics in Corinth were demanding that Paul should pontificate and pronounce celibacy as the only calling for Christian devotees, while on the other hand the more liberal converts wanted Paul's teaching to reflect their own contempt for celibacy and declare it irrelevant for Christ's followers.

  Paul steers a middle course. Building on the teaching of Jesus which recognizes two vocations: marriage and singleness, to the former Paul says, 'You asked me if you should remain unmarried as a Christian. Well, it is certainly a most acceptable calling for a Christian.... But it is not an easy thing to remain single, and it's even more difficult in Corinth where you are surrounded by sexual immorality on every side. Therefore, it is probably best, in the first instance, that you should look to marriage as your calling.'2 Having dampened their over-enthusiasm for celibacy, and having underlined the duty husbands and wives have to one another, he then sings the praises of celibacy and glories  in his own vocation: single-minded service of Christ. But it is not often  emphasized that in verse 7 of this chapter Paul underscores the fact that such celibacy is a special gift of the Holy Spirit,

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and he adds: 'Each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.' Each must therefore discover his gift: abstention or involvement, and achieve his potential within his God-given calling.

The example of Jesus

We must, of course, base our behaviour on life-principles like the Pauline ones we have referred to, 'that you may live... in undivided devotion to the Lord' ( 1 Corinthians 7:35 ). The Christian, according to Paul, must live his life in the shadow of the Second Coming of Christ. Nothing must cramp his missionary style or dampen his missionary zeal.

   But are we acting responsibly in taking one passage in isolation? Surely we must understand Paul's words in the context of what the New Testament teaches as a whole. As we saw at the end of chapter one of this book, Jesus' life-style was unique. On the one hand he was utterly devoted to his Father so that he could claim that even the words he spoke were given to him by God (John 12:50). On the other hand, this man Jesus, whose will was in complete alignment with his Father's, whose devotion to the Father never wavered, forged firm friendships across the sex barrier with all the risks that that entailed.

   When I visited Israel the Gospel narratives came alive for me in a new way. As I attempted some of the walks that Jesus probably made regularly, I realized that he must have had a fine physique. The Gospels portray him as having a lively, logical mind, outstanding compassion, and a winning sense of humour. And he showed us how these superlative human characteristics could be channelled into serving God while at the same time relating closely to people of all ages and both sexes.

   This leaves me with two serious question marks. First, is the prohibitionist theory following as nearly as possible in Jesus' footsteps? Second, is there a twin danger in this theory of 'elitism'; an encouragement to pour scorn on God's answer to loneliness: marriage? Neither of these views is biblical.

   One further objection remains to be raised. Is it correct to assume that 'the best years' of our life are the young adult

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years? It is a well-known fact that a man reaches his peak in his forties, and that many women become more creative after the menopause than they were before. Surely the goal towards which we should travel at every stage of our life should be undivided loyalty to Christ?

The alternative: worldliness

It almost always happens that when one section of the church over-emphasizes teaching of the kind I have described, another section of the church over-reacts. This has happened with the strait-jacket teaching on boy/girl relationships which we have examined. 'What nonsense! Of course couples should pair off. Boys and girls need to learn from one another. Don't discourage them. Tell them that the taboos are a thing of the past. Touch is good and necessary. The important thing is to emphasize mutual love. "Love each other and do what you life." '

   I am caricaturing. But this counter-attack which has been launched against the prohibitionist view is widely held today. Speaking personally, I am as unhappy about this view as the former one, for two reasons. First, because it is irresponsible. Second, because the focus has shifted from pleasing God to pleasing man and this, in my view, is of the essence of worldliness. One perplexed person wrote to me, 'So basically you have two opposing views but really everyone sits in the middle getting confused - except for those who've bee drilled not even to think about it "till they're thirty!" ... I'm hoping you may be able to sort out the confusion or at least provide some kind of biblical framework to build on.'

An Alternative

Is there an alternative? I believe there is. It is not an easy alternative. But then Jesus and Paul show us that neither marriage or singleness are easy options, so perhaps we should not expect the in-between stage to be free from problems either?

   As Christians, we must learn to hold two things in tension: the constant readiness which is the outworking of our belief

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that Jesus could reappear at any moment - the kind of expectation which causes us to tingle with pure joy and anticipation at the very thought; and Jesus' solemn requirement that we must invest all that we have and all that we are in the here-and-now world (Matthew 25:14 ff.), giving glory to God by being fully alive. These two principles should govern our attitudes, our ambitions, our life-style, and all our relationships. 'If Jesus came back at this moment would I blush or leap for joy?' is a question which could punctuate our lives to advantage. It is a useful yardstick.

   Apply this to the pairing-off problem and you come up with some interesting observations. We must not forget Paul's injunction to offer to God our undivided devotion, but neither must we assume that making warm relationships with a person of the opposite sex need distract us from serving Jesus any more than working for Finals does, or writing a book, or pursuing a time-consuming, expensive hobby like sailing or golf, or even accepting a responsible job, like that headship of a school or college. No-one suggest that we refuse to work or play full capacity because the Lord might return at any moment. On the contrary, Christians believe that they will hear Jesus' heart-warming 'Well done, good and faithful servant', if they are found working responsibly and well when he returns.

   Why isolate boy/girl relationships from these other potential distractions? Why not translate the principles which have relevance to every other area of life and apply them to this perplexing area? Why not re-evaluate by asking, 'Is there, in fact, value in such friendships even though they do not result in marriage?'

The value of one-to-one relationships

Donald Goergen, author of an important book on sexuality, The Sexual Celibate, is of the opinion, and I agree with him, that a woman becomes most truly a woman when she is loved and understood by a man. Similarly a man becomes most truly a man when a woman cares deeply for him. We are not talking here about 'pairing off', but deep friendships. It is as John Powell puts it, that each of us needs to be loved and

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cherished by persons of both sexes. Who we are and what we become depends largely on those who love us.3

   During childhood, most of us were fortunate enough to experience unconditional love from our parents. When we are married, most of us are fortunate enough to rediscover this healing, unconditional love from our spouses. Could it be that the time-span between childhood and adulthood ( when we are ready to accept the responsibilities of marriage or celibacy) might be considered our apprenticeship of love? Is it conceivable that one-to-one boy/girl relationships, if conducted sensibly, can contribute positively to the personal growth of the individual and even promote the process of sexual maturation? I am of the opinion that, even in the sex-saturated society in which we live, such phenomena can - and do - happen.

   I sensed I saw it happen in the lives of two young friends of mine only recently. I shall call them Colin and Janet. They met at university. When Janet left home, she was disillusioned by Christianity, tired of being pressurized to seek the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Even so, at university she kept her own expression of her faith ticking over - just. Colin, on the other hand, found his feet spiritually at university. The pastor of the church he attended welcome his gifts and made use of them. It was in this 'student church' that Colin and Janet met. Their friendship blossomed and gave birth to romantic love. They prayed together, relaxed together, went on holiday together, talked to one another about their hopes and ambitions, failures and insecurities. The basis of their relationship was a warm, accepting, understanding love: the desire to cherish the other, to draw out the other's potential.

   After graduation, Colin and Janet continued to see one another spasmodically for several months. But Janet's training took her to far-flung parts of the world and Colin's to a remote part of England. Gradually, they grew apart. Since neither was ready for marriage and, in a sense, each had chosen singleness by opting for fulfilling, time-consuming careers, the demise of their romantic relationships was almost inevitable.

   The parting of the ways was not without pain, but it was

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not joyless either. As we asked, 'What have you learned from this relationship?', the list of benefits seemed endless. Colin discovered, among other things, that he had matured as a person, as a Christian, and as a man. Janet had looked up to him as the leader, and he had responded responsibly. He recognized that the self-centeredness of adolescence (of which he was now mildly ashamed) had been replaced by 'other awareness' (not just 'Janet-awareness' but a deeper understanding of the needs of others in general). Selfishness had been dislodged by outgoingness and compassion and much of the gaucherie born of teenage  insecurity had been banished, to be replaced by gentleness and tenderness.

   Janet, too, realized that the friendship had contributed to her spiritual growth. In partnership with Colin she had rediscovered the delight of serving God: running holiday clubs for children, using her musical gifts, leading 'welcome' campaigns for overseas students. Listening to Colin's male insights had broadened her own view of God and helped her to understand the relevance of the Holy Spirit to her own life.

   In addition, friendship with Colin taught her how to relate to members of the opposite sex; how to feel comfortable in their presence. She realized that one of the riches Colin had giver her was the ability to accept her own femininity indeed, her ability to view herself as God and others viewed her had escalated because of this friendship. And as Janet had relaxed as a person, fun bubbled out of her, she learned to be gentle rather than brittle. Her self-confidence had not only taken root; it had grown.

   Colin and Janet will never  marry. That does not invalidate their relationship, in my view. God used it. The personal legacy each is left with enriches their lives today. Moreover, look at how God used it: to transform both of them more into his own likeness. We have used works like compassion, gentleness, tenderness, delight in pleasing God, to describe the changes which took place. There are words we would use to describe the earthly life and ministry of Jesus too. These two certainly made mistakes in their loving of one another and they would be the first to admit it. Even so, they strug-

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gled to hold these two things in tension: God's sovereignty and responsible loving.

The new need

The new and urgent need is not that restrictive word 'Don't' but rather education. My generation has a responsibility to the younger generation to teach them how to make serving God their goal while not amputating or repressing their God-given desire for one-to-one closeness.

   But the going is tough, as I implied at the beginning of this section. You must decide for yourself whether the risks of pairing off are worth taking, or whether total abstinence would be more profitable for you spiritually, emotionally, socially. You must decide whether the legacy left by a friendship of the Colin-Janet variety or the Graham-Gill variety is equal in value or of parallel value to the harvest reaped for Christ by those who try to live out-and-out for him, in the sense that any emotional entanglement with the opposite sex is taboo. The crunch question to pose in balancing one against the other is: 'What pleases God?' Is it winning souls for Christ? Is it dedicating all your have and are in the service of the King of kings and Lord and lords? Or is it being personally transformed into the likeness of Christ by having your rough edges sandpapered in the love and tumble of human relationships? Could it be that all three are necessary and that our near-impossible task at every stage of adolescence and adulthood is to find the right-rope and keep our balance?

   'Yes! But you don't have to "pair-off" to have your corners knocked off.' A young man, accusing me of worldliness, made this angry protest after I'd spoken at a Christian Union meeting on one occasion. No. That is perfectly true. Yet surely everyone would admit that the apprenticeship of love served in these special one-to-one boy/girl relationships introduces a new taste to life? These friendships are not the same as same-sex friendships, sibling relationships or the fellowship which enriches the lives of those fortunate enough to have 'brothers and sisters' in Christ. They are deliciously different. Whether they distract you from your number one

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mission in life, to 'seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness', depends on how you conduct them. The 'how to' of conducting responsible and enriching relationships is the subject we must tease out in the next chapter.

Note for chapter three

  1. James Kavanaugh, quoted by Jim Bigelow in Love Has Come Again ( Lakeland, 1978, p. 47.

  2. David Gillet's paraphrase in A Place in the Family (Grove Pastoral Series 6, 1981), p. 8.

  3. See John Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love (Argus, 1974).

Chapter Four  ||  Table of Contents