This summer, when I turned to the first page of Elisabeth Elliot’s “Passion and Purity,” I tried to have an open mind. Through the years, I’ve read dozens of books about dating and marriage, and unfortunately many have fallen flat in the face of extended singleness.
Amid the recent mass cynicism toward purity culture (culminating in Joshua Harris’ defection from both the courtship movement and Christianity), I decided to revisit Elliot’s relationship classic. I had read it twice before, once as a teen and again in my early 20s. Since several of Elliot’s other books have continued to be formative in my Christian walk, I wondered if her dating wisdom would still be relevant in my mid-30s. I didn’t expect much — at this point, how much more could I have to learn?
“Passion and Purity” was first published in 1984, and its content is dated — jarringly so. But herein lies its beauty. Reading older books can help us see how many of our cultural “norms” are in fact recent innovations. As I worked my way through the chapters, I found Elliot’s advice not only practical, but nuanced and seasoned with understanding — the understanding of a woman who lived it.
For those who don’t know her story, Elliot began her career as a missionary in Ecuador. “Passion and Purity” tells the story of the five-year courtship between her and fellow missionary Jim Elliot. In 1956, two years into their marriage, Jim was martyred. Elisabeth was a widow and single parent at the age of 29. She would not remarry until she was 42, this time to theologian Addison Leitch. She was widowed again just four years later when Leitch died of cancer. Finally, at age 50, she married Lars Gren, a hospital chaplain, who would outlive her. Despite these tragedies, Elliot lived a faithful life — much of it as a single woman.
Ladies and gentlemen
Elliot is unapologetic in her traditional understanding of gender roles. She strongly cautions against “new” trends like women initiating relationships, citing how masculinity is rooted in God’s character as initiator: “He woos us, calls us, wins us, gives us His name, shares with us His destiny, takes responsibility for us, loves us with a love stronger than death” (p. 110). She writes of the masculine responsibility “to care for, protect, provide for, and cherish.”
For women, she encourages qualities like affirmation, tenderness, maternalism and mystery (a sort of modesty and reserve). In a 21st-century culture that rewards brash assertiveness and encourages self-exposure via social media, Elliot’s portrait of womanhood sounds downright Victorian. But Elliot’s own life of courage and quiet leadership proves that she isn’t encouraging unhealthy subjection; rather, she models a sort of fearless femininity, an embrace of womanhood that is rooted in God’s design.
Even for someone like me who grew up steeped in complementarianism, today’s gender relations are incredibly confusing. The wider culture has blurred almost all distinctions in gender roles, and the church has been unable to halt its effect on our members. Men are stuck between calls to leadership and warnings against “toxic masculinity.” Women who may prefer to “respond” give up after seeing the success of friends who doggedly pursued the men they wanted.
I’ve sometimes looked back at my 20s and wondered if I was too reserved, too willing to wait. I worry — did I miss my chance? I’ve spent recent years in cycles of almost frantic action (typically by maintaining profiles and subsequent activity on several dating sites) followed by burnout. Reading Elliot this time was freeing for me. While I think there is wisdom in women making themselves available (whether through social functions or social networks) and willing to date, it is a relief to remember that the female sex was not called to find a spouse — that role belongs to men.
Trust and obedience
As she encourages her readers to embrace their roles, Elliot asks, “What is it that brings God’s man and God’s woman near to each other with delicacy and grace? Do I want to walk here as in all areas of my life, by faith, or will I take things into my own hands?” (111)
Trusting God is a theme that runs through “Passion and Purity” — a trust that holds not only particular people but marriage itself loosely. For Elliot, this trust has some surprising applications. She warns against prematurely committed relationships (prior to engagement), a recent cultural norm which she saw as a lack of trust in God’s will (153-154). There are solid arguments for purposeful exclusivity, but Elliot has her finger on an important principle here. If the purpose of dating is discovering marriage potential, what is the role of exclusivity? When is commitment appropriate?
I can’t help but contrast my own dating practices over the years. When I was younger, I was careful to avoid early exclusivity. I got to know men in various ways — dates, group settings, letter-writing, etc. We were honest about our intentions, but we didn’t get caught up in the romantic trappings of modern dating. We didn’t treat one another like we belonged to each other — emotionally or physically. Though I had my share of disappointments, I had few real heartbreaks, and I am still friends with several men from that era of my 20s.
But I got tired of trying so hard to keep things platonic. I worried my reticence made men think I wasn’t interested, and as my 30s dawned, I decided to take a more contemporary approach. Instead of beginning each relationship with a list of standards and non-negotiables, I went with the flow, letting the men lead (provided they didn’t lead us toward blatantly sinful behavior).
Unfortunately, this landed me in a series of emotionally intense but short-lived relationships. We were exclusive and committed, and would talk about marriage and dream about our lives together. But we were not ready to get engaged, and ultimately broke up just months after becoming “Facebook official.” I felt embarrassed and duped, but then a couple years later I’d let it happen again.
If I am honest, I wonder how much faltering trust had to do with these later choices. Sadly, because of the heartache involved, I’m no longer friends with the men I dated exclusively — even men I’d been friends with previously. These losses have made dating fatigue very real for me, and I can see the wisdom in Elliot’s caution.
As Elliot relates her story with Jim, she outlines how careful they were physically. She cautions against kissing and even holding hands — stringent standards in direct contrast to our culture’s insistence that sexual restraint is harmful. But Elliot, as always, isn’t afraid to count the cost of obedience.
If virginity is to be preserved, lines must be drawn. Why put yourself in any situation where the lines become smudged and obscure? Why take the risks? Why accept the pressure of tremendous temptation when you can easily avoid it by refusing to be anywhere where compromise is possible? (148)
Why indeed? I have a personal rule of never being alone with a man at his home or my own — a rule I’ve thankfully kept. But it hasn’t been easy; fellow Christians have deemed me legalistic, and some guys I’ve dated were offended. While I try to be a woman of conviction, I’ve grown weary of explaining myself after so many years. Hearing Elliot’s affirmation of such caution was encouraging; it felt like a nod of approval from among the cloud of witnesses.
Doubtless many today would classify Elliot as shaming, but on the contrary, she simply encourages purity, which she defines as “freedom from contamination” (131). Rather than looking at specific acts and asking whether they are sinful, Elliot directs us to look at God. What will bring Him the most glory? What will best serve the sexual integrity of yourself and the person you are dating? As Elliot explains, it is all about the heart:
It is the heart’s direction that is always the central issue. God knows what the heart is set on. We can deceive others. We can easily deceive ourselves. The humble and honest heart will always be shown the truth. (132)
Reading this passage, I was convicted. There was a time when I was a proponent of the side-hug and was saving my first kiss for my husband. I had my reasons for relaxing some of these standards, not least the desire to seem less weird to men unused to such conservatism. Plus, the physical loneliness of singleness can be palpable, and it feels good to just hold someone’s hand. We start to use the other person to fill a void, all the while deceiving ourselves that we are only caring for him or her.
But if I care about someone, why would I participate in behavior that encourages premature bonding? Shouldn’t I rather be asking God how to best honor my date and guard his heart? Reflecting on these questions wasn’t pleasant for me, and I couldn’t help but regret the ways I drifted from my younger days. While it’s unhelpful to only draw lines, and there is plenty of gray area in this discussion, I think Elliot points us to a better way of understanding God’s heart in the issue.
While she gives plenty of no-nonsense exhortation, Elliot didn’t write a rule book. Rather, she tells her story. She is honest about the weight of singleness, how being alone is a form of suffering, even as we must all be willing to bear this cross as long as God requires. Throughout “Passion and Purity” she speaks openly about the relationship she had with Jim, sharing tender moments and evocative love letters. She isn’t ashamed of sexuality — on the contrary, she advocates its celebration in the proper contexts.
Even if you don’t agree with everything she writes, Elliot’s passion for God is inspiring. Having read it twice before, I may not have learned much new in reading it again. But more importantly, I remembered plenty. I remembered the hope I used to have, the trust in God’s plan, and the ideals that were perhaps more worthy because they were unrealistic according to today’s standards. I remembered the confidence I once had in my convictions — a confidence that didn’t care what men would think.
I can’t relive the past, but reading Elliot has given me hope for dating in the future. Elliot’s admonishment to trust God in practical ways has encouraged me that dating doesn’t have to be so emotionally risky. By walking in wisdom, I can rest secure in God’s everlasting arms.
Elliot, Elisabeth, “Passion and Purity” (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell, 2002).
Copyright 2019 Candice Gage. All rights reserved.