What the Ornithologist Knows

In her fifth chapter, Aimee Byrd helpfully offers some qualifications (and/or exceptions) to what she has been generally arguing for. She makes the important general point that temptation and sin in this area is devastating and really bad. And she also says some really good things in this chapter about how the law does not bring victory over temptation. The law cannot do what only the grace of God can do.

First, her general cautions:

“Christians who caution against friendship between the sexes warn against something very real: sin” (Loc. 1077). “Friendship isn’t sin. But sin in friendship is devastating” (Loc. 1078). “Personal holiness is imperative” (Loc. 1080). “Temptation is real, and sin is evil” (Loc. 1256). “Sin affected our bodies, minds, and souls so that they are not rightly ordered toward righteousness, love, and glory to God” (Loc. 1088).

She also concedes that there may be places where particular guardrails may need to be installed.

“Therefore, we should never entertain inappropriate thoughts or behaviors in any relationship” (Loc. 1216). “sometimes we do need to implement boundaries” (Loc. 1218). “we are wise to put boundaries on our interactions with a person like Harry Burns” (Loc. 1219). “Because of this, many wise church leaders keep an open door (or have a windowed door) when alone with a woman. They do this not because women are a threat to their sexual purity but because they want to assure those who trust them that they are safe. This is a kind gesture of leadership” (Loc. 1221). “Even sharing a meal in public with someone can increase intimacy. If we treat the intimacy appropriately as brother-sister intimacy, then everything stays properly platonic and our affections are rightly ordered. Most of us are able to do this. But if you are not, or if you find yourself in a vulnerable time or with someone who is not good company, make your decisions accordingly” (Loc. 1253). “If you find yourself struggling with an unhealthy attraction toward someone, this is a good time for self-evaluation. Why are you more vulnerable at this time?” (Loc. 1239). “then you need to confess this to the Lord in prayer and not put yourself in situations that fuel romantic feelings” (Loc. 1235).

In addition, she says some good things about being genuinely open to concerned input from your husband or wife. If your spouse has concerns . . .

“listen to their reasons” (Loc. 1245). “we can be blinkered by our own good intentions” (Loc. 1248). “Often they are right—and we don’t ever want to make our spouses uncomfortable anyway” (Loc. 1249).

Now I do think it would have been a wise editorial choice to put a bunch of these qualifications in the first chapter. But at the same time, although it appears she may be walking back some of her earlier blanket assertions, there is enough naiveté still on exhibit in this chapter to maintain brisk forward motion for her overarching thesis. And that is really dangerous.

In other words, she does draw a firm clear line that must not be crossed, and when she talks about not crossing it, she does so in the name of a lot of good gospel principle. Unfortunately, it is plain that she is putting that line in a very slippery place.

“Avoidance is not purity. We are not being holy by avoiding any affection for the other sex” (Loc. 1169). “Do you confuse attraction with temptation?” (Loc. 1172). “The truth is that we are attracted to more people than our spouses. Attraction is not impurity” (Loc. 1182). “should not orient all our affections toward our spouses” (Loc. 1196). “Love is so much more than romantic passion” (Loc. 1186).

Ironically, what she is doing is being very reductive about the nature of this particular temptation. It is ironic because being reductive about any of this has been her bête noire throughout.

“Finding someone attractive doesn’t mean that we should pursue them romantically, however, or allow our thoughts to wander into sexual fantasy” (Loc. 1184).

I do not cite this to disagree with it—far from it. Rather, I want to say a good deal more. A person can be in big time trouble long before he starts thinking about actual “pursuit” of someone romantically. He (or she) can be a goner before the first episode of mental undressing. Flirtation can reside in a person’s heart for months before ever making its first public appearance. Did she laugh at that joke? I wonder if he thinks I am clever. I’ll bet she admires my truck. Did he notice my new dress?

But now, all of this, any of it, can be buried under the license that this chapter has given to those who want to settle for a guilt-free attraction. Just because you value her opinion about that witticism of yours does not mean you are being tempted. Not a bit of it. No problem having the hook in your mouth so long as the fisherman hasn’t yanked on it yet. All a matter of timing.

What I am saying is that illicit attraction need not be overtly romantic or overtly sexual at all. The reason I believe that such non-sexual interactions are frequently sexual in principle is that I am not being reductive about sex. The male bird displaying its plumage is logically distinct from the act of mating—and yet there is still a deep connection there. That bird may not even know enough to articulate that connection, but the ornithologist can.