It is a familiar scenario. A young man and a young woman meet in a church context. Perhaps one of them is a youth-pastor or some sort of spiritual leader. Perhaps one of them is a new Christian, or needy, or struggling in some way. Of course, they are “just friends” – perhaps one or both of them have romantic interests elsewhere. Romance is not in the picture at all, which is why it is all that much easier to become very close friends. They “hang out.” They talk. They pray. They read the Bible together. They share life problems and pursue Christian maturity together. Occasionally they cry together. Always, they are there for one another.
Usually, somewhere along the way, things “get weird.” Maybe his or her boyfriend gets jealous. Or a third-party steps in to warn or challenge one or both parties that perhaps their relationship is not helpful. Or she begins to interpret his interest romantically, and is devastated when he responds with shock and surprise. Or he begins to have confusing dreams and thoughts about her. Or…well, you get the picture. Things “just get weird.”
Quite often, these situations then result in one or the other party backing off – usually suddenly and ungraciously. The confusion and pain which results likely obliterates any good which may or may not have resulted from the shared time of “discipleship” together.
As I said, this is all a common scenario. Sometimes, admittedly, things don’t appear to end badly. In a best-case scenario, sometimes the couple simply becomes officially romantic, and a wonderful marriage blossoms out of the encounter. However, usually the closer one is to such a situation, the more one sees how tangled, messy and “weird” the scenarios are – and sometimes the marriages based on such relationships never come free of the dysfunctionality at their inception.
The question which many a youth-pastor, pastor, college professor and friend has wondered over the years is, “Is this okay? Is it ever okay for a young man to seek out, counsel, help and ‘be there’ for a young woman who is hurting? Or, conversely, is it wrong for a young woman to seek out and help a hurting young man?”
I would like to end the confusion: No, it is not okay. Ever. No, not even in your case.
IT JUST DOESN’T WORK!
I have to admit at the outset that I don’t have a “thou shalt” or “thou shalt not” verse up my sleeve – this is not one of those issues. I have almost exclusively personal experience to go on. But in my humbly opinionated opinion, my personal experience has been pretty conclusive! I haven’t seen a whole lot of anything good come out of this sort of thing, and I have seen a whole whack of badness come out of it.
Here is what I have learned, and what I would like to share on this topic:
WHEN A GIRL ‘MENTORS’ A BOY, SHE BECOMES HIS ‘MOMMY,’ AND NEITHER GROW UP
A young man in his teens is at a critical and tricky stage. All his life, he has had someone – his mommy – pander to his every need. This is a far more universal experience than a constant father-figure: almost everybody has a mother who came running when they fell and skinned their knees. However, sometime before a young man becomes a MAN, he has to learn how to bandage his own knees.
My favorite passage for this is 1 Samuel 30:6. In enemy territory, with his friend and the king of the land publicly disgracing him, David returns home to find his village razed to the ground, and his family taken by raiders. He and his men weep all day. Then it turns ugly: the men blame David, and plan to stone him. Understandably, David is quite distressed.
Then there is that magical phrase: “But David strengthened himself in the LORD his God.” After that, he stood up, called his men to action, laid out a plan and fought to get their families back.
Now, I’m not saying that a man never cries – David cried all day in this case. I am also not saying that a real man makes all his decisions alone. If his wife or men had been there for him, no doubt he would have talked things over before deciding on a plan of action. But the issue here is what happens at crunch time, when there is nobody? David did not go running home to a woman when he was at a crunch time. He did not lean on a woman’s strength. He became strong, in the presence of God. In the complete absence of a woman – or of any sympathetic voice, David became strong, charted a course of action, and began moving in it.
This is the defining mark of a man: a boy, by contrast, does not know how to function without a “mommy.” If there is no one around to bandage his knees, he just sits on the ground and cries.
Many young men feel a great loss when their own mommies stop listening to them, or they stop talking to them. So they seek out an new, more attractive maternal figure to fill the “mommy role.” Now, when crunch-time comes, they can run to her, cry out their sorrows and get “mothered” through the “crisis.”
Ladies, listen carefully: if you are caught in this sort of thing, the best, most loving thing that you can do is simply to close and lock the door of your heart. Even if that young man beats on your door all night, you will be doing him more good by rejecting him than by letting him in.
Men learn to be men by learning from other men, and from being alone with God: having a surrogate mother is a ticket to Never-Never land, where boys can avoid manhood perpetually.
Before moving on, there is something else to be said here. As I will discuss below, a woman also needs to learn to stand on her own two feet, to strengthen herself before the Lord. A great temptation for women, I believe, is that as long as they are “needed” by someone, they feel that they are being fulfilled.
And so – although I am not very wise to the ways of women – I have observed that women who allow men to seek them out as mother figures also themselves are stuck in a regressive stage of development.
…so neither grow up, even if much “mentoring” and “discipling” seems to be taking place.
WHEN A ‘BOY’ OR ‘MAN’ MENTORS A ‘GIRL,’ IT TURNS ROMANTIC
This is the more common, and the more problematic issue, so I want to dwell on it thoroughly. I will break it down to some component parts to make it more clear:
1) MAKING A WOMAN’S PROBLEMS YOUR PROBLEMS IS A ROMANTIC ADVANCE
Read the above sentence sloooowwwwllllyyy. Men, this could save your career, ministry, marriage, life. Read it carefully, believe it, apply it, live by it. It is true.
Ruth (the one in the Bible) was a woman who had problems. Financial problems, loneliness problems – you know. Those sorts of problems. But there was this “certain guy” who was making her problems his problems. He protected her, provided for her, and talked to her caringly. The hint was taken. Then Ruth responded in kind: she quietly slipped in one night while he was sleeping and pulled his “blankets” (actually, his cloak) over her. When he awoke, she said, “Spread your cloak over me, for you are my kinsmen redeemer.” What that meant (not to get into too many details – you all know the context and the story) is that she saw that he was looking out for her. She assumed this meant that he was romantically interested. She accepted the advance. Now she wanted to make it official. Like, NOW.
Men, are you paying attention? Perhaps you would do well to go up there and read that sentence up there over again. And again. Then go read Ruth. Then read the sentence. Get it straight and get it right: if you make a woman’s problems your problems, if you start noticing when a woman is down, and start finding little ways to help her, and single her out from the other ladies as a “special prayer concern” and find ways to talk to her privately, and start providing for her out of your own pocket, and doing what you can to help her/counsel her/sympathize with her/cry with her/hold her/etc. through her rough patches then don’t be surprised to find her snuggling up to you one day and saying, “Okay, I see where this is going. I accept. When are you going to propose?”
What’s that? You aren’t ready for that moment? That wasn’t your intention? Romance was the furthest thing from your mind?
Really? Was it really?
Search your heart. Search your heart.
But at any rate, please please understand this:
“Making a woman’s problems your problems is a romantic advance.”
That’s just the truth. And if you don’t realize this, you will break hearts, marriages, ministries and lives.
…of course it goes without saying that if you, as a single young man actually are interested in a girl – especially a girl with real, tangible needs, such as a single mother – then there could be no better way to begin making your intentions known than by caring for her in practical ways.
But again – if this is not your intention, then back off. You are crossing “the line.”
2) BEWARE OF FILLING THE “FATHER FIGURE” HOLE IN A WOMAN’S HEART
On the first pass, I wrote this section with the same confidence that I wrote the rest of the post. I was cautioned that there are legitimate exceptions, and now I am pondering that possibility. All I have is my own experience to go on, so I will share that and let you make up your own mind.
My wife and I had the opportunity several years ago to work very closely with a troubled young girl. I was completely new to this sort of thing, so I sought out Ivan Ramer (my mentor/pastor)’s wise advice. He could not have said any stronger than he did: “Be absolutely sure that you do not become the father figure to her. Your ages are too close. It will become romantic. Do not try to fill this void!”
After pondering this, I concluded that there is a hole in every girl’s heart that only daddy can fill. When this girl reaches her teens and early adulthood, a slight, healthy distancing is normal from her father – she is making room for another man in that compartment. She is looking for her man. Her husband. In an unhealthy relationship, or when the Father is MIA (missing in action), the hole is almost completely empty, and a girl may hit her teens with a great hunger for a man to fill this hole. (notice the “may” – there are exceptions to every rule, and I don’t mean to over-generalize).
Now here is the important thing to note: if you see a young woman/girl who is hurting, and you sense that she is hurting from a missing father, you must not try to step in and fill that hole in her heart unless you are serious about romance. When a man fils (or tries to fill) the father-hole, it is a romantic advance.
Now, I said that Ivan cautioned me that our ages were too close: it would have been interpreted as a romantic advance which either would have weirded her out or gone in a worse direction. I took Ivan’s advice and kept my heart very far from her: my wife did all the counseling/mentoring, and I gave behind-the-scenes support only. We have no regrets, and there are no stains on my reputation from that ministry opportunity.
What I found interesting was that in similar circumstances, a much older man who was married and had grown daughters of his own was in a similar situation. He told me that what this girl needed was a father figure, and he felt the ages were far enough apart that he and his wife could effectively fill that void to some degree. The results were not what he intended. The girl took his advances as a romantic advance and began spreading rumors (which I did not believe) that he tried to kiss her.
Is it ever valid for an old, married, emotionally mature man to fill the father-void in a young girl’s life? Has it happened to you? I have not seen it – would you care to share your story in reply to this post?
…but let us return to the main topic of the post. If you are young, if you are single, if your ages are very close, there is no denying or side-stepping the issue. If you step into the father-figure role, your advance will be interpreted romantically.
Again – romance is not a sin. If you’re single and she’s single and you find her attractive – go for it! But if you don’t have romance in mind, and especially if you are the same age, take my advice and do not ever try to fill the father-figure role in the life of a hurting young girl.
ROMANCE CAN BE A TOOL OF THE DEVIL, TO DERAIL GOD’S WORK IN YOUR LIFE
Yes, I meant that. No, I am not using hyperbole.
I do not care to count the number of times that I or people I am working with have been working with a new/young Christian who is making real progress when suddenly, out of the blue – here comes a romantic interest! …and that’s the end of it. All matters of God are forgotten or put on hold indefinitely: all time and energy which should be invested in pursuing God and renovating one’s tender heart is spent wooing and being wooed by another person.
As Paul said, (to paraphrase) “The man/woman who is single places all their attention on how to please the Lord: but the married person’s interests are divided. Their focus is on how to please their spouse.” (1 Cor. 7:32-34).
Of course, there is a time for one’s interests to be divided. There is a time to bring romance into the equation, and begin walking that fine line of honoring/caring for/cherishing one’s spouse, while still keeping God #1 in one’s life. However, two months after one gets saved, or a week after one dramatically re-commits their life to the Lord, or the summer that one is kicked out of their home, or (to summarize) the season of life when a person really really needs to do business with God is almost always (notice the exception clause) not the time for romance.
Usually – and I believe this strongly! – romance coming into a person’s life at these crucial seasons is a tool of the Devil, meant to derail God’s work in their lives. Romance is not a sin – but if it comes at the wrong time, it can derail a person’s spiritual life just as effectively as a new and lethal addiction.
Are you interested in romance with this woman? Well, have you considered her heart? Have you considered yours? How is your walk with the Lord? Are either of you in the midst of a crisis? Be brutally honest: are either of you (or both of you!) turning to a pseudo-romantic relationship, when you should be turning to the Lord?
In times of crisis, it is common to turn to old vices – cigarettes, porn, ice-cream, hoarding…and love (or pseudo-romance) when we should be turning to One who can really help us, God.
And that leads us to our final section…
THE WOMAN WHOSE HANDS ARE CHAINS
There is a woman who believes that “the right man/relationship will fix all of my problems.” Men are her idol, her addiction, her “solution.” Take my advice: pity the woman, pray for the woman, but men – stay far, far away. As Solomon wrote:
“I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her.” Ecclesiastes 7:26
He elsewhere says it even more bluntly: (again, to paraphrase) “One of the most horrible situations on the earth is when an unloved woman finds a husband.” Proverbs 30:23
When a woman with an aching hole of lovelessness does not take her pain to the Lord to be healed and fixed by the Bride and Great Physician, but rather turns to a man…watch out. It is the most horrible of situations!
If you have met this woman, you know exactly what I am talking about.
How does a man get entangled with a woman like this?
“Like one who takes a dog by the ears
Is he who passes by and meddles with strife not belonging to him.” (Prov. 26:17)
This is how it happens – a certain sort of man seeks out strife, calamity and heartache. Then he assumes that it is his responsibility to sort it out. He is always ankle-deep in everyone else’s business…and it is this sort of a person who gets tangled up with the loveless woman.
What is that? What motivates someone to believe they are the answer to every problem that they see – no matter how far away, how unrelated to themselves, or how little the Spirit is leading them?
In my experience, it is usually pride, and a messiah complex. It is the belief that they are God, and they are the answer to the world’s problems.
What is the result?
Far from leading a hurting woman to the Lord, you will inadvertently introduce romance into her life (as I hope I have convinced you that you will, if you make her problems your problems). The result would be the same if you handed her a pack of cigarettes or a bottle of wine. You are telling her, “When you hurt, turn to this as a solution.” Anything she turns to other than God will leave her dry and empty. And now, at that crucial stage when she should be turning to God and not to men, you will come alongside her and fill that void in her soul – if only partially, for a minute. And it will feel sooo goooood. She will want more. And more. And more. And you will enjoy the attention at first (that is the “snare” of it!). But once in, it will become more difficult. Soon, it will drain you. Then she will express frustration when you are not doing enough to fill the void in her soul (only God can fill it! It is infinite!!). “You don’t really love me!” She says, and her chains of guilt wrap tightly around you, motivating you to give it your all. But it will not be enough. It cannot be enough. You cannot fill the god-sized hole in her heart anymore than you could stretch your hand across the universe. She will ask for more…you will want to get out, get air, get free…she will be hurt when she senses your need for freedom from her…she will say, “well, if you don’t like me, just go already!”…the chains of guilt will snap tight like a noose, and you will try to make it up to her…she will express gratitude, and that will feel good…you will feel like you are making progress, when you are really only walking deeper into the trap….soon, you would give anything to be free. Someday, she will make you more miserable than death…
um…suggestion? Just don’t even start!
Avoid this whole cycle from the beginning by not getting into a pseudo-romantic relationship with a woman who is struggling/hurting. She needs a woman or a woman’s ministry to come alongside of her and lead her to Jesus – the last (and I do mean last!) thing that she needs is for some guy to come in and try to fill that void and loneliness with himself.
* * *
I write with force and vigor because I am serious. This is real stuff. Souls and hearts are on the line. Don’t mess around. Cross-gender counselling just does not work.
I write with a brutal edge because I have been there. I was the guy counseling girls, and trying to help them and ending up hurting them in the long run, when I was a teen. I regret, regret, regret my folly and my misguided heart. And I so much wish that I had come across an article such as this to set me straight sooner.
In my next post, I will answer some questions and objections which I would have raised to this sort of reasoning.
In the mean time, I would encourage you to write your resonses and feedack. Have you found this true in your experience? How so? Without stating names or places, are there situations where this has been true?
Do you disagree with me? Why? How so? Do you have scriptural or real-life experience to contradict me with?
I would love to hear your feedback. As I said, in my next post, I will respond to objections I know I would have raised: if others raise some serious objections I will try to deal with them also. As always, I am willing to change my beliefs and posts if I am proven wrong.
…just remember, saying “well, I do it, and I’m fine!” isn’t really a proof of anything except that this issue hits you personally and you believe differently than me. That is interesting, but what is really interesting (and worth talking about) is why you believe what you believe. That’s the sort of stuff I would love to hear.