Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 26-27
It is possible to find a worthwhile message in an otherwise atrocious book. I read Debi Pearl when I was first married – it was a wedding gift – and while I thought it was hogwash from start to finish (I had started questioning everything over a year before this, remember), I did take one thing away from it and apply it to my life: the power of a cheerful spirit. No one likes a continually sour attitude or pessimistic outlook. A cheerful spirit is uplifting to everyone, including the person putting it on. I just happened to find a reminder of this in Debi’s book at a time in my life when I really needed a reminder. I can’t say how many times this simple idea – the power of cheerfulness – has proven helpful. After all, there’s two ways to face a bad day – with a smile or with a frown – and one is decidedly better for the spirit, and for all those around as well.
Of course, is a message I could have found many, many other places. Debi’s book isn’t worth reading for the one thing it does get right. Or, almost right, because Debi’s reminder about the power of cheerfulness is not without tremendous problems. Let’s jump right in and see Debi’s words for themselves and I’ll show you what I mean. We’re now starting Debi’s second chapter, “A Merry Heart.”
The Bible tells us that the Joy of the Lord is our strength.
I want to pause right here and say that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians make a distinction between joy and happiness. Or at least, the ones I grew up among did. I was taught that even when you didn’t feel happy, you should still be joyful. Like, always. Joy was from God and was a sort of symbol of salvation. If you didn’t have a deep abiding joy, even in bad situations, you clearly had some sort of spiritual problem. This message discourages seeking help for depression, incidentally, because it ends up portraying depression – i.e. a lack of God’s abiding joy – as a spiritual problem. And since one of the definitions of joy is “a state of happiness or felicity,” well, the distinction between “joy” and “happiness” that I was taught growing up really doesn’t make any sense at all.
God says in Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” A merry heart is the foundation of health and happiness. And the day you have a merry heart will be the first day of rebuilding your marriage into the heavenly gift it was meant to be.
Make a mental note there. How should a woman go about rebuilding her marriage? What is the key? A merry heart. And then there’s this weird bit:
The last part of the verse above says, “but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” How are your bones doing? I mean your bones. The bible is far more literal than you may think.
Um, what? That’s … random.
A merry heart is very good medicine. It is a love potion.
When he first fell in love with you, you were a sweet little thing, full of laughter and fun. From the bottom of your soul you were thrilled with him. … Is he still married to the same sweet little thing, or have you become a long-faced, sickly complainer?
This is a common narrative. And really, it’s a common pattern, too. People act differently around each other when they first meet than when they’ve been married for years. I think what Debi misses is that that’s not a bad thing. Relationships mature. The question should not be “do you two still act like you did when you were dating” but rather “do you have a healthy, mature relationship in the here and now.” In fact, if a couple only ever acted like they were dating, I’d be worried.
But let me get to the real problem here. A cheerful heart is called “a love potion.” I get that when you smile it’s contagious, and that everyone loves a happy person. This is an awesome message. But being cheerful and wearing a smile does not replace things like communication. Debi seems to think that women can solve their relationships by being cheerful alone. She indicates that the problems in any marriage stem from the wife being a “long-faced, sickly complainer” rather than a “sweet little thing.” Yes, you read that right, and that’s actually a fairly common narrative in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. When a man leaves his wife, it’s not uncommon to hear people say that “she drove him away” with her constant complaining and negative attitude.
Debi’s solution to a woman being unhappy or a “complainer” is not to look for the causes of the unhappiness or work to solve the things a woman has complaints about. No. Instead Debi does what she does best – she blames the woman. If a woman is unhappy or complains about something, the problem is the woman’s negative attitude and complaining spirit. The solution is to have a cheerful spirit. Just, you know, put it on. Even if that means faking it. Evangelical and fundamentalist culture is chock full of this idea that if you fake something long enough, it’ll become real. Women who no longer feel in love with their husbands are told to act like they’re in love, to pretend they’re in love, and the feelings will come later. Now there is indeed something to this. If you reverse course and put a smile on instead of a frown, it will make you feel better. But the idea that the way to fix problems is to fake they’re not there is bizarre. If a woman complains it’s not that “out there” to think that maybe there is actually something she is complaining about that should be fixed. But that’s too deep a thought for Debi. Instead, if a woman complains, well, she’s a “long-faced, sickly complainer.” Legitimate complaints? Nah.
But beyond all that, being cheerful does not automatically fix all of a marriage’s problems. There have to be other things. Things like communication, common interests, a meaningful connection. But Debi doesn’t see it that way. Here’s an example of how Debi sees this merry heart “love potion”:
Does your husband see you as a happy thankful woman? Does he smile when he looks at you, amused at the cheerful little grin on your face and the totally delightful things you think and say – even the dumb things? Learn to charm him with your mischievous “only for him” grin.
No. Just, no. What she’s describing there sounds like the things a little kid would do. No, strike that, what she is describing there is exactly what goes on between Sally and I. I love Sally’s cheerful little grin. I totally delight in the “dumb” little things she says – although I would never actually call her little sayings “dumb.” And of course, Sally knows exactly how to charm me with her mischievous grin. And maybe that’s what is bothering me here. Debi tells women to fix their marriages by acting like three-year-olds, not by acting like, you know, adults. To Debi, marriages aren’t meant to be between two equals. They’re meant to be between a strong, decisive man and his simpering child-wife. The more I think about it, and the more I reread the above passage, the more bizarre it all seems.
And that’s it. I was going to get to the next section, titled “one ugly hillbilly,” but I can’t. Realizing that the dynamic Debi suggests women have with their husbands is exactly the dynamic a parent has with a preschooler just made my brain shut down. To bring this back to what I said at the beginning: a cheerful heart is a good thing for anyone to have, regardless of gender, but it shouldn’t replace fixing actual problems, and when Debi describes what it looks like for a woman to have a cheerful heart, she gets her wires crossed and describes a preschooler, not a grown woman.
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Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the religious right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the problems with the “purity culture,” the intricacies of conservative and religious right politics, and the importance of feminism. Her blog is Love, Joy, Feminism
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce